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The Kenyan writer, Ngugi wa Thiong’o: is regarded as the greatest living African novelist at the moment. His works include novels, plays, short stories, and essays, ranging from literary and social criticism to children’s literature. The founder and editor of the Gikuyu-language journal, Mũtĩiri, Ngugi, is the author of the classics, Weep not Child, Petals of Blood, A Grain of Wheat, Wizard of the Crow, Ngaahika Ndeenda, to name a few. His awards include Lotus Prize for Literature (1973), Nonino International Prize for Literature (2001), National Book Critics Circle Award (finalist autobiography) for In the House of the Interpreter 2002; Nicolás Guillén Lifetime Achievement Award for Philosophical Literature (2004) and the Park Kyong-ni Prize (2016). He was also shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2009. The California-based writer, who was recently in Nigeria for the Ake Arts and Book Festival, spoke to HENRY AKUBUIRO on his writings and the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Your novel, Wizard of the Crow, was the first novel you published after twenty-two years in exile. Why did it take you so long to come up with that work?
My previous novel before that was Matigari. It came out in 1976. Wizard of the Crow came out many years after in 2006. Wizard of the Crow took me a long time to write –over six years to conceive the novel and write it in Gikuyu and also have it translated into English. As you can see, it is a big novel, and I don’t want to complain too much.
In 1977, you tried your hands on a work of drama, I Will Marry When I want, where you intended to demystify the theatrical process. Did you actually succeed in this theatrical demystification?
Yeah, very well. It was an incredible experience at Kamiriithu Community Educational Cultural Centre. This was literarily a village, about twenty miles from Nairobi. Before that, there was a debate about the National Theatre, because some of our plays couldn’t be allowed into Kenya National Theatre, which was then dominated by European theatre. So, we started asking ourselves: “What is National Theatre? Is it a building or a people?” The moment we came to the conclusion that the people were the basis of a national theatre or any national institution, our path was very clear –we should go to the village and start from there. So, we went to a village, literally, of small farmers, landless people, people who worked in nearby factories, people who worked in plantain plantations, tea estates, and so on. And all the actors and actresses came from that community.
Of course, we had to use the language they use –Gikuyu. There is no way you are going to a village and you tell them we are having a drama in English –it would be absurd. And that was a learning process for me, because I discovered that they (the people) knew Gikuyu language more than I did, because it was an everyday language for them. So, the moment we used Gikuyu, the elitist division between the educated and the none educated was actually erased in terms of language –you could no longer use English as a way of showing how much you knew the language. That was very important for all of us. Then you could see what everybody could contribute. You could contribute what you heard, and what they heard wasn’t defined by English language.
If you are a carpenter, then you could do carpentry; if you are a singer, then you could sing; if you have an experience in a factory or in a plantation, you take care of that, you can talk about your history, how you see it. It was a very liberating thing for all of us, both the village people and the elite, who came from Nairobi University, and so on. We had to arrange it ourselves. You know the barriers of language and the attitude that came with it. You really find that what you are going to contribute with the common pool is very powerful. That’s how we kept producing Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want).
The play –the experiment –was so successful that the convoy of cars and buses that came from Nairobi, from university students and high schools from all over the place coming to see what the ordinary person actually could do –was a reversal of our situation. So, it became also a learning process both for the students in the faculty and other people who came, and also for the village, would also say, ‘Wait a minute, so we can produce this kind of work that will worth this kind of attention?’ So, it was a learning process all around.
In A Grain of Wheat, there seems to be gravitation towards Fanonist Marxism. What were the imperatives that made you set sail on the Marxist trail?
I don’t really know what you mean by Marxism. But let me tell you my approach. Let’s start from the basis. You and I were to work on land, and we were to produce what we eat, the clothes we wear –that’s the fact. It has nothing to do with whether Marxism was there or not. When we do that, we don’t do that alone. We do that earlier as a family, so we divide labour even within a family. We did that long before Marxism came. I am trying to subvert the notion. What we are looking at – I will like to call it dialects –consciously seeing how things mutually affect each other. And that’s is very important.
I will put it this way: in my first two novels, The River Between and Weep not Child, the developments of the plot is very linear. But, really, that’s not how development takes place. But also there are other things that impact whatever we do. So, that’s what we are trying to capture in A Grain of Wheat. Did Marxism help me? Yeah, Marx is very important in my life as Fanon is. The discovery of dialectics is very important because he is the one who now begins to see me make me look at how phenomenal is interconnected. That was really the most important thing. I have remained with that as my guiding principle ever since.
