David Naimon: Today’s episode is brought to you by Katie Holten’s The Language of Trees, a gorgeously illustrated and deeply thoughtful collection in which Holten gifts readers her tree alphabet, and uses it to masterfully translate and illuminate beloved lost, and new original writing in praise of the natural world. With an introduction from Ross Gay and featuring writings from over 50 contributors including Ursula K. Le Guin, Ada Limón, Robert Macfarlane, Zadie Smith, Radiohead, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, James Gleick, Elizabeth Kolbert, Plato, and Robin Wall Kimmerer, The Language of Trees is an astonishing fusion of storytelling and art, and a deeply beautiful celebration of trees through the ages. The Language of Trees is out now from Tin House. Today’s conversation with Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o poses a similar challenge for an interviewer that I faced with recent guest Hélène Cixous, how with limited time to engage with a writer so iconic, whose work has already deeply influenced the history of thought a half-century ago and who has written so much and in so many different genres since then. With Cixous, I felt like to try to touch on all aspects of the immense breadth of her work would sacrifice depth for the sake of a more superficial survey of her writing and thinking life. I was really pleased how more narrowly focusing on her novel memoirs ended up in the end hinting at and nodding towards, and casting light toward all that one could explore beyond them, that we both went deep in one area and at the same time suggested the presence of all the others. Because of that experience, when I learned that Ngũgĩ had a book coming out that was focused on translation, the first ever book to collect his writings and talks on translation in one place, I was attracted to talking to him about what seemed like a narrow topic, that this would give us a way to go deep in one aspect of his writing life. Little did I know that really this is the cornerstone or a cornerstone, an essential, vital, and central concern of his and that really when we say this book is about translation, it’s really more accurately about the power dynamics between languages, the histories and legacies embedded within them, and how these reflect realities on the geopolitical level, that this book is about the status of African languages in relation to the status of the continent of Africa and makes the argument that the two can’t be separated, language and politics, not just in Africa but everywhere. To talk about translation in the broader sense of it is to talk about Ngũgĩ’s postcolonial theories, is to talk about capitalism and colonialism, is to talk about language in relation to self-knowledge and self-determination, and much more. Similar to my conversation with Cixous where we foregrounded her latest book but I also chose two others to constellate it with, today we talk about Ngũgĩ’s latest book The Language of Languages but I also use two others, Secure the Base: Making Africa Visible in the Globe and Globalectics: Theory and the Politics of Knowing, and put the three in conversation with each other to anchor this new book with some previous ones of his. Both the latest book by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and the latest book by Hélène Cixous are out from the same press, Seagull Books, a press based in Kolkata that publishes world literature in English translation. It’s no exaggeration when they say that they do so with attention to exquisite design and world-class production as the books are beautiful as objects. I want to spend a moment talking about them as Seagull Books just celebrated their 40th anniversary and they’ve kindly created one Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o bundle including The Language of Languages, Secure the Base, and The Upright Revolution, which is his gorgeous illustrated fable, the most translated African short story ever, one that he talks about today, one that’s been translated into over 100 languages, at least half of them African. Seagull is offering a Ngũgĩ bundle and one Hélène Cixous bundle that includes the book we discussed, Well-Kept Ruins, but also We Defy Augury, and her early book Tomb(e), a Cixous bundle and a Ngũgĩ bundle for two listeners who join the Between the Covers Community as listener-supporters and choose them. But whether you do, do check out Seagull Books who have over 500 titles including books by Aimé Césaire, Edward Said, Thomas Bernhard, Mo Yan, László Krasznahorkai, and more. Not to mention their Africa List which includes Ngũgĩ, of course, but also writers from Alain Mabanckou to Maryse Condé. Beyond the two Seagull Books bundles, there are a ton of other possible rewards from joining the Between the Covers Community. Every listener-supporter gets the resource-rich email with each episode which includes the resources I discovered and used to prepare for the conversation as well as places to go afterwards if you want to explore further, then there are a ton of other things to potentially choose from. The last episode of the show with poet Charif Shanahan explored the intersections of Arabness and Blackness both in North America and in North Africa. As part of that, Mizna Magazine, the magazine of Arab American culture and art offered copies of their Black Southwest Asian and North African takeover issue helmed by an all-Black production team, and edited by the Poet Safia Elhillo. There’s the ever-growing bonus audio archive with readings and craft talks from everyone from Dionne Brand to Marlon James, and conversations with translators from Emma Ramadan to Megan Mcdowell. This only scratches the surface. You can find out more at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Now, for today’s conversation about The Language of Languages with Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o.
These stories are about to get unleashed. They’re about the wildness contained in all of us. “I think stories have some magical effect in the world. I think it’s really hard to live without stories and if somebody tells you this is the way you’re going to end up, you’re lucky if you can forget that.” “There’s me and then there’s writer guy me, and then there’s me working, which is the absence of me. It’s just a story.” “I had no idea how to write a novel. I didn’t know if it would ever come to fruition. I was working at a vet and lint-rolling puppy hair and cat dander off myself.” “They’re almost like really shy animals. They will come out of the woods but you have to stay very still and you have to pretend like you’re not interested in them.” “Artists tend to put their fingers in the wounds in the silences.” “I believe in the role of literature as a catalyst for dialogue and new forms of thinking.” “All the stuff I’m interested in is thrown into the washing machine that is my brain and it’s put on a spin.”
