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Issue 199

Where Do We Go From Here: To The Horseman of the Sixties

How monolingualism is the carbon monoxide of culture

BY Ngugi wa Thiong’o in Features , Thematic Essays | 01 NOV 18

Earlier this year, Gayatri Spivak signed my copy of Breast Stories (1997), one of her English translations of Mahasweta Devi, with the inscription: ‘To the Horseman of the Sixties’. This made me time-travel back to 1966 and my first visit to the US. I was a postgraduate student at the University of Leeds and in the middle of my third novel, A Grain of Wheat (1967), but here I was, a regional guest of honour from Africa, at PEN International. The playwright Arthur Miller was president and the theme of the conference was the writer as an independent spirit. The idea was to bridge the cold war divide, and writers from the Eastern bloc were allowed into the country despite their communist connections. The large contingent of Latin American writers included Carlos Fuentes, Pablo Neruda and Mario Vargas Llosa.

I had published two novels, Weep Not, Child (1964) and The River Between (1965). Despite this, and despite my being invited to a gathering of the global literary elite, I would not call myself a writer. I stuck to my student status, though I tried a few poses to make me feel like a writer and to project myself as one. I was so into posing that I hardly followed the proceedings – until one of the last events, a panel discussion including Neruda and Ignazio Silone, the Italian author of Bread and Wine (1936). I was in the audience, deep into my Socratic pose, when I heard Silone complain of the dearth of translations of contemporary Italian works into English. ‘And you know, Italian is not like one of these Bantu languages with one or two words in their vocabulary.’ My Socratic pose was gone.

I was a guest of honour representing a continent emerging out of colonial bondage. Ghana under Kwame Nkrumah had gained independence in 1957, to be followed by a flood of others, including Nigeria (1960), Tanzania (1961), Uganda (1962), Kenya (1963). Some called it the Decade of Africa. African writers had come of age, with authors like Peter Abrahams, Chinua Achebe, Léopold Sédar Senghor and Wole Soyinka making their mark on the world. I had attended the Conference of African Writers of English Expression at Makerere University in 1962 – the first major African writers’ conference held on the continent. (Others, like the Black Writers Congresses, had been held in Rome in 1958 and Paris in 1956.) The New Africa was up and on the move.

And now, this Africa was under attack. I stood up to defend the honour of the continent. Africa had many languages, I assured the audience, and these certainly had more than two words in their vocabulary. To his credit, Miller was very diplomatic: he said people could praise their own languages, but they did not have to bad-mouth others’ in the process.

I felt slightly better, though I had conflicting emotions about the rest of my visit to the US. On the one hand, this was the country that had seen the assassination of John F. Kennedy. In Leeds, Barbara Garson’s MacBird! (1966) was circulating, depicting Lyndon B. Johnson as Macbeth and Lady Bird Johnson as Lady Macbeth. But Johnson had also signed the 1965 Voting Rights  Act, giving African Americans the vote. There was the US that waged colonial wars in Korea and Vietnam, yet many Americans opposed them – best symbolized by the activities of the Students for a Democratic Society. I had expected the US to be one imperial monolith, but here were Americans fervently against these colonial ventures.

It was with these emotions that I visited the University of Iowa, home of the famous International Writing Program. Paul Engle, the founder of the workshop, held a reception for the guests from Africa. Spivak, who was assistant professor of English at the time, also attended. She was among those who witnessed my horse-riding skills. Now, I had never ridden a horse in my life and, when Engle took us out to see his stable, I was reluctant to get on the back of one. Eventually, they got me a pony. I was so scared, I sat spread-eagled and was mighty glad to get off. This was the horseman of Spivak’s inscription.

I returned to Leeds, to my studies, to my Frantz Fanon and to my novel. My novel? A Grain of Wheat. In what language was I writing it? English. But had I not just come from New York where I had waxed ecstatic about the richness of African languages? That was my first major internal struggle with English and, at one time, I even contemplated giving up on the novel or on writing altogether. For whom was I writing? 

This question was not resolved and  A Grain of Wheat was published in English in 1967. Soon after, I was in Beirut, at the Afro-Asian Writers’ Conference, where I met a new community of writers, including Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Mulk Raj Anand. At PEN International, I was aware of cold war politics but in Beirut I became conscious of other issues. I visited a Palestinian refugee camp, which left an impression, reminding me of scenes of dislocation and desolation in Kenya. I also saw pamphlets circulating outside the official proceedings that described the Soviet Union as social imperialism. But the main impact was the interaction  I had with all of these writers from Asia and Africa. I had become aware of a much bigger literary world, well beyond William Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot.

