Ngugi wa Thiong’o via wikipedia

Ngugi wa Thiongo is surprisingly genial. Even after seven decades of writing, being imprisoned by the first Kenyan regime and then forced into exile by another and being diagnosed with terminal disease recently, there is little of the public grumpiness that many of his writing generation are famously well-known for.

I first saw Ngugi in public at the Go-Down Arts Centre when I attended an event of his first homecoming, in 2004, after he had been away for 18 years. The event took place in the most horrifying of circumstances. Ngugi and his wife Njeeri had been attacked at the Norfolk Apartments where they were staying. Masked intruders forced themselves into their room and raped Njeeri, robbed them and put out cigarettes on Ngugi’s forehead. Everyone was surprised when he showed up at the event a few days later. There he sat before what was primarily an audience of artists. We were taken aback by the equanimity with which he spoke. His voice had no trace of bitterness.

In 2007, the late Binyavanga Wainaina said that “it is a measure of the power of Ngugi’s writing, and his politics, that people can take it so powerfully, so personally. For if so many are invoking their PHD status on him, he must truly be formidable.” By PhD, Wainaina was talking about something he called Kenya’s ‘Pull Him Down’ mentality, which fears success so much that it must tear apart those who achieve it. This is something that Ngugi has had to contend with over the seven decades he has been writing, but his curiosity, humor and gentle firmness has stayed with him all through these challenging experiences.

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More than a decade later, as we emailed back and forth in our conversation for this interview, I still marveled at his equanimity. Once he sent me his final email response for this interview, I found myself poring over the Ngugi book I love most, Petals of Blood and a one of the most striking scenes in the novel— the scene at the bar with the jukebox. This made me suddenly remember a famous Bar of my own Nairobi youth called Mateso Bila Chuki, translated as Trials Without Bitterness, in Kenya’s 1990s. The name not only adroitly captures a very Kenyan sense of humor amidst trial but also the larger social and political context of the nation of the decades Ngugi has written about leading into the time of my youth. Mateso was a Kenyan institution when I was in my twenties. And then it struck me — it is that blend of mateso bila chuki humor and equanimity that makes Ngugi and his writing so Kenyan but also great beyond national boundaries, and I hope this comes through in our conversation.

 Billy Kahora

Your writing career spans over 6 decades, and there are few literary forms that you have not worked in. In many ways, yours is a long career that can be split into periods in which you’ve concentrated on either the novel, the essay, or, more recently, the memoirs. How do you see this work as linked together, as a body of work in spite of form or genre that — in interrogating imperialism, colonialism, the African/Kenyan State and questions around African language — is really talking to power in one way or the other (whether it is a play such as The Trial Of Dedan Kimathi or your novel, Petals of Blood, or the essays in Globalectics or the story, ‘Ituĩka Rĩa Mũrũngarũ: Kana Kĩrĩa Gĩtũmaga Andũ Mathiĩ Marũngiĩ’)? Do you see all these as linked and how?

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

The essay, academic or contemplative; the memoir, say creative nonfiction; the play, all draw from the same experiences and world outlook. Each genre however for me has its own particularity of form, with my world outlook uniting all the works. The fable, ‘Ituĩka rĩa Mũrũngarũ’ really sums up my world outlook and my artistic approach: the interconnectedness of phenomena.

My real love, however, has always been fiction, particularly the novel, which I basically approach as a storyteller and which I try to experiment with as much as possible. In my most recent work, Kenda Mũiyũru/The Perfect Nine, I even turned to epic form, a kind of fiction-poetic narrative.

I have also written quite a lot of poetry in Gĩkũyũ language even if it is not what I normally gravitate towards. I have published some of these in Mũtiiri online journal, but the majority of my poems are however still in my hard-drive, unpublished. The Star newspaper in Kenya, recently devoted a whole page to me as a poet based on a poem I wrote recently, Dawn of Darkness, in English, which has been translated into Spanish, Brazilian-Portuguese and Telugu. It has also appeared in at least three journals in print and online, including Brittle Paper and Warscapes. So I should embrace the poet in me.