David Naimon: Good morning and welcome to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest is novelist, storyteller, essayist, playwright, scholar, and translator Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Born in the 1930s when Kenya was a British settler colony, his adolescence coincided with the decade-long war of independence, a major theme of his early works. He entered Makerere University College in Kampala, Uganda as a colonial subject. But by the time he graduated with a BA in English in 1963, Kenya had emerged as a free and independent state. During school, he wrote plays, stories, drafts of novels, a regular column for the Sunday Nation called As I See It and he attended the first African Writers Conference, a milestone event for African literature where he approached Chinua Achebe, asking him to read his novel manuscripts for his first two books Weep Not, Child and The River Between which Achebe helped get published as part of the Heinemann African Writers Series. 1967 was the year his third book A Grain of Wheat was published, a book he had written while studying at Leeds University and a book that marks both a formal and an ideological shift in his writing. Inspired by Frantz Fanon Marxist and anti-colonial critique, the collective, not the individual, became the center of both history and narrative in Ngũgĩ’s book, which changed the way his story is related to both time and to point of view. 1967 was also his first year teaching at the University of Nairobi where he taught for a decade and where he was at the center of the effort to reimagine, and rename the English Department as the Department of Literature. He is one of the co-authors of the polemic declaration On the Abolition of the English Department which set in motion an African and Global debate as well as practices that later became the heart of post-colonial theories. His first essay collection Homecoming contains this piece, the first of many essay collections which also include Decolonising the Mind, Moving the Centre, and Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams. 1977 was perhaps the most pivotal year in his life. Petals of Blood was published that year and his controversial play I Will Marry When I Want was performed in an open-air theater with actors recruited from the workers of the village. The play was both critical of the inequalities and injustices in post-colonial Kenya and championed the cause of ordinary Kenyans, and most notably was performed not in English but Gikuyu, prompting copies of the play to be confiscated and Ngũgĩ to be imprisoned without charge for nearly a year in a maximum security prison, a year he wrote about in his memoir Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary. It was here in the prison where he decided to no longer write in English as his primary language and committed himself to writing in Gikuyu, his mother tongue, and wrote his fifth novel in prison on squares of toilet paper, a novel known in its English translation as Devil on the Cross. Named a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty, an international campaign eventually secured his release but the Kenyan dictatorship barred him from jobs and ultimately threatened his life, and this led him into a life of exile, first in the UK, then in the United States. Nevertheless, he continued to be hounded by the Daniel Arap Moi dictatorship from afar including a thwarted assassination attempt in Zimbabwe in 1986. Even after the end of 22 years of exile with the end of the dictatorship, Ngũgĩ and his wife, on a visit to Kenya in 2004, were attacked by armed gunmen and narrowly escaped with their lives. In exile, among the many positions he’s held, he was visiting Professor of English & Comparative Literature at Yale for 3 years, Professor of Comparative Literature and Performance Studies at New York University for 10 years, and for the last several decades has been distinguished Professor of English & Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine where he was the first Director of the International Center for Writing and Translation. This only scratches the surface of his writing and teaching life, of his novels, memoirs, plays, short stories, essays, and children’s books for a writer who understandably is regularly on the shortlist of global writers considered as a front-runner for the Nobel Prize in Literature each year. But the reason we are here today with Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is to talk about something that might seem at first marginal to Ngũgĩ’s concerns, translation. But as you will soon discover, translation isn’t a niche interest of his but is actually central and essential to his political and ideological concerns in both his fiction and non-fiction, adult and children’s literature, central to his thoughts on identity, self-knowledge, and self-determination, to his thoughts on capitalism and the afterlives of colonialism, to international relations and imaginings of a more just future, something that could be seen as a throughline and backbone for his writing, and scholarly life entire. We’ll be talking today about his new book just out with Seagull Books, The Language of Languages, a collection of his essays and lectures written and delivered over the past 20 years and the first book dedicated entirely to his thoughts on translation and its implications. Welcome to Between the Covers, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o.
NwT: Yeah. Thank you. As you see, it’s a collection of my talks really.
DN: Most of the people who know you already, who know of your work, they know of the moment in your life, the year in prison when you decide to stop writing your novels in English, to write them from then on in your first language despite the thousands of pressures and incentives to do otherwise. Surely, some of this must succumb from witnessing the way your play, written and performed in an African language, rattled the powerful with its critique when your novels in English that had come just before equally critical of the government caused no such response from the Kenyan dictatorship. But there’s another story. More than a decade earlier in your life in 1966 when you’re invited by Arthur Miller, the head of PEN America at the time, to be a representative of Africa at the Penn International Conference in the United States and you have an experience there that perhaps is an earlier origin story that led you to return to your mother tongue 11 years later. It’s a story you recount early in this new book on translation as part of a speech you give in Chile because the pivotal incident in 1966 was when you were attending a panel that included not only Arthur Miller but Pablo Neruda.
NwT: Pablo Neruda, yeah. Oh my God.
DN: Can you share with us the story of what happened, you and the audience listening to Neruda and Miller and others speak, and how this might have planted a seed that later reverberated?
NwT: Actually, it was the International PEN Conference. I think Arthur Miller was the president of International PEN, PEN America, and the organizer of the conference. The conference had participants from both Western and also Eastern countries, that is their communist countries at the time. They were being allowed to America really for the first time. An example, Pablo Neruda who had been a member of the Chile Communist Party and he had not been allowed to America for many, many years. He was really in America for the first time in 30 years.
NwT: But I would learn later, not at the time but there were many other participants from Latin America, the group of writers who later came to form the Latin American renaissance or grouped around that renaissance, I was new to that kind of arena. I published my two novels with no child and there were between, and I was supposed to be a graduate student at Leeds when I was invited to that conference, so I was a novice in the international writing stage, in everything really. I was in America for the first time. There were several regional guests of honor. I was a regional guest of honor from Africa but I was overwhelmed by the occasion, you can imagine. [laughs]
NwT: I like to absorb everything, the atmosphere, the interest, and so on. I had never spoken at the conference. I was not a scheduled speaker anyway. I was a participant. It’s one of the last sessions and it was during a panel by Pablo Neruda and Ignazio Silone, the Italian author of Bread and Wine, and Arthur Miller was sharing the panel. Now, the moment I remember, I’m just sitting there literally enjoying everything because everything for me was new, exhilarating, and whatever, so I’m sitting there, [laughs] when I hear Arthur, I remember this very well, Silone was complaining about the fact there are not many translations of Italian writers into English or whatever, then he said these words, he said, “You know, Italian is not like one of these but two languages with one or two words in their vocabulary.” It’s like I walk from a dream or something. I walked from paradise and I felt I had to stand up for African languages. I stood up assuming, so I could articulate very well but these words passed out of my mouth, “I like to assure the audience that African languages had definitely more than one or two words in the vocabulary,” and I sat down. Arthur Miller picked up my lines more. He was a chairman. He was quite diplomatic. He said, “People can praise, should be free to praise their languages. But really there’s no need to put down other languages in the process. Just talk about the virtues of your own language.”
NwT: He’s quite diplomatic. The only thing I remember later at the reception, Pablo Neruda walked all the way up and [entered and some others], they spotted me or something. He walked through the crowd to where I was and shook my hand at the reception later. When you speak very many words but later learning more about him, I came to realize that may have been a gesture of solidarity with what I had said. We even exchanged addresses, although I never followed up with writing or any of those sorts, there was no more communication between us but I really valued that gesture of solidarity from Pablo Neruda. I don’t want to make a long story. I’ll try to make a long story short but anyway, [inaudible] the cloud nine, of course, because I’m in America for the first time and everything, I met other people that lived in Iowa, [inaudible], then eventually returned to England Leeds University where I was and of course, I was in the middle of writing my novel A Grain of Wheat. Oh my. In what language was I writing it? In English of course, but I just came from New York where I talked about the virtues of African languages. That irony really struck me more than actually what happened at the conference. In my own practice of writing in English, I have said to all the world that African languages have is as good a vocabulary as any other language in the world, which I believe is true. But in what language was I then me, a Kenyan African, writing that novel? In English. To be quite frank, although I thought about languages before but not in that kind of personal challenge, I feel personally challenged and so on. But they are quite right. What eventually turned me around was actually eventually in Kenya many years later, walking at a place we call Kamiriithu Community Education and Cultural Centre in Kenya, that I and my friend Ngũgĩ wa Mirii wrote a play called I Will Marry When I Want, but in Gikuyu, Ngaahika Ndeenda. Kind of ironic [inaudible]. The key thing about this play as you said was it’s performed literally by ordinary working people of the village, small farmers, people in factories, plantations. In fact, we didn’t have formal costumes. We just used our clothes we normally wore. [laughs] That’s the clothes we used. The impact of the play was really huge in terms of attendance and [inaudible], and so on, the bus from different parts of the country to come and see the play. Then I think November 11, 1977, it was stopped by the Kenyan government. In December, three months later, I was arrested by armed policemen, three truckloads of armed policemen came to the house at midnight of December 31st, 1977, so January 1, 1978, I was in a maximum security prison, a man without a name. I was no longer a professor at the University of Nairobi, no longer the writer who was known as the author of those field novels, and so on. I was just a number in the maximum security prison. The key thing about this prison experience is when I really started thinking seriously about the implications of what we are doing as African writers writing in English and the whole question of language in a colonial order. I just want to mention if I could see other ironies, the person who put me to prison was Jomo Kenyatta, the first president of independent Kenya. Jomo Kenyatta, of course, was a symbol of our nationalism, known all over the world as the Burning Spear, the one who in 1922 started the first Kikuyu-language journal or magazine called Muĩgwithania. He was a man that’s advanced in Kikuyu language because he set up a journal in that language and he was a very good speaker of the language, everything. He wrote another book in English called Facing Mount Kenya, which again, although in English but still contained a lot of knowledge of Kikuyu culture and so on. The president at the time was a Kikuyu language speaker. I was writing in Kikuyu. He imprisoned me. What’s going on? What is this thing? We can talk more about it, about my thinking about the time, but that’s the moment I decided to embark on Gikuyu language and I said, “No, no English for me writing. No. It wasn’t in English. It would be in the Gikuyu language.” I wrote my first novel, as you’ve seen, on toilet paper in Gikuyu in Kamiti Maximum Security Prison and it is a novel that also made me survive. By the way, the memoir Detained has now been reissued under the title Wrestling with the Devil.
