Congratulations to Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o on being awarded the 2022 PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature, one of the most prestigious honors conferred by PEN America. The award is a celebration of Ngũgĩ’s life-long contribution to world literature through his writing, advocacy for African languages, and his work as a translator.
On February 28, Ngũgĩ’s children Mūkoma wa Ngugi, Wanjikū wa Ngugi, Mūmbi wa Ngugi, Ndūcū wa Ngugi, and other family members were on hand to accept the award on their father’s behalf. A pre-recorded video of Ngũgĩ delivering his acceptance speech—first in Gĩkũyũ and then in English—was played during the ceremony. Mūkoma, Wanjikū, and Ndūcū shared a few remarks about their father’s work and the significance of his being honored with the award.
As you can imagine, it was a beautiful night of celebration. The ceremony was held at the New York City Town Hall, with the American comedian and talk show host Seth Meyers officiating as Master of Ceremony. Thankfully, we have some highlights from the evening: the video of Ngũgĩ’s delivering his acceptance speech in Gĩkũyũ and English, the transcripts, the speeches presented by his children, and a few photos from the night. Scroll down to see.
PEN NĨ YO YATŨMIRE NJOKERERE GĨKŨYŨ
(Mĩario ya Kwamũkĩra Kĩheyo kĩa PEN/NABOKOV, NEW YORK, 28th Feb 2022)
Nĩ Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
Ũtukũ ũyũ ũranjokia mwaka wa 1966 mũcemanioinĩ ũrĩa wetĩtwo New York nĩ Pen International me hamwe na American Pen. Ndaikarĩte thĩ kĩrĩndĩinĩ ngĩthikĩrĩria ndereti cia Pablo Neruda wa Chile na Ignatious Sloane wa Kwamatariani, maikarĩirwo gĩtĩ nĩ Arthur Miller. O na ũmũthĩ ũyũ ndingĩkwĩra panel ĩyo yaragia irĩkũ. Kĩrĩa kĩanjũkĩririe nĩ kũigua Sloane mwandĩki wa mbuku ĩrĩa tagwo Mũgate na Ndibei, Bread and Wine, n oiga atĩ Gĩitariani ti ta thiomi cia Bantu iria ikoragwo na kiugo kĩmwe kana igĩrĩ mũthithũinĩ wa ciugo.
Ngĩregana nake, ndĩ mũrakaru mũno. No ndacoka Leeds University, England, kũrĩa ndathomaga hĩndĩ ĩyo, ngĩona o rĩmwe atĩ mbuku yakwa ya Gatatũ, Mbegũ ya Mbembe/A Grain of wheat, ndĩramĩandĩka, na kĩngeretha, o ta ũrĩa ndekĩte cia mbere igĩrĩ, The River Between and Weep not Child.
Na githĩ New York ndigũnaga ũtonga wa Thiomi cia Abirika? Mbegũ ya gũcokerera Gĩkũyũ, rũthiomi rwa maitũ, yoimire mũcemanioinĩ ũcio wa PEN, gũkũ New York, 1966.
Mwakainĩ wa 1977, Thirikari itũ Kenya nĩ yanjikirie korokoro, Njera Nene nĩ ũndũ wa kwandĩka Ithako rĩa ngerekano, Ngaahika Ndenda na Gĩkũyũ. Ndirĩ ndariganĩrwo nĩ wĩra ũrĩa Pen, me hamwe na Amnesty International, maarutire getha ndekio. Ndĩ kũu Njeera Nene nĩ rĩo ndatuire itua rĩ gũcokerera rũthiomĩ rwa Maitũ Wanjiku. Nginya ũmũthĩ, hũthagĩra Gĩkũyũ kwandĩka ng’ano, marebeta na mathako. Na ndindaga ngĩina rwĩmbo o rũmwe: Reke o rũthiomi thĩinĩ wa Thĩ rũthiomage na mũgambo wa guo. Niĩ ndĩrĩthiomaga na gĩkũyũ.
Nĩ thengiũ mũno nĩũndũ kĩheyo gĩkĩ kĩa Pen Nabokov Award nĩ gũkũngũĩra wĩra wakwa ũrĩa rĩu nyandĩkaga na rũthiomi rwa kuma Abirika.