Billy Kahora 

Many writers profess a creative curiosity in working in different forms. How have you chosen what form to work in? Do you see this as a conscious decision that has to do with the content that you are interested in at a particular moment? And here I am thinking about a play such as The Trial of Dedan Kimathi (where such a play was long overdue because of its political content) but also your fable, ‘Ituĩka Rĩa Mũrũngarũ: Kana Kĩrĩa Gĩtũmaga Andũ Mathiĩ Marũngiĩ’?  Did creative curiosity play a role here?

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

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For me the decision to work in one genre or the other is often dictated by circumstances. My theatre projects have come out of demand. For instance, the one-act plays I wrote at Makerere, eg. the Wound in my Heart, were largely for inter-hall literary competitions. The three-act play, The Black Hermit, celebrated Uganda’s Independence. This Time Tomorrow was commissioned by the BBC. The Trial of Dedan Kimathi was written with Mĩcere Mũgo out of a shared rage. We felt that Kĩmathi and the heroes and heroines of our struggle were being written off the pages of our history in Kenyan political circles. Festac ‘77 presented the opportunity to present the People’s side of a Kenya History of struggle, and we seized it. Ngaahika Ndenda/I Will Marry When I Want (with Ngũgĩ wa Mĩriiĩ) and the as yet to be published Maitũ Njugĩra/Mother Sing for Me were written for the Kamĩrĩthũ Education and Cultural Center. My fiction — novels and short stories — are an extension of storytelling of my childhood.[1]

My turn to Gĩkũyũ has further opened up my imagination. Gĩkũyũ is very musical. I love how it allows me to play with alliterations in language. Its beauty has led me to poetry. The other day, I had a written exchange with my wife over Gĩkũyũ and its K sounds produced this:

Kwaria na kwandĩka Gĩ
Kana o rũthiomi rũ
Kwendaga kĩyo, kwĩrutĩra
Na
Kwĩririkania kaingĩ

But at the end of it all, my writing comes of the free flow of imagination. Elsewhere, I have described art as conscious dreaming in words, colors or sounds or motion, and this is what I try and work from. Writing is conscious dreaming with words, while the hand is holding a pen or touching the keys of a computer.

Billy Kahora 

There has been a lot of social and political change in the decades you’ve been writing including the Independence of African States, the political evolution of the latter in both inspiring and problematic ways, the onset of what we call globalization, Covid 19, global movements such as Black Lives Matter, and even the rise of populism in the West. As a writer, what contexts, political, social or cultural would you say have changed the most for you in terms of the way you see the world and how you approach your art? And what has that meant for how you see your role as a writer?

 Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

I would say the liberation war waged against the British Colonial state by the soldiers of the Kenya Land and Freedom Army (KLFA), misnamed Mau Mau by the British enemy, was the most politically inspiring. It was the first major armed challenge to British imperialism. The men and women of the KLFA were amazing. They even managed to manufacture guns in their mobile factories in the mountains and underground ones in the cities. They also created music whose melodies are incredibly moving and alive today. You can argue that it was the KLFA that broke the back of the British Empire.

I lived through it, with all my dreams, hence the title of my childhood memoir: Dreams in a Time of War. One of their hymns/songs resonates to day:

Tũtiũragia gũthamio kana gũtwarwo Njera
Kana gũtwarwo icigirĩra
Amu tũtigatiga gũtetera ithaka
Kenya nĩ bũrũri wa andũ airũ.

You can take us to prison and detention
Or exile on remote islands
We shall never give up our struggle for land
Kenya is a black people’s country.

Yes, the soldiers and followers of KLFA sung of blackness with pride. In my memoir Birth of a Dreamweaver, I have talked about my discovery of Blackness. KLFA planted those seeds. My discovery of social classes, as well has been very important to me as a writer. Blackness must be seen in all its aspects: Economic, Political, Cultural and Psychological. In my epic Kenda Mũĩyũru/The Perfect Nine, women take center stage. The one change I would really want to see is the economic, political, cultural empowerment of the black female worker. Or put it this way: the full emancipation and empowerment of the black female worker would mean the empowerment of all working people. Patriarchy is the original class division. It is foundational to all the class divisions. Free the black female worker, and all will be free. My character Nyawĩra, in my novel Mũrogi wa Kagogo/Wizard of the Crow, tries to articulate that vision.

