An Interview with Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

Nanda Dyssou talks to Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o about writing in native languages, living in exile, and his hope for Africa.

An Interview with Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

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: 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.

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?

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.

Your early play The Wound in the Heart was blocked from production because it mentions that a British officer raped an LFU (Mau Mau) soldier’s wife. You struggled to come to terms with this act of political censorship, as evidenced in your memoir, Birth of a Dream Weaver: A Writer’s Awakening (2016).

It was the big lie given as the reason for its ban from the Kampala National Theatre that made me pause and think about the atrocities committed by the British colonial state against Kenyans. One of the lies of every colonizing nation was that their rule was gentler and more kindly than that of the other competing colonial powers. The logic was like: Theirs is worse than ours, so ours is better; better is a higher degree of good; therefore, ours is good. It was an important moment in my life because, in a strange way, it motivated me to write. That is why I open the memoir with the incident. But on looking back, it prefigured what would happen to me years later, and all because of theater, like my being held in a maximum security prison in Kenya in 1977–’78.

Much of your success has been achieved outside of Kenya, as you have been in exile from your native land for over three decades. Does the sense of alienation stemming from that reality ever recede?

No, not quite, but I have tried to counter that with the knowledge that exile has impacted history in strange and even fascinating ways. Think of Moses and Jesus in Egypt, Muhammad and his followers finding refuge in Christian Ethiopia, Marx in France and London. The experience of exile germinated thoughts that later impacted home. I suppose this is what the Afro-Caribbean writer George Lamming meant by his famous title, The Pleasures of Exile (1960). Also, I have developed an outlook that I call the “globalectical imagination,” in my book Globalectics: Theory and the Politics of Knowing (2012). It is really an expansion of the Blakean vision of seeing the world in a grain of sand, eternity in an hour. We are connected.

Has being physically away from Kenya been an issue for you, or does all you need to write live on in your memories? What are some special difficulties you have experienced while writing from afar?

Kenya is always in my mind. I miss the everyday of Kenyan life. Gĩkũyũ is mostly spoken in Kenya. It is one of several other African languages. A mosaic of languages, that is Kenya. But since I now write primarily in Gĩkũyũ, I would like to be part of the linguistic landscape of its changes.

I’m wondering if you have ever worried about not having enough of a readership because you are writing about a nation and a time in history that most people do not hear and read enough about. Has universality ever been a concern of yours?

I believe that universality is the child of particularity. Remember that grain of sand? It contains the world. A writer has to be faithful to that grain in order to envision the universe.

Do you feel that a Western audience can fully understand your books? Are there parts of your writing that you feel only certain audiences — specifically Kenyans — will understand?

I don’t think that there is any work that only a certain community can understand. Or if there is, it is bad art. But every reader brings into a work of art a worldview shaped by their experiences of history. For instance, critics from a colonial experience can see gaps and even silences in works from imperial centers.

In 1977, after the production of your controversial play, Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want), you were arrested and held prisoner without trial for a year. You were essentially imprisoned for using performing arts and your native language to empower your people. During this time, you considered the implications of writing in English, and that’s when you made the decision to write in your native Gĩkũyũ. You famously wrote Devil on the Cross on toilet paper in Kamiti Maximum Security Prison. Since then, you have been in the forefront of encouraging African writers to use their native languages. How is that fight going and how do you feel when you look back at the beginnings of your Gĩkũyũ language journey?

The struggle continues. We need the trinity of the state, the publisher, and the writer to create the necessary space for African languages. So far, the state is missing in action. Their policies are geared to pampering European languages while pauperizing African languages. Sometimes the postcolonial state displays active hostility to African languages.

When you returned to Kenya, you and your wife, Njeeri wa Ngũgĩ, were brutally attacked. Did that shake your faith in the country or your countrymen? Do you think you could ever return for good and would you want to?

It has been part of a pattern. In 1977, as we have discussed, I was placed in a Maximum Security Prison soon after the banning of the first modern play in the Gĩkũyũ language (which was written jointly with Ngũgĩ wa Mĩriĩ and performed by peasants, workers from Kamĩrĩthũ). In 1982, two weeks before my Gĩkũyũ language novel Caitaani Mũtharabainĩ was set to be released, my Kenyan publisher, Henry Chakava, was attacked outside his house in Nairobi. One of his fingers, chopped off with a machete, had to be reattached. The attack came after weeks of anonymous telephone threats. In 1987, Dictator Moi issued a warrant for the arrest of the main character of my second Gĩkũyũ language novel, Matigari. In 2003, 11 days before the publication of my third Gĩkũyũ novel, Mũrogi wa Kagogo, armed gunmen attacked my wife and me. But Kenya is the people. And Kenyan people support me. I can never give up on the Kenyan people. So I return and return and write and write about Kenya and its great people. In speaking to the Kenyan people, I speak to the world.

