This interview was originally broadcast on Feb. 13, 2013.
"When whatever forces put you down, you don't stay down."
Kenyan writer and professor Ngugi wa Thiong'o tells NPR's Michel Martin that this is something he constantly tells his children.
It is advice that has kept him going since he was born in 1938, at a time when his nation was still a British colony.
His recent memoir, In the House of the Interpreter, recalls his high school years at an elite boarding school. It was a safe haven where students learned table manners and played chess. But "it was a contradiction," he says. "In the grounds, I would feel wonderful; I'm learning Shakespeare. But literally the moment I stepped outside the gates of Alliance High School, something dramatic would happen to remind me that war was going on. People were dying."
Searching For home
One moment that sums this up is when Ngugi returned home for a school holiday to find that the British had destroyed his village. "That scene is, even today, it's traumatic," Ngugi remembers. "I did not know where my mother was."
That sense of searching for a lost home has always come through in his writing. "There are some people who have noted that the theme of return keeps cropping up in my later works," he says.
After A Play, Prison
Ngugi is grateful for his role as a writer. "It's an honor to be able to tell the world about that scene of devastation that so many Kenyans are not in a position to talk about," he says. But he has paid a heavy price for the privilege. In 1977, he was jailed after a performance of one of his plays upset government leaders. Those officials didn't like the content — a critique of post-colonial life — or the fact that the play was staged in Ngugi's village.
"This was so empowering to the community," he says. "You'd have thought that seeing intellectuals from the University of Nairobi connecting with the rural folk would be something the government would really encourage, but no. ... They used a sledgehammer to destroy the whole thing and put me in prison," Ngugi laughs.
Gaining An Education, Losing A Language
It was in prison that Ngugi decided to drop his Christian name and to write his fictional work in his native language, Gikuyu. He describes the loss of African languages as one of the continent's "greatest tragedies. Imagine the kind of home I come from. ... My mother, my brother — and by extension the entire village — speak an African language."
He says his family sent him away to school "in the hope that if I get to that education, I can bring that knowledge for collective empowerment." But Ngugi says studies in English and other European languages mean educated Africans can no longer communicate with their communities or even their families.
"The messenger ... becomes a prisoner. He never returns," he explains, "because he stays within the language of his captivity."
Ngugi points to his mother's influence for the reason he never succumbed to this or other obstacles. "She could not read or write, but she sent me to school" he says. She constantly pushed him.
"Even when I got 100 percent in anything, she'd still ask me whether that was the best I had done," he says. "In every situation she comes to my mind, whether I am trying my best in whatever circumstances I might be in, whether in jail or in exile, or under attack."
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we continue our celebration of National Poetry Month with our series of poems that you are sending us on Twitter. Today, we hear from renowned poet Elizabeth Alexander. You might remember that she composed a poem for President Obama's first inauguration and we'll hear her tweet in just a few minutes.
But, first, to our Wisdom Watch conversation. That's where we speak with those who've made a difference through their work. Today, we hear from a storyteller whose writing offers a window into the beauty and tragedy of his country, Kenya, that news stories often can't match.
Ngugi wa Thiong'o was born in 1938 when his nation was still a British colony. He came of age during the Mau Mau struggle and started his writing career just as Kenya found independence. Later, he became a leading critic of the post-colonial government.
Over the years, his outspokenness has led to his arrest, confiscation of his works, ongoing harassment and exile. Ngugi now teaches comparative literature and English at the University of California at Irvine. His best-known work in the U.S. might be his allegorical novel, "Wizard of the Crow," which was published in 2006, but he's also repeatedly turned his hand to memoir, including a prison diary. Last year, he published a work about his high school years. It's called "In the House of the Interpreter" and it's about his years at the elite Alliance High School in the 1950s. He joined us earlier this year to tell us more about it.
Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.
NGUGI WA THIONG'O: Thank you.
MARTIN: I should say welcome back.
THIONG'O: It's my pleasure. Yeah.
MARTIN: Well, thank you, because we spoke earlier after the publication of an earlier volume of memoir, "Dreams in a Time of War." This memoir covers the years before independence, when you were at an elite boarding school - as we said, Alliance High School - in the 1950s. And it was - you describe it as a place where, you know, you performed Shakespeare and you played chess.
But, at the same time, your family was very involved in the struggle against British colonial rule and I just - you know, you think about that, the fact that here you are, trying to be kind of a teenager at this time as you have brothers who are fighting - you know, a brother fighting in the hills. And I just wondered whether both of those worlds were fighting for your attention in your head at the same time.
