On Thursday, 13 October, Bob Dylan was announced as the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. The Academy cited the musician for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” Kenyan writer Prof Ngugi wa Thiong’o who was among the hotly-tipped names to take home this year’s Prize, lost out again. Yet he remains as one of Africa’s greatest voices is already assured.
We bring you a 2013 interview with the celebrated writer where he talked to NA’s Stephen Williams on his writing process, his inspirations, the need for a language policy in Africa and so much more.
Ngugi wa Thiong’o was in London to deliver the third John La Rose Memorial Lecture as part of a four-day Afroeurope@ns IV forum, which was celebrating black cultures and identities in Europe. Ngugi generously agreed to be interviewed by New African despite jet lag incurred on a long flight from Los Angeles on the other side of the USA to London.
But that was not the only reason for my trepidation in visiting Ngugi. I was worried that I may be putting to him the same old questions that every journalist asks him. But when I mentioned my misgivings, he just thought for a minute or so and said he would simply think up some new answers, before laughing the whole matter off.
He was staying at The Goodenough Club, in a fine Georgian Square surrounding a park with giant towering sycamore trees (some of the tallest I had seen in London), and coincidentally, the same place where he first stayed when he came to London in 1982 and realised he had to go into exile.
He made that decision after hearing allegations that the government of President Daniel arap Moi planned to assassinate him (or give him “the red carpet treatment” in the government’s own twisted terminology) on his return to Kenya. A few years earlier, in late 1977, Ngugi had been arrested without charge and thrown into jail at the Kamiti Maximum Security Prison.
But even prison did not stop him from writing. Using toilet paper, he wrote Caitaani Mutharabaini (later translated into English as Devil on the Cross). After Amnesty International named him a prisoner of conscience and led an international campaign for his release, Ngugi was freed after a year. But he continued to be hounded by the authorities, being barred from returning to his work of teaching Literature at the University of Nairobi. I began our conversation by discussing the nuts-and-bolts of how he wrote. “How do you go about it?” I asked. “Do you work every day? Do you set yourself a time to write?”
“No, I don’t have a time schedule,” he explained. “I work within what I call my event time; that is, events dictate how much time I can put into it, and when. Of course, it is galling because the reality is that you only have so much time when you are not pursuing the job that gives you your daily bread.”
Not that he truly begrudges the time he has to make for his work, as an academic. “Because I want to teach; I need to meet students. I also have to attend faculty meetings. And these are commitments I cannot change. But other things that I can, I will change to fit in around my writing.”
Putting to him that this sounded quite a disciplined approach, he immediately interjected. “No, I am not disciplined in the sense that I have a regular time, like when you get up in the morning, and set a time to write. But when I have got an idea – yes, then I am disciplined around that idea. I pursue it, I keep at it; I don’t get distracted.”
“Let me say that every time I finish a novel, I have a hard time getting the next idea in my mind, but more importantly, an idea that excites me.”
Whether or not the writing process was an easy process for him was the next question. “Do you ever have trouble with the muse?” I asked.
“Yes, this is important, I think. Let me say that every time I finish a novel, I have a hard time getting the next idea forming in my mind, but more importantly, an idea that excites me – that inspires me and makes me want to write it. That takes some time. When it does, I can write it anywhere, any time, on anything.
“It is important for younger writers to know. No matter how many books one has written, all writers will have a block. A block is inevitable. The key thing is to keep at it. Even if you give it a day or two, or a week, you come back to it, but you don’t give up, in other words be resolute – it’s hard work actually.”
Whilst in prison he took the decision to drop English as his primary language to write in, and adopt his mother tongue, Gikuyu. “Yeah, I write in a format that works for me. All my novels, all my fiction, all my drama, and all my poetry – what you might describe as works of ‘fictive imagination’ – I write in Gikuyu. Works of theory, memos, essays etc – I write in English. Occasionally, I might practise writing in Kiswahili, but that is very rare. The moment I get a stable reading public for my works in Gikuyu; and get a reliable publishing interest, I will do everything in Gikuyu or Kiswahili. Translation by me or others will help disseminate the works into other languages, African, European, Asian.”
In fact, Ngugi’s books have now been translated into more than 30 languages, and that has won him world acclaim and his work is the subject of innumerable books, critical monographs and dissertations. Did he have a particular mentor or influence when he started writing?
“Not a particular mentor,” he explained, “but I was impressed a great deal by the works of George Lamming, the Carribbean writer of the early 60s. In the Castle of My Skin was a wonderful novel! It was a very beautiful novel.
“I also liked the works of Peter Abrahams, the South African writer. You know, many people have forgotten his name. He is of the older generation of Jomo Kenyatta and Kwame Nkrumah and knew them well when they were living in London. It was always very clear that he wanted to become a professional writer.
“He was a political activist, in so far as he was interacting with Nkrumah, Kenyatta and others, but his commitment was always to the pen, and his imagination.
“And I have to mention Es’kia Mphahlele. He wrote a very famous autobiography called Down Second Avenue, and in that autobiography or memoir, he wrote about himself and Peter Abrahams being in the same school – St. Peters – but Peter Abrahams was senior to him. But Abrahams was known for always talking about how he was going to be a professional writer, like Shakespeare or other writers. Yeah, he was quite confident; he was clear about what he wanted to do.”
It might seem a very obvious question, and I imagined that many others had posed it before, but when I asked him why he wrote, Ngugi just paused for a few seconds before saying: “I write because I have to,” before bursting into laughter.
“I find life a bit chaotic, quite frankly,” he continued to explain. “But I get a sense of life and a sense of order when I write. I start to understand things better. When I am in the process of writing fiction, I get a clarity that I am not able to get otherwise. Writing fiction works for me. It is my first love, although drama and theatre have had more of an impact on my life – including my life as a writer of fiction – than any other genre.”