Despite all that, you remained undeterred and continued to write. Why and how?

I am driven to write. Writers are really part of a prophetic tradition. In his poem “Hunting Words with My Father,” my son, Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ, himself a writer and professor of English at Cornell, has a character say that hunting with words is very dangerous. Look at all the prophets jailed, exiled, or simply executed. What they all possessed was the word. I write because I live.

In Birth of a Dream Weaver, you referred to your historical heritage and memories by writing: “Images of the numerous atrocities committed by the white settler regime in Kenya compete within me.” And, as you said, you have been the victim of assassination attempts, imprisonment, persecution, and blacklisting. Does the memory of all the violence you’ve seen and experienced alter the way you write?

Memories of colonial violence still haunt me. So does the violence to my family. When I see massacres in the Middle East, or senseless police violence against black people in the streets of the USA, those images come back. Then I work harder. I want to see a world without prisons and detention camps. I want to see a world without homelessness and starvation. I want to see an end to the logic behind modern development, that in order for one to be, others musts cease to be. I want to see an end to the assumption that, in order for a thousand millionaires or billionaires to be, there have to be a billion poor. We have to end this madness of thinking that the number of billionaires a country has is the measure of its development. What about the billion poor created by the billionaires?

Is there anything you find too painful to write about? 

We write about pain to help cope with pain — help end it, hopefully. We want to help humans fight to heal human wounds. Brecht once asked: “In the dark times / Will there also be singing? / Yes, there will be singing / About the dark times.” This poem is the epigraph to my memoir, Dreams in a Time of War (2010).

What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment thus far in your career? What work of yours are you most proud of?

Different texts have different memories for me. For that reason, they are all my favorites, equally. If I choose Devil on the Cross, it is because of the unusual circumstances under which I wrote it. It was also my first novel in Gĩkũyũ, which makes it the first modern novel in Gĩkũyũ. I am also glad that another Gĩkũyũ language novel, Wizard of the Crow, written during my years of exile, won the 2006 California Gold Medal, once won by John Steinbeck. I always joke that Wizard of the Crow is the only novel in history written between two oranges. This is because I began to write in Orange, New Jersey, and completed it in Orange County, California.

How do you judge the success of a given book of yours?

It is difficult. But I always get special joy when a reader anywhere in the world tells me how a particular text impacted their lives. An Indian political activist whom I once met in Hyderabad thanked me for Devil on the Cross. He was planning to take his life, but he happened to enter a bookshop, bought my book and read it, and it made him find a new purpose. In such moments, I feel a little teary, realizing that all the effort that went into creating the work was worth it. I am happy when my readers tell me that Wizard of the Crow made them laugh. Once at a reception at Duke University, I met two professors whose choice of careers — one in law and the other in literature — had been impacted by their encounter with the progressive lawyer character in Petals of Blood. The professor of literature was initially interested in law, but when he saw what a novel can do, he switched careers to literature, while the law professor had been interested in literature, but on encountering the fictional lawyer, he switched to law.

If someone is new to your work, which of your books do you think they should start with?

Why not start with Dreams in a Time of War and Weep Not, Child (1964)? These draw from the same period of my childhood, and it would be interesting to see how fiction and memoir differ in their approaches to reality. But if you want to laugh in order not to cry, why not Wizard of the Crow? Otherwise any of my novels will lead you to the others.

How has your prose style and narrative structure changed over the years?

My first two novels, Weep Not, Child and The River Between (1965), are characterized by linear narrative structures and short sentences. Later, in A Grain of Wheat and Petals of Blood I became interested in the layerings of times and spaces. Linearity is replaced by multiple lines that criss-cross, resulting in multiple characters, multiple spaces, multiple times, and multiple lines of development. This needed variation of sentences from short ones to very long ones.

Similarly to the progression of your styles, one can follow the evolution of your socio-political ideas by reading your works in order.

