Novelist and Playwright Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o Comes to the Lewis Center for the Arts
On Wednesday, April 17, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o will read from his work as part of the Althea Ward Clark W’21 Reading Series of the Lewis Center for the Arts’ Program in Creative Writing. Man Booker International Prize-winning South Korean novelist Han Kang will also be reading.
Ngũgĩ, who was born in Kenya in 1938 to a large peasant family, is currently Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature and English at the University of California, Irvine. He writes primarily in his native language Gikuyu – a political and artistic decision he made in response to his upbringing in the British colonial system and his wrongful imprisonment by a post-colonial regime. Ngũgĩ wrote “Devil on the Cross” – the first novel written in Gikuyu – on toilet paper in Kamiti Maximum Security Prison in Nairobi. In 2006, he published the critically acclaimed novel “Wizard of the Crow,” an English translation of his Gikuyu-language novel “Murogi wa Kagogo,” and he has written a series of memoirs – most recently “Birth of a Dream Weaver: A Memoir of a Writer’s Awakening.” Last week, Ngũgĩ spoke to us from a restaurant in San Francisco – he had a reading at the historic City Lights Books to get to right after the interview.
Jersey Arts: I'm sorry to start with this topic, and I hope it's not a sensitive one for you, but I've read that the professional gambling world has assigned you the best odds when it comes to the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o: They always do that. Every year. It's wonderful that people think that my work is worth the prize. But I have no say in how people vote. And I don't even know who votes. Or on what grounds.
JA So, does that make you anxious?
NwT: Well, the most important thing for me is that people read my work. I always appreciate the fact that people read my work, and I've always talked about the Nobel of the heart. That is when someone, a reader, anywhere in the world, comes to me and tells me that one of my books impacted their lives one way or another. That's always very, very – how shall I say – you feel good. And what is good about the Nobel of the heart is that it’s truly democratic.
JA: One of my favorite quotes of yours that I came across was this one: “We of the elder generation are so bound up by our anti-colonial nationalism, which is important for us, but the younger generation ― they are free.” There is so much of your life story in that quote. Could you talk a little bit about that?
NwT: Let's see – I was born in 1938 – in Kenya. And Kenya was a British-settler colony then. That has to have a bearing on my life and how I look at life, right? But the younger generation – they are not born into a colonial situation. So, although they can draw lessons and inspirations from it, they experience it from a critical distance. Whereas, for me, and my generation, it’s really part of our lives. Yeah. You cannot wish it away or think it away.
JA: One of your most defining decisions as an artist was to write in your native language – Gikuyu. I was really curious to hear you describe – as an artist, as a writer – how writing in your native language feels compared to English. How different is the process?
NwT: In a way, it’s like a reckoning with the colonial process in a personal kind of way. It's like getting the burden off my heart. Writing in English is part of that colonial inheritance, right? My English was learned in a colonial school, and it was the language of power. And it continues being the language of power in the post-colonial era. Even though 75% of the population do not actually do not use the language, or do not understand it. They are outside whatever is assumed by that language. Yet, decisions made and policies carried out within that language impact their lives every day.
In 1978, I turned away from writing my novels in English to writing my novels in Gikuyu, starting with “Devil on the Cross.” Despite that, I still think English is a good language. But writing in Gikuyu was an act of liberation. Personal liberation. And spiritual liberation. It doesn't mean that writing in Gikuyu is any easier than writing in English. You have the same challenges. You wrestle with words in the same way. But for me, the Gikuyu language is more emotionally engaging.
JA: This is part of what you call “decolonizing the mind” – or “full decolonization.”
NwT: Those ideas are rooted in my experience in a maximum security prison in Kenya in 1978. I was jailed, without trial, for having participated in the writing and performance of a play in my mother tongue – the Gikuyu language – called “I'll Marry When I Want” – that would be the English translation. And during my stay in the prison, I begin to wonder: “How is it that I, as an African, have been put in prison by a post-colonial African government for writing in an African language?” It was like a little puzzle.
This is what led me to the politics, literally, in our language. And I look at all colonial situations – they always take away the language and impose their own. This was done to the Irish, to the Welsh, it was done to Native American kids, to all the people in New Zealand, Australia’s natives, even Japan when they colonized Korea between 1910 and 1945 – they imposed the Japanese language, and Japanese names, on the Korean people. So, it’s not unique to the African-European situation. It's inherent in every colonizer-colonized situation and it has nothing to do with good or bad language.
In other words, just for example, an English person can go to France and take French lessons. But it's not a requirement that they give up English in order to learn to speak French. Or Chinese, or Russian. But in the colonial situation, the condition of learning the language of power is having to give up one's own language, or one's culture. That inequality has nothing to do with language, per se. It has to do with doing something to the mind of the colonized: to humiliate them, to make them think their language is backwards, and therefore the people who created it were also backward. So, decolonizing the mind is just seeing the language as a language, like any other language.
JA: I don't ask this to be antagonistic, but-
NwT: No, please do! Yeah, ask!
JA: What’s your response to somebody like the super-famous Indian novelist Salman Rushdie, who says that reaching the vast English-reading audience is a better strategy for a writer than limiting oneself to a lesser-read native language?
NwT: Well, if somebody wants to write in English, then do it – just do so! But the fact still remains that all intellectuals of the colonized world were conditioned into normalizing abnormalities. Whereas the other way around – where you start with your own language and then add other languages, as you see fit – that's what I call empowerment.
JA: Having lived and worked in the U.S. for a long time now – since the 1980s – what’s your take on hip-hop culture? It’s the most popular kind of music in the world, yet it always has a political dimension.
NwT: It’s interesting – when you look at the history of hip-hop, you have to look at it in relation to the language of African American people. Africans were enslaved and taken from their continent, and their languages were taken away from them. African languages were banned on the slave plantations. At the same time, they were denied access to education. Then, African American people, and Caribbean people, they did an incredible thing. They took English sounds and into them they fit the rhythms of the speech of Africa. Whatever they could reclaim. Because that, at least, could not be taken away from them. What you get are literally new languages in the Caribbean and also in America. And that produced the great, great artistic traditions of the spirituals, the blues, jazz, and hip-hop, which have now spread all over the world. So, even hip hop has roots in language, as it were, right?
JA: Like you just said, it’s gone around the world and then some. There’s no other musical genre like it, and the story of the triumph of hip-hop is such unlikely one. It’s just a great story.
NwT: Yes, and there’s a lesson from language there: The language developed by African American and Caribbean people was a reaction to the denial of their African languages. Somewhere along the way, they created new languages, and new kinds of art. And it was all a product of that linguistic inheritance, if you like.
JA: So much great and cherished literature was written in prison – or in prison-like circumstances – in every country, probably. And you’re part of that history.
NwT: Yeah, in my memoirs, I talk a lot about my imagination helping me break through the walls of a maximum security prison. Prison then becomes, for me, a metaphor for confinement in general. So, in that sense, you can see how the imagination can really, in a way, help us break through the prison of any confinement. This always involves an element of resistance. There is always an element of resistance – of overcoming the negative. Even our own physical systems go through this and struggle all the time – the blood circulating with in our bodies, right? Without the blood circulating all the time, we would not be alive, right? What I'm trying to say is that there are many other kinds of confinement. We even struggle against gravity – until we learn how to overcome it, or to use it.