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Language Is a ‘War Zone’: A Conversation With Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

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Last year, when the Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o entered a packed auditorium at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, he immediately received a standing ovation. The audience whistled and hollered, their fists jabbing the air as they cheered: “Ngũgĩ! Ngũgĩ! Ngũgĩ!” More than 50 years after Weep Not, Child, the first novel to be published in English by an East African, he remains a literary superstar and perennial favorite for the Nobel Prize

Ngũgĩ was born into a large peasant family in 1938 in Limuru, Kenya, at the height of the Mau Mau rebellion. He was educated at primary schools in Kenya, and earned his bachelor degrees at Makerere University in Uganda and University of Leeds in England. His debut novel, Weep Not, Child (1964), detailing the Mau Mau uprising, was published to wide acclaim. He quickly followed it up with The River Between (1965) and A Grain of Wheat (1967). After a 10-year gap, Ngũgĩ published Petals of Blood in 1977. Later that year, after he published the play Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want) about inequalities and injustices in Kenyan society, written in Kikuyu, his mother tongue, the government arrested and imprisoned him. While in prison, Ngũgĩ abandoned English as a literary language and committed himself to writing in Kikuyu. He wrote Caitani Mutharabaini (1981), translated into English as Devil on the Cross (1982), from his cell on the only thing available—squares of toilet paper.

After his exile from Kenya in 1982, Ngũgĩ headed to the United States, where he’s lived and taught for more than three decades, establishing himself as a fierce critic of Western imperialism and neoliberalism.

At 80, Ngũgĩ is warm, funny and deeply generous. Our conversation took place over two sittings, at the India Habitat Centre in New Delhi. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. —Rohit Inani

Rohit Inani: In 1977, you published Petals of Blood about a peasant uprising in a neocolonial Kenyan society. Immediately after, you published a controversial play Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want) in Kikuyu, your native language. Did you write the play in Kikuyu because Petals of Blood failed to connect with the people you were writing about?

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o: It’s true. There is a reality in Africa that 90 percent of the population speaks different languages. And if you think, as I do, that people are an engine of change, then the question of their access to information and skills is very important. When you write a novel in English—no matter how radical, no matter how progressive—it can only reach people in a trickle-down fashion.

RI: Were you hoping of an uprising after the publication?

NT: No, never. Art does not incite. To me, art has to do with imagination. Imagination makes possible everything we do as human beings. We can picture all the possibilities and try to realize it in practice.

What nourishes the imagination? It is actually the arts, the songs, the culture. The problem with repressive regimes is that they like to starve the imagination. They don’t want you to think or imagine the possibilities of a different future. They want you to think this is the best of all possible worlds, like that character in Voltaire’s Candide, “Oh! This is the best of all possible worlds!” Slave-owning institutions used to argue that this is the best of all possible worlds.

So writing in English, or making sure that literature is only available in English, you are starving the imagination of a majority of people.

RI: In 1978, while being imprisoned in the Kamiti maximum-security prison, you wrote one of your most famous books, Devil on the Cross, in Kikuyu, on toilet paper. How difficult was it to write an entire book on toilet paper?

NT: I was put in prison because of my play I Will Marry When I Want, which was published in Kikuyu and acted by peasants. I remember the play being stopped in November 1977, and on December 31, 1977, I found myself in a maximum-security prison. Now, in prison I was thinking very seriously about the language question. I realized that when I looked at the history of colonialism, the colonizer not only imposes his language, but he denigrates and represses the languages of the colonized. So the condition of learning English was the unlearning of our language, which continued into the postcolonial era.

I decided that since I’d been put in prison for writing in a national language and put there by an African government, I would, as part of my resistance, write in the very language which had been the basis of my incarceration.

RI: And this was the moment of truth for you?

NT: Yeah. It sustained me—feeling as if I was resisting. It was fun writing when I did not have paper. All I had was toilet paper. But occasionally I got a pen from the prison authorities if I said I was writing some kind of confession—I don’t know what there was to confess.

RI: How did you manage to keep it away from the eyes of the prison authorities?

NT: I used to hide them in the open. We were allowed thousands of squares of toilet paper. Together they pack nicely. Towards the end the pile of toilet paper reached very high. At one point, I almost lost it, which I write about it in my memoir that’s coming out in March under the title Wrestling with the Devil.

RI: You have called language a “war zone,” and you describe yourself as a “language warrior.” Can you briefly talk about that?

