‘My god is more of a god than your god is ungodly - the same applies to languages,’ says writer Ngugi Wa Thiong’o
Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, a titan of world literature, was born in a colonised Kenya in 1938. Along with Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, Ngugi is one of the pillars of African literature. Ngugi’s book Weep Not, Child in English, published in 1964, was the first East African English novel. Kenya’s independence turned him into an activist writer. A bitter critic of the colonial British government, he did not spare the governments that followed Kenya’s independence in 1968. His novels, plays and essays on the land, labour and language questions of his country and his continent turned writers like him into the Daniel Arap Moi government’s ‘Opposition’. Moi, the chosen successor of Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s founding father, put him in jail for a play in 1977. He was released a year later. Between 1986 and 1996, Ngugi’s novel Matigari, written originally in Gĩkũyũ, was banned; an arrest warrant had first been issued against ‘Matigari’ by the Moi government thinking Matigari was a real person.
Currently, Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine, USA, he has been in exile from Kenya since the early ’80s.
Ngugi is in Delhi for the ILF Samanvay Translations Series 2018 talk, Secure the Base, in collaboration with Seagull Books. He has a talk at the India Habitat Centre, Delhi, 7pm today (February 23). Ngugi spoke to Hindustan Times a few days before the event.
As readers, we have met India in Africa in your novels -- the India of Indian shopkeepers who were settled in Africa. But is this your first actual meeting with this country?
No, I first visited India in 1996. I came to Delhi to be part of the Nationalities Conference to talk about the national question among and within nations. Like Africa, India has many languages and communities but what is the relationship between those communities? What is their language situation? What is their class question? How does each language and community deal with the concept of the nation? And yet all of them struggle to get their language recognised, their voices heard and this struggle can happen inside one nation.
Indians, who have themselves undergone the brutalising experience of colonialism, when in Kenya, as seen in your novels, do not come off well.
There were many Kenyans of Indian origin in my country. I grew up with them. The shops where we went to buy our cloth were mostly owned by Indians. Although we interacted with them at the level of shopping there was no active interaction. Kenya was a British colony till 1962. We had three communities; the English settlers who were always at the top in everything. In the second rung were the Asians, including Indians. They were second-class vis-a-vis the British but not in comparison to Africans. Africans were the third class. This racial hierarchy of dominance was encouraged as a policy. Trains had segregated compartments. There were compartments marked ‘Europeans-only’ and ‘Indians-only’. It was understood we were the rest, and the poorest. They didn’t even mark ‘Africans-only’ for us. But despite this separation, there were Indians who played an important role in Kenya’s struggles.
Who were they?
Makhan Singh [originally from Gujranwala, part of British India now Pakistan] laid the foundations of trade unionism in Kenya. He brought together the Asian and African working classes. He was among the first Asians to be arrested around 1948. Gamal Pinto, from Goa, was another Indian political martyr. He was Singh’s comrade. Pinto’s death was independent Kenya’s first political assassination.
In Weep Not, Child, one of your most well-known novels, we meet Njorge, the boy who wants to learn even though war is all around him. How close is he to your life?
I was born in 1938, on the eve of the Second World War. Like Njorge, I saw a brother called for war, to fight in Burma. I had relatives going to work in tea plantations owned by the settlers. I had a brother fighting in the mountains during the Mau Mau rebellion. Not just in Weep Not…, I wrote about this in my memoir Dreams in a Time of War, which has been translated into Telugu and was published last Sunday.
These books have been important for Indian readers interested in the shared histories of India and Africa and also for India’s Left. You wrote an introduction for poet and Maoist ideologue Varavara Rao’s book Captive Imagination: Letters from Prison.
The Telugu translation of my memoir was done by GN Saibaba. He read it in jail and translated it.
Which books have been important in your life? And how did you, the son of a peasant, get to write one in the Kenya of the ’60s?
While growing up, we had no books in Gĩkũyũ, my mother tongue. The Bible’s Old Testament became my book of stories. In high school, when I saw a library for the first time, I had the ambition to be able to read all the books in the world. But guess what? I couldn’t even finish reading all the books in that library! Later, in 1959, I went to Makrere University College in Kampala (Uganda) that was part of the University of London. In 1962, at the first conference of African writers coming together on the African continent, called the Makrere Conference of Writers of English Expression, Chinua Achebe looked at my manuscript of Weep Not… and made a few comments. Achebe’s book Things Fall Apart had been published a few years ago. He told his publishers about my book. It was an important moment in my life. George Lammings’s [an important figure in Caribbean literature] work has also been important for me.
What was it like growing up reading ‘White man’s literature’, especially as later you developed a critique of it?
Growing up, I read Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen. ‘To be or not to be…’ [Hamlet]…. ‘Sir can I have some more…’ [Oliver Twist, Dickens]. How can one not be affected by their power? But what I was questioning was the centrality of English literature in our lives, which was in Africa the language of power.
