An Interview With Ngugi wa Thiong'o

"No African writer has as many major, lasting creative achievements in such a wide range of genre as Ngugi wa Thiong'o. His books include novels, plays, short stories, essays and scholarship, criticism and children's literature."

(Left Curve) Ngugi wa Thiong'o. Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams by Charles Cantalupo: His fiction, non fiction and drama, from the early 1960's to the present are frequently reprinted. He is the founder and editor of the groundbreaking, Gikuyu-language journal, Mutiiri. Political exile from Kenya, Ngugi - as he is known worldwide - is currently the Erich Remarque Professor of Languages at New York University, with a dual professorship in Comparative Literature and Performance Studies.

Baudelaire writes, "De la vaporisation et de la concentration du moi. Tout est la." ("The dispersion and the reconstitution of the self. That's the whole story.") It's not. This is a primary message of African literature and art today. Ngugi wa Thiong'o is one of its primary exemplars.

This interview focuses on Ngugi wa Thiong'o's book of essays, Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams: Towards a Critical Theory of the Arts and the State in Africa (Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1998). Based on the four lectures he was invited to give at Oxford University in 1996, as a part of the Clarendon Lectures in English Literature series, and subtitled "Towards a Critical Theory of the Arts and the State in Africa," the book moves freely and universally, from Plato to Okot p'Bitek, pre-ancient Egypt to postmodern New York; the Macaulay, colonial minute to Marx to Mau Mau: from the war between art and the state to "the beautyful ones...not yet born." In the book's preface, while Ngugi gratefully recalls a pleasurable and productive stay at Somerville College, he also notes, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, perhaps, a feeling of rebuke from "a huge portrait of Queen Elizabeth I...[on] the wall of the dining-room of Jesus College for my unfavorable her edict of 1601 in which she had called for the expulsion of black people from her realm." At Somerville, the college of Margaret Thatcher when she was a student at Oxford, Ngugi feels "another rebuke for [his] claims...that the capitalist fundamentalism of which she and Reagan were the leading apostles was wreaking social havoc in the world and generating other forms of fundamentalism in opposition or alliance." His apartment abuts "Margaret Thatcher Court."

The interview takes place on a mild and gray Veteran's Day afternoon. A landscape of missing ceiling panels, hills and valleys of paper, mail clutter, catalogues, piles of folders that have never been vertically filed, books, empty bags, quite far-back issues of African literary journals, and many half filled boxes of Mutiiri, Ngugi's NYU office looks out on a rare, mercifully undeveloped patch of downtown Broadway. Noticing that Ngugi has lost his voice due to a cold, I sympathize. He replies that characters in his new novel lose their voices, too.

NWT: My voice is back.

CC: Good. Many of your first publications appeared in the Makerere University English department's literary magazine, Penpoints. You call your new book of essays Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams. What are some of the connections between the two? Is the repetition deliberate?

NWT: Yes, there is a connection. Penpoints is a good name: penpoints - the power of the pen. I was interested in the power of the pen. The echo is there.

CC: The subtitle of your new book is "Towards a Critical Theory of the Arts and the State in Africa." Much of your previous non fiction - Decolonizing the Mind and Moving the Centre, for example - might be described in similar terms. What provoked you to continue in this vein? What new critical and political issues for you in the last five years make these new essays further departures "towards" formulating an aesthetic as well as taking a political stance?

NWT: Two things. Although I'm calling it "Towards a Critical Theory of the Arts and the State in Africa," a better or more appropriate subtitle might have been "A Performance Theory of the Arts and the State in Africa." The question of performance is more pronounced here than in any of my previous works. That is quite important to me. Second, in this text I'm much more interested in the nature of art and the nature of the state, and their relationship: something which I have not explored in my previous works. I've touched on the subject here and there but without a coherent framework. Art's war with the state is basic to the nature of art and the nature of the state, any state. There is always the possibility of conflict between the state and art.