NT: Look at the Irish situation with the British. The humiliation of Native Americans, how their language was denigrated. In Africa, of course, we were forbidden to speak our mother tongues. Japan imposed its language on the Koreans. So wherever you look at modern colonialism, the acquisition of the language of the colonizer was based on the death of the languages of the colonized. So it is a war zone. In case of India, [British historian and statesman Thomas Babington] Macaulay was brutally honest about wanting to create a class of Indians with English on their minds. The English wanted them to play a role in governing the rest of the population. It is true of Africa, and anywhere where there was a colonial situation. African languages were weaponized against Africans. Language was a weapon of war whether we are talking about the Spanish and Portuguese in Latin America or French in Africa and Vietnam. Language was a very important element in both the conquest and maintenance of colonial rule, because it was likely to bind the minds of the middle class.

RI: Do you think that once you have mastered a language, it becomes your own and you can reclaim it to free yourself even if you have been oppressed by it? In one of his letters to his father, V.S. Naipaul, as a young man in Oxford, wrote: “I want to come top of my group. I have got to show these people that I can beat them at their own language.”

NT: Naipaul?

RI: Yes.

NT: But this is the dream of the colonizer. They sit down and say, “Woohoo! They have embraced our language so much that are now competing with us.” Naipaul is indeed the master of the language, and personally I have no problem with that. I like Naipaul’s novels. What I have a problem with is in thinking that somehow we are advancing the languages of the cultures, which have been oppressed. No. When you do that, as he did and as I did in Petals of Blood, what we are doing is expanding the capacity of the English language.

It is OK to make English our own or French our own. Any individual writer can make a language his own, but you can’t tell me that by writing in English [Joseph] Conrad was somehow helping the Polish language [Conrad’s native language].

RI: You mentioned using language as a weapon by the colonizer. In the same way, do you think English can be used as a weapon by the colonized, as Chinua Achebe said, “as a counterargument to colonization”?

NT: In Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, we see an immense contribution to our consciousness of oppression of cultures. One should not take away from the actual contribution of writers and intellectuals from the Third World who write in English or French or so on. But the leap that I don’t agree with is that somehow you are advancing the other languages or that English is becoming an African language. Africa has got its own languages. It’s on the African intellectuals to make this case, because it is the intellectuals who are responsible for advancing their language. When an intellectual abandons it to write in another language, it leaves his language with one less mind.

RI: J.M. Coetzee has said that English liberated him from the narrow worldview of the Afrikaans, but last month, speaking at the Hay Festival in Colombia, he said, with disappointment, that “the hegemony of English language, of London and New York in the realm of global literature has to end.” He also went onto say that “English is not my language in a way that English was to Shakespeare.”

NT: Oh, he said that?

RI: Yes.

NT: Oh. It is a very important shift. If it was a normal thing for African intellectuals to develop works in their own languages, then it doesn’t matter that some also happen to write in another language. Conrad writing in English did not affect the mass of Polish intellectuals writing in Polish. But we are talking about a situation where it’s not just one or two but the whole intellectual community, whether in agriculture or medicine, writing in English or French. The legal system is usually conducted in English or French, when a majority of people operate in different linguistic spheres. That’s really the problem.

RI: In your memoir, Dreams in a Time of War, you write, “We often crowded around whoever was telling a tale, and those who were really good at it became heroes of the moment.” Can you talk about the influence of the tradition of storytelling on you while you were growing up?

NT: Every community has a storytelling tradition. Be it the stories in Mahabharata [a Sanskrit epic from ancient India], or even some philosophic discussions of Plato or Socrates. I always think that the best storyteller is the one who has an anxiety of expectation and fulfills it because if you don’t then there is disappointment.

I was a very good listener and very poor at telling the story. I always wanted to listen.

RI: The book also tells about your relentless pursuit of an education and the role of your mother in instilling it in you.

NT: My mother could not read. She had never been to school and worked in the fields all her life. But she was the one who sent me to school. My sister bought me my first pair of shoes so that I could go to school, and she used to write my homework. I don’t know how she did it. And one thing I remember is that always when I’d come and tell her that I got 100 percent in my exams and she would ask, “Was that the best?” The idea of “the best” was integral to her questions about how I had done. That was her measure of success.

RI: How did you decide of taking up memoir as a form? Was self-depiction a challenge?

NT: For a long time, I could not bring myself to write about myself. And the reason is that I wrote novels drawing from my own experiences. I mean Weep Not, Child is not a written from a strict biographical perspective, but I’m drawing from things which have happened around me. But of course I have become the father of 10 kids. My wife said, “Look, you really need to tell them something about yourself, because you will not always be there to tell them of what happened.” So in the first volume I decided to write only about my childhood. Going to high school. I did that in Dreams in a Time of War, because I went to school literally during war and growing up to avoid it. It’s also about how my mother and I sustained dreams in the condition of war.