THIONG'O: It was a contradiction in some ways and this is what I have tried to capture and dramatize in my memoir. That is on looking back, but you know how life is very interesting because even when you grow up when things are fighting each other, as it were, as a child, you are able, somehow or other, to absorb all that. In my case, in the grounds, I would feel - oh, this is wonderful. I'm learning, you know, Shakespeare.
But, literally, the moment I stepped out of the gates of Alliance High School, something dramatic would happen to remind me that war was going on. People were dying. People were being arrested. People were living in fear. The narrative in "The House of Interpreter" is a constant interaction of the two worlds, you know, but in the end, the two worlds come together and make an impact...
MARTIN: Well, talk about the book.
THIONG'O: ...and figured my life. Yeah, yeah.
MARTIN: Right. Well, before they come together, talk about, for example, when you first go away to school. And I remember from your first memoir - I still can't forget it - this beautiful, heartbreaking scene where your brother comes down out of the mountains to wish you well on your school exams at great risk to himself, but then, in this memoir, you talk about the fact that, here you are at school and you have your uniform. Your biggest problem is, you know, evading the bullies, you know, as all, you know, freshmen will.
And then you go home on your first school holiday and what do you find?
THIONG'O: Oh, really, that scene is - even today, it's sort of traumatic to go back home, expecting to meet my mother, to bask a little bit in the sunshine of her adoration, you know, as a high school student returning home in glory, only to find that my home did not exist. I didn't know where my mother was, my brother were. It was not only my own house. The entire village that I had come to know and love and which had been part of my life had been razed to the ground.
So this had a very big impact on my life and there are some people who've noted how the theme of return keeps on cropping in my later works and how it wasn't fiction.
MARTIN: And it was razed to the ground? I'm sorry. It was razed to the ground because, in essence, they were...
THIONG'O: The British colonial state wanted to make sure that you cut off any connection between the rural population and the fighters in the mountains because a guerilla army can only exist, in a way, through its connection with the people in terms of food, in terms of other things.
So the idea was that you can starve those in the mountains. You can get the rest of the population also in some kind of concentration; villages with moats around them and with surveillance system as part of that village and so on.
MARTIN: You were starting to tell me this. I wanted to ask you. What effect do you think this had on you later on?
THIONG'O: It's all been very vivid in my mind. So, it's a very big impact on my life, on my writing career and it has been a constant theme in my work. The question of somebody who returns or who comes back and then the reality and expectations don't actually match.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we are having a Wisdom Watch conversation with the author and teacher, Ngugi wa Thiong'o. We're talking about his life and work and his - the latest chapter in his memoir. It's called "In the House of the Interpreter." Why do you call the book that, by the way?
THIONG'O: My headmaster, E. Carey Francis, used to think of Alliance High School as the interpreter's house, you know, as one step - if you like - in the journey into the world. But here, the interpretation of Christianity, of the law or whatever, you know, I mean - so he thought of Alliance High School really as that house which prepares you for the journey ahead. Yeah.
MARTIN: As a previously colonized people - and I think I can say this with some assurance that people of color in the United States, minorities - let's put it that way - sometimes feel that anyone who is put in the position of some cultural authority is an interpreter. Right? But that is a very complicated place to be sometimes and some people resent it and I wonder for you, how do you see that role?
THIONG'O: It's an honor to be able to tell the world about that scene of devastation that so many Kenyans are not in a position to talk about it and an interpreter can be very, very important in their role as people who are able to see different sides of reality or people who have experienced different cultures and so on, so they're in a position to interpret one in terms of the other.
MARTIN: Your relationship with interpretation is a very interesting one. I mentioned earlier that you have paid a very heavy price for your desire to speak truth to whomever you feel needs to hear it and I mentioned that you have been harassed and imprisoned. In the '70s - I think it was when you were in prison - you made the decision to drop your Christian name and you started writing again in Gikuyu.
THIONG'O: Yeah. That was a rather traumatic moment for me...
MARTIN: So was this latest work written in Gikuyu and then translated into English or do you write only your creative works in Gikuyu and then - how does it work?
THIONG'O: So far, the pattern is like this. All my creative work; my novels, you know, plays, poems are in Gikuyu. All my scholarly work so far - I include memoirs - is generally in English, but somewhere, they are going to meet together. Yeah.