Billy Kahora

If you were to look back during this period, were there any major creative ideas that you’ve had that never came to fruition. A novel/book of essays/short stories that you thought about but never completed?

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

I have a novel about a character named Heneri Gateng’eri that I have never been able to develop beyond where he (Gateng’eri) leans on a tree to rest. From as far back as 1983 to the present, I have never been able to get Heneri Gateng’eri off that tree. Once, I removed the manuscript from the shelf to do this, but the first sentence that came to me became the first of what would become the novel Matigari. Heneri Gateng’eri, therefore, remains frozen in time on that tree. I hope that one day I can return to free Gateng’eri. As I’ve mentioned in Birth of a Dream Weaver, earlier in my career I jotted down many other ideas that never came to fruition. Instead, Weep Not Child took over.

I believe my best novel is one I am yet to write. All my writings have actually been an attempt to write that novel. My dream novel.

Billy Kahora

I am curious about the different influences that have produced your novels. You have written about how the oral Gikuyu culture, in which you grew up, informed your approach to your novels. Please tell us more about the process of reconciling these influences especially in instances when they would even be considered hostile to each other i.e the songs and riddles of your childhood and the English cannon at Alliance and Makerere. In short, how would you describe your craft when it comes to the novel?

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

I like Whitman’s phrase: I contain multitudes. A writer, or say, we humans, contain multitudes. All my influences make me the writer that I am, with the storytelling sessions of my childhood the most formative and long lasting[2]. Stories in the Bible, particularly from the Old Testament also fed my imagination. And of course the English cannon, from Shakespeare to Charles Dickens, DH Lawrence and RL Stevenson. Then, African writers, Caribbean writers and Afro-American writers. But also literature in translation, say for instance Russian Literature, or Greek writers. So, yes, I contain multitudes of influences. The imagination is the writer’s witches’ cauldron. But if I were to single out one writer, it would have to be Joseph Conrad. His influence is clear in the narrative structures of A Grain of Wheat and Petals of Blood.

 Billy Kahora

More recently, you stated that your work was directly influenced by Aimé Cesaire’s Discourses in Colonialism, but you also point to “Marxian metaphors” as the impulse behind your creative work. Conventional approaches to creative writing seem to eschew abstractions such as the “struggle.” Was it/has it been difficult to reconcile this to how fiction works with the specific and the concrete? Can you break down how you approached your novels both through “scholarly abstractions” but also your own concrete experiences? Many writers talk about thinking of their characters, their settings, and other technical elements first. Others start from a thematic issue and slot in their characters and settings?

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

Earlier I talked about a writer’s world outlook.  Every writer has one. Mine was hugely influenced by the Kenyan peoples’ armed struggle for independence from Britain. Can you imagine some bare-footed peasants and ragged trousered workers challenging the might of British Empire? That is really amazing. Struggle is therefore a very important part of my world outlook. Struggle within the human body: struggle with nature; struggle with other humans. Without struggle there is no life. Reading the work of Hegel, Marx and Engels sharpened that outlook. I think that every writer should read some works of Karl Marx. He is a writer’s writer. The work of Mao Tse Tung is also important, especially for writers from the formerly colonized world.

My different works have, however, been triggered by different things. I try to explain this in my memoir: Birth of a Dream Weaver. Money was an initial motivation in writing the novel The River Between. A Grain of Wheat was triggered by a visit to Inverness, the northernmost part of Scotland. But, I think I must also have been reading Tolstoy’s Anna Karerina, as the motif of the train runs throughout the novel. I was on a train from Inverness back to Leeds when I wrote the first line of A Grain of Wheat. But I had also been reading Joseph Conrad, and his novel Under Western Eyes was particularly influential.

