I wrote Caitaani Mũtharabainĩ [Devil on the Cross], in a maximum-security prison. It was my first novel in the Gĩkũyũ language. And I wrote it in my mother tongue because I’d been put in prison because of a play, I Will Marry When I Want, or Ngaahika Ndeenda, which I had written with Ngũgĩ wa Mĩriĩ in the Gĩkũyũ. See the irony? Put in prison by an African government, for writing in an African language. In prison, I thought about the issue of language and I decided that my novels and my creative work from then onwards would be in the language which was the basis of my incarceration.

When I came out of prison in 1978, Henry Chakava of Heinemann Kenya made an offer. A month or so before publication, the publisher started getting death threats. And a week before he was due to release it, some “thugs” accosted him at the gates of his house in Nairobi and, as he got out of his car, they grabbed him and tried to push him into the boot of their own. Fortunately, another vehicle happened to pass by and foiled the kidnapping attempt. So instead, they cut off his finger with a machete. Henry Chakava still went ahead and brought out the Gĩkũyũ original of Devil on the Cross.

The second adventure was after my being forced into exile in London, in 1982. I wrote the novel Matigari, or Matigari ma Njirungi in Gĩkũyũ, almost in defiance to my exile in a totally English-speaking environment. Again Chakava published it, in 1986. In Kenya people started talking about the main character, Matigari, a survivor of the liberation war who went around the country asking searching questions about truth and justice. The intelligence services of the Daniel arap Moi dictatorship reported that this guy called Matigari was defying orders about “rumour mongering”. It was illegal in Kenya then to “rumour monger”, so they sent police officers to arrest him only to find that he was a character in fiction. Instead, they literally arrested the book.

In a coordinated operation, they went to all the bookshops at the same time, pretending to be booksellers from another town, who had sold out all their copies because of high demand. Once the book-seller showed them the stock, the would-be book buyers showed their police badges and confiscated all the copies. So there’s a time when the novel wasn’t available anywhere in Kenya. For some years Matigari lived abroad, exiled in an English translation by Wangui wa Goro.

My third novel in the Gĩkũyũ language was Mũrogi wa Kagogo [Wizard of the Crow]. I wrote it in exile in California. My wife Njeeri and I returned to Kenya in 2003 to launch the Gĩkũyũ-language publication of the novel before the English version had come out. So we got to Kenya, and 11 days before the publication of the novel, armed gunmen burst into our hotel room, and we barely escaped with our lives. By the way, the English translation, Wizard of the Crow, won the 2006 California Book Award Gold Medal, an award once won by John Steinbeck for The Grapes of Wrath. Now, I’m only narrating this to show the impact – the fear or the terror or the whatever-you-want-to-call-it – that the publication of my works in Gĩkũyũ has generated. The first work in Gĩkũyũ proper was actually the play I Will Marry When I Want. That sent me to a maximum-security prison. For the second, Devil on the Cross, the publisher lost his finger. With the third, the hero is almost arrested except for the fact he is fictional.

On the occasion of the fourth one, my wife and I nearly lost our lives. So these “unreadable” works must be saying something or demonstrating something, which an oppressive regime understood very clearly and which Adewale, perceptive as he is in so many ways, could not quite see. These works in Gĩkũyũ narrate my life in writing and translation, and it continues to this day, but with a positive outcome. And this is the story I want to share with you. Another adventure in translation.

In 2008, I asked my then 13-year-old son Thiong’o to write me some short fiction as a kind of seasonal gift – a combination of Christmas, Kwanzaa, and the New Year. He delivered his first-ever short story, “Henry and I”, a Christmas story; and the following year he turned the tables on me. A day before Christmas he demanded a story from me. I delivered Song of a Bee, now published as a book by East African Educational Publishers but only in the Gĩkũyũ language. It has become a tradition in our house in Southern California: for birthdays and seasons we sometimes exchange stories instead of material gifts. It’s not always easy, especially for me, for they nearly always wait until the day before to make demands on me – it’s a kind of challenge. “Tomorrow’s my birthday, and for my gift I want a story from you.”

I remember once Mũmbi, who is Thiong’o’s older sister by a year, asked for a story for her birthday present, again really at the last minute. By then she was already a college student. And this time I really had writer’s block. I turned over many ideas in my head, until I recalled her fascination with dialectics. She was studying philosophy at the time, from Plato to Hegel. She was especially intrigued by the number one, which arose from her work on Plotinus (who took the one ultimate reality of Philo of Alexandria for whom one was God’s number, the basis of all the other numbers),and in our daily conversations she would go over and over the idea of the one containing many, and being contained in the many in different variations. This is where I got the idea for what became Ituĩka Rĩa Mũrũngarũ: Kana Kĩrĩa Gĩtũmaga Andũ Mathiĩ Marũngiĩ [The Upright Revolution, or Why Humans Walk Upright]. I drew on the workings of the human body, which, after all, is our primary field of knowledge.

The story tells of the epic struggle between legs and hands for dominance of the human body. You see, the two limbs are so similar that they had to have gone through a phase of sibling rivalry, which in this case ends with a tournament attended by all nature to settle once and for all who are the more important to the body: hands or legs (at the time of this epic struggle humans walked on all fours like any other four-legged creatures). The story makes a few jibes about Mouth who talks of “my this my that” as if it owned every other organ – and of course, many presidents and kings and priests tend to talk all “my this my that, I’ll do this and that,” forgetting the concept and the reality of “we”. When the “I” replaces the “we”, we are in trouble, as the contending and quarrelling pair of limbs soon find out. So in one sense it’s the story of the critic’s tendency to explain the complexities of any whole through the one-sidedness of class, race, ethnicity and religion. But in the end The Upright Revolution is just a fable, and my daughter enjoyed it as a story and not as a treatise on politics and philosophy.

I thought no more about the story until a year later when my other son, Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ, author of Nairobi Heat (2011) and currently a professor of English at Cornell University, told me that he had been approached by Moses Kilolo, on behalf of a group of young people in Kenya who called themselves a panAfrican writers’ collective, to ask me if I could write a story in Gĩkũyũ for their journal, Jalada, which was going to release an issue on translation. I thought Mũkoma was playing games with me. Young people wanting a story in an African language!

Excerpted with permission from The Language of Languages, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Seagull Books.