DN: Yes. Well, I would like to explore the ironies of this situation more but before we do, I just wanted to mention one thing that I think is really interesting that you mentioned in the new book The Language of Languages. The irony of the prejudice of this Italian writer, this Italian writer who claims Italian is superior to the Bantu languages that have no vocabulary because this accusation actually that African languages don’t have enough vocabulary or aren’t sophisticated enough in grammar to have complex thought, that they’re not well suited for scientific, philosophical inquiry, or literature is actually the same accusation that was leveled against French and English when Latin was supreme. You talk about how René Descartes actually defends the vernacular French, defending its capacity to be a vehicle for science and philosophy against this very accusation, and obviously, the idea that French and English are deficient in this capacity now would seem laughable. It sounds like you’re asserting this very same thing for African languages.
NwT: They were asking how can English tackle medical terms or scientific terms, right?
NwT: I mean it’s incredible that it was actually there. I don’t think there’s a connection but the first Englishman to translate the Bible from Latin to English was later killed, murdered, executed but I think it was actually something else but the irony. [laughs] The first to translate the Bible from sacred tongue Latin into this other language with vocabulary called English, that he was murdered.
DN: Yes. Well, thinking about your decision 45 years ago to write in Gikuyu from then onwards, I wanted to jump forward to the status of African languages today in the present moment. I was watching a relatively recent talk you gave at Oxford where you talked about a conference at Leeds University that was attended by more than 500 top-notch scholars on Africa and you posed a question to them, “How many people here have written at least one paper in an African language?” and none of these African scholars raised their hand.
NwT: Both African scholars and all scholars on Africa.
DN: Scholars on Africa. Yes.
NwT: Both African and also non-African.
NwT: But by all African scholars.
DN: Yes. But you posed a similar question in Ghana at a conference on African studies and received a relatively similar response. You said in this Oxford talk about Scholars on Africa, “Could you imagine hiring someone as a scholar on French literature who spoke not a word of French?” and you’ve also talked about how there are many prominent prizes for African literature where the precondition for consideration is that the books were written in English.
NwT: Or not in the African language.
DN: Or not in African languages, some other colonial language. Then in the year 2000, you give a speech in Eritrea that you deliver in your own mother tongue which is included in this book where you say, “European languages determine who is an African writer and who writes for Africa,” and if you write in an African language, you’re actually less likely to be invited to conferences on African literature. You note that this 2000 conference was the first conference on African soil to bring African scholars together to discuss the future of scholarship and literature in African languages.
NwT: Well, being on the millennium, against all odds. That conflict came up with a very important statement, the Asmara Declaration. They’re one of the best statements of African languages and can still be found on the internet.
DN: You’ve said also that our bodies are our first field of knowledge and that to begin with the idea that our own hair or our own skin are wrong is a bondage. I think you’ve said something similar about language that to be divorced from one’s mother tongue is a sort of slavery. Lastly, as part of this question, you’ve talked about how language is a carrier of memory, that without memory, we cannot negotiate our relationship to one another, to nature, even to our own bodies and selves, and that one of the effects of the colonizer imposing their language is its effect on memory, that wherever Europe went, it planted its memory, and that this incorporation into European memory has had, and continues to have, dire consequences for Africa. I was hoping you could speak more about the body as a source of knowledge, about language’s memory but also what you’re feeling is about how much or little has changed in Africa around the status of African languages in the 45 years since you started writing in them.
NwT: One of the geniuses of colonialism was to realize that language was the key to actual colonization. In other words, you colonize people’s languages, now you colonize their minds and this was the source of my book Decolonising the Mind. Decolonising the Mind is interesting because they were actually lectures I gave in New Zealand, invited there ironically by the English Department at New Zealand Auckland University. Lectures were there in memory of their first vice chancellor called Robb Lectures. But the key thing about those lectures, this is why I really have thoughts I had in prison, I’m at the maximum security prisons as I was writing my novel Devil on the Cross or Caitaani mũtharaba-Inĩ in Kikuyu, and these were also thoughts around the writing of that novel or the thoughts that led me to write the novel about language, language and colonialism, and so on, and this was what I came to, putting them altogether quite is this, whatever people have colonized or controlled another, even though the real aim is to control their land, their labor, and other resources but the most effective way they found is through language and naming systems. Look at even a country like Japan when they colonized Korea from 1910 to 1945, they actually imposed Japanese on Koreans, Japanese names on the Koreans. The French did the exact same thing wherever they went, French or the Portuguese the same thing, the Spanish the same thing, the English the same thing. But they’re connected to something else in my thinking. There’s a film by Sembène Ousmane called Ceddo in which the Africans being changed through what they call the housegate or something before they are shipped to new plantations and because captured slaves are capital Africa, Peninsula Africans, it’s either put in the same ship and they presumably belong to different slavers. They were marked, they were branded like Africa used to brand cows, we used to have cows and it was common. But we recognize which cows belong to whom. They branded each cow with a brand of their own. The same thing as hot iron branding, that branding, the naming system as our branding, the body of the African person or the colonized person. In the case of now-called African Americans, they’re first branded with the name of the owner, with the mark of the owner. But on the plantation, they lost their names completely and can’t be known by the name of the plantation owner. You said you’re Brown, everybody knew. If you’re Mr. Brown or whatever you are, they knew, “Ah, that might be the one who belongs to Brown.” Then they banned all African languages, whereas the Spanish people were still linguistically connected to Spain, the English the same, the French the same, for African people enslaved, you are linguistically disconnected with the continent. In Africa, the same branding was in the form of Christianity. When Africa became a Christian, he was given a name and the name was English. I presume for the French, it was French, Portuguese, Portuguese. My argument is that a name is the first one that emits a type of identity. When somebody calls me Ngũgĩ, oh, I turn around automatically. I turn my head at least. That’s me, Ngũgĩ, me. You, the same thing I’m sure when they mention your name. You pay attention.