Devil on the Cross was the response to being imprisoned without trial in Kamĩtĩ Maximum Security Prison. Mũrogi wa Kagogo/Wizard of the Crow was a response to the bad news from a doctor in New Jersey, USA that I had aggressive prostate cancer and that I had three months to live. This was around 1995/6. I went back home to 52 Berkeley Avenue, New Jersey and wrote the first line of what became Mũrogi wa Kagogo/Wizard of the Crow. At the time, it was going to be my novelistic farewell. I wanted to finish it before the prostate cancer took my life. But the novel went on and on and would not come to an end: I was getting desperate. I started the novel at Orange in New Jersey, as a Professor of Comparative Literature and Performance Studies, and also the Erich Maria Remarque professor of Languages, at New York University, and completed it in Orange County, California, as Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature, at the University of California Irvine. Wizard of the Crow is the only novel in history written between two Oranges.

Matigari, as I’ve mentioned, came from trying to get Heneri Gateng’eri off a tree. I see my other works as responses to exile, my way of connecting with Kenya and Africa.  In general, art has helped me face personal tragedies including being at death’s door. Under the corona pandemic, I wrote the poem in English Dawn of Darkness, which now has a global audience. But the emotion in the poem, the spirit to fight back, the hope, if you like, comes from my own fight to recover from triple bypass surgery and kidney failure. My mother, Wanjikũ’s, words to me, Gũtirĩ ũtukũ ũtakĩa, (Even the darkest of nights ends with dawn) came to me, and I wanted to share them with the world.

Billy Kahora 

In your novel Petals of Blood one feels a particular tension between the work’s big ideas and the voices of your characters. How did you approach the “voices” of your characters in Ilmorog and the abstractions of ideas from Marx, Cesaire and other beacons of the “struggle” that you frequently quote in the novel?

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

Marx and Cesaire are not abstractions.  Marx opens our eyes into how society works. His insights into the workings of capitalism are unsurpassed. Ironically, the people who seem to understand him best are capitalists and all upholders of the capitalist order. They understand that Marx can see through them and the system they uphold: that is why they hate him, and spend a lot of money and resources buying up politicians and intellectuals to refute and resist Marx. Marx is telling us: if you want to understand your society, look at how wealth is generated and shared. Look at the whole intertwinement of economics, politics and culture and values, and you will also see how it all impacts the lives of the people. Marx is telling us: open your eyes and look at what is around you. The same is largely true of Cesaire, in his diagnosis of colonialism, in his poetry, particularly, the poem “Return to My Native Land” and in his book: Discourse on Colonialism.

Billy Kahora

Within the context of your Marxian themes, I am curious about the time you spent writing in Moscow during the Soviet period of socialist realist writing. How do you think this period influenced your craft?

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

I don’t write books to illustrate Marx. I read Marx to better understand the workings of society, particularly capitalism and imperialism. This helps me write better novels. But I think you are referring to the time I went to the then Soviet Union and completed my novel Petals of Blood (which I had begun in North Western, USA and then wrote most of it in Kenya). I did not spend much time in Moscow. I finished Petals of Blood in Chekhov’s house on the Caucasian Mountains overlooking Yalta on the Black Sea. Please see a full account of this in the book The East Was Read: Socialist Culture in the Third World edited by Vijay Prashad. I regard the novel, the writing of it at least, as the work that bestrode the West, the East, the Third World, and the Cold War Divide. On completing the novel, we went for celebration at Yalta on the Black Sea, and I wrote a poem, also to be found in Prashad’s book.

Billy Kahora

You’ve written at length on the influence of the European canon when you were in Makerere.  Did you feel disadvantaged that your own experiences had not been directly captured in the novel form compared, say, to a European counterpart of your generation who would have had a tradition from which to work? If so, can you articulate how you managed to overcome this?

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

Remember that I came from a storytelling tradition? But I cannot deny the inspiring influence of the Western Canon. I love literature from every language in the world.  I love the works of Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Balzac and, currently, I enjoy reading Mahabharata — an incredible epic that gave us the Gita, and also The Popol Vuh of the Maya people. There was a period in my life when I was obsessed with the Icelandic sagas. When years later I visited Iceland, I was very surprised to find myself walking in the same places mentioned in some of the sagas written in 12th century.

