Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o: The Language Warrior

One year the rumor was so strong that the newspapers sent reporters and photographers to my house at 4:00 a.m. We don’t have to understand the German language to learn from his works. I wrote a novel, Devil on a Cross, in Gĩkũyũ on toilet paper with a pen they had given me to write a confession. NGŨGĨ WA THIONG’O: There was a time I wrote in English, but now I often write in my language, Gĩkũyũ [spoken by almost seven million Kenyans], and translate it back into English. ¤
Rosemary McClure is an award-winning Los Angeles–based travel and lifestyles writer and editor. Here at UCI, we’re able to discuss Hegel, because his works have been translated. The people in Africa speak African languages. It was a joy to me. He’s talking about a project he’s passionate about, a short story he wrote that, so far, has been translated into 63 languages, 47 of them African dialects. One of your plays, The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, was set in a prison and was staged at UCI in 2014. How did the production here differ from others? The conversation is published jointly by UCI Magazine and the Los Angeles Review of Books. The play, which is about the leader of the Kenyan liberation struggle, has been staged in Kenya and in several other countries. Translation becomes a process whereby languages can talk to each other. But when it came, another writer had won the prize. What sets “The Upright Revolution” apart from your other work? What is the message you hope readers take away from “The Upright Revolution”? Translation is an important tool that makes it possible for different cultures to borrow from each other. And it has created some humorous moments. We are all connected; we depend on each other. It makes me feel very happy to see young people picking up these languages and showing that it can be done. According to its publisher, the Pan-African writers’ collective   Jalada Africa, “The Upright Revolution: Or Why Humans Walk Upright” has become the single most translated short story in the history of African writing. The Bible and the Qur’an. For at least the past five years, you’ve been rumored to be a front-runner for the Nobel Prize in Literature. It was captivating. How did you cope? He sat down with Rosemary McClure to discuss “The Upright Revolution” and his championing of literature in native languages. A Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at UC Irvine, Ngũgĩ, as he’s known, won the 2013 UCI Medal and has been a top contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature. I’m very proud of the project and that my story has been part of this phenomenon. My wife made them coffee, and we consoled them. He’s also Kenya’s best-known writer. ¤
ROSEMARY MCCLURE: In what language do you usually write? What are some examples of cultural borrowing? It’s more of a challenge for me. It’s a reminder, Ngũgĩ says, that in our togetherness we have the power to transform the future. and had no photos or story. to wait outside my front door for the announcement and press conference. You were not allowed to write. In 1977, you were imprisoned for a year for critical works about neocolonial Kenya. I describe myself as a language warrior for marginalized languages. The same is true with Greek mythology; we can learn from it without knowing how to speak Greek. The director, Jaye Austin Williams, transformed the theater into a prison. It’s very humbling to me. For me, it was the very best production of the play anywhere. Life is connected. You were not allowed to do anything, even ask, “Is it raining outside today? Is it sunny outside?” So the only way I could actually, literally, deal with my prison conditions — maximum-security prison for doing nothing — was by writing secretly. They have a right to cultural products written in their language. His devotion to his homeland is one reason he’s so pleased with the multiple translations of “The Upright Revolution.”
Although there are millions of African speakers, not much has been written in their indigenous languages; he says: “Being able to read literature in your own language is empowering.”
Ngũgĩ originally wrote “The Upright Revolution” in his mother tongue, Gĩkũyũ, and then translated it into English himself. How does it feel to be considered? Audience members were inspected by guards upon entering and treated as if they were really entering a prison. I think this was the first staging in the United States. When my wife and I opened the door to tell them, they were very disappointed, because they’d come out at 4:00 a.m. I became excited about this story because Jalada picked the story up, produced a translation journal that included it, and worked with many translators to make it available in many languages. I really appreciate that people think my work is worth considering. For a writer, it was difficult. People can read them because they’re available in their own languages. Much of the intellectual production in Africa is done in European languages: English, French, Portuguese. JUNE 24, 2017

CELEBRATED WRITER Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is in high spirits. I wrote it jointly with Micere Githae Mugo of Syracuse University. Is that why you’re enthusiastic about the translations of your short story? So they became part of the experience. The 2,200-word fable tells the story of how “humans used to walk on legs and arms, just like all the other four-limbed creatures,” but eventually the legs managed to stand and walk upright by working together with the other parts of the body.