I am interested in the operation of power in society. There is no aspect of life that is not affected by who and what social class wields power in society, and the ends toward which that power is put. I have, indeed, evolved. But I have been consistent in looking at the world from the standpoint and needs of the least among us. Globalectics just about sums up my outlook now: life is connected — earth, water, sky, all creation, and all that which enables and sustains creation. I now understand why the ancients worshipped the sun, showed reverence for water, and fire, and soil, and animal and plant life. In precolonial Gĩkũyũ, you had to plant the young of a tree in place of the one you cut down or uprooted. The Earth is our common mother, and no people or persons should claim it is more theirs than it is others’. It is also why now I believe that gross environmental abuses are crimes against humanity and life. Pollution of water and air anywhere impacts all creation everywhere.

What made you turn to the memoir as a form?

The memoir helps me to explain myself. I use it to say, “Hey, I am still alive, and I still believe in African languages, and yes, I have to fight back by every literary means possible.” Sometimes I get unexpected rewards. A fable that I wrote in Gĩkũyũ has now been translated into 61 languages, 40 of them African. It is called Ituĩka rĩa Mũrũngarũ (The Upright Revolution: Or Why Humans Walk Upright). I am excited because the people behind the project are a Pan-African collective of young people with the Jalada Publishing Project. They are led by Moses Kilolo, their chief editor.

You have written three memoirs: Dreams in a Time of War, In the House of the Interpreter, and Birth of a Dream Weaver. Do you think you will write another one, picking up where Dream Weaver left off?

The three memoirs only go up to 1964. I would like to do more, but I want to write another novel first. The novel takes me to places and realms that no other genre has been able to do. The irony is that theater has had more impact on my life, including on the craft of fiction, than the novel. After all, it was a play that sent me to Kamĩtĩ Prison, where I rethought the whole language question and embarked on my first novel in Gĩkũyũ.

Your writing engages both the large-scale issues plaguing society and the equally critical issues of your individual protagonists. Which is more pressing in your mind when you start working on a novel?

It varies from novel to novel, but mostly it starts with an image, a vague idea. Creative writing is like an exploration of the unknown. Often, I find myself surprised by characters who pop up and even raise issues I had not yet thought through. That is why the next novel is always different from the previous one. But they are literary accounts from the same explorer, with his particular quirks. The flower I stop to look at may be different from that which fascinates another explorer.

Is there a theme or subject that you’ve been meaning to write about but have not so far covered?

Not so much a theme, as the challenges of the next novel. You see, my best novel is that which I have yet to write.

Interesting! Are there any unpublished manuscripts in your desk drawers?

Yes several, probably seven in all. They are in Gĩkũyũ, including some three translations of Molière and Gogol into Gĩkũyũ.

In Devil on the Cross, you wrote,

Our lives are a battlefield on which is fought a continuous war between the forces that are pledged to confirm our humanity and those determined to dismantle it; those who strive to build a protective wall around it, and those who wish to pull it down; those who seek to mold it, and those committed to breaking it up; those whose aim is to open our eyes, to make us see the light and look to tomorrow […] and those who wish to lull us into closing our eyes. 

That seems very timely in the United States today, your chosen home. What do you think the role of the artist, scholar, and intellectual is in our current American political climate?

I think it was Ousmane Sembene, the Senegalese author and filmmaker, who talked of the writer being the voice of the voiceless. That is still true in all societies. Art should ignite our dreams for a more human world.

I know that this is a rather broad question, but what do you hope to achieve with your writing?

Empowerment of African languages and all the other marginalized languages of the world. I have become a language warrior. And I love it — frustrating, yes, but I embrace the struggle.

You began to write in Gĩkũyũ as an act of resistance. In the last 40 years, you have blazed the trail for African writers to do the same. Has the literary landscape changed enough?

Not much by way of writing and publishing in African languages. But the attitudes have changed. When I first published my book Decolonising the Mind in 1986, I met with a lot of hostility, disgust, ridicule, derision. I don’t see that anymore. But to be honest, there have always been Africans writing in African languages. In a conference held in Asmara, Eritrea, in 2000, the participants were writers in African Languages, and hundreds turned up, from all corners of the continent. They came up with a now famous document, a kind of manifesto on African languages, called The Asmara Declaration.

There are about six million speakers of Gĩkũyũ living in Kenya, and your books in Gĩkũyũ found similar success to your English-language books. Does that give you a sense of vindication?

That was a pleasant surprise, even for me. I am not sure if the Gĩkũyũ-language books have been able to sustain that level of interest. The school and the entire education system does not support African languages. For instance, my English-language texts are likely to be used in schools and colleges, so they don’t depend entirely on the general reader. But Gĩkũyũ language books are not part of the curricula in schools or colleges.

