Interview with Professor Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o

Interview by Tanuj Raut

Edited by Rianna Walcott

Art by Maïa Walcott

I think that Greek mythology should be taught comparatively with African, Norse, Scandinavian, Icelandic and Asian mythologies. They are all very exciting and it is not necessary to put them in a hierarchical relationship to each other. Let them network.

TR: The problem with the education of English Literature seems to be that its ‘Englishness’ precedes and shapes the ‘Literature’, no matter how much university departments would have it the other way around. Do you think there are certain factors that contribute to that power dynamic within our study of English Literature?

NWT: The issue of language is central to my works particularly Decolonizing the Mind and Something Torn and New. It is important we realize how English as a language came to have this global power. English language spread with the English conquests of the world, and it came into dominance as a language of imperial power. In time, through force and guile, it became the language of elite power within the dominated in society. So there is an uneasy alliance between English as a language of imperial power, and as a language of elite power within the dominated cultures. All colonizing languages were imposed on the dominated through violence. Humiliation and negativity went to conquered languages; dignity and positivity to the language of conquest. The pattern was the same in every colonial situation: All glory to conquering; all the gory to the defeated. All virtue heaped on the conquering language; all vice on native languages.  Colonial languages were always elevated at the expense of the dominated cultures.

It was not simply a matter of adding another language to languages that people knew already. English grew on the graveyard of the languages of the dominated. It became normalized as a language of power, intelligence, and intellectuality. In the process, it became a linguistic prison.

Sometimes I feel as if English literature itself is imprisoned by English as a language of power and domination. Shakespeare, for instance, was exported to the colonies, not as the writer who writes marvelous plays, but as an embodiment of Imperial British power. In that sense Shakespeare became imprisoned by the very manner in which English language was exported. English literature itself came across as a literature of power.

The problem was never English Literature as literature, or the work of writers like Shakespeare, Keats, George Eliot, and T.S. Eliot. These writers have produced great works – I’m not taking anything away from them – but as writers, there’s nothing that makes them inherently more of writers than other writers, say Tolstoy, or Dostoevsky, or the Sanskrit Indian writers, Maharshi Veda Vyasa and Maharshi Valmiki, reputed authors of Mahabharata and Ramayana respectively.

TR: How do these power dynamics, of teaching English Literature in English, change in the American context, i.e., when we teach English Literature in a former colony?

NWT: The American context is complex, but very interesting. Originally, America (ie the USA) was part of the English colonial system. Naturally, many of its education institutions were modeled on the British. So there is an element of the postcolonial in the American universities. The English department is the most dominant in the humanities. And in most cases, not all, they teach English national literature. It’s almost as if there is no literary tradition native to America. And yet America has a vibrant tradition – native American, African-American, Asian-American, and Euro-American. All these streams together should constitute American Literature. You would think that within America, this inclusive American Literature would occupy center stage. The English department is still the crown jewel of literary studies. English literature is at the top of the literary pyramid.

TR: So America is like a melting pot, but only outside its universities?

NWT: American Universities are probably more diverse in terms of faculty and students than probably any others in the world. And within the university as a whole an incredible range of studies, even literary studies, are given. This reflects the diversity of the USA. There is probably no ethnicity or religion in the world not represented in America. I was thinking about the hierarchical relationship: that which is English and European is treated as of higher order than that which is African or Asian or even native American. So post-coloniality hovers over studies. And remember the American Empire is still an English language empire. As an imperial power itself, America has helped spread the hierarchical power of English.

TR: You have taught at the New York University for several years and now at Irvine, I wanted to know your experiences while teaching at universities in America. Even though there is an element of post-coloniality within the departments, does it subscribe to English literature as the ‘standard’ literature?

NWT: Post-coloniality can take the form of thinking, assuming and acting as if what was produced in the formerly imperial country, is the standard, that it is the norm. The literature of the former imperial power is assumed to be the literature of normality, of excellence. English national literature constitutes the core of an English department, and that department is seen as higher than other literature departments.  But as I said, in American universities as a whole, there are diverse literary studies. So the actual literary scene is much more vibrant. For example, here at UCI, alongside the English department, there are Departments of Comparative Literature, East-Asian studies, and African-American, Spanish and other European languages. And within the English Department, there are all sorts of other courses, post-colonial theories for instance.  In Yale, and at New York University, I found an openness to a whole range of courses and area studies.   But English Literature was always the more dominant. And it was not literature in English, but English as constituted by the English national literature. Actually, given the global reach of English, if you had a department of Literature in English, it would actually be very global and very inclusive.