CC: The concept of "performance" has become a uniting theme in your work. You write of it "in the narrow sense of representation of an action as in theater and in the broader sense of any action that assumes an audience during the actualization. The concept of performance is opening out new possibilities in the analysis of human behavior, including literature. The exercise of power, for instance, involves variations on the performance theme." Indeed, you are a professor of Performance Studies. What drew you to this new scholarly discipline? How did your life and writing prepare you, perhaps without your knowing it, for this new field? There is a sense in your writing that you are learning from it at least as much as you are contributing to it with your work.

NWT: Of course, I've been in theater all my life. I've worked in community theater in Kenya: in the Kamirithu Community Educational and Cultural Centre. And this, of course, brought me into conflict with the state in Kenya. My work in theater has been a preparation for this. I have also gained from using the term as a conceptual tool. So much in society depends on "performance. " It provides new insights into certain behaviors. It is central to so many things. For example, you can't have religion without performance: performance, weekly, daily. Think of all those festivals. Think of performance in a wide sense. Performance enables people to negotiate their way through the various realms of being. Performance is a means for people to realize their unknown, even if it's only in the imagination. Performance is a very important concept. I have learned from it, but also I have been involved in it.

CC: Is an emphasis on "performance" a way of advancing postcolonial critical discourse? As you discuss it, the concept of "performance" would seem to broaden and, perhaps, revitalize postcolonial studies.

NWT: Yes, and not only the postcolonial but many disciplines. The concept of performance can also be used to look at some of the older disciplines and reinterpreting some of the older texts. For example, Elizabeth Claire's work on performance and dance in Jane Austen has let us see what we hadn't before in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Performance is a concept that enables many things to be looked at differently. In classical writings, too, like Plato, for instance, the context of the dialogues is a performance in the dramatic sense. If you look at Plato's Republic, the dialogues exist within the larger context of their dramatization and, furthermore, the contexts of dramatic and religious festivals. There is a kind of performativity all around. The concept, however, must not become too wide or so broad that "anything goes." I take, for example, two features like representation and the assumption of an audience to be very important. In other words, a farmer planting crops ordinarily for the production of whatever he wants to eat or sell could be called a performance. But if I'm demonstrating as a farmer that I plant crops so that people can come and see how this is done, that would be a performance that is assuming that there is an audience. Even though this is an act I am actually doing, I am representing another action. The audience is very important.

CC: Another large, perhaps parallel theme in this book is orature. You write that " not seen as a branch of literature but as a total aesthetic system, with performance and integration of art forms as two of its defining qualities. It is more basic and more primary than the other systems of the literary, the theatrical, and the cinematic because all the other systems take one or more of their main features from orature." You consider orature, "a unifying force," including "the four aesthetic systems of the written, the oral, the theatrical and the cinematic." You argue that "The centrality of orature to all the other systems calls for a reconfiguration and regrouping of disciplines" in which "their hierarchical denied" and there is an end of "the historical rifts separating theorist, critics, and practitioners." What are some of the critical, historical and geographical factors that have led you to such a conclusion? How has it influenced and changed your own writing and thinking?

NWT: If you look at orature in all societies, classical or contemporary, it refuses to draw very firm boundaries between disciplines, genres or forms. If you take a story, an oral narrative for instance, it will contain dance or music. The work might also involve audience participation, a chorus, or even the audience as a chorus. Often there are songs themselves or songs that involve dance variations. In some cases the word for the song and dance is the same. A song, a proverb, whatever: it suggests other forms. As important, performance is central to the study and realization of orature, as well as narratives, proverbs, whatever you do. Performance is central, unifying. There is a performance to space, to architecture, to sculpture. The assumption in classical orature is that the boundary between the natural world and the supernatural is fluid. In terms of aesthetics, the integrative aspect of orature is a very important element. Many disciplines and activities come under the umbrella of orature. The theater is a halfway house in which the realization of the drama is for it to become orature. The realization on stage of a musical composition embraces the concept of orature. While it integrates the many different possibilities of performance, orature also allows for the differences, for example, among narrative, song or drama.

CC: Orature and performance work together. Is performance a means to embracing orature?

