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George Salis: Can you talk about your love of Gĩkũyũ, your native language? You started writing your fiction in English so do you still have a soft spot for English despite its connection to colonialism?
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o: I have always said that I value all languages. Every language, no matter the number of its speakers, has its unique musicality. In that sense, languages are like musical instruments, they all produce organized sound. The piano, the violin, the guitar have their own musicality, distinguishable from that of the others. But no musician can ever say that the musicality of the piano is higher than that of the guitar. They may express their preference for one instrument over another, but they don’t advocate the death of all the other instruments and leave that of the piano only. Or subordinate all the other instruments to the piano, always. Musical instruments don’t work on the basis of an unequal power relationship between them, with the extreme position that in order for one instrument to be, other instruments must cease to be. The same with languages. What we want is a network of equal give and take among languages, not the hierarchy of an unequal power relationship.
GS: You translated Wizard of the Crow (Mũrogi wa Kagogo) into English from Gĩkũyũ yourself, likewise with other works, such as Devil on the Cross (Caitaani mũtharaba-Inĩ). What was that process like? Was it more difficult to translate than it was to write from scratch?
NT: It is always harder to translate any one work than to write it. In writing, one is riding on the waves of inspiration, exploration, discovery, unexpected twists and turns. In self-translation, you are covering the same ground twice. It is more interesting translating somebody else’s work into one’s mother tongue than translating one’s own into any language.
GS: There is a hilarious and horrifying satire of a dictator in Wizard of the Crow. What informed this depiction? Also, are there are other portraits of dictators in literature that you think are apt and important?
NT: I think the Dictator Novel in Latin American Literature is full of forceful ones, especially in the work of García Márquez. I came of age in the era of Idi Amin of Uganda; Daniel arap Moi of Kenya; Jean-Bédel Bokassa of central Africa; Augusto Pinochet of Chile; and Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines. In London, I was a member of the committee for the release of political prisoners in Kenya, and we used to work with others from Chile and the Philippines. We were dealing with almost identical figures. The Ruler in Wizard of the Crow has features you find in all of these dictators.
GS: Do you believe an authoritarian regime can last forever or is its own downfall encoded within its very structure, or something in between?
NT: Remember the poem “Ozymandias” by P. B. Shelley? The image “Round the decay / Of that colossal wreck” is really the story of all dictatorships. But they have to be pushed by the united might of the People.
GS: In 1992 you started a Gĩkũyũ-language journal titled Mũtiiri. Can you reflect on the success and surprises that have occurred since this project’s inception?
NT: Mũtiiri, is no longer active but in its duration it featured the amazing work of many writers, including translations of Latin American writers, e.g. Ariel Dorfman’s work, into Gĩkũyũ. It also proved one thing: Writers are there if there are publishing venues.
GS: You wrote a mythological story titled “The Upright Revolution: Or Why Humans Walk Upright,” and according to the publisher, it’s considered to be the “the single most translated short story in the history of African writing.” In the spirit of this story, can you talk about your favorite Kenyan or African myths?
NT: The story has now been translated into 92 languages. According to Wikipedia’s list of most translated texts by the numbers, the story is number 25 in history, the Bible being the all-time number one. Amazing.
Africa has really many myths, e.g. the legend of Luanda Magere of the Luo people of Kenya, and modern-day writers can draw from those myths. There are other myths from elsewhere; e.g. Sundiata of West Africa; Mahābhārata of India; and Popol Vuh of the Maya people of Latin America.
GS: What are some novels you think deserve more readers?
NT: The young generation of African writers, i.e. post-Chimamanda Adichie, are producing amazing works. I think Adichie set the standard of excellency. But let me mention the monumental work The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell. Spellbinding.
GS: It was a disappointment to many when Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature instead of you, a man of wide and deep letters, and we are still waiting. In that sense, you are the Leonardo DiCaprio of the Nobel Prize, but DiCaprio finally won his Oscar not too long ago, so perhaps there’s still hope. You mentioned that you’ve won the “Nobel of the Heart” when people tell you how much your work has affected them in a positive way. What elements in writing make a work worthy of the “Nobel of the Heart”?
NT: The beauty of the Nobel of the Heart is that it is available to all writers. Every time a reader meets a writer and tells them how much their particular work impacted the lives of the reader, that is really a special honor.
GS: It’s been said that, in a way, the Soviet Union cared about literature in the sense that it believed in literature’s power, demonstrated by the fact that it censored, locked up, and eliminated writers. Do you think there is more literary freedom in countries like the U.S. or the UK at least partly because these governments put little to no stock in the power of literature?
NT: We don’t want writers locked up so that they can produce masterpieces. I was once locked up and wrote my first novel in Gĩkũyũ, Devil on the Cross, but I would never wish to be in prison for whatever masterpiece. I don’t believe that Shakespeare or Tolstoy were ever locked up. But as I have said in the preface to my prison memoir, Wrestling with the Devil, all art is a struggle to free the human spirit from all manner of confinement.
GS: There was a lot of hope for Kenya when the country gained its independence and this hope, you’ve said, essentially turned out to be false, something you’ve explored in your recent short story collection, Minutes of Glory, and elsewhere. While the situations were vastly different, there was a lot of hope in America when Barack Obama was elected, yet now Americans find themselves with a president who talks and acts in a way that nearly rivals the greatest authoritarian satires. Can you talk about the disappointment of hope in these contexts? How and where do you continue to find hope?
NT: The question of expectation and reality is a running theme in all of my works since 1962 when I published my story “The Return”. My answer to all disappointments: The struggle continues: Keep hope alive.
GS: What have you been writing? A new memoir? A new novel?
NT: My epic in verse came out in Kenya last year under the title Kenda Muiyuru. The English version is being released by the New Press (New York) in October 2020, under the title: The Perfect Nine.
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Widely deemed one of Africa’s leading novelists, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is a writer, scholar, and social activist who has referred to himself as a “language warrior” because he has fought for the recognition of his native Gĩkũyũ as well as similarly neglected and marginalized tongues. He is the author of A Grain of Wheat; Weep Not, Child; Petals of Blood; Decolonising the Mind; Wizard of the Crow; Birth of a Dream Weaver; Wrestling with the Devil; and many other acclaimed works, ranging from short stories and plays to essays and poems. A Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the UC Irvine, he is the recipient of 12 honorary doctorates, among many other awards, and his oeuvre has been translated into numerous languages. You can read a detailed bio on his website here.
George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below. His fiction is featured in The Dark, Black Dandy, Zizzle Literary Magazine, House of Zolo, Three Crows Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in Isacoustic, Atticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on Facebook, Goodreads, Instagram, Twitter, and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.