TR: We’ve talked about how a post-colonial situation affects the education of English Literature. What were your experiences a student of English Literature at Leeds in the UK?

NWT: We’re talking about the 1960s, the period I write about in my recent memoir: Birth of a DreamWeaver.  My basic education in English literature started at Makerere University in Uganda. But Makerere was also part of the University of London, alongside others in Nigeria, Ghana, West Indies, Malaysia. These university colleges came into being around the 1940s and 50s. And in each of the colleges, the English department was probably the most important, in terms of prestige. It was indeed the ‘crown jewel’ of all intellectual studies. At Makerere, the syllabus was unashamedly English national literature, from Spenser to Spender, as some students in Ibadan termed it. But still I learnt a lot from it. Remember it was at Makerere where I wrote my first two novels: The River Between and Weep Not Child.

Things were the same in Leeds. But Leeds saw itself as different from say Cambridge and Oxford. It was more open to the new, the post-colonial that was emerging in the world. Hence at Leeds, they introduced what they called “commonwealth literature”. Occasionally we’d get visiting professors in Canadian, Caribbean, Australian or African Literature. These were occasional and not central to what was offered in the Department, but they did give us glimpses into other literatures in English, including Euro-American. In that sense, Leeds, was very important to me. In my book: Moving the Center, the title comes from the essay on my days at Leeds. It was there, outside the department, that I came into contact with Fanon’s ‘The Wretched of the Earth’. This had a big impact on my thinking. Other thinkers also came into play: Marx for instance, he plays a bigger and bigger part in my thinking. It was at Leeds that I wrote my third novel: A Grain of Wheat.

TR: So in a sense the department came to terms with the process of decolonization.

NWT: The visiting professors in Canadian and Caribbean literature, or say Commonwealth literature, came under the umbrella of the English department. But they were peripheral to the main, which was a history of English Literature.  I would not call it decolonization but Leeds of my time was among the earliest to nod at the existence of other literatures in English, emerging from those parts of the world formerly colonized.

TR: Were there any books that, in hindsight, you would’ve enjoyed if they were taught at universities at Leeds or even at Makerere?

NWT: Remember, by that time, African literature in English was beginning to be more visible. I am talking about the sixties of the 20th century. Peter Abrahams, from South Africa, published his first work in 1942. By the time Chinua Achebe published his first novel Things Fall Apart’ in 1958, Abrahams had eight novels to his credit, including his most famous, Mine Boy, 1946.   Writers from French speaking Africa had also published: Sembene Ousmane had released his first novel in 1956, with Gods Bits of Wood, his greatest, coming out in 1960; Ferdinand Oyono Houseboy and The Old man and the Medal, also came out in 1956. The Caribbean islands had these amazing writers who emerged in the 50s, among them: George Lamming (In the Castle of My Skin, 1953), V.S. Naipaul (A House for Mr. Biswas, 1961). Afro-American literature was thriving. These and other literatures emerging in the world were important to me.  At Leeds, I concentrated on Caribbean literature, studying them on my own. George Lamming and others opened a whole new world for me.

I would have loved to study these and more: Latin American Literature, Asian Literature for instance. I want to own all the literature in the world. I stress ownership because though I have been very critical of English Departments as currently organized, I enjoy English Literature and its writers. My Shakespeare is always around me. Dickens is amazing in terms of the range of characters that he was able to conjure. Shakespeare’s the same. And now that I’m a writer I can appreciate better what they were able to do.  Therefore, my criticism has nothing to do with the quality and worth of English Literature. What I take issue with is the hierarchical power relationships among languages and literatures, with English and other European languages seen as occupying the top of the hierarchy.

When you crush hierarchy, and replace it with network, then the cultures held in the different languages generate oxygen. They cross-fertilize. Cultures are able to breathe life into each other. Every culture should be taught with a nod to other cultures. Take the example of Greek mythology. It was often taught as if it was the mother of all mythologies. I think that Greek mythology should be taught comparatively with African, Norse, Scandinavian, Icelandic and Asian mythologies. They are all very exciting and it is not necessary to put them in a hierarchical relationship to each other. Let them network.

TR: Translations seem to change the way in which literatures are accessed.

NWT: I have described translation as the language of languages. There was a time when I read a lot of Tolstoy, Turgenev, Chekhov, Dostoevsky, all the greats of the 19th century Russian Literature. But I read them in translation. Translation has played a very important role in history of cultures and religions, and thought. The Bible and the Koran have impacted many cultures and histories and peoples, but through translation. Marx has sparked revolutions in the world. People don’t necessarily read him in the German original. It’s through translation.