In Wizard of the Crow, I refer to Mahabharata and other Hindi/Sanskrit classics written around 1500 BC. I am open to learning from all languages and cultures. Recently, I have discovered ancient Egyptian literature, which should be included in the entire literature curriculum in African schools. Psalm 104 of the Old Testament is almost a rewrite of the Egyptian hymn to Aten.

Billy Kahora

In The Columbia Guide to East African Literature in English Since 1945, Simon Gikandi and Evan Mwangi talk about the influence of the nationalist writings of Jomo Kenyatta or Oginga Odinga on writers such as yourself coming from Makerere, which was steeped in the English canon. Can you tell us more about how your writing in Makerere shifted once you were back in Kenya writing after Independence?

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

Jomo Kenyatta’s book, Facing Mount Kenya, had a big impact on me. I read it at Alliance High School, and I still often go back to it. This was Kenyatta at his intellectual best. Oginga Odinga’s book Not Yet Uhuru, is also important. I was in London at the time of its publishing. Heinemann Educational Publishers had consulted with me about the book, but I didn’t have much to add or contribute to it except simply admire it. I know what the content of the book is trying to say, and yet I am uneasy about the phrase Not Yet Uhuru. I don’t want people to minimize the milestone that was Independence. I prefer Mao’s formulation: countries seek independence; nations fight for national liberation; and peoples seek social revolution. Each of those stages are important, but, clearly, political independence is meaningless without national and social revolutions, ie without the economic, political, cultural and psychological empowerment of the working people. And that was what Oginga Odinga was talking about in the book Not Yet Uhuru.

 Billy Kahora

To what extent were works based in Kenya Colony and written by English settler writers such as Elspeth Huxley and Karen Blixen an influence on your work?

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

Not very much except as literary embodiment of what I was writing against. Elspeth Huxely was a settler colonial apologist through and through. Karen Blixen is clearly the more important of the two. Huxley is driven by the racism of contempt: Blixen by the racism of love. I have talked about these two authors in my memoir Birth of a Dreamweaver.

 Billy Kahora

Your work is often seen to have both realist and modernist influences. Would you say this is correct and is this something that you are very conscious of? Writing for yourself but also within such canonical contexts.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

I leave the characterization of my work to the reader. But I have acknowledged my admiration of a whole range of writers English, Scottish, Irish, French, German, Hindi, African etc. Peter Abrahams, Cyprian Ekwensi, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka; Camara Laye: I read them all.

Billy Kahora

Back in 1973 in your essay collection Homecoming, you urge for, “songs, poems … literature, which embody a structure of values dialectically opposed to those of the ruling class of the oppressing race and nation.” In contemporary times when power seems to have become so complex and global, when English and French are so widespread, capitalist structures so pervasive that other world-views struggle for visibility, do you still see these as still having a role? Or, in other words. what is the place of our “mother tongues” in an extremely globalized world in which media technologies and dominant European languages penetrate so widely? And what do you think this means to future writing generations and their own approaches to power?

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

Globalization is the global rule of finance capital. I have called it gobblisation of the resources of African and formerly colonized peoples and territories, what goes by the name of the third world, the developing world, whatever.  We have to counter the gobblisation of globalization with Globalism. Globalism means the conscious unity of all the working peoples of the world. The capital that oppresses the worker in Britain is most likely doing the same in Kenya. Oil oligarchs ruining the environment in the shores of the USA are most likely the same who do so in Africa, the Middle East and South America. It is the same with global financial institutions; they may be rooted in the West, but their tentacles are everywhere. Please note that the leading nuclear and Industrial powers of the USA, Britain and France, were major slave traders and owners of enslaved African labor. Is this a coincidence?  See my book: Secure the Base: Making Africa Visible in the World. Note how the capitalist powers of the world are also largely the language powers of the globe.

The struggle for languages is important. Remember there is no language that is more of a language than any other. 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. My books Decolonizing the Mind and Something Torn and New address this issue in detail. Something Torn and New talks about the politics of memory, and language has everything to do with which memory (of body, place, time etc) is dominant at any one time. Colonization always meant and resulted in the planting of the memory of the colonizer on the body, mind and space, of the colonized.