Still on A Grain of Wheat, it is being described as the bible of Africa. What do you make of this?
I don’t know whether it is a Bible, but the word for me is “exploration”. A Grain of Wheat, after we had read Fanon and Marx, and other things, made us look at colonialism very differently. Let me put it another way: after independence, many of us noticed there was discordance, something we didn’t know what it was. Fanon directed us there, giving us the vocabulary with which we could look at that situation and begin to understand it…Oh my God, what’s happening? That was very important. So A Grain of Wheat was able to show and dramatise in a way, not only the struggle of the ordinary people but, in a sense, also of their betrayal after independence.
You have had a hackney of bad experiences with the Kenyan establishment, leading to your being imprisoned and hunted for a long time. What do you consider the role of the African writer? Don’t you think you overstepped the bounds by being over critical of the establishment?
I am not consciously critical of the establishments. I just look at the connection between phenomenons. Let’s look at it this way: I care and you care whether somebody goes hungry or not, whether somebody goes without clothes or not. You care about that. So, if I come to, say, here in Abeokuta, think of people, whether they are going hungry or without home, and I ask myself why. Right? So, some people may not like it, even when there are some people in mansions and palaces, and others without homes. So, we show the connection between palaces and prisons. When you rights, you admire palaces and even condemn prisons, and you don’t show any connection, they are quite happy and call you a good writer. But, if you show a connection between prison and palaces, then they say you are being subversive.
In an interview with late Nigerian novelist, Elechi Amadi, he told me that the original concept of literature was pure entertainment, but, along the line, African writers began to import social issues into it. Can we say that African writers deviated from the entertainment values of literature to infuse political currents?
Literature belongs to the whole category we call the arts –music, painting, theatre, and all that. And this category which we call the art, area actually very important to the human, because they are products of the human imagination, and imagination is peculiarly human, not animals. Animals don’t have imagination in that sense. Imagination is what actually makes us human; it is what makes us to be able to create things, build houses, and imagine a future and possibilities. So, the arts are a product of imagination. The arts are also what nourish the imagination. So, when you look at it that way you realise how central the arts are to the human. If you want to prove it, look at any community anywhere –African – and go as far back as possible, you will find either paintings on caves of animals before the captures it or singing or dancing. What I am trying to say that literature has never been outside life. It’s part of life even when it is entertainment. It’s also talking about realities, because you will find somebody laughing very happily and they are starving. But when he works and gets his clothes or food, he is happier. That happiness is a reflection of something else.
For decades, you have been a campaigner of writing in indigenous languages, which has seen you write your works in Gikuyu language and translating into English. It has also been observed that, comparatively, you have recorded little success writing in your mother tongue because of limited audience in Gikuyu compared to English…
Since I published the novel, Petals of Blood, in 1975, all my novels have been in Gikuyu, all my drama scenes have been in Gikuyu, all my poetry have been in Gikuyu. I am a professor of English, theoretical works, and most of them are in English. But creative works as a whole have been consistently in Gikuyu.
Then you translate them to English?
Sometimes I translate into English; sometimes I get somebody else or translate into English, or, if I don’t, somebody else will translate into Dutch or Japanese. So, there is no contradiction whatsoever.
Here, in Africa, majority of our writers don’t write in indigenous languages, because they believe that they have limited audience.
That’s not true. There are many factors that make many African writers write in English. One is just because we find other writers writing in English and you just keep doing it. Some young writers now have been brought up in school, family systems completely disconnected in their indigenous languages. Even, if they want to write In Yoruba language, and they are not rooted in the language, so that is a problem. But you don’t have to give up because of problems. Government needs to change their policies towards African languages.
Yeah. We can’t absolve them. They must come up with educational policies that empower African languages. In a nutshell, if you know all the languages in the world, and you don’t know your mother tongue or the language of your culture, that is enslavement. But, if you know your mother tongue and the language of your culture and you then add all the languages of the world, that is, empowerment. The reality in Africa is that we have to choose between empowerment and enslavement. I would rather choose empowerment. I mean, I write in Gikuyu, but you and I speak in English – I am a professor of English in California.
Did you deliberately make Petals of Blood complicated with its structure?