Do you think writers should write in their native languages and then translate their works into English?

First, writers should not feel compelled to translate their own works into English. I do it because I am in an argument with those who say that writing in an African language denies other Africans and other peoples access to their work. Mark you, the same is never said of writers who write in European languages, whose works are more widely translated. The problem is that, unfortunately, those that write in African languages remain invisible, their works are hardly ever reviewed or translated. Publishing venues are limited. Of course, despite the obstacles, there are works, for instance in Kiswahili. Kiswahili is an African language spoken in East and Central Africa. It has a great literary tradition that has produced and continues to produce great writing, from Shaaban Robert to Abdilatif Abdalla.

You have said that translation is a way to contribute to intercultural communication. That’s why you translate your own books into English yourself. But some have argued that this negates the statement you make with writing in Gĩkũyũ.

I have described translation as the common language of languages. So I am not against English or any other language. What I totally oppose is the unequal relationship of power between them. English is not more of a language than any other language. This is true of all languages, big and small. I am and have always been for works in one language being available in other languages. I would like to see European, Asian, and Latin American literatures translated into African languages and vice versa. Some of my works have been translated by Wangũi wa Goro into English. But others have been translated into German, Swedish, and Japanese by other people.

In Decolonising the Mind, you said, “Language is a means of spiritual subjugation.” You also wrote, “colonialism normalizes the abnormal,” referring to the colonizer’s language becoming the language of intellectual output in the colonized land. And you have called translation a political act. Can you explain that?

The normal cognitive process is to start from where one is, what one already knows, and then add to that knowledge. In the case of languages, it is simple. Own your language, add other languages to it: that is empowerment.

You have repeatedly asserted that “English is not an African language” and have expressed disappointment over the fact that most literary prizes for African writers are given to those writing in English.

If some British people wrote in Japanese, does that make Japanese an English language? I am simply incensed by what amounts to literary identity theft, where literature written by Africans in European languages takes on the identity of African literature. What then do we call African writing in African languages?

While many authors may write in their native language and then translate their work into English, there is a lack of translation from English to African languages. “What is translated from English and into English — and in what quantities — is a question of power,” you have said. Who do you see as likely to do that essential work?

I think that the same trinity of the state, the publisher, and the translator could ensure a massive transfer of knowledge from other languages into African languages. Now there is the Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature. My son, Mukoma wa Ngũgĩ, was among the founders of the prize, and already, within the three years of its existence, it has generated quite a good amount of fiction and poetry in Kiswahili.

You have been an advocate for the radical transformation of society in postcolonial Africa. Are you seeing the change you had hoped to see or are you disappointed in where the continent is today?

I am proud of what Africa and African people have achieved despite years of physical slavery, colonial slavery, and today, debt slavery. Africa rises despite having one leg and one arm tied to the West. Unfortunately, Africa is still driven by the same logic of capitalist development that prosperity of a few is the measure of progress. We still need a transformation of society, but the first step must be the struggle for Africa to secure the resources of the continent. Africa has been the gift that keeps on giving to the West. It is time Africa secured her resources, made things with them, and then had a balanced give-and-take relationship to the rest of the world. I have tried to make that argument in my book Secure the Base: Making Africa Visible in the Globe (2016).

You are a believer in nations taking responsibility for what they have done, what their leaders have done. You’ve spoken about the British responsibility to their colonized nations for the torture and pain inflicted on the local populations during their occupation. Do you have hope that one day some consolation, however late and insufficient, could be offered?

The West continues to refuse to take responsibility for their crimes against colonized peoples. Even today the United States still refuses to apologize for the enslavement of millions. In Secure the Base, I point out that three of the nations with piles of weapons of mass destruction — i.e., the United States, Britain, and France — were also some of the leading slave-trading and slave-owning nations. And the fourth, Russia, had their own internal slaves, Gogol’s Dead Souls.

You come from a family of storytellers and were raised on the rich oral tradition of Kenya. At the same time, you were not allowed to speak Gĩkũyũ, your native language, in the colonial school system, and all the way up to your university years, you were made to read European and American literature at the expense of Kenyan and other African works. In your memoirs, you speak about the duplicity of that experience: “Being born and educated in a colony inevitably leaves scars.” Still, I’m wondering if you feel that your development as a writer and critic would have been the same if you didn’t have to fight for the right and recognition of your language, history, and culture.