NwT: I put all those together. With language, it’s the same thing. Your mother tongue is your window into the world. This is how I summarize things. First of all, I reject all hierarchical systems including other languages. The whole notion is that some languages are inherently higher than other languages. I say no. But all languages have something to give to the world. What was wrong with languages in terms of their relationship is where they are put together into the hierarchy. But when languages are put in the form of a network or contact, a network of equal give and take, they give, they generate energy, they generate oxygen, they generate something else, the other one hierarchy suffocates, the other one allows lungs to breathe. When they breathe, they can give each other and by the way, that’s where translation comes in, I can breathe in my language Gikuyu and the result of it can be made available in Mandarin, in Russian, in English, in Spanish, any culture.
DN: Yeah. This notion that an African literary prize would require books to be written in European languages or that as you’ve mentioned, the irony of you yourself being jailed not only for writing something critical of the government but for writing it in an African language, and by a government and police force that had fought against British colonialism to gain independence, that these same people, when a publisher agrees to publish your first novel in an African language, attacked the publisher and cut off one of his fingers. There’s a certain irony and contradiction in this, obviously, that when you were growing up under colonial rule, you could be hit, humiliated, and forced to wear a sign that said stupid on it if you spoke in your own language in school, yet many postcolonial African governments were continuing these gestures in spirit. I want to connect this to something you said to the Zambian writer Namwali Serpell when she interviewed you for The Paris Review. She was asking you about the titles of your books and you said that you tend to give all your novels the same title, to begin with, Wrestling with God because from a young age, you were very preoccupied by the image of Jacob wrestling the Angel and that this scene held great power in your mind, and that you’ve always been drawn to the idea of the human struggle with a greater power and to the idea of oppositions leading to progression, and it was when you studied Marx and Engels at Leeds that this dialectic idea was instilled in you. Similarly, it wasn’t until you encountered Marx, then Frantz Fanon that you began to understand why, even after independence, the pattern of exploitation hadn’t changed. First, I just want to say that I love that you make this connection between Jacob and the Angel, and Marx’s and Fanon’s dialectic. [laughter] But I was hoping you could speak to this phenomenon for us, of the post-colonial situation and the ways what is happening in Africa today makes more sense from the framing of Fanon, why we’re seeing an extension of a lot of the punishment that was during the colonial era now in the post-colonial era.
NwT: First, on language, let me just say one more thing, just let me summarize what I say about languages in one sentence which I like very much. I like those sounds that have everything for me. 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 all the other languages or the word to it, that is empowerment. For me, many languages are empowerment but rooted in the original mother tongue.
DN: When we’re talking about a rupture from one’s mother tongue being a form of enslavement, I wonder about all the cultures including the cultures of the African diaspora where the return to the mother tongue is irretrievable or let’s say Jews in Europe who invent Yiddish and African-Americans who invent their own African-American vernacular English or many Native American tribes where the rupture is too great to revive the language, it still feels like there’s some empowerment that they’re creating. I wonder if it’s only bondage if you don’t have it because it feels like sometimes, these responses to not having one’s mother tongue are actually empowering responses.
NwT: What I find interesting in this is okay, the newspaper produced Yiddish and I think I believe in Russia, some of the Yiddish writers became prominent, Yiddish writers I believe. In America, when the African language was banned in the plantation and Afghan people then, it’s not that they went to form a training for English and so on but then to me, what happened, and very interesting, they create new languages. For instance, Americana, African-American English, you can see a marriage of the African readings of speech with English sounds. They create new languages, which become really essential. In the case of Afro-Americans, that’s incredible because that new language system produced the spirituals. Now, all over the world, they produce blues, jazz, hip-hop, casual systems which have become global, literally global. I said to myself, “What other languages over the same periods have produced cultures which have become global, not by force of arms but their power?” They produce different language systems and I recognize those. It happens in the Caribbean, it happens in America and I’m very proud of what they were able to do. But you see there is a tendency now called that form of language, broken English, where you’re broken in it, it says, “Oh, if I’m educated, let me not have anything to do with it,” kind of thing or bad English or bad grammar. That’s a different system. It’s a different language system they developed. They’re not allowed their languages, they developed new systems. This is a new system. I don’t know if Yiddish is used as much these days but it’s unfortunate because of a different language system. Each language has its own sound, music. I think there are musicality. Languages are like musical instruments because each musical instrument has its unique musicality. Not the sound but the musicality of that sound is unique to it. What does that mean? If you hear someone playing the piano, even if you don’t see what he’s playing, you know that’s a piano. I play guitar, you know that’s guitar, even if they are playing the same melody. It has nothing to do with the melodies, it has to do with that musicality. That’s unique musicality. They may be seeing the same song or the same melody, same lyrics but you can tell that’s piano. Ordinarily, we never say the piano is higher than the guitar. We don’t put the instrument hierarchy, musical instrument hierarchy but we bring them together, make it music, make it orchestra. But placed in a different way of a relationship, you have what you call cacophony. Same instrument. [laughs] I am forming languages really. Any language will develop [inaudible] developing. Whichever is once a mother tongue, that should be the beginning, then from that language, you connect with other languages. What I don’t like is when collectively, you have been actively hostile to your language, like the way animals are broken, horses, or others. As you said, today in Africa, the African school system continues the same process. An African person is punishing an African child for speaking the African language in their school compound. Today, in independent Africa, children are beaten by African teachers because those children are speaking an African language in their school compound. There’s something abnormal about that.
DN: Well, let me quote to you something that you said yourself in your book Secure the Base: Making Africa Visible in the Globe as a preface for my next question. In that book, you talk about how part of the African middle-class collaborated with European traders of slaves, then later collaborated with the colonial state, then later became the national armies and police forces of the post-colonial countries, and in that same essay you say, “The education of Black elite is entirely in European languages. Their conceptualization of the world is within the parameters of the language of their inheritance. Most importantly, it makes the elite an integral part of a global speech community. Within the African nations, European tongues continue to be what they were during the colonial period, the languages of power, conception, and articulation of the worlds of science, technology, politics, law, commerce, administration, and even culture. Most African nations are thereby divided into two, a tiny group within the privileged linguistic loop but which cuts across various ethnic boundaries, and the majority speaking different ethnic languages but united by their location outside the linguistic loop in every possible way. Fanon touches on this problem in In Black Skin, White Masks when he claims that to acquire a colonial language is to acquire the weight of the civilization it carries, including the concepts of how reality is organized. The tiny group that speaks it is drawn from the top five percent in each of the ethnic nationalities but it may come to see itself as somehow constituting the nation. By cutting across the various ethnicities, the language of power may seem to be more national. The middle-class incorporation into European memory before and after independence is a major weakness of the class, a point Fanon emphasizes when he accuses the national bourgeoisie of identifying with the Western bourgeoisie from whom it is learned by heart its lessons.” Thinking of this, I wanted to ask you about this in relation to another argument that is made for European languages that you confront also in Secure the Base, which is around how do we reconcile a desire for African unity and for a resurgent Pan-Africanism for securing the base with Africa’s innumerable number of languages where some people argue that this quality you describe of the Black elite, and the linguistic loop, that all speak the same language and cut across ethnic divisions, some argue within Africa that this facilitates nation-building and cross-country connection. You definitely argue strongly against this for more languages, not less languages. Talk to us about this so-called language problem and how and why in your mind it should be seen as a strength rather than an obstacle that Kenya has over 60 languages even though English is one of the two official languages.