In a way, these two conferences framed my experience of the second half of the 1960s. I did not realize their effect on me, though, until I returned to Kenya in 1968 and joined the English Department of the University of Nairobi. Within a year, I was in a deep debate about the place of this subject in Africa, joining two other faculties and calling for the abolition of the English Department. For me, 1968 was not the Paris of student revolts and thwarted revolution, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, but the time of our revolt against the dominance of English and European studies in our literary and intellectual universe. We were not calling for the abolition of English or European Literature. We were really questioning the organization of literary knowledge in Africa. Without giving it a name, we had launched the battle for decolonial theories.

The University of Nairobi was among the very first to overhaul a literature department dominated by European languages with a simple formula: African, Asian, Latin American, African American and Caribbean literature at the centre, followed by European and Euro-American literature – in that order. This is what now goes under the name of postcolonial literatures and theories. Our theory was based on the concept of the centre. Was Europe the centre of our being or was it Africa? It was not just a question of knowledge per se, but the order of knowledge. The colonial and imperial system had decreed that the cognitive process began in imperial centres and spread outwards to Africa, Asia and the formerly colonized world. We were saying that the normal cognitive process begins wherever people are and spreads outwards in a dialectical process of give and take. In our case, that centre was Africa. It is not too much to claim that postcolonial and decolonial theory began in Nairobi in 1968.

These two questions, language and centre, have been at the heart of my literary and theoretical explorations in Decolonizing the Mind (1986) and Moving the Centre (1993) and resulted in my eventually giving up English as the main language of my poetry, fiction and drama. I can write in Gkuyu, my mother tongue, and reach the world just as Shakespeare did in English, Miguel de Cervantes in Spanish or Dante Alighieri in Tuscan. I felt flattered when I was recently invited to Münster for the launch of the German translation of Decolonizing the Mind. One of the seminars was titled: ‘Gkuyu in World Literature’. I read my poetry in Gkuyu; somebody else read it in English and another in German. In Berlin, at the Dynamics of Interweaving Performance Cultures conference in June, my poems were read in Gkuyu, English, German and Yoruba. From whatever base in the world, we can still have a global conversation.

This is why Spivak’s inscription struck a chord. The book she was signing was written in Bengali by a leading Bengali writer. Devi’s compatriot, Rabindranath Tagore, also wrote in Bengali and has played a very important part in my life. In 1978, while languishing in a maximum security prison for writing my play I Will Marry When I Want (1977) in Gkuyu and having it performed by working men and women of the village, I came across a story attributed to Tagore in which a young writer visits him and brags about the many languages he knows. Tagore asks him: ‘Do you know your mother tongue?’ ‘No,’ he replies. ‘Then you don’t know any language at all.’ 

This text contributed to what I like to call, following Louis Althusser, my epistemological break with the past, in practice and theory. I embraced Gkuyu as my primary language of creativity and penned my first novel in Gkuyu, Devil on the Cross (1980), on toilet paper. The experience of writing such a novel while in prison is the subject of my memoir, Wrestling with the Devil (2018), and my concept of the unequal power relationship between languages is now at the centre of decolonial studies and aesthetics. In South Africa, it underwrites the call for decolonizing institutions and for fundamental changes in economy, politics and culture.

Language is fundamental to change. If you believe in the people, any people, then the availability of information in their mother tongue is essential. In 2002, I became the founding director of the International Center for Writing and Translation at the University of California, Irvine. We had a newsmagazine called From Here to There. There comes from here, in fact: here is always inherent in there. Knowledge begins where one is and all systems of repression begin by alienating the oppressed from that fact: from their own bodies, from their economic, political and cultural environment. Monolingualism is the carbon monoxide of culture; multilingualism is its oxygen.

Published in frieze, issue 199, November-December 2018, with the title ‘Where Do We Go From Here?’

Main Image: Iowa, 1966. Courtesy: Ngugi wa Thiong’o

Ngugi wa Thiong’o is an author and distinguished professor in the School of the Humanities at University of California, Irvine, USA, where he directs the International Center for Writing and Translation. Born in Lumuru, Kenya, in 1938, his memoir, Wrestling with the Devil: A Prison Memoir, was published this year by Penguin.