Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Hearing Ngugi wa Thiongo

An Afternoon with Ngugi wa Thiongo, an African author who wrote his book on toilet paper in the  prison.

I had a unique experience in the Book Festival in Berkeley last Saturday. 

 The hall was jam packed but I had no idea who he was when I entered the dark hall where an interview was going on with Ngugi Wa Thiongo. I had one hour to kill and the lady said that there might be one or two seats left. 

In the beginning, I was having trouble deciphering through his heavy accent in English, but in a short while I got hooked especially when the interviewer asked him -“ Tell us your experience about writing a whole book on toilet paper roll?” 

What! I sat straight.

I came to know that his play I Will Marry When I want 
( translated into English) cost him imprisonment in his own country. He wrote this in his mother tongue which was produced and performed by amateur common people in open air stage. He was impressed by Brecht’s style.  This play was against the local government system and the government stopped the play and locked him in the prison where no paper, pen, radio or books were allowed. Ngugi managed to get a pen convincing the jail keeper that he intended to write a confession. “ Then I started writing the story on toilet paper”, he chuckled. 

Born into a large peasant family on January 5, 1938, Ngugi had his education in English. Ngugi is pronounced as ‘googi', it means work.   

Joseph Conrad was his favorite author along with R.K.Narayan, Achebe, Brecht, Tolstoy and many others from the whole world.  And as he started writing his own in English, Weep Not, Child ( 1965), Devils on the Cross, and many other novels, essays, plays, and memoirs, he established himself as one of the most reputed and articulate authors of Africa. But then he decided to write in Gikuyu,  his own mother tongue, abandoning English.


This is where I got super excited as I found some answers to my quest as a bilingual writer.  

How much of my own native language should I bring to the main steam English?   Why and why not?  How is my own language missing something with my decision of writing in English or does it matter?

He said that the Colonials not only suppressed us,  they took all that was precious to us to their land enriching their own museums and estate mansions, the worst is -they took our language too.  They instilled the notion that you are not really educated unless you can write in English (or in the ruler’s language). 

Your name may change for the ease of their pronunciation,  for the convenience of the Western tongue. Your identity would change. Your mother tongue  would die, your native songs vanish.  And you succumb to that. Not only that, the Colonials also  managed to create a middle class that oppressed the ‘have not' class in the very same way. They crush your self-esteem until you can speak their language. 

I know exactly what he was talking about. 

 His answer: Yes, kind of, since I can speak and write in English. But the point is that is why we need to do our part. We need to write the stories of the oppressed,
talk about the injustice, etch their/ our pain and tears to make the world aware. 

Do you expect uprise? 

No. Art does not incite”.   He focused on the word imagination. Imagination will bring change. It has to be a collective effort. Imagination is nourished by art, songs, books.  It is our job to nurture that imagination.

“Look at the African Americans- I was impressed when I came to Harlem,  the first time I visited New York.  From all that oppression, all those tears grew a new linguistic system, out of which emerged spirituals, jazz and all that.”  He mentioned that in his talk in Berkeley.

So keep on writing my friends, he encouraged, write every day,  just write a paragraph, but do it. “ I do it until I die.” 

That energized me.  



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