It is generally how we tell stories to each other. Sometimes we don’t always tell stories in a linear way. How we tell stories is like this: you meet; you tell him where you have just come from; you tell him you reached a certain place and there was a bus accident; you can even interrupt the flow of the conversation and begin to recall a similar accident that happens to you before the person begins to tell you whatever happens. Ordinarily, people don’t tell stories linearly. They feed into each other, but you still come back to the original tale. So, if you listen to how stories unfold among people, they don’t usually unfold in a linear way.
In reaction to the 2016 Nobel Prize awarded to the American rock star, Bob Dylan, Professor Wole Soyinka, a Nobel laureate himself, said, at the height of the Nobel controversy, since he had performed songs in some of his drama works, he should also be nominated for the Grammy. What do you think of awarding a Nobel Prize in Literature to a man widely known as a musician? Do you think The Swedish Academy is trying to rewrite the concept of high arts?
I am not a member of the academy. I don’t know what’s going on in their heads. So, I leave that to them. What I care about, for me, personally, is the fact that there are so many people all over the world, including African people, who, as a result of reading my books, think, in their own views, that I am worth the Nobel Prize. So, that’s very touching, because they are saying, if I was giving the Nobel, they would have given to you. That’s very touching. That one, I like.
Probably that’s the better Nobel Prize –the readers’ Nobel…?
(laughs) There is something noble about it –about so many people wishing you get it after reading your books and they say you deserve this prize. So, I don’t know what’s going on in their heads [Swedish Academy].
In Nigeria, for instance, there was so much outrage when the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature was announced. There was this expectation that 2016 was your year and that, since Chinua Achebe didn’t get it before he died, you were naturally the next in line in Africa. What exactly goes on in your mind each time you are being touted by the bookmakers in the UK and elsewhere and you don’t get it?
You know what I want to do? I want to write more in Gikuyu. I have this reaction all the time. I want to write the bet possible novel or play or poem I can write in Gikuyu. A fable of mine has been translated into 55 languages. In my house in California, sometimes, instead of giving material gifts, you can also give the gift of a story. On my birthday, I can say, “Bring me a camera and come and tell me a story”, and I will be happy about that. So, one day, my daughter told me, before my birthday, “I want a story for my birthday”. That night, I came with a story, which was to be called “The Upright Revolution” or “How Humans Came to Walk Upright”.
I remember now, it has been translated to Pidgin English by the Nigerian Naija languej activist, Eriata Oribhabor.
Yes. The fable has also been translated to Igbo, Ibibio, Hausa, in 40 different African languages, 6 European languages, 6 Asian languages, 2 …. That one really encourage me a lot. The reason that encourages you is that the people who made that possible were a young group of Africans who called themselves Pan African Collective (JALADA). To see young people behind this phenomenon –this success of this story in making this translation possible in forty different African languages –is a way of showing a way out in a way. So, I am very happy about that.
Which of your work, from Weep not Child to Wizard of the Crow, do you find reading and reading over?
I don’t really read my book once I finish writing them. When I am writing them, I can read them over and over again. I may be revising them over 20 times. It is like crazy. But once it is finished, especially when it is published, I don’t go back to it. I can go a paragraph her, but I can’t go from cover to cover. It is like going over the same ground you went over twenty or forty times. But I like Wizard of the Crow because those ho read it said they laughed. It is pleasurable to make people laugh when reading your work.
Which is your best work?
Oh! The one I have not yet written (laughs).
Any new work in the offing?
I have got a small epic coming out written in Gikuyu. Most epics talk about how communities came to be. I would like more African writers to developing the epics in their communities, because all communities in Africa have stories of their origins. If you look at the Greek theatre, they use the same tradition to create different plays. They are using the same poll of mythologies. I would like to see the same in Africa. Every community has myths or histories of origins. We have to go back and develop them. I think we can get them into epics.
There has been a departure in African literature, with many new writers delving into diverse subjects like war, lesbianism, and other thematic preoccupations uncommon to your generation, peppered with Pyrothecnics. What do you find intriguing or otherwise of new African writings?
I am very excited, first of all, by the new generation of African writers. You can see that, at the Ake Arts and Book Festival, all the writers came from all over the continent, most of them young women, very confident. It is encouraging to see Lolola Soneyin, who was in control of the festival. I like them being young, but also I would like them to be o the forefront of African language. I know they are challenged, because some of them never learned African language –so I understand that –but, still, I would like to see them on the forefront fighting for African languages.