NwT: English is spoken in Kenya by 10%. It only happens about 10% across many other national communities. But there’s nothing inherent in English that’s inherently more able to go across the various national groupings. In other words, the same thing can be played by Kiswahili for instance, by Igbo, Yorba, or any other language. In other words, English is not inherently a national or French is not inherently able to go across. If I know Kiswahili, and you know Kiswahili, you can communicate. There’s nothing that says that that law can only be played by English. That’s the first thing. But even what I said earlier is important, respect. I said if you know your mother tongue, whatever it is, even if it’s spoken by five people, then you add to it English or French or many languages or what, that’s a good thing. There’s nothing inherently evil or bad about English or French, it’s their power relationship with the other languages that’s a problem, not their quality as languages. As languages, I enjoy reading French literature, for instance, in translation and you’re reading literature in translation and so on, Spanish literature. García Márquez, who wrote in Spanish I believe, is one of my favorite authors. If I arrange so much that I must keep on saying that I’ll have to learn Spanish too. I’m very curious to know how he sounds in Spanish or in the original language. [laughs] Lately, I met a Quechua writer who came to see me, Eliana Maria Maldonado, and her last name is Cano, she was writing Quechua and in Spanish. She’s writing in three languages. I was very, very impressed and I was very excited because they went through the same process of marginalization by Spanish. What she’s doing right now, she’s writing in Quechua, she’s not writing in Spanish, and some she does translation between and now sometimes she is the one translating to English. It seems to me that’s the way to go, let all languages be but they can meet through translation. That’s why I describe translation as the language of languages. I see it that way. Common language of languages.
DN: Do you think that South Africa’s language policy is a good step in the sense that during the colonial era, they had three official languages and they were all of European origin, and now they have an 11-language policy and I think only 2 of the 11 languages are of European origin, do you think that’s a good governmental step?
NwT: Every person has a right to their mother tongue or the language of their culture. It’s empowerment to add other languages to it. But to another person does the other way around, it completely negates all the other languages. It’s only the colonial language is the real language. So the French claim French is the only language, the Spanish the same, the Portuguese the same thing. This is what I’m saying that hierarchical way is what is certainly wrong. It’s what I’m opposing. It doesn’t matter whether that language is Quechua, in Latin America, or language in some way, different languages, even within Europe equally marginalized, like in Scandinavia among, I forget.
DN: The Sámi people maybe?
NwT: Sámi people, yeah.
DN: Thinking of English and Africa, Achebe talked about how he learned English and to write in English as a means of infiltrating the ranks of the enemy and destroying him from within. He also said in his mind it doesn’t matter what language you write in as long as what you write is good, and that language is a weapon and we use it, that there’s no point in fighting a language. When asked if Things Fall Apart had ever been translated into Igbo, his mother tongue, he explained that Igbo had numerous dialects different from place to place and that standardized written Igbo only came into being as a result of missionaries and their desire to translate the Bible into African languages. The missionaries brought together six Christian Igbo converts who each spoke a different dialect and the resulting language Union Igbo didn’t resemble any of the dialects and Achebe called it, “a strange hodge-podge with no linguistic elegance, natural rhythm or oral authenticity.” So he didn’t consent to have his book translated into what he considered a linguistic travesty. There’s this interesting phenomenon, as the critic Susan Gallagher notes, “one of the world’s great novels, which has been translated into more than 30 languages, is unable to appear in the language of the very culture that it celebrates and mourns.” But you don’t take the same position as Achebe. You assert unequivocally, as you have in this conversation, that English is not an African language.
NwT: Yeah, it’s not.
DN: And that the idea that one is expanding African languages by writing in English is the same as saying Joseph Conrad expands Polish by writing in English. But in light of this, I wanted to talk about, for you, the pleasures and challenges of both writing and publishing in Gikuyu. Besides the violence and the threats of violence you’ve experienced for writing in an African language, there are many other challenges to writing in Kikuyu. You talked with Namwali Serpell, for instance, about how there’s almost no written tradition in the language, and that particularly at the beginning, there was always a devil on your shoulder that would tempt you to give up and return to English when you were having trouble finding a word. But I’d be interested to hear about any practical publishing world realities around writing and publishing in Kikuyu.
NwT: I call it a little devil, that’s why my memoir of prison, I’ve reissued under the title Wrestling with the Devil, what I mean by that is this, that one become conditioned writing in English. That’s why actually repeating, there’s nothing wrong with the English or French or any language but you get used to it. When you try to connect your own language, it’s like this devil is always whispering in your ear, “Ah, but I’m here. Why are you having all these difficulties?” It can be very frustrating and you can say, “Oh, come on, let me just continue with the English and on.” What we don’t realize sometimes is that it took us many years to get to know the English the way we do. It did not come into our system effortlessly. Too many years of training, conditioning school, this and that and that. That’s one of the problems. I call it now we live in a world of normalized abnormality, normalized abnormality of the colonial system. It was abnormal in any way, punished native Americans, native Canadian, native Australians, native Kenyans, Africans for speaking their mother tongue. English, French were built on the graveyard of African languages, and that’s wrong. That abnormality become now normalized at independence. Let me show you an example of what abnormality is in Kenya. Right now, there are schools run by very wealthy Kenyan Africans, very expensive schools that is devoted to teaching British national curriculum. You are saying, “Why should an African in Kenya, 50 years of independence, be so obsessed with running a school that runs British national curriculum?” It’s not normal but the abnormality has now become normalized as a desirable norm. All languages have good potentiality. They have all their unique musicalities and language is connecting on the base of a network of equal give and take that will produce orchestras, wonderful orchestras just as I like reading Tolstoy. [laughs] I’m always arguing with my friends about Tolstoy and Anna Karenina, [or Tolstoy’s King]. We argue and we never read any of them in Russian. We also argue about Marx. You quoted Marx, yes, and I read Marx, yes. But I’ve never read him in German. But The Communist Manifesto is not all over the world. So also the Bible. The Bible is so normal every Sunday in every Kenyan church. Every Sunday, we read the Bible in Gikuyu. It’s so normal. But it’s a translation, our translation, follow our translation. Every language has a lot to give to each other but put in a hierarchy, they stifle. In the case of English, it becomes like a little devil who whispers, “I’m here, why are you bothering me with Gikuyu? I’m here. I have a word ready, just use me.” An example of this, you see one of my books in Gikuyu came out. Gikuyu intellectuals are so used to reading books in English. When they read it, they will read a few sentences, “Ah! Gikuyu is so difficult.” They completely forget the spelling years and years in schools being trained to write, speak. They are surrounded by English newspapers, radio stations, everything so it looks normal, easy. When you see the word good, you don’t even think about it but you just see the beginning and you just read it. You don’t even stumble, but not this one, not that way at the beginning. You mentioned the conference in Leeds when I asked these scholars of African realities, history, philosophy, some from Africa, some were non-Africans. I took them to how many of you have ever written or even read a book in an African language? None. I went down to a page, none. I went into a paragraph, I think one or two did raise their hands. This was a conference of solid African scholars, both from the continent and outside. The absurdity that they were scholars of Africa, my necessary languages, to me is so absurd now although at the time when Achebe was saying it looked not so absurd at the time, they looked as though they’re solid arguments but now I can see my friend Achebe was being a little bit absurd. [laughter] It was at the end of his life, I think it was beginning to change a little bit. [inaudible] to be fair to Achebe. By the way, Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart, has been translated into Ekegusii language in Kenya. There’s a publisher there, Bosibori Obuchi. She has been published in Ekegusii. In fact, published translations, Things Fall Apart by Achebe, Romeo and Juliet from Shakespeare in Ekegusii. She did my book The River Between from English to Ekegusii. She so challenged me in that respect that I’ve translated that now into Gikuyu. [laughs]
DN: Oh, really? That’s great.
