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Today’s guest, novelist, storyteller, essayist, playwright, scholar, translator, and perennial front-runner for the Nobel Prize in Literature Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, is an iconic figure in postcolonial thought. His latest book, The Language of Languages, is the first book dedicated to his writings on translation and the status of African languages, globally and in Africa today, a topic that is quite personal for him, and central to his writing life. During his year in a maximum security prison in the Kenya of the 1970s, he decided to stop writing his novels in English and wrote his fifth novel, Devil on the Cross, on squares of toilet paper in Gikuyu, his mother tongue. Ngũgĩ suspects that he wasn’t jailed simply because he wrote and put on a play that was critical of the Kenyan government (his recent novels in English had been just as critical of the government) but because it had been written and performed in Gikuyu. Thus, every novel he has written since, he has written in Gikuyu, and then later translated into English himself. You would be right to think that writing in one’s mother tongue should be the most natural and obvious thing to do. And yet the obstacles to doing so continue to be immense and speak to larger questions around the status of the African continent today and postcolonial Africa’s relationship to its colonial past. Today we look at the histories and legacies within languages as well as the power dynamics between them, and how collapsing the hierarchies between languages is crucial to doing the same geopolitically, that the beginnings of true sovereignty begin with our languages.
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