Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong'o Says Prison Formed Him As A Writer

Oct 10, 2020

When the the Nobel Prize for Literature was announced this week, the hopes of many in Kenya were dashed — again — when author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o did not win.

Thiong'o is the country's most celebrated poet and playwright. Decades ago, he was jailed in Kenya for writing a play in Gĩkũyũ, his mother tongue, rather than in English.

Thiong'o was forced to spend much of his life in exile, and today, he teaches at the University of California, Irvine and is the founding director of their International Center for Writing and Translation. His latest book, a novel in verse called The Perfect Nine, has just been published in the U.S.

Thiong'o says his time in prison was a watershed in his life. "How come that a post-colonial African government has put me in prison for writing in an African language?" he asks. "Before, I had written a few plays in English, and novels in English, and I had not been in prison for being critical of the post-colonial system. So why now? And that question is what set in motion my thinking about the unequal and unequal relationship of power between languages? That thinking made me say no — from now onwards, I'll be writing in my mother tongue ... And that's how I could write my first novel in the Gĩkũyũ language, called Devil on the Cross. I wrote it on the only paper available to me, which was toilet paper."


Interview Highlights

On his terrible experience returning to Kenya after exile

Well, this is an occupational hazard of being a writer, I presume. First prison, then exile. And when I was 23 years, [away] I returned with my wife to the country. We were attacked by gunmen in an otherwise very safe hotel. And my wife sexually assaulted, so it was not a very pleasant experience, my return. And that time we're actually going to launch my novel, in Gĩkũyũ, called Wizard of the Crow. Every time I write in Gĩkũyũ something has happened to me! Fortunately so far, thank God, nothing has happened to me for this epic, The Perfect Nine.

I really appreciate what I call "the Nobel of the heart." Someone who reads my book and they come and tell me, look, you book impacted me in this and that manner. - Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o

On writing about his homeland

I'm able to go back. It was, I think two or three years ago, even the current president, Uhuru Kenyatta, did actually even receive me and my family in the state house. So that helps a little bit, in terms of being able to return. But Kenya made me. I am who I am because of Kenya. So, I mean, my love for Kenya is unconditional.

On being a perennial Nobel favorite and waiting for that phone call

I think this has been — congratulations on the winner this year. But every year I do go through this, for the last five years, so I'm kind of used to it by now.
And I really appreciate what I call "the Nobel of the heart." Someone who reads my book and they come and tell me, look, you book impacted me in this and that manner. The beauty about a Nobel of the heart is it's very democratic, it's available to every writer.

This story was produced for radio by Danny Hensel, edited by Martha Ann Overland, and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

When the Nobel Prize for Literature was announced this week, the hopes of many in Kenya may have been dashed again when Ngugi wa Thiong'o did not win the prize. He is the country's most celebrated and prolific poet and playwright. Today he teaches comparative literature at the University of California, Irvine. And the translation of his latest book "The Perfect Nine" was published in the U.S. this week. But decades ago, Ngugi wa Thiong'o was jailed in Kenya for what he wrote. His crime, he says, writing in Gikuyu, his mother tongue, not English. Threats on his life forced him to spend much of his life in exile. We spoke with him this week, and he told us that time in prison changed him as a writer.

NGUGI WA THIONG'O: This was 1977. And I had been troubled. The only form of theater, at least at the national theater level, was in English. So some of us decided to go to the village, a place called Kamirithu. And we made theater with the community. But obviously, we had to use their language. It was very successful.

SIMON: And Ngugi wa Thiong'o had written plays in English before, ones critical of the government, which was then under a dictatorship. Though he was never charged, he was sent to a maximum security prison and calls it a watershed moment.

THIONG'O: How come that a post-colonial African government has put me in prison for writing in an African language? So why now? And that question is what set in motion my thinking about an equal and unequal relationship of power between languages. That thinking made me say no. From now on, I'll be writing in my mother tongue. And that's how I came to write my first novel in the Gikuyu language called "Devil On The Cross." I wrote it on the only paper available to me to use, toilet paper.

SIMON: You and your wife returned to Kenya in 2004 after decades of exile, I gather. But it didn't work out so happily, did it?

THIONG'O: No. Well, this is the occupational hazards of being a writer, I presume. First prison, then exile, and when I was 23 years, I returned with my wife to the country. We were attacked by gunmen in an otherwise very safe hotel, and my wife sexually assaulted. And that time, we were actually going there to launch my novel in Gikuyu called "Wizard Of The Crow." Every time I write in Gikuyu (laughter) something has happened to me. Of course, technically, now I can - I'm able to go back. There was - I think two or three years ago. But Kenya has made me. I am who I am because of Kenya. So, I mean, my love for Kenya is unconditional.

SIMON: Can I ask you about the Nobel Prize?

THIONG'O: Yes. I knew that was coming (laughter).

SIMON: Well, I - you know, we're that time of year, and your name always comes up.

THIONG'O: Yeah.

SIMON: A great poet won it this year. But this time of year, what's it like when the phone rings in your place in Irvine, Calif.? Do - you know, does it race through your mind?

THIONG'O: Every year, I do go through this for the last five years. So I'm kind of used to it by now. The most dramatic was when I was tipped to win. And that night, the university prepared for press conference. And at 4 o'clock, 3 o'clock, 3 a.m., some reporters came to my house. So when the news came, my wife had to let them in and really consoled them because they were more depressed than we were (laughter). But my wife made them coffee. That was actually quite amusing. Yeah.

SIMON: Well, there's plenty of time, Mr. wa Thiong'o, for you.

THIONG'O: Yeah. And I really appreciate what I call the Nobel of the heart. Someone reads my book. And they come and tell me, look; your book impacted me in this and that manner. The beauty about the Nobel of the heart is it's very democratic. It's available to every writer.

SIMON: The poet, playwright and novelist Ngugi wa Thiong'o speaking to us about his life as a writer. His latest book, "The Perfect Nine," was published this week in English. Thanks so much for being with us.

THIONG'O: Yeah. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.