NwT: Yeah. It’s funny. Bosibori Obuchi, you can again Google her name, she goes at her name Jane Obuchi. Isn’t it ironic that Achebe has now been translated into an African language in Kenya called Ekegusii? He’s very popular, very popular writer even within the English language, yeah.
DN: Well, you’ve talked elsewhere about how shorter works in Gikuyu have few places to publish them, and in your speech in Chile, you mentioned the first Gikuyu language journal that you yourself ran and how Ariel Dorfman’s poem in it was the first ever translation of a Chilean poet into an African language. But you’ve also talked about how you have many Gikuyu book-length manuscripts that haven’t found publication, that publishers really only want to accept them with an eye toward the eventual English translation, and that ironically, translations into English have worked against your efforts in Gikuyu. So you’ve been trying to delay, considerably delay, the time after the Gikuyu publication before an English translation happens so that it can live in the world in Gikuyu for years before it comes out in English. I wondered if you could talk more about that.
NwT: There’s one book which I had to delay, it’s called The Perfect Nine, in Gikuyu Kenda Mũiyũru. I had it out in Gikuyu first and the Eastern was delayed for two years deliberately through my insistence to give Gikuyu language a chance to circulate among the Gikuyu intellectuals because I said the devil, the English devil is always around the corner saying, “But I’m around here. It’s easier to read me, not the other one.” The only way is denying the devil a chance to say “I’m here.” The way I like to see my order, I would like to see my books coming in Gikuyu first, then Kiswahili, it’s a kind of lingua franca in Kenya in East Africa and Congo and then English and any other language thereafter, that’s the order I would like to see. But of course, there are no publishers who are there to do that so it’s a challenge. Publishing is a real challenge now to African writers in African languages because there are very few publishers in African languages. An African language writer is apart from “I don’t have many challenges.” It’s an act of will. I know this myself because, believe me or not, I have more than three or four manuscripts in Gikuyu language. Right now, I can’t get them out. Eventually, I know they’ll come out but quite frustrating. It could be very frustrating for a young writer who is beginning to write finalizing in Gikuyu or any African language, he or she is not accessible to anybody but a competitor or a colleague who writes in English will get published and be known all over the world, more aware, not quite, but you’ll be known anyway. But this other one has manuscripts, they are in other language.
DN: Yeah. Well, there’s a great essay by the American poet and translator John Keene called Translating Poetry, Translating Blackness where he looks at how little is being translated into English from Black writers in Africa and the African diaspora. He looks at what is lost around what we might know or reconsider regarding race and Blackness by not experiencing very different constructions of race and Blackness around the world and also suggests the need for more Black translators, something I know that the press in England Tilted Axis is trying to be part of the solution around. But Keene’s piece also looks at how dire the translation situation is in every way in the United States, that less than one percent of all literary texts in the US are translated texts, and the vast majority of those, of course, are coming from languages of other former colonial powers from Spanish, from French, from Portuguese. But even those languages are woefully untranslated into English. Similarly, when I talked to Eliot Weinberger, he was the translator of Octavio Paz among others, he said that up until the 1950s, almost every major US poet also translated, they considered it their responsibility to the vitality of the writing community to bring these other writers into English to keep the poetry seen, alive, porous, and dynamic, which reminds me of a quote of Aimé Césaire that you often quote. He said, “it is a good thing to place different civilizations in contact with each other that it is an excellent thing to blend different worlds; that whatever its own particular genius may be, a civilization that withdraws into itself atrophies; that for civilizations, exchange is oxygen;” and you yourself have called for more translations between so-called minor languages without them passing through major languages. In that light, I was hoping you could talk about the Jalada Pan-African Writers’ Collective and what happened with your book The Upright Revolution.
NwT: Let me tell you the story of that one because it’s very, very telling. What happened some years ago, I don’t remember the year anyway, 2005 probably, with a group of Africans called the Jalada African Collective. It was a journal called Jalada. One of the people, Kilolo, started a translation project. This is a collective so they do different things. A translation project was started by, he was called Moses Kilolo, although now he calls himself Munyao Kilolo, Moses Kilolo of Kenya, and they wanted to start a journal African to African translations. In other words, from African language to other African languages. That’s why they asked me through my son Mũkoma for a story, to write them a story in Gikuyu so they can start the process. I did write one but I had one already written that was in my shelf and I’m telling you, it’s amazing what they have done with it. I know you mentioned the link in your talk. It’s still available in the internet if you look at Jalada Translation 01, you’ll find the story there now translated into I think slightly more than 100 languages in the world and most of them African. These are very incredible, successful inter-African African translation but also translation to other languages as well. It’s already available in Hindi, in Russian, in German, in [inaudible], in virtually over 50 African languages and is available on the internet. What’s beautiful about it, you can see the story in the original form Gikuyu, then you can see it in English, and different African languages but with their scripts as well. Very beautiful.
DN: And it’s a very beautiful object too, the art that comes when you get the book itself is really stunning.
NwT: It has been published as a book in Sweden, Swedish translation, it’s part of a book there. In Chile as well. It was published in Kolkata and so it’s produced with some very beautiful edition.
DN: It’s really great.
NwT: Yeah, quite a revolution. What I would like to say, and I’m glad you mentioned that because it can be done, it has been done, we just need to normalize it.
DN: [Laughs] Yeah, well, can you talk about why you want to be your own translator versus someone else? Why is it important to you to do the work of translation? Then also what is your translation philosophy? I know when you first started, you wanted to make the reader aware of the source language and its rhythms but that’s less so now. So talk to us about your life as a translator into English, the why of it, and then also the how of it.