Billy Kahora

How would you say exile and being away from the settings of your earlier books have changed you as a writer? Did you find writing the experience of Wizard of The Crow different from the experience of writing your earlier novels when you were largely based in Kenya?

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

I wrote The River Between, Weep Not Child and The Black Hermit in Uganda. I wrote A Grain of Wheat in Leeds, Britain. I started Petals of Blood in Illinois, USA, wrote most if it Kenya and completed it in Yalta, Russia. I wrote Caitaani Mũtharabainĩ/Devil on the Cross, in prison in Kenya; Matigari and Murogi wa Kagogo in Britain and the USA. The only works I wrote while wholly resident in Kenya were the plays, Ngaahika Ndenda/I will marry when I want (with Ngũgĩ wa Mĩriĩ) and The Trial of Dedan Kĩmathi (with Mĩcere Mũgo). I look forward to the day I will write a whole novel on Kenyan soil. Maybe my writing is a struggle to remain connected to Kenya—my love poem to the Kenyan people.

Billy Kahora 

Have you ever thought of writing a novel based in either the U.S. and England where you’ve spent a significant amount of time?

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

Not yet. But I hope I can do so one day: one novel based in UK and another based in the USA.

Billy Kahora

There seems to have been a sea-change in who is a writer on the African continent over time. Writers of your generation grew up in the village and were often mission-educated while the majority of writers on the African continent now seem to be urban-based and usually come from a “middle” background, at least, in terms of education if not values. Within the context of your Marxist influences, do you see this as significant to African literature, to many of the larger questions that you’ve always asked as a writer especially through your work at Kamirithu, and to the role of the writer now in Africa.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

I come back to the question of language. It does not matter where an African writer is educated or where they reside. Every educated African person has a duty to give something back to their language. How long shall we continue taking from our languages to feed the languages of our former colonizers, who did everything they could to destroy our languages? Look at Kamĩrĩthũ and how we worked in the language of the community. But please let us also remember it was an African government which destroyed Kamĩrĩthũ, all because we were working in an Africa language spoken and used by the community! A colonized mind-set that shut down Kamĩrĩthũ and put me in a maximum security prison.

There is, of course, the very legitimate concern about the unity of nations. But, please, remember that what creates tension and resentment is when we see languages in terms of hierarchy. What we need are also mechanisms for conversation among African languages. Translation is one way. We can even use English as a bridge. But, we should use English to enable without disabling. At the moment, English enables conversation across the different African language communities by disabling those intellectuals from their African language base.

Billy Kahora

What fiction have you read in the last year?  Do you read recent African novels? And what would you say are the similarities and differences of the form from when you were writing in the 60s and 70s?

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

Quite frankly, it has been difficult for me to keep up with the output, which is a comment on the quantity of writers and books all over the continent. But let me just say how much I admire two women writers: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Namwali Serpell. Adichie’s novel Half of a Yellow Sun is a writer’s novel: a novel that all writers should read. And then there is the spellbinding monument The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell.

Other titles include The Dance of the Jakaranda by Peter Kĩmani. I must confess I am particularly partial to the work because I was one of the external readers and supervisors when it was in its dissertation stage. I am also very proud of the work of my four published children: Tee Ngũgĩ (Seasons Of Love and Despair), Ndũcũ wa Ngũgĩ,(City Murders) Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ (Nairobi Heat), Wanjikũ wa Ngũgĩ (The Fall of Saints). We are a family of literary rivals. The youngest two ones, Mũmbi Wanjikũ Ngũgĩ and Thiong’o Kĩmathi Ngũgĩ, are knocking at the door and almost forcing it open. But with them and all the other writers from the continent, I look forward to the day they discover and connect with the magical power of African languages. May I also salute two literary magazines: Kwani? and Jalada, both the work of young people. You were part of the Kwani literary rebellion.