MARTIN: Do you mind talking a little bit more about that, why you made that decision and you stick to it?
THIONG'O: An interpreter has to know the languages of the people he's interpreting for or to whom he is interpreting. One of the greatest tragedies, I believe, of Africa is a complete disconnection of the elite from their linguistic base. In their reality, because of language, what happens is the messenger who is sent by the community to go and fetch knowledge from wherever they can get it becomes a prisoner. He never returns, so to speak, metaphorically, because he stays within the language of his captivity. In the case of African elite, generally, on the continent, is English and French. Monolingualism suffocates. Language contact is the oxygen of civilization.
MARTIN: After all those years in exile, did you feel that you were able to be heard by the people who you wanted to hear you?
THIONG'O: Yeah. Of course, there are many other problems. It's not just any one thing, you know, say, like, language, for instance.
THIONG'O: You write in Gikuyu, as I do...
THIONG'O: ...then you find there are no publishers to bring out the books in Gikuyu language. It's not a simple solution. But, anyway, when I was put in prison in 1977, '78, I decided to write in Gikuyu. That's when I wrote my first novel in Gikuyu. "Devil on the Cross" is the one which I wrote on toilet paper, because it was the only writing material that was accessible to me.
But, despite all those problems, what, eventually, I came out of the maximum security prison after protests from all over the world. The reception was really great, despite problems of illiteracy. The book was read in people's houses, in buses, you know. That was, for me, was very, very, very encouraging. And not even that, previous to the novel "Devil on the Cross," and the reason why I was put in prison was, quite frankly, a play which my friend, the late Ngugi wa Mirii, and I wrote in the Gikuyu language, and which was performed by a village community in our language.
Now, this was so empowering to the community, but the state - the post-colonial state - banned the play, and then put me in the prison.
THIONG'O: You'd have thought that seeing intellectuals from the University of Nairobi and writers connecting with the rural folk would be something the government would really encourage, but no.
MARTIN: But no.
THIONG'O: They used a sledgehammer to destroy the whole thing and put me in prison.
MARTIN: I was going to a point there, though, which is that you spent some years in England, then went back to the U.S. And then you eventually returned to Kenya on a publishing tour in 2004 to a bit of a hero's welcome, which one might think, given all of your accomplishments. But then a horrible thing happened to you and your wife when thugs broke into your home, beat you, robbed you and sexually assaulted her, just an awful thing to happen to anyone. And then you - but you both, instead of - you know, some, out of a sense of shame, might want to just not talk about it, but both of you have spoken publicly about this. And I wanted to ask: What do you feel arose from that?
THIONG'O: My wife Njeeri and I returned to Kenya. You know, we are very happy with it. That is simply tremendous and so on, you know, and then there's these four armed gunmen into our hotel. They put us there because they thought this was very, very secure, but - so how did the gunmen manage to penetrate all that and come to our room? That question has never been properly - (unintelligible), but it was very, very traumatic in some ways. But, if we had kept - or my wife had kept silent about it, it would have been a wound festering in us. But it's not our fault. It's not her fault.
So the only way of overcoming such trauma is, quite frankly, by refusing to succumb, to be what they want you to be, but rather to keep on affirming what you've always affirmed, you know, a more positive relationship to life.
MARTIN: What has kept you going all these years?
THIONG'O: My mother was very important in my life, my late mother. She could not read or write, but she sent me to school. She supervised my homework. I remember the constant question she'd always ask me, even when I got 100 percent in anything. She'd still ask me whether that was the best I had. She was very fascinated with the best that I could have done. And in every situation, she comes to my mind. It's like I see her all the time as someone who's watching me, all the time, when I'm trying my best, under whatever circumstances I might be in, whether in jail, in exile or whether under attack.
MARTIN: Well, for those who are not fortunate enough to have such a mother, do you have some wisdom, perhaps, that you could share with us?
THIONG'O: It isn't a wisdom, but actually a reality. When whatever forces put you down, you don't stay down, because if you stay down, you're fulfilling their wishes. To me, this is very, very, very important. I tell my children all the time: When life knocks you down, don't stay there. Rise up again. Keep on trying. To me, this is very, very important. Yeah.
MARTIN: That was author, playwright and scholar Ngugi wa Thiong'o. His latest book, a memoir, is called "In the House of the Interpreter." It has been nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award. He was kind enough to join us from NPR West in Culver City, California.
Professor wa Thiong'o, thank you so much for speaking with us once again.
THIONG'O: Yeah. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.