So what about his childhood? Was he prepared to talk about this? “I have finished a memoir on my childhood called Dreams In A Time Of War. And the second one is called In The House Of The Interpreter.
“I was born in 1938 in Kiambu, at the very beginning of World War II, so the whole point of my memoir was that I was born literally in a time of war – World War II, and then, my childhood was during the Mau Mau, the anti-colonial nationalist movement.”
It is clear from reading Dreams In A Time Of War that Ngugi’s mother was a strong
influence on the young boy, and he loved her dearly. “My mother, who could not read or write, is the one who sent me to school,” he told me. As he narrates in his memoir: “One evening my mother asked me: Would you like to go to school. It was in 1947. I can’t recall the day or month. I remember being wordless at first. But the question and the scene were forever engraved in my mind.”
His mother, who had recognised the importance of schooling, made Ngugi swear he would do his best. “’Yes, yes’, I said quickly, in case she changed her mind,” he recalls.
That is how Ngugi went to school and learned to read and write. It was a profound experience for the young boy, and one that would also shape his life. But it was also a time of war, and as he recalls, that impacted everybody in his small community. Not only did Ngugi have relatives that went away to fight for the British in World War II, and forefathers that fought for the British in World War I, but later he also had an elder brother, Good Wallace, in the mountains fighting with the Mau Mau in its guerilla war against the British colonialists.
“Everybody’s life was affected. When you can’t go to school because bullets are flying around you, it affects you. I describe this drama in Dreams In A Time Of War.”
And moving to the present, I asked him if he enjoyed living in the US, where he holds the post of Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California at Irvine, or whether he ever got homesick for Kenya.
“Yeah. I enjoy my work at the University of California. But no matter where I am, I think about Kenya all the time. I cling to my Kenyan passport like it is a talisman, you know…”
Commenting that he must have been thinking quite hard about recent events in Nairobi, he said: “You mean that massacre! It was horrible! Every Kenyan felt the pain, whether in Kenya or outside of Kenya. Hundreds of innocent, unarmed people – unarmed people slaughtered like cattle – horrible!
“I do not know what cause, what grievance would cause anybody, anywhere in the world, to just get a gun and shoot innocent people. This is wrong.
“Then, I lost a good friend, the Ghanaian writer, Kofi Awoonor, who I have known since 1962, and of course, his passing on, or his murder really, is a blow to African writing. He belongs to the same generation – he was the same stature – as Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka.”
It was obvious that the Westgate tragedy in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, was too fresh in Ngugi’s mind and also too painful to take the conversation much further, so we turned our attention to the new young
“Each language wants to claim that it is inherently better than other languages, and that is utter nonsense!”
African writers that are bursting onto the world stage. “I am quite excited by the young writers that are coming up – young writers like Chimamanda Adiche, Helon Habila and others, they are so brilliant!” he told me. “They are really great, you know! I am also very impressed with that young lady from Zimbabwe, NoViolet Bulawayo.
“So brilliant, so bright: We, of the elder generation, are so bound up by our anticolonial nationalism, which is important for us, but the younger generation – they are free. You find they don’t confine their characters necessarily to Africa. They are quite happy to bring in characters from other races, and so on … that’s good, because they are growing in a multi-cultural world, and so on.
“And then there are my kids too, you know, Mukoma wa Ngugi has written Nairobi Heat and Black Star Nairobi, and then my daughter Wanjiku, whose first novel, The Fall of Saints, is being published in February next year. Then my other son, Nducu, has written a book called City Murders, being published this November. And I have got my senior son, Tee Ngugi – his short stories are coming out, so I do have quite a family of young writers! But all of them … I have fought them on this. I would like to see all of them … whether my own kids or others – being a bit more conscious of African languages. I see the problem in the sense that we do not have publishers. You write in [an] African language, but the venues for publishing are really so limited.
“We must find a way to make that breakthrough somehow, you know. I would like to see more African governments coming up with more positive policies on African languages. If you can establish a central bureau of languages, like Nkrumah used to have, each language having a committee or something that helps look after it, however small, they all can coordinate through a Central Bureau of Languages. Thus the languages will contribute to each other. Then you can have an interesting language policy in Africa.
“You see…I think what is wrong with the languages like English and French is that there is actually nothing wrong with them as languages, but it is the hierarchy of power! Each language wants to claim that it is inherently better than other languages, and that is utter nonsense! There is no language inherently better than any other language.”
Listening to him, it becomes clear why he chose to title his John La Rose Memorial lecture Resisting Metaphysical Empire: Language as a War Zone. But while language is central to Ngugi’s thinking, he does not confine his ideas regarding Africa’s continuing struggle simply to this.
“For Africa, the key thing is to secure our natural resources, our economic environment, our polity, our culture. If you can secure that base, each country and also we, the continent of Africa, can engage with other continents, on the basis of give and take. But just now, the problem is that within Africa, we don’t even make use of our own resources – we negotiate a price for them!
“But we don’t manufacture with our resources. I would like to see Zambia making things with its copper, South Africa having companies making use of their gold, and Nigeria with oil refineries making products with their oil. I want to see manufacturing all over Africa using our resources, instead of simply negotiating their price. I would like to see factories owned by African entrepreneurs making things with that material, with the resources instead of simply negotiating a price. We have to become a continent of makers, not just a continent that sets the price for its raw materials. Africa has always given to the West; Africa must learn to give to itself: the working millions. That will be what will make Africa a big global player.
“Another thing would be to get our politicians to debate about policy, not about which ethnic group your opponent comes from. You want to know from the politicians what their policy is for the poor in the country. We must eradicate poverty, ignorance and disease. A people-based African Union would help to realise this on a continental level.”
First published in New African print in December 2013.