‘My work on language and power was an elaboration of a Tagorean sentiment’: Ngugi wa Thiong’o

An interview with the great African writer, thinker and activist.

One of Africa’s greatest writers, the Kenyan Ngugi wa Thiong’o, was recently in Delhi for the ILF-Samanvay Translations Series of talks organised by the India Habitat Centre and Seagull Books. When he agreed to speak to, the besotted fan girl that I am, I went to meet him for our chat clutching my battered college copy of Decolonizing the Mind. Excerpts from the conversation:

Professor Ngugi, I must begin by telling you about my encounter with your cult classic, Decolonising the Mind. We read it in class in our MA days, and I must tell you we were all shaken by it because we were studying English literature, and some of us, at least, would go on to write in English too. We all had very rich literatures in our mother tongues; and yet, some of us knew as early as the time that we’d choose English as the language of creative expression. In my mind, I justify it in many ways. I am speaking to other Indians whose mother tongues are very different from mine. Etc. But you had made us all – cocky young things with notions – very uneasy.
I must clarify, I have no problem with an individual person writing creatively in a language of their choice at a certain time. But the reality is that we don’t do that simply as a matter of choice. In some ways, it is a choice already made for us. It was made for us a long time ago by the colonial situation. And it was not for any altruistic reasons...

Right. And not to talk back to the empire either – rather, it might well be to be published abroad.
The reality, of course, is that speaking across communities can happen through translation. Just today, I received a copy of my novel Petals of Blood translated into Hindi, and, last week I was in Hyderabad and attended the release function of another translation of Petals of Blood – into Telugu. I wrote Wizard of the Crow in Gikuyu...

And you translated it yourself?
I did, later. Although it could have been done by anybody. And potentially it can be available in any other language in the world – in fact, it already has been translated into many. Though it’s through what they call “relay translation” because they often take from the English text. You see, in usual circumstances it would be normal for us to be able to write in our own languages, communicate with others speaking other languages, and, under normal circumstances, it would all be fine. But we are talking about the consequences of our colonial past...

The burdens of our histories...
And those histories include the fact that there are very few resources, particularly in Africa, put into the development of African languages, and fact is, whether you like it or not, English is still very much the language of power in Africa. Whether you want a job in the administration, the marketplace or the university, whatever, it is believed English, will give you an edge. In such a situation, automatically our policies change, and more resources are put into teaching and learning English. If our languages were made to matter, if knowing another language is rewarded in real life – in somebody’s promotion, for instance – things might change. People are psychologically tuned to give resources to English (or French or Portuguese depending on history) because these are seen as languages of power.

And I think the rise of America post World War II solidified the role of English (though in America, English had nearly lost out to German!).
Exactly, English was the language of power in the days of the British Empire and now in the times of the American Empire!

Decolonising the Mind is so much about attuning the mind to resistance – to resisting imperialism and its insidious designs in its many ways. You speak not only about colonialism but also about neo-colonialism. Now that we are in 2018, the age of the smartphone and social media, the world as we knew it has shifted, not necessarily for the better, but one can say it has become at least a little “flatter”. So what would be the updated strategy for Decolonising the Mind?
The basic arguments don’t change even when they might be updated. Imagine again the opportunities that will be opened to the different languages we have with all the new technologies now at our disposal, to connect, to translate. For a systemic change, it’s not enough that one or two people start writing in African languages but it is that government policies towards African languages need to change, the culture of acceptance of the normality of English must change, especially among the middle-classes. The paradox is that the parents are right in a sense. In Africa, say I am a student of the Gikuyu language and know several other languages but if I go to an interview for a university job, my ten or twelve African languages will not matter one bit. The one with English will get the job. English is equal to all the African languages in terms of power. And that is because we have bought into the notion of hierarchy in discussions of language instead of thinking of languages as networks.

I believe there is no big or small language. If one has a strong base in their mother tongue, they can learn other languages easily. And there is nothing wrong in adding English to it – or French or Chinese or Russian. I can sum it up in one sentence: If you know all the languages of the world and you don’t know your mother tongue, that is enslavement, if you know your mother tongue and add all the languages of the world to it, that is empowerment.

When I was in prison, I remember reading a story about Tagore. A writer went to see Tagore and he was telling Tagore about how many languages he knew, Italian, English, French, this, that...Towards the end, Tagore turned to him and said, “Do you know your mother tongue?” When the man, a little surprised perhaps, said no, Tagore replied, “If you don’t know your mother tongue, you don’t know any language at all.” That story really affected me. And my own work on language and power was, in a sense, an elaboration of that Tagorean sentiment.

Something that I’ve often thought about and now would like to ask you, though I know we are running out of time a little. What was the nature of your relationship with Chinua Achebe? I think Things Fall Apart was published in 1958. In 1962, Achebe became the consulting editor of Heinemann’s Africa series. 1962 was also the year of the Makerere Conference...
You know, Achebe is actually very important in the whole phenomenon of African writing in English – and French, to a certain extent. By creating Heinemann African Writers Series, he really drew people’s attention to the new writing coming from Africa. For the first 100 or so titles, I think, he was the series editor. When I met him in Makerere...

You were a very young man then, weren’t you?
I was still an undergraduate student at Makerere. The Makerere Conference of 1962, which I mention in Decolonising the Mind, was a watershed moment for many of us. I went there to show him Weep Not, Child, which I had just completed.

A handwritten manuscript?
Yes, it was. He agreed to look at it.

A sort of irrelevant question but I love details of this sort, you were all staying in the same hotel?
In the hall of residence on campus.

How nice.
It was vacation time; the students weren’t there. I don’t know if he had read the full manuscript. All I know is that he made some comments on my writing. I had a tendency to pile on adjectives in my sentences. He told me I was overdoing it. He said, “Look, when you want to make a point, you don’t have to overdo it. If you give someone a blow and they fall down, you don’t have to follow that up with a little stick-beating! Economy of expression is very important.”

Achebe talked to Heinemann about my manuscript. Years later, when I became a writer myself and began to receive manuscripts and so on, I really realised how generous it was of him to take that kind of time and interest in my book. He was in the middle of finishing The Arrow of God, there was the was very hectic for him. So it was amazing generosity – to take time to read my manuscript, give me comments. I have always always appreciated that. Later on, of course, we had our ideological disagreements over the language question, but it was never personal.

Devapriya Roy’s latest book is Indira, a graphic biography of Indira Gandhi, co-created with artist Priya Kuriyan.

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