NwT: I challenge myself as a necessity, meaning that I don’t have anybody at the time who could or wanted or [inaudible] all the commitment to try any of my books into English as quickly as I’d have liked except one, Matigari, which was translated into English by Wangui wa Goro. My initial impress was I want to crush that argument, which was there at the time that if you read in an African language, it’s not somehow not to be available. You ever read in Gikuyu, I am making myself unavailable to other African who don’t speak Gikuyu. So I wanted to crush that argument. It’s important for me that it might not be available in English, which I could do it myself. I could have them translated into English by doing it myself. I was keen to fight against that other argument that the book’s not available and that’s why I did it. It’s hard work, translating your own work because it’s like you do the same work twice. The first one was exciting because it’s like the exploration. The second time is like, “Oh, my god.” [laughter] For me, there’s no excitement in translating one’s own work, so translation, there’s no excitement for me. But a time will come when there will be many good translators from Gikuyu to English or in French or into Igbo, into Yoruba, into Somalia, into Zulu, or Swahili, and all that, and that would change everything. But we have one problem, I might as well mention it here, the educational policies in Africa are so anti-African, you won’t believe it. Exceptions are places like Tanzania but generally, almost the entire continent is dominated by anti-African language programs. These are changing slowly but dreadful the way African the government will not put one penny into promoting African languages but put a lot of dollars into promotion of English, French, or Portuguese. But this will change. But that’s one of the biggest handicaps we have right now in the continent and it’s what I call normalized abnormality in the education policies in the continent. As I mentioned earlier, even today, they continue punishing African kids for speaking an African language in the school compound. Even today, today as we talk, I know it’s true in the case of Kenya.
DN: In your book Globalectics: Theory and the Politics of Knowing, you call this linguistic feudalism. You contrast linguistic feudalism with a notion called the Globalectic approach and I was wondering if you could tell us what Globalectics is and is it related to dialectics?
NwT: It is, obviously. But I was theorizing my practice at the University of California Irvine. I came to California from New York University. I came here to be the founding director of the International Center for Writing & Translation. The reason I came here was because I was very excited at the prospect of being a center that is promoting this dialogue, or whatever it is among languages or even theorizing about it. I was the founding director of the center. But when I came, I was thinking, “Where do we start?” In Nairobi in the early 60s, we had written a document called On the Abolition of the English Department. This was because we wanted to be African literature via the center of our studies. Of course, then we got, let’s say African literature in African language, you just said African literature, it will be a center followed by Caribbean, African American, Latin American, Asian, and then European, like cycles of Africa, then Caribbean, African American, then Latin American, Asia, then European, that kind of way but with Africa at the center. So when I came to Irvine in the year 2002, I believe, I asked myself the same question, “If what my argument about the center when I’m in Kenya is Kenya, so what am I center here in Irvine where language is a concern?” It’s very obvious that Native American language was the center or should be the center. Our first event here was actually the impact of Native American languages on American culture, [writing books] together, native American writers, my friend Haunani from Hawaii, it’s a very successful thing. So we developed a commotion from here to there and then here, here to there, there to here. Here to there and then here. Knowledge begins where you are, knowledge begins with your body, then you see it’s connected to the road around you, to the air around you, to the water around you, to whatever, and then you go on adding. The part of knowing is also adding to what one already knows has the idea that from whichever center you are, you can connect with the world with the globe in a dialectical process of give and take. Hence, Globalectics, and this is because at the center, we’re able to start with native American languages that we’re able to bring in even Asian languages into conversation. From the center, we’re able to have a kind of global conversation among languages. Hence, we call it from here to there, there to here, from here to there, there to here. From where you are, you connect. It’s a part of give and take.
DN: Yeah, I love that.
NwT: That’s what we call Globalectics. I was able to put it into a book called Globalectics.
DN: In that book, when you talk about the Globalectic world view as like an archipelago of treasures and you’ve talked in the language of languages about languages as you’ve done here being like a symphony, but also languages as bridges because no bridge goes one direction, and finally, in the Globalectics book, you talk about viewing the relationship between languages rhizomatically and you say that what is central to viewing things rhizomatically is translation, and that by viewing things rhizomatically, we can collapse the hierarchy. I wanted to spend a moment about collapsing the hierarchy, not just linguistically but politically to imagine a post-colonial situation that’s not built on American and European memory. Just as a beginning to this question, I wondered if you saw the movie last year Neptune Frost?
DN: The movie is made by a Black American filmmaker and musician Saul Williams and a Rwandan writer and actor Anisia Uzeyman, and the title Neptune Frost comes from the name of a slave from one of the original American colonies who fought in the Revolutionary War. But the movie is set in Burundi and it’s filmed in Rwanda, and like the play that got you imprisoned, it is told in many African languages with an African cast of mostly artists and musicians from Burundi and Rwanda, some of them themselves are actually refugees from Burundi who now live in Rwanda. It’s an Afro-futurist or African futurist musical that’s set in the coltan mines of Rwanda. Coltan is the metal that’s used to make the capacitors in our cell phones, our cameras, and our personal computers, and 50% of the world’s supply of coltan comes from Rwanda. You could think or you could imagine that this movie would be the most hopeless and despairing film given the conditions of the Africans forced by wage slavery to work in these mines but this movie is very life-giving, remarkably life-giving. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it begins with both their own conditions and their own bodies, their own subjectivities and their own languages, alongside the ways the resources of Africa are being stolen from them to be used by everybody else. It reminded me of several things about your writing. For one, your notion of what you call poor theory, the idea of maximizing the possibilities inherent in the minimum because these people who we most want to ignore and we pretend don’t exist or that they don’t even deserve rights or maybe perhaps they’re not even human, they’re finding power in connection between themselves. They’re refusing the white gays and they’re refusing white memory. But I also think about how it’s set in a coltan mine, how you’ve talked about how Africa as a continent is bigger than North America, Europe, China, and India put together, that it has so many resources and yet it seems to me that in contrast to other resource-rich areas, let’s say like Saudi Arabia which has wealth and political leverage, that the more Africa makes its resources available, the poorer it seems to become. You’ve linked language and resources explicitly. You say, “Securing African languages should be part of a whole vision of Africans securing our resources.” “The moment we lost our languages was also the moment we lost our bodies, our gold, diamonds, copper, coffee, tea. The moment we accepted (or being made to accept) that we could not do things with our languages was the moment we accepted that we could not make things with our vast resources.” Talk to us for a minute about this relationship, how replanting African memory with language and overthrowing an extractive colonial capitalism are connected to each other.
NwT: The way I put it actually accents and access, accent, you know accent like English accent like I speak with a cool accent?