TR: There are writers who produce works in Bengali, Kiswahili or Gujarati. What do you think of translation and that which is lost in the process?

NWT: I don’t know what the Bible loses in translation but all I know is that the King James version of the Bible has impacted English literature and language. Translations may not retain all the nuances of the original language, but they are able to carry enough of the ideas of the original as to have touched many people. I have already mentioned the impact of the translations of the Bible. Greek and Egyptian intellectual traditions reached Europe through translation.  We study the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, through their translation and not in their Greek originals. I’d love to read the Mahabharata in Sanskrit, but I do not have to wait until I master Sanskrit to access it. So translation has enabled me to have a sense of this amazing richness of Indian literature.

TR: You mentioned the idea of nuance in translations. Do you think native speakers are better positioned to teach literatures of their languages?

NWT: Not necessarily. I don’t think that only people from a given literary culture can teach that literature. Take the case of missionaries; they were not even African language speakers.  But they studied African languages, and they helped create a script for them, and then the Bible into them. They also put some of the biblical stories into the African languages. These enriched African languages.  So, even with language, we cannot say that only the speakers of that language can teach it.

It’s the notion of hierarchies that I find very disturbing: the whole notion that “my literature is better than your literature”, “my language is better than all other languages”. Even to say that Hindi literature is better than Bengali literature, reproduces the same hierarchical relationships. I’m really fighting against hierarchy and hierarchical relationships between languages and cultures. Aime Cesaire, in ‘Discourse on Colonialism’, put it beautifully. In criticizing colonialism, he argues that colonialism was not a contact of cultures, but a kind of destruction of cultures. He says that culture contact is the oxygen of civilizations – I really love that.  Translations enable that contact.

TR: It really is insightful. During lectures, you’ve mentioned that “art is like nourishment for imagination”. That metaphor is extremely useful in thinking about art in education. If it is nourishment, then western universities don’t seem to offer a very balanced diet to its students. What effect do you think that has on a reader, at a metaphysical or cultural level?

NWT: Art is a product of imagination but art also nourishes the imagination.  Imagination is central to our constitution as human beings. Imagination is everything, whether in science, in technology, and so on. So now when authorities downgrade the teaching of humanities in universities, they are doing something very horrible. They are trying to starve the imagination, and therefore creativity in the arts sciences and technology.

TR: Thank you so much for your time. Do you have any message for our readers (students mostly) in Edinburgh and other universities?

NWT: If I have one message to give it is: connect but connect dialectically. This is really the message in my book: Globalectics: Theory and Politics of Knowing. Oppose Hierarchy of race, class, gender, cultures and languages; embrace the give and take network of peoples, cultures and languages.

I don’t want people to accept these hierarchies as the way to relate each other. I don’t want people to accept normal the creation of ten millionaires on the backs of ten million poor. I uphold network against hierarchy. Network is a process of give and take. Any culture, small or big, can learn from other cultures. I’m sure African culture can learn from European cultures. And European cultures can learn from Asian and African cultures as well.

So just open our minds! The world has a lot to give us. There’s joy in exploring the world, a product of our common humanity.

About the contributors:

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is a novelist, activist and theorist of post-colonial literature,
and currently Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at
the University of California, Irvine, USA. In 1967, Ngũgĩ became lecturer in
English Literature at the University of Nairobi. During his tenure at Nairobi,
Ngugi called for greater reflection of world literature with African and third
world literatures, and along with Taban Lo Liyong and Awuor Anyumba,
authored the polemical declaration ‘On the Abolition of the English Department’,
initiating a monumental debate that later influenced postcolonial theories.
Homecoming, which includes the declaration, was his first volume of literary
essays, which appeared in 1969. These were followed by other volumes
including Writers in Politics (1981 and 1997); Decolonising the Mind (1986);
Moving the Center (1994); and Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams (1998).
Ngũgĩ continues to write prolifically, publishing, in 2006, what some have
described as his crowning achievement, Wizard of the Crow, an English
translation of the Gikuyu language novel, Murogi wa Kagogo. Ngũgĩ’s books have
been translated into more than thirty languages and they continue to be the
subject of books, critical monographs, and dissertations.

For more information visit:

Tanuj Raut studies Philosophy and English Literature at the University of
Edinburgh, and University of California, Irvine. He enjoys writing, reading theory
and is a research volunteer at the People’s Archive of Rural India. He likes
cooking “curry”.

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