Every writer is molded by the circumstances of their upbringing, their total experience of life, their struggles. Orature led me to literature. As I relate in Dreams in a Time of War, we were told as children that stories hid in daytime and only came back in the evening after all the chores were done. This may have been our family’s ruse to make us do our chores, rewarding us with fiction in the evenings, but I took it literally. Nevertheless, I still longed for stories even in daytime, and learning to read enabled me to tell stories to myself at any time of day. Fortunately, in those days, we did have the first four years of schooling in Gĩkũyũ, and so among the first books I read was a translation of the Old Testament into Gĩkũyũ. Beyond the Bible, books in Gĩkũyũ were limited to school primers. So it was English that later opened the vast world of books to me.

Let me make it clear that I enjoyed reading English writers: Shakespeare, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Dickens, Joseph Conrad, D. H. Lawrence, E. M. Forster, et cetera. But I also enjoyed Russian literature, in English translation: Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Gorky, and Sholokov. Among French writers, Balzac was amazing. Later, I would discover Caribbean literature: George Lamming, V. S. Naipaul, Roger Mais, Kamau Brathwaite, and, of course, African-American writers: Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez. African writers in English directly, and in English translation, were another discovery: Peter Abrahams, Es’kia Mphahlele, Alex La Guma, and more.

But all these came to me through English. What was missing in this literary picture was literature in African languages, even my own language of Gĩkũyũ. There was a little bit in Kiswahili, but otherwise the bulk of the literature was in English. By the time I came to write, I took it for granted, as did many writers of my generation, that English was the natural language for our literary expression. Later I would come to question that assumption and the overall imbalance of power between African and European languages. I came to question the colonial education that made African languages invisible vis-à-vis English and European languages. This struggle over language has led to prison and exile, but I am really very proud of the fact that the struggle led me to dare to write in Gĩkũyũ.

Many Africans had the same experience you did: their native languages were taken away from them, and the colonizer’s tongue was instilled via education. You have advocated for teaching them an African language as their second language. Have you seen progress in this area?

The right to language is a human right, not a privilege. Every people have a right to their language, and hence to intellectual production in that language. But it is a great privilege to have more than the mother tongue. It was Aimé Césaire from Martinique who, in his book Discourse on Colonialism (1950), described culture contact as the oxygen of civilization. But it is not the culture contact of the rider and the horse. I believe the same goes for languages: language contact can generate the oxygen of our shared humanity, but only when languages relate in a network of give and take and not as a hierarchy of power. It is true that even postcolonial governments continued with policies that marginalized African languages and elevated European languages. The normal cognitive process is to add to what you already know, not to deracinate a person from what they know and then re-root them in another set of linguistic means to knowledge. If you know all the languages of the world and you don’t know your mother tongue or the language of your culture, that is enslavement. But if you know your mother tongue or the language of your culture and add to it all the languages of the world, that is empowerment. Monolingualism is the carbon monoxide of civilization. Of course, there are communities whose right to their language — as in the case of enslaved Africans — was taken away by force of law and violence. But they did create new languages. Those languages are languages in their own right, and they, like African languages, are not a lower rung on the ladder to an English heaven.

Your first publication was in Penpoint, the literary magazine of the English Department of your college. You also started a Gĩkũyũ-language journal, Mũtiiri, in the early ’90s. Could you speak to the role of literary magazines in a writer’s journey?

I am a great believer in journals, student journals mostly. They gave me a chance. As in all other cultures, journals continue to play a big role in nourishing African writing. Let me mention a few: Penpoint based in Makerere; The Horn in Ibadan. Then there are Transition, Kwani, African Literature Today, Black Orpheus, et cetera. Mũtiiri has given a platform to many writers in the Gĩkũyũ language.

It seems that there are still not enough books in African languages, so people are used to reading in English and other European languages, and publishers are less likely to take a chance on writers who write in their native language. It seems like a vicious cycle.

Getting published is one of the most infuriating challenges of writing in African languages. There are hardly any publishing houses devoted to African languages. So writers in African languages are writing against great odds: no publishing houses, no state support, and with national and international forces aligned against them. Prizes are often given to promote African literature but on the condition that the writers don’t write in African languages.

Do you think that perhaps self-publishing and the digital marketplace are the solution?

Self-publishing is a real force in the world today. I call it the new frontier, the unexplored hinterland. The internet makes possible this online publishing. It has democratized the publishing space. YouTube, too, in a vital area of oral and visual expression.

