NGŨGĨ WA THIONG’O is a world-renowned Kenyan writer, scholar, and social activist. Ngũgĩ’s diverse body of work includes novels, short stories, plays, articles, essays, and poems, which have been translated into over 60 languages. A Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature at UC Irvine, he has received numerous awards and 11 honorary doctorates. Ngũgĩ refers to himself as a “language warrior” because of his fight for the recognition of his native Gĩkũyũ and other marginalized languages. He graciously agreed to this interview on the occasion of receiving yet another major honor: the second annual LARB/UCR Creative Writing Lifetime Achievement Award.
Nanda Dyssou is a Congolese-Hungarian journalist and fiction writer living in Los Angeles.
NANDA DYSSOU: Did you ever think when you were growing up that you would be an internationally renowned author and that your stories of Kenya would be translated into 60 different languages?
NGŨGĨ WA THIONG’O: No, never, not even that I would ever become a writer. The struggle to ensure that one seized whatever educational opportunities came one’s way was hard enough. The competition for places in the few schools and colleges available was fierce. From elementary schools to colleges, every two years were terminal exams. There were hardly any second chances. Once you got off the train, for whatever reason, you hardly ever got on it again. But I always wanted to read. As I narrated in my memoir, In the House of the Interpreter, my ambition, on entering a library for the first time in my life, was to one day be able to read all the books in the world. Reality would soon clip the wings of that ambition, but the desire to read remains.
What do you see as your role in the writing community at this point in your career?
I have become a language warrior. I want to join all those others in the world who are fighting for marginalized languages. No language is ever marginal to the community that created it. Languages are like musical instruments. You don’t say, let there be a few global instruments, or let there be only one type of voice all singers can sing.
NANDA DYSSOU:You found publishing success early in life. Your first play, The Black Hermit, was produced in 1962 and published in 1963. You wrote your first two novels — The River Between (1965) and Weep Not, Child (1964) — to critical acclaim while a second-year student in college. Were you ever worried that you could not replicate the successes of your early 20s?
NGŨGĨ WA THIONG’O: Actually, for many years, I thought of my early novels as my apprentice work. So despite the novels and play you mention, as well as eight or so short stories and over 60 pieces of journalism, I found it difficult to call myself a writer. I thought that I had yet to write the novel I wanted to write to earn the right to call myself a writer. A Grain of Wheat (1967) and Petals of Blood (1975) were attempts to write that novel. But by the time I completed these two works, I had changed my position on English as the primary language of my creativity and embraced Gĩkũyũ. But even with Gĩkũyũ, I try to write that novel that I have striven to write but have not yet written. Caitaani Mũtharabainĩ (1980; translated as Devil on the Cross) and Mũrogi wa Kagogo (2006; translated as Wizard of the Crow) were the result of my new commitment. Now I have come to realize that, for writing, there is no moment of arrival — or, rather, the moment of arrival is the beginning of a new phase of the journey. It is a continual challenge.
Afroza Akhter Tina
Department of English, DIU