A conversation with Ngugi wa Thiong'o

By Emily Joan Smith and Alex Park

Alex Park: What’s the most widely held misconception about your work?Ngugi wa Thiong’o: I don’t know (laughs). That’s interesting. What’s the most widely held misconception? I don’t know whether it’s a widely held misconception, but there’s some people who think my work is just about politics, in the sense of sort of simply espousing some political ideology and sometimes they don’t realize that in my work, I try to see connection between phenomena. I see that politics and economics and spiritual life are connected. You cannot really divorce questions of wealth and power from questions of values and outlook in society so it’s that connection which I’m interested in and which I try to explore in all my works.

Emily Joan Smith: So it’s perhaps too narrow-minded to look at it merely as political?

Ngugi: I wouldn’t call it narrow-minded because that’s obviously the aspect that one reader may get from the books and that’s fine, but it really is a totality of all those things and more importantly, they are connections, it is really a connection.Arising from the famous statement-is it by Marx, I can’t remember, or Engels, that a man must eat and drink-water, that is, not alcohol-[laughs]must eat before they can do anything else. Must eat before they can sing, although they can also sing about lack of clothes and so on. So I don’t think it’s narrow, but it’s the connection-emphasis on the word connection-linkages, you know, in for instance, the psychological makeup of our character and the values held in our society and how those values come about through the economic and political evolution of that society or that community.

Park: Is the distinction between African literature and that of the West merely one of language, or is there a way of thinking that’s distinctly African and a way of thinking that’s distinctly Western?

Ngugi: I don’t like-personally-you know-some of those terms are very, very broad, like, when you think of it, what’s Western? Is it American? Is it European? Is it what? What I like to think of processes is once again in terms of their connection. I like to see the particularly of African life. It’s very important to me. So is the particularity of European life or Asian lives. But from those particularities that make African life distinctly African aren’t identical to that which is European, but once again, it’s the connections between them. And I don’t think that the African world or the Asian world are totally divorced from each other, you know, but the particular forms with which they express themselves are very different. The other thing is, do not forget that in terms of development of the modern world, of modernity, Africa has been part of that evolution of modernity, although, on the receiving end. You think of Europe, for instance, its development from mercantile capital, industrial capital, financial capital and so on. You have to link it to also slave trade, slavery, plantation economies and so on. You have to link it to the colonial economies and so on and to post-colonial economies and processes, so what’s important then is how they impact each other.

Smith: I think it’s interesting that your name is, I feel, an example of cultural issues that come up in translation, because I feel like if I address you as Ngugi, I’m being too familiar because I’m so trained to call professors Professor Last Name, but that’s polite, correct? Or should it be the other way? Should I call you Professor wa Thiong’o?

Ngugi: Either way is fine, but Ngugi is also fine; I don’t feel that you are being familiar if you call me Ngugi…There are other formal, polite ways, but which a person who does not come from our culture may not understand. For instance, [my relative is] more likely to call me “Father of” any of my kids, just as I call her “Mother of” her kids, if I want to be slightly formal.In my culture, we don’t have prefixes to names; we don’t have Misters or Miss or Lord. You are simply your own name-but then there’s a problem when you come here, because my name is Ngugi wa Thiong’o-Ngugi, Son of Thiong’o. So Thiong’o really is my father’s name and Ngugi is my name, so sometimes when people call me Thiong’o, I feel uncomfortable because I think of my father, or I think of my son, who is called Thiong’o. The proper way to call me is really Ngugi. Either you formalize in terms of Professor Ngugi or Mr. Ngugi, or simply Ngugi, but it’s a very difficult thing.

Smith: [In this afternoon’s seminar,] you talked about how languages are marginalizing in some contexts and marginalized in others, and the same language can have both roles in different places. I’m curious what your thoughts are about Americans’ resistance to the increasing prevalence of Spanish in the United States. In your opinion, are Americans obligated to learn Spanish, or are Spanish-speaking immigrants obligated to learn English?

Ngugi: First, let me say that what I really oppose is all forms of monolingualism. It’s not good for any society-American society or any other society. I like it that here there are very many languages and they should be allowed room for expression.Spanish is a very important language in this country and it should be there in schools as well as being used, but is there a role for English? Yes, of course! As a language that helps different communities communicate with one another, plus English is a language of power in this society so if you asked me, if anybody asked me advice on what they should do, I’d tell them master the English language because you want to increase your negotiating power in this society, whether in employment, in education. But does that mean you abandon your own language? Absolutely not. There is no contradiction in becoming a master of Spanish as a master of English. In the case of African Americans, there is no contradiction in becoming a master of Ebonics and a master of the dominant register, the standard English. It’s important not to think that one must replace the other, not to think that English must grow on the grave of other languages. It’s not necessary. English needs no protection. It will thrive on other languages and it will give to other languages.

Smith: When you translate your own writings from Gikuyu into English, to what extent do you re-write them? Is “Devil on the Cross” the same story in English as it is in Gikuyu?

Ngugi: Yeah, it’s the same story. Translation is a different process than one of creative writing. You don’t try to author it in translation because if you do, you’d be writing a different novel, and then you’d be force to re-write the entire novel. But of course in translation you make choices between words, between possibilites of ways of saying the same thing. I’m quite sure that if any of my novels were translated by someone else and I did a translation of the same, the two translations would not be identical. They’d be very different, but they’d be informed by the content and the spirit of the original.

Park: Your speech today is about decolonization of the mind. Was there ever a time when your mind was colonized, so to speak? When the Western ethos were such a part of your way of thinking that it was hard to get beyond?

Ngugi: The very fact that I wrote in the English language-my first four novels, “Weep Not, Child,” “The River Between” and “Petals of Blood” were all written in English. Although I was writing about liberation and the struggles of African people in Kenya and Africa and black people everywhere and working people everywhere.The very fact that I was writing in English about people and characters whose role in history was expressed through African languages-that would indicate a colonial relationship to a language, which I accepted. So my own decolonization took the form of saying, “Wait a minute. The Gikuyu language, an African language, is a language as any other language-as English, or German, or Chinese. If I begin with my own language, then I can connect other languages.” So my own decolonization took the form of ac
cepting the primacy of my mother tongue, but I did not stop there. My mother tongue is primary, is my basis, but it’s also connected to other African languages and it’s connected to other languages in the world. It’s part of that, but not as a poor cousin, as a poor relative-as a center in its own right.