PEN Atlas Q&A: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

‘I entered Makerere University College in July 1959, subject of a British Crown Colony, and left in March 1964, citizen of an independent African state. Between subject and citizen, a writer was born.’

Birth of a Dream Weaver is the latest in a series of chronological memoirs by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. The first, Dreams in a Time of War, published in 2010, describes Ngũgĩ’s childhood in rural Kenya in a traditional family consisting of his father, four mothers and twenty four children. The House of the Interpreter follows Ngũgĩ’s time at a segregated elite boy school, Alliance High, run by British missionaries. In this latest volume, Ngũgĩ remembers his time at Makerere University College in Uganda. The series offers a fascinating insight into the cultural and political shifts that created modern Africa, while also following the path of discovering one’s voice as a writer.

Interview by Tasja Dorkofikis.


Whilst a student at Makerere University, you were also a playwright, journalist and a budding novelist. Did these multiple writing forms complement one another for you?

Ngũgĩ: I saw them as complementary. My first love is fiction, the novel in particular. But it was drama and theatre that first launched me into the public eye; and the two have had more impact on my life including my writing of fiction, than the fiction. Theatre would later lead me to prison without trial, and then into Exile. My writing in Gĩkũyũ began in prison and flowered in exile.

Makerere University was a point when all your influences converged: English and European literature, your political awareness, local pre-colonial and oral cultural tradition – did you think at the time that these cultures were conflicting?

Ngũgĩ: No, not really. I have always enjoyed English and European literature, and many other literatures. I still do. But what I would later question is the priority given to European literatures and cultures, English mostly, over African ones. I reject the conception of relations among languages, cultures and literatures in terms of hierarchy.  Literatures and cultures should relate on an equal give and take basis of a network. Network Not Hierarchy. That is my take.

The time at Makerere University allowed you to meet many thinkers and writers from all over the world and became a moment where you started expressing your political opinions publicly. Was it dangerous to do this?

Ngũgĩ: The anti-colonial nationalism, the mass movement, the energy that this generated was bound to impact young lives. Poorly armed soldiers of the Kenya Land and Freedom Army, (Mau Mau) had taken on the might of the British Empire, after all. It never occurred to me that writing could be dangerous, contrary to feelings I used to express earlier in my arguments with my friend Kenneth, about the license to write. See Dreams in Time of War. Then, I used to argue that one could be imprisoned if they wrote books without a license to do so.

Your writing has always been strongly engaged politically with your country and with the development of postcolonial East Africa. What do you think the role of a writer is today? Do writers have wider political responsibilities?

Ngũgĩ: A writer’s primary responsibility is to the dictates of their imagination. But no writer does so in a social vacuum. Their work is impacted by their own belief systems, their world outlook. But in the end, art has a magic all its own. At its best and most potent, it embodies and celebrates change and allies with the liberation and enhancement of the human spirit.

There is a moment in your book when you decide on writing a daily journal. Have you been keeping journals all your life?

Ngũgĩ: No, but I wish I had. I would urge all young writers to keep a journal, of some kind.

In 1977 you renounced writing in English at the Nairobi opening of your play, Petals of Blood, saying that you wished to express yourself in a language that your mother and ordinary people could understand. Now you write in Gĩkũyũ and auto-translate into English. How has this shift influenced your writing style?

Ngũgĩ: I would say that a sense of orality has become more prominent in my writings, especially in my three novels: Caitaani Mũtharabainĩ/Devil on the Cross; Matigari ma Njirũngi/Matigari; and Mũrogi wa Kagogo/Wizard of the Crow. It is not surprising that my Gĩkũyũ language fable, ‘Ituĩka rĩa mũrũngarũ/the Upright Revolution’, has been translated into more than fifty languages in the world.

What advice would you give to young writers from Africa confronted with the dilemma of having to choose the language they write in? And to what extent can one talk, realistically, of ‘choosing’ the language in this context when colonial languages remain culturally dominant?

Ngũgĩ: I advocate writing in African languages. It is African languages that need African writers, not European languages. But I recognise that there is a whole generation of African youth brought up as European language speakers. These have no choice but to write in the language they have. Writing in African languages faces formidable difficulties of unhelpful government policies, zero publishing houses in African languages; and an international order that takes European languages as the norm for the world.

You translated two Molière plays, Tartuffe, and Doctor in Spite of Himself, into Gĩkũyũ through the English translations. Is translation a political act of mediation?

Ngũgĩ: I describe translation as the common language of languages. I also tell African writers: use English to enable but not to disable. Translation has always been a fact of literary life in Africa. The Bible and the Koran are well known all over the continent, but mostly through translations. And currently, the Jalada translation project has resulted in my fable being available in over fifty world languages (40 African; 6 European; 6 Asian; and 2 Middle eastern). Translation is the way of the future.

Do you have any thoughts on how the growth of African publishing industry can be encouraged?

Ngũgĩ: We need a fundamental change in governments’ language policies. A positive government policy will mean changes in education policies and these will impact publishing.

Can we expect the next in the series of your memoirs and if so, when?

Ngũgĩ: Detained is being reissued next year, with a new introduction, and a few additions.

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About the Author

Ngugi wa Thiong’o is one of the leading writers and scholars at work in the world today. His books include the novels Petals of Blood, for which he was imprisoned by the Kenyan government in 1977, A Grain of Wheat and Wizard of the Crow; the memoirs, Dreams in a Time of War and In the House of the Interpreter; and the essays, Decolonizing the Mind, Something Torn and New and Globalectics. Recipient of many honours, among them 10 honorary doctorates, he is currently Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine.

Additional Information

Find out more about Birth of a Dream Weaver and read an excerpt here.

Read more about the PEN award-winning Dreams in a Time of War on the World Bookshelf.

Read Jalada Africa editor Moses Kilolo for PEN Atlas on the Jalada TRANSLATION issue, which featured Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s short story The Upright Revolution translated into over 50 African languages.

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