Billy Kahora

There has also been a marked change in literary production on the continent. The institutions that you were part of such as the Literature Department at the University of Nairobi and the cultural pages at the Nation newspaper are not as central to literary production and debates as they were. The debates are now largely happening on Twitter and through writer-based institutions. In terms of the production of Kenyan novels by local writers between 2004 and 2019, there have been about 170 odd novels produced as compiled in the Journal of Commonwealth Literature. Of these, not up to 100 are literary fiction. Compared to similar annual bibliographies between the same period of time from 1968 to 1978, the number of “literary” novels being published in Kenya has somewhat reduced, which is surprising as you would expect more today. Alongside this, I would also like to note how so many of the most internationally recognized African writers — from Namwali Serpell to Helon Habila to Maaza Mengiste — live and work outside of the African continent. I’m not saying there isn’t work that is being produced on the continent, but the canon of the “African novel” comes less and less from local publishers.  What is your own take on this, particularly when juxtaposed against the literary possibilities of your own time?

 Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

For me the big divide is really between Europhone African writers, that is those Africans who write in European languages, and African writers, that is Africans who write in African languages. And I am not talking about quality. Remember there has been a lot of genius in Europhone African literature. What I want is to see more of this genius exploring the possibilities in African languages. It is African languages that need us not European languages.

 Billy Kahora

I am also curious how you see social media, which has emerged as a significant space of political and social debate and what it means to you as a writer.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

It is part of our lives. Technology has allowed social media to thrive. I say, make use of it.  I heard somewhere that Namwali Serpell is a writing a novel on Twitter. I look forward to it. But, once again, I would like to see us exploring all these technologies to advance African languages. Look at the global impact of young language warriors like Kola Tubosun of Nigeria, Munyao Kilolo of Kenya, and Boubakar Boris Diop of Senegal. I want to see more and more of this in the continent.

Billy Kahora

With the death of Moi earlier this year, there seems to have been a very public contestation on how to remember him. The official position of the Kenyan government seems to have been to celebrate him as an elder Statesman. Well-known media personalities in Kenyan newspapers, civil society, and Kenyans on Twitter (KOT) called him a dictator and key to Kenya’s ongoing political problems. As the central personality in one of two regimes that you and your writings took on, what do you see as Moi’s legacy?

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

For me, Moi brings memories of a 20 years reign of terror. He was a colonial creation, alongside Idi Amin, Mobutu, Pinochet and many others. The ruler in my novel Mũrogi wa Kagogo/Wizard of the Crow is an amalgamation of all those dictators. I know people say, Moi was following in Kenyatta’s footsteps. There is a major difference: Jomo Kenyatta spent 40 years of his life fighting for the freedom of Kenyans. When he came to power, he failed the working people of Kenya. But we cannot forget all the other years when he was a unifying symbol of our struggle. Moi was literally a colonial creation, from the time the settler community had him appointed to the then Legislative Council to when he helped form KADU.

If Kenyans forget the history of those years of Moi’s reign of terror, they may be doomed to repeat it. The next such Moi may well have the name of a Kimani or Onyango, Musyoka or Salim. But the one good thing which Moi did, but then quickly abandoned at the behest of the British and the IMF, was the Nyayo Car project based on a visionary plan drawn by Engineer Gecaga. Gecaga’s was a vision to industrialize Kenya on a big scale as a producer of cars and aeroplanes.

Billy Kahora

With the diminishing production of the novel, at least, in Kenya as compared to when you were writing, what do you see as the role of literature in contemporary African politics? And I ask this thinking of major political events such as the 2007/2008 post-elections violence, promulgation of the new Kenyan Constitution in 2010, multi-party politics in the 90s and recent electoral outcomes decided by the court system?

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

Actually, I think there are more writers at work in Kenya today, even if it is mainly in English, than during my time. Weep Not Child, published in 1964, was the only Europhone African novel in English by a Black East African, at the time. Politics are with us all the time, and it is for each generation to get inspiration from whatever is happening around them.

Billy Kahora

You have been teaching at the University of California, Irvine for a long time. If you were to give a single piece of writing advice to the young African writer what would it be?

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

  1. Choose a language, African I hope
  2. Write
  3. Write again
  4. Write again and again
  5. You will get it right

In short, write, write and write again, and you’ll get it right.

 

[1] See my memoir: Dreams in a Time of War.

[2] See Dreams in a Time of War for a longer account of this.