PEN MADE ME RETURN TO GĨKŨYŨ
(Acceptance Speech at the PEN/NABOKOV AWARD, NEW YORK, 28th Feb 2022)
By Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
This night takes me back to the year 1966, at the writers meeting organized by Pen International and American Pen. I sat in the crowd listening to a panel discussion between Pablo Neruda of Chile and Ignazio Silone of Italy. Even today, I cannot recall what the panel was all about. What suddenly made me wake up was when I heard Ignazio Silone, the author of the book, Bread and Wine, say that Italian was not like one of these Bantu Languages with one or two words in their vocabulary.
I stood up and protested angrily. But on returning to Leeds University, England, where I was a student, I realized all at once, that I was writing my third novel, A Grain of Wheat, in English, the very language I had used for my first two, The River Between and Weep not Child. Had I not just come back from New York where I waxed eloquent about the wealth of African languages?
The seed of my return to Gĩkũyũ came from that PEN conference, New York, 1966.
In 1977, eleven years after, the Kenya government locked me up in a maximum security prison because of a play, Ngaahika Ndeenda/I will Marry When I Want, I had helped write in Gĩkũyũ. I have never forgotten the work which PEN together with Amnesty International did to ensure my release. It was during my incarceration at the Maximum Security Prison that I decided to return to my mother Wanjiku’s tongue, Gĩkũyũ. I now use Gĩkũyũ for all my fiction, poetry and drama. And I always sing the same song: Let every language in the world express its unique musicality.
Thank you for this PEN/NABOKOV AWARD, for celebrating my work, most of which I now write in Gĩkũyũ.
Remarks by Wanjikū, Ndūcū, and Mūkoma
The PEN / Nabokov (na-BO’-kov) Award for Achievement in International Literature is given to an author whose body of work, either written in or translated into English, represents the highest level of achievement, and is of enduring originality and consummate craftsmanship. The writer’s work will evoke Nabokov’s commitment to literature as a search for the deepest truth and highest pleasure—what he called an “indescribable tingle of the spine.” Previous winners include M. NourbeSe Philip, Anne Carson, and Adonis.
This year’s winner, our dad, Ngūgī Wa Thiong’o, has written over 30 books. His short story, “Ituīka rīa Mūrūngarū,” “The Upright revolution: or Why Humans Walk Upright” has been translated into over 100 languages. Now, I first read Ngugi when I was six. In fact, I would watch him tap away on his typewriter. When some of the books were published, he was in political exile. I felt close to the words because I had seen them being pressed into life. I never forgot the musicality of the typewriter or the rhythm of the words. I dreamt of writing. I don’t know about these two.
In 2015, our elder brother Tee, my sister Wanjikū, brother Mūkoma, and I shared a stage with our father at Alliance High School, where he had graduated in 1958. I don’t remember who read their work first, but I remember thinking this is cool. Since then, we have shared the stage with him in Jamaica, Florida, Los Angeles, and Boston. And that was cool too.
But this, this is special. Tonight, the presence of my daughter, Nyambura, my wife Grace, my sister-in-law, Njeri, and our youngest sister Mūmbi spices things up. It’s an honor to be here, to receive the Nabokov Award on behalf of our father. It is a moment that binds all the generations of storytellers in our family. It carries with it the stories we heard growing up in Limuru, Kenya. Stories of resistance, history, overcoming, and belonging.
Our father’s body of work exemplifies what it means to be resilient, dedicated, and unwavering in his call for bold creative writing. Despite his dad jokes, Baba has remained steadfast in his defense of African Languages.
The question my father asks is, why should he write in English, a language his mother would not read or understand? It is a basic question that we should all be asking ourselves when we are thinking about language imperialism. The decision to write in Gĩkũyũ, so he could be in direct conversation landed him in detention without trial. And yet here we are.
We also want to recognize our late mother Nyambura (translates into bringer of rain) who in so many ways makes Baba’s work possible, and most definitely us possible (I mean, we would not be here).
Nabokov was a writer and translator in the department I teach in at Cornell. Even today butterflies fly out of his former office.
Translation is where languages meet – it is the most democratic of spaces. Please support African languages and the art of translation. As a priest in Kenya once asked me – do you think God would speak to you in a language you don’t speak?
Nī twake na thiomi citū ciothe – let us create in all our languages. And meet in translation.