NwT: And access when I’m accessing you, I’m accessing. Accents, access. I put it Europe, through the colonial system and even after, give Africa the resources of their accents so that some of the best English is spoken in Africa, some the best French, [laughter] not me, my Gikuyu accent always remains, but I’m just saying Europe gave Africa the resources of their accents. Africa gave Europe the resources of the continent. For their accents, we give them access. Accents, they give us in exchange access to the continent. I saw that as really still the problem of the African continent, the mental thing that almost cannot make us see these possibilities within a continent. It’s almost blind to what we can do within the continent and it’s a big problem. I summarize the problem of the continent as one of accents and access. They give us accents but in exchange, we give access to the gold, to the copper, to the diamonds, to uranium, to coltan, or whatever you call it, all those things are found in a continent. But we’re so obsessed with perfection of the accents that we don’t see that we have given access to the others, no matter how they are speaking their language. A good example of this is, and I know it’s in Kenya and sometimes it’s surprising, not surprising but become sad, say we have very important days in Kenya, the day we got our independence, we regained our independence, it’s important. Independence of Kenya was gotten through struggle and struggle by the Kenya Land and Freedom Army, otherwise known as Mau Mau. Kenyan history is very interesting because Kenyan people were first, I might be wrong, but [inaudible] to break the trend which was there before. Let me explain what it was. In America, America was, of course, owned by native Americans but it became a White settler, a White settler colony, English colony. What they call American independence was not the independence of the colonized. The colonized remained colonized. The people who said we are now independent were the colonizers, who said we are independent from our home base but it was still colonial, elicit to native American. This country became America. We saw the same trend in Canada, in every settler colony in Canada, the same. In New Zealand, the same. Australia, same. In Africa, it was beginning to be the same. With South Africa, 1912. It’s a White community, some are becoming independent South Africa or something like that. The first settler colony to successfully fight that trend, to break that chain, was Kenya when in 1952, there came about the Kenya Land and Freedom Army started the war against the British president in Kenya. It was the first. It’s not acknowledged all over the world but it’s the first settler colony to reverse that trend. We had been normal for America or Canada, for Austria, for New Zealand, and then Kenya says no. Kenya then was followed by Zimbabwe, of course, and then later South Africa, and so on. I’m very proud of my country Kenya. [laughs] Now, at independence, you’d think when we celebrate that history of Kenya and you’re addressing, your leader of the country and you’re talking to Kenyan people, but every leader would speak on that major day, he addressed a nation in English, whereas Swahili can reach more Kenyans than English and most of the African leaders in Kenya can speak Swahili very fluently. But automatically, it’s almost like they are primed, it’s when they get on that stage to speak to the nation, they are not speaking to the nation, they are speaking to Americans and they are speaking to an English-speaking elite. So automatic, it baffles me, “Oh, what’s happening?” Normalized abnormality. You speak to a nation about their pride, their history, you’re celebrating what they have done by consciously speaking to them in the language most widely spoken in the country. In this, we are very lucky because of what is Swahili. Swahili is an African language but it’s also the national African language in Tanzania but spoken in East Africa in the Congo. Why not speak to them about their history in Kiswahili at the very least? It’s those things that tell you what conditioning I’ve been talking about. Language brings about this conditioning, predisposition to not see the continent, we don’t see it. We are from the continent but we don’t see our continent.
DN: Well, I wanted to end with talking about decolonization here in the United States where we both live. You gave a talk as part of the Yale Council on African Studies called Decolonizing the American University where you talk about your campaign in the 60s to get Nairobi University to change the English Department to the Department of Literature. You also change your own name from your given name James Ngũgĩ to Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o.
NwT: Original name, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, yeah.
DN: Yeah, and you emphasize that it’s as important for us to decolonize spaces here in the West. You’ve talked in many places about Prospero and Caliban, as well as Robinson Crusoe and Friday, how Caliban originally knows more about the environment than Prospero, much more, just as the indigenous Caribbean people know more than Columbus. But all the knowledge gets encoded into a colonial language, the original is lost and discarded, and the recording by Prospero or Columbus becomes the de facto original; and that modern scholarship works on this native informant model. I think about what you said earlier today in the conversation about as the head of the International Center for Writing and Translation in Irvine, you didn’t start with East African writers and scholars as you would have done if you had headed this department in Africa, you started by inviting native American and Hawaiian writers and scholars, and I wondered if this is where we should start in North America with English departments, not only changing their names to departments of literature but by including, if we’re thinking of your Globalectic model on equal footing to English descended literatures, Native American literatures and African-American literatures.
NwT: Yes. It would be basically the founding of American identity, not the colonized identity as American identity, no, they’re still the colonizer. That’s abnormality. I’ve been talking about Canada, USA, and South America, Australia, New Zealand, it’s what they call normalized abnormality. Abnormality is that the colonized never went through the colonization here. That’s a fact, I’m not making this up. The people who said this is our independence were the colonizers. They only disconnected themselves from Europe but they were still the same Europeans who colonized. It would really change everything in even terms of a different personality. If I make a [inaudible] by America, I mean both North and South, into the rich heritage they have, which is native American, because African America are forced to create something new, what I called Something Torn and New. [inaudible] White who said something torn and yet new. For me, if I was being asked my advice, I would say this would be the founding cultures of America but not a European one, not a colonizing model. In other words, [inaudible] Irvine, Native American, African American, European because depending on how they relate to each other, that’s fine, but it doesn’t matter what is at the center and what’s at the periphery. Canada, America as a whole, both north and south, and Australia are all founded on normalized abnormality because the people, the original people who were colonized never went through the colonization, who took the flag were the colonizers who said, “Now we are independent.” That’s normalized abnormality. It’s so common even in other forms like in Africa continuing in the elite, continued European languages as the way of talking to the nation, and I’ve said there’s nothing wrong with European languages but there’s something wrong in how they relate or they are made to relate to African languages. I’m very passionate about this. This world which is normal abnormality, it’s like having a wound and we don’t want to see its origins and all that, but how do you do this if you don’t want to see what is behind the illness, you say it’s normal, “Oh, no, no, it’s normal. It’s normal for me to come and colonize you, take your land, take your language,” and then say, “Oh, we’re now independent. [laughter]
NwT: Yeah, abnormality, I mean the colonized system are normalized as a desirable norm everywhere. We are proud of it. We’re independent, American flag. [laughter] What about the native? We’re the ones who were actually colonized. Their land taken away, their language, oh, my God, yeah, yeah. But unfortunately, what you can see, it’s not just an American thing, it’s all over the world. Normalized abnormality of both the colonial capitalist system.
DN: Thank you, Ngũgĩ, for today.
NwT: Yeah. You know more about me and my work than I do myself. [laughter] Okay, thank you.
DN: We’ve been talking today to Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o about his latest book from Seagull Books, The Language of Languages, reflections on translation. You’ve been listening to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.
Today’s program was recorded at the volunteer-powered, non-commercial, listener-sponsored, full-strength, makeshift home office of me, David Naimon. A hearty thank you to Seagull Books for creating a Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o book bundle and an Hélène Cixous book bundle for two new supporters. Check out Seagull Books at seagullbooks.org. The Seagull Book bundles are only one of many possible benefits of joining the Between the Covers Community as a listener-supporter, the bonus audio archive which includes many long-form interviews with translators, readings by everyone from Dionne Brand to Nikky Finney to Charif Shanahan, to rare collectibles by past guests, to copies of the Arab American Journal Mizna, their Southwest Asia, North Africa Black takeover issue, to the Tin House early readership subscription, getting 12 books over the course of the year months before they’re available to the general public, to a bundle of books selected by me and sent to you. In addition, every supporter can join our brainstorm of future guests, and getting the supplementary resources with every conversation. You can find out more at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can do so via PayPal at tinhouse.com/support. I’d like to thank the Tin House team: Elizabeth Demeo and Alyssa Ogie in the Book Division, Beth Steidle in the Art Department, Becky Kraemer and Jae Nichelle in Publicity, and Lance Cleland, the Director of the summer and winter Tin House Writers Workshops. Finally, I’d like to thank Imre Lodbrog and Barbara Browning for creating the outro. Their album Imre Lodbrog et sa Petite Amie can be found on iTunes and Barbara Browning’s trove of ukulele covers can be found at soundcloud.com/barbarabrowning.