RI: In a review of your memoir, Birth of a Dream Weaver, the British journalist Michela Wrong wrote in The New York Times: “It will be interesting to see whether Ngugi’s next memoir will be set in post-independence Kenya and be equally feisty. While colonization presents African writers with the softest of targets, criticizing still living African politicians and modern-day regimes is fraught with risk.” Do you believe colonization is a soft target for African writers?

NT: Quite frankly, I don’t know what she meant by that. If you look at not just my work but works by other African writers, they have been very critical not only of the colonial regime but also of postcolonial rulers and dictatorships in Africa. Colonialism is the consequences of colonial ventures, and it is not soft.

My novels are always critical of the colonial and the postcolonial situation. And nothing will change in that direction. You have to look at what impacts human lives, which is impacted by questions of wealth, power, and values in a society—how, even in the dark, people come to meet and love each other.

RI: Do you think that in post-colonial societies a writer has an obligation toward writing about political oppression and historical injustice as opposed to writers in free and developed societies, who can pursue writing just for the sake of art? Is this a bondage for writers from the Global South?

NT: I don’t really believe it when a writer says, “Oh! I’m not writing about politics.” Really, they are, because they are espousing a view of the world, consciously or unconsciously. Writers need to be aware that they are not neutral agents, that they are a product of certain history, a certain class position. You come from a history of oppression, and you can’t write as if there has been no oppression, and you can’t write as if there has been no resistance. The scars of history are on every writer.

It is imagination that allows you to explore all worlds and possibilities, but often you can transcend the conditions under which you are writing. Writers are part of the prophetic tradition. Just like how numerous prophets went to the deserts to commune and came up with voices about the oppressive present and possibilities of the future. And in a way, writers come from that tradition. Prophets did not always come from a socially oppressed past; some were privileged and saw the contradictions of their privileges and the reality of life in general. And writers are a part of this in how their imagination makes them transcend the limits of their class experiences.

RI: Joseph Conrad was an early influence in your life. You recently wrote in The New York Times that you turned your back on reading Conrad in 1967 after you published A Grain of Wheat, which you wrote after reading Conrad’s Under Western Eyes. But you also write that, even though you accepted Achebe’s critique of Conrad, you could not “wholly embrace Achebe’s overwhelming negative view of Heart of Darkness or Conrad in general.”

NT: Conrad is an incredible writer. He is an example of where art can mirror more than even what a writer consciously intended it to mirror. It’s like putting a camera on the street to record a particular object, but the camera has captured other things in the background. Achebe, for me, articulated what had made me uneasy about Conrad. If you read Heart of Darkness, for instance, what he says about imperialism couldn’t be said better—that it’s robbery and murder on a grand scale. He was an embodiment of European enlightenment, a figure of light, which obviously echoed the enlightenment theory. What does this man end up? He eventually ends up surrounding himself with the scars of this light. Within the novel itself, the critique of imperialism is very clear. I’m drawn by his critique.

Conrad was very important for me. If I had writer’s block, all I’d do was read the opening lines of Nostromo. The structure of the sentences, the beauty of it—and I’d find myself back to what I was writing. It always reminded me of opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

RI: What has the role of the university been in the making of world literature? We have seen a trend where Southern writers in exile are given a home in Western universities.

NT: The university has become equivalent to those patrons in the middle ages who made it possible for some musicians to have sanctuaries. Now we have universities, which provide jobs, which give us income, which in turn gives us the stability to write.

RI: Are there any writers outside of the West or Africa who have influenced you?

NT: Weep Not, Child was very much impacted by my reading of George Lamming’s In the Castle of My Skin. What he did with that novel and exploring the morals of a child was very amusing to me. I was not able to do as good a job, but I did try. I also read some Indian writers at the time: Mulk Raj Anand, R.K. Narayan, and Raja Rao. Not many Latin American writers, but I like Gabriel García Márquez. [Leo] Tolstoy and [Anton] Chekov. I discovered [Maxim] Gorky later, and I found his novel The Mother very interesting.

RI: You have been a favorite to win the Nobel Prize for some years now. What do you think about it?

NT: I have been asked that question for years. I really appreciate that so many people think that my work is worthy of it, and I’d be happy if I got it, but I don’t write for prizes. I appreciate what they call a “Nobel of the Heart,” which is when people tell me again and again, “Your work has impacted me.”

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