Occasionally at festivals like this, you get moments of where you feel utterly honoured by someone’s presence. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is one such person. While his name was not one I was familiar with before the AWF announcements, a little reading up in advance of his session quickly had me bowled over. And then, despite his 80 years, he proceeded to bowl me over once again at his main AWF session.
Ngũgĩ was in conversation with Kubé Jones-Neill, who, perhaps deducing that many in the audience had not yet read extensive amounts of Ngũgĩ’s work, noted that the aim for the session would be to introduce his wider body of work to the audience, and provide a context for his writing to date.
Kubé began with a line of questioning around the transitional era in which Ngũgĩ grew up, mentioning that he was born into colonial Kenya, but by the time he graduated from university, ‘it was an independent Kenya.’
As he would prove charmingly adept at doing to over the next hour, Ngũgĩ took the reins of the conversation and drove things in rather a different direction. Eventually, we would get back to his formative years, but first of all there were important stories to be shared about his relationship with New Zealand.
He first visited Aotearoa in 1984, when he was invited to give the Robb Lectures at the University of Auckland – lectures that would ultimately lead to the publication of Decolonising the Mind: the Politics of Language in African Literature, one of his best known non-fiction works. These language-oriented lectures coincided with Māori Language Week, which was perhaps part of what spurred a conversation he had with a Māori woman after one of the lectures.
‘She said, “you are not talking about Kenya – you are talking about us – the Māori people”.’ – an anecdote that spoke to the power and parallels of the post-colonial experience across the world.
This conenction with UoA led to Ngũgĩ’s being awarded with an honorary doctorate in 2005. ‘So technically,’ he said with a grin, ‘I’m an old student! I’m back home.’
Having meandered a ways from Kubé’s question, Ngũgĩ was suddenly perhaps conscious of this fact, as before he headed on another tangent, he turned to her and asked ‘can I say this?’
Permission happily granted, he shared a tale about how he came to love mussels, courtesy of a trip to Waiheke on a previous Kiwi voyage. ‘In the Kenyan highlands, they are very suspicious of things that come from the sea. To her dying day, my mother would not eat fish – even if she was starving.’
So he was very suspicious of shellfish, mussels among them. But when in Auckland, Selina Tusitala Marsh invited him on a trip over to Waiheke, and while they walked on the beach together, Selina collected ‘some things’. They returned to her house, and her mother cooked ‘something’. When the food was laid out, it was – to Kenyan highlander Ngũgĩ’s horror – mussels. But unable to refuse food cooked by his friend’s mother, he ate it – ‘and from that day on, we became converts. Wherever we go, we ask for mussels.’
Courtesy of this revelation – and other soft spots for our shores, Ngũgĩ said firmly: ‘New Zealand is always on my mind.’
Appetite’s for cheerfully enchanting stories having been whetted by the mussel story, Ngũgĩ finally turned back to his earlier years. ‘As a novelist, you’re always drawing on the resources of your own life.’
He was born on the eve of the Second World War to a family with one father and four mothers – his own biological mother his father’s three other wives. It was his mother that really had the biggest impact on his life. ‘She couldn’t read or write, but her dream of education was realised [through me].’ She was the one who pushed him into school, to achieve great things. And even though she couldn’t read his work and keep tabs on his progress that way, Ngũgĩ said ‘She had a way of asking probing questions until she had an idea of knowing how I was doing.’
She put in his head ‘the idea of the best’, he said, though he also said that ‘she was more interested in whether or not I put in enough effort.’
In an ongoing effort to provide as much valuable context for the audience as possible, he described the segregated nature of his school – Alliance High School – and an African History 101 type brief overview of settler versus non-settler colonies. While inside the school gates he took lessons and expanded his horizons, the outside world was a place of war and fights for liberation.
‘School became a kind of refuge for me. You could close your eyes and not hear the sound of war.’ When he went home to his village after his first term, he returned to a place that had been razed to the ground. ‘Desolation,’ he described it. ‘I’m getting teary when I think about it now.’
And university came next – specifically, Makarere University. ‘For me, it was a remarkable period in my life, those four years between ’59 and ’64 – when I graduated. I came out with an honours degree, two novels, eight short stories, newspaper articles and so on.’
Kubé asked him what he had been writing about, to which Ngũgĩ responded: ‘I was trying to understand myself in history.’
After a little tale about how his first novel was written for a competition – and therefore ‘for money!’ rather than love of the craft. Discussion wove around his journalistic pursuits, his scholarship to the University of Leeds – which was a real eye-opener for Ngũgĩ, introducing him to different types of thinkers like Marx and writers like Conrad, all of which had their respective influences on him.
Every fragment of his history that was shared seemed to have some kind of evocative fish out of water moment – like when he was invited to New York for PEN’s international conference, and he found himself trying out different poses for how a writer ‘should’ sit.
But the next core focus of the discussion was of his shift in his approach to writing and language and to the surrounding colonial environment.
He was instrumental in the ‘abolition of the English department’ at Nairobi University – really a shift in naming and focuses to beyond the traditional Britain-focused literary tradition, moving from Department of English to Department of Literature. ‘We were accused of abolishing Shakespeare – but no, Shakespeare would still be there, alongside other writings.’
‘That was the beginning of my fracas with the postcolonial government in Kenya.’
Petals of Blood, published in 1977 was the last novel Ngũgĩ wrote in English – marking a shift to prioritising his native tongue of Gikuyu. Devil on the Cross was written in a maximum security prison in 1978, where he was detained without charge for a year after his involvement in the setting up of African theatre in the area.
The conversation continued for a little while longer, reestablishing his connections to and fondness for New Zealand. Prior to his final reading, he kept getting caught on tangent after tangent, contextualisation after contextualisation – and ultimately, everything was the richer for it. This was a man of incredible history and reputation, and we were more than happy for him to drive the session on his own terms.
Reviewed by Briar Lawry
Wrestling with the Devil
Published by Vintage