Is that where you think the future of reading and writing is headed?

The new technologies, electronic media, open vast possibilities. In Globalectics, I have argued that orality is coming back. I call it cyberorality. Look at the language of the internet: chat rooms, Facebook friends, communities, et cetera. Social media is the electronic version of the old rumor mill writ large. We used to call it bush telegraph — that is, before the internet. Maybe we should now call it “electronic rumor.” But for Africa, the real frontier is writing and publishing in African languages. 

Do you think younger Kenyan writers are sufficiently conscious of the effects of their colonial heritage on their use of language?

Without a radical change in our society, the gaining of independence, important a step as it was, often meant the normalization of the abnormalities of the colonial system. For example, the colonial armies that used to fight against the forces of anticolonial nationalism became the national armies and police forces. This normalization of the abnormalities of the colonial system is a real threat to the stability and prosperity of Africa. For instance, the continued control of the economies by the corporate West, the enormous gap between the haves and have-nots. The racial pyramid that meant whites at the top, Asians in the middle, and Africans at the base, became a social pyramid, with very few at the top, a middle class, and the vast majority at the bottom. Young people, who obviously did not experience colonialism directly, have, as their starting point, this normalized abnormality. But these absurdities of the postcolonial era force the young to raise questions that lead them back to the colonial roots of those postcolonial absurdities. Take for instance the Jalada Pan-African Collective. All the members were born several years after independence. But they have seen the absurdity of an African elite producing ideas in European languages, in a continent where over 90 percent of the population speaks African languages. The Jalada Pan-African Collective has decided to do something about it. They have embarked on a translation project between African languages. They are the force behind the translation of The Upright Revolution into over 60 languages in Africa and around the world.

Besides your own body of work, what are some important books written by African writers about the effects of colonialism?

Virtually all published works from Africa so far. Even those young writers, like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Tsitsi Dangarembga, have produced works that brilliantly dissect the colonial in the postcolonial. Peter Abrahams, Ousmane Sembene, Ferdinand Oyono, Mongo Beti, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, these writers have produced works that dissect classical colonialism to its core.

What works do you feel your writing is in conversation with?

I recently wrote a poem, a kind of praise poem, on my wife Njeeri’s garden in Irvine, called “Mũgũnda ũrĩa ũngĩ” (“The Other Garden”). It is in Gĩkũyũ, but it was in conversation with the Samoan novelist Albert Wendt, who wrote a poem on his wife’s garden in New Zealand. We had that poetic exchange at a literary gathering in Hawaii. Later, the two poems were published in a special issue of Hawaii Review devoted to “Call and Response.” But my rather lengthy poem took me from Irvine to Hawaii to Kenya and to the histories of Native Americans. I liked that: a poem in Gĩkũyũ linking those landscapes and histories.

You’ve praised your mother for her impact on your education. When you were a child, she often asked you, “Is that the best you can do?” and that prompted you to always aim for excellence. Were you the same kind of parent? Is that perhaps why your children, Tee Ngũgĩ, Wanjiku wa Ngũgĩ, Mukoma wa Ngũgĩ, and Nducu wa Ngũgĩ, all chose to follow in your footsteps?

I am so glad they are finding their voices. I have never pushed them to be writers. Readers, yes, but not writers. I have wanted them to do the best they can with whatever their choices might be. However, now that they are writers in their own right, it has been a joy whenever it has been possible for us to perform together, as we have done in Jamaica, Florida, Los Angeles, and London. But all the parental credit really goes to their mother. I have had to be away, in pursuit of the rare educational opportunities; I have been in prison and in exile; I have had attempts made on my life. They suffered the consequences of my literary activism. My home in Kenya was often raided and the family questioned after false rumors that I had secretly returned from exile and was hiding in the house. They tell me how horrible it was for them to see televised images of my effigies being burnt or thrown into the sea under the orders of the then Dictator Moi. Their mother, Nyambura, had to keep up their spirits. She has passed on, but her spirit must be cheering them on and, like my own mother, probably asking them, “Is that the best you can do?” They would probably tell her, “We have tried our best, despite the odds, and we continue to strive for the best.”


Nanda Dyssou is a Congolese-Hungarian journalist and fiction writer living in Los Angeles.

LARB Contributor

Nanda Dyssou is a Congolese-Hungarian journalist and fiction writer living in Los Angeles. Her website is


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