Do you think sometimes seeing a novel from the perspective of a ‘White man’s novel’ or an ‘African novel’ can be misleading? Achebe famously called Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness a racist novel.
In my latest book, Globalectics: Theory and Politics of Knowing, I have argued for a globalectic reading of literature. Sometimes, silences in the work of art can speak volumes. I have recently published an article in the New York Times on Conrad. While accepting Achebe critique of Conrad’s portrayal of African characters in The Heart of Darkness, I pointed out how the text also portrays colonial capitalism as robbery and mass murder, and imperialism as being driven by racism.
In the eyes of the West, Robert Mugabe [the just deposed Zimbabwean president] is ‘guilty’. How do you see him?
Nothing can take away from Mugabe’s heroism in the anti-colonial struggle. That does not mean that he is free of errors, but his contribution to the struggle against imperialism will always be remembered.
You took the decision to write in Gĩkũyũ after your imprisonment in the Kamiti Maximum Security Prison in 1977. I believe a pad of toilet paper played a role here.
I went to jail because of a play I had written. The toilet paper given to us was hard, it was aimed to punish prisoners. But as writing material it was good – it held a pen well. I wrote my first Gĩkũyũ novel Caitaani Mutharabaini translated into English and published as Devil on the Cross on this paper.
Prison was important because I really started thinking of the language question in a political and historical concept, in terms of the colonised and the coloniser. But I had been moving towards this for a long time. The proceedings of the Makrere conference were published in the magazine, Transition, founded by an Asian, Rajat Niyogi. Transition published my short story The Return, a story, which captured what would later become so central to my aesthetic explorations in my novels, mainly A Grain of Wheat. That story was why I, an undergraduate, was included in the Makrere conference, attended by such greats as Achebe and Wole Soyinka.
In Transition, Obi Wali, the Nigerian scholar, contributed an article asking why those who met at Makrere, were calling what they were writing as ‘African literature’ thus issuing a public challenge, as it were, on the whole assumption about English as a vehicle for African literature. I began to think about this seriously when in jail.
Many young African writers like Chimamanda Adichie seem to argue from the diametrically opposite end by seeming to say that English is also an African language. Have many or any African writers been inspired by your stand?
It is difficult to tell the number of writers currently writing in African languages. The problem lies in the fact that many of those that write in African languages may not have been translated into English or even into other African languages. In other words, works in African languages is not readily visible. But we do know that there has been a long history of African writing in Kiswahili for instance. Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ , currently professor of English at Cornell University, is releasing a book, The Rise of the African Novel, and this will shed much scholarly light on this.
Are you still writing your novels in Gĩkũyũ or do you have to write them in English because that’s where the market is?
My commitment to writing in Gĩkũyũ continues. I have become a language warrior on behalf of all marginalised languages in the world. Remember that no language is ever marginal to the people who created that language, but it can be made marginal by oppression. What is wrong in a country or the world is not the existence of many languages, but their being made to relate to each other in terms of hierarchy. The statement that my god is more of a god than your god is ungodly -- the same is applies to languages. It is anti-language to claim and act as if one language is more of a language than others languages. I reject hierarchy of languages and cultures; I embrace network of languages and cultures. Network and not Hierarchy is my mantra.
I would like to see more translations between African languages and of course translations from African languages to other languages and from other languages into African ones. I describe translation as the language of languages.
There was a strong rumour in 2017 that you might win the Nobel for literature. Did you expect it in 2017?
No writer expects a prize. A prize is not a right.
Whom do you read among Indians?
The works of writers like Mulk Raj Anand and RK Narayan, were very important in the great Nairobi debates on the reorganisation of teaching of literature. In 1969 some of us at the Nairobi University, Kenya, called for the abolition of the English department as then organised and its replacement by a department that centred African, Asian, Latin American, Caribbean literatures.
Writing about colonialism is in many senses writing about war stories. India’s most well known war story is the Mahabharata, which I am told you like.
I came into the Indian epic rather late in my literary career. I have referred to Mahabharata in my novel, Wizard of the Crow. Mahabharata is one of the greatest imaginative feats in the world. Its very length outmatches Homer’s Odyssey and The Iliad. From it comes The Gita, a religious text, which in widespread use and moral influence, is on a par with the Bible and the Koran. The epic anticipates many modern inventions. One of my favourite characters is Eklavya, who teaches himself to shoot with arrows, after Drona has declined to teach him, and then he is disabled by Drona. Though brief, the episode as a whole, subverts the feudalistic hierarchical order of society assumed in the epic as a whole. I have cited the episode in my novel Wizard of the Crow to show how oppressive ruling classes in the world suppress creativity from the ordinary working man and woman.
What is your advice for would-be writers?
Write, write, write again and again and you will get it right.