Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o: The Language Warrior




CELEBRATED WRITER Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is in high spirits. 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. 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. 

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. He’s also Kenya’s best-known writer. 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. 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. It’s a reminder, Ngũgĩ says, that in our togetherness we have the power to transform the future. 

He sat down with Rosemary McClure to discuss “The Upright Revolution” and his championing of literature in native languages. The conversation is published jointly by UCI Magazine and the Los Angeles Review of Books.

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ROSEMARY MCCLURE: In what language do you usually write? 

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. It’s more of a challenge for me.

What sets “The Upright Revolution” apart from your other work?

I describe myself as a language warrior for marginalized languages. Much of the intellectual production in Africa is done in European languages: English, French, Portuguese. The people in Africa speak African languages. They have a right to cultural products written in their language. Translation is an important tool that makes it possible for different cultures to borrow from each other.

What are some examples of cultural borrowing?

The Bible and the Qur’an. People can read them because they’re available in their own languages. Here at UCI, we’re able to discuss Hegel, because his works have been translated. We don’t have to understand the German language to learn from his works. The same is true with Greek mythology; we can learn from it without knowing how to speak Greek. Translation becomes a process whereby languages can talk to each other. 

Is that why you’re enthusiastic about the translations of your short story?

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. It makes me feel very happy to see young people picking up these languages and showing that it can be done. I’m very proud of the project and that my story has been part of this phenomenon.

In 1977, you were imprisoned for a year for critical works about neocolonial Kenya. How did you cope?

For a writer, it was difficult. You were not allowed to write. 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. I wrote a novel, Devil on a Cross, in Gĩkũyũ on toilet paper with a pen they had given me to write a confession.

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 play, which is about the leader of the Kenyan liberation struggle, has been staged in Kenya and in several other countries. I wrote it jointly with Micere Githae Mugo of Syracuse University. I think this was the first staging in the United States. For me, it was the very best production of the play anywhere. It was a joy to me. The director, Jaye Austin Williams, transformed the theater into a prison. Audience members were inspected by guards upon entering and treated as if they were really entering a prison. So they became part of the experience. It was captivating.

For at least the past five years, you’ve been rumored to be a front-runner for the Nobel Prize in Literature. How does it feel to be considered?

I really appreciate that people think my work is worth considering. It’s very humbling to me. And it has created some humorous moments. One year the rumor was so strong that the newspapers sent reporters and photographers to my house at 4:00 a.m. to wait outside my front door for the announcement and press conference. But when it came, another writer had won the prize. 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. and had no photos or story. My wife made them coffee, and we consoled them.

What is the message you hope readers take away from “The Upright Revolution”?

Life is connected. We are all connected; we depend on each other.

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Rosemary McClure is an award-winning Los Angeles–based travel and lifestyles writer and editor.


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