NWT: Performance is central. They are not synonymous. Performance is what distinguishes orature from literature, even in the most obvious way: when you are reading a novel, you don't need a performance.

CC: You're completing a new novel. Are there ways in which your thinking about orature and performance has affected the novel?

NWT: Yes, but we won't go into too much detail about it because writing is a complicated process. Performance is central to the new novel. It is a state of performance. The characters are engaged in the constant performance of their own being for the narrative. You never quite know who they are. Often they reinvent themselves through performance. Even I, as their author, do not know where or how the whole novel is going to end except in the constant performance of their own being.

CC: Is this a reinvention both in public and private?

NWT: Yes. The characters in this new novel constantly reinvent themselves. I don't know if they are making progress because I've only done the first two drafts. My wife, Njeeri, is now reading it. She's at the house and maybe you should call there.

CC: For sure - I'll call later. In the meantime, you may recall that William Blake called the Bible "the great code of art." In the introduction to Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams, you assert that "The goal of human society is the reign of art on earth." Taken out of context, this could almost sound like a kind of fin de siecle aestheticism for the 20th century much like what happened at the end of the 19th century in the West. The slightest familiarity with your work, however, reveals anything but the aesthete. What do you mean by "the reign of art?"

NWT: I associate my concept of art with creativity, movement, change and renewal. I'm thinking of a much more ethical society than what we have now. This "reign of art" would subsume or transcend the coercive nature of the state: a more ethical, more human society that is constantly renewing itself; art embodies this. I remember, historically speaking, a time when there was no state because I grew up in a society where literally there wasn't a state, at least in its centralized form. Art precedes the formation of the state. The state embodies a static concept of conservation, holding back. Of course, when the state is also controlled by a class, it is an instrument for much more for holding back of society. Creativity, art embodies the principle of what our hands do anyway: change. Creativity is really the essence of what is God and what is human. God is changing: we change the environment, we change when we plant, when human beings sow. When human beings plant one seed, this will produce more seeds out of one. We take what we raise and transform it for the better. We see many transformations, like the advance of science and technology, although their benefits these days do not necessarily go to enhancing the lives of the majority of the people.

CC: This brings us back to the war between art and the state. A bomb hits the garden.

NWT: The central logic of both art and the state is for each to work itself free: which creates opposition. In reality, however, it is not always absolute. There is sometimes an attempt at mutual corruption. The state will corrupt art. Art will try to influence the state. Some artists try to align themselves with the state.

CC: Yet you describe the "war between art and the state" as "really a struggle between the power of performance in the arts and the performance of power by the state - in short, enactments of power." You assert that "The performance space of the artist stands for openness; that of the state, for confinement. Art breaks down barriers between people; the state erects them." What of an alliance or at least a correspondence between art and the state. Historically, maybe we have seen moments when this has been possible, but has it ever lasted? Are there any benefits when art and the state work together?

NWT: The moment you open out democratic space, this is important for art: you also open the space for creativity. Historically there are moments of great, revolutionary change when you can see art and the state anticipating and almost together working out a new world. Art anticipates a new world. Revolutionary forces in society are always anticipating that world. But once a state, even a revolutionary state, comes to power, the very nature of the state is to hold back. A permanently revolutionary state is almost an impossibility. Even a revolutionary state has to pass laws. It has to constitute what it considers to be stability of some kind. It's aim is to repeat itself.

CC: You write that "There is no state that can be in permanent revolution. Art, on the other hand, is revolutionary by its very nature as art"; and "Art has more questions than it has answers... The state, on the other hand, has plenty of answers and hardly any questions. The more absolutist the state, the less it is likely to ask questions of itself or entertain questioning by others."

NWT: Even a novelist at his poorest does not want to reproduce his previous work. I think of art in terms of permanent revolution. Permanent, constant revolution is not inherent in the nature of the state and its operations. Constant revolutionizing, reinventing itself is inherent in the nature of art. The artist considers reinventing himself all the time. The state has to conserve. Therefore, the possibility of conflict is always there.

CC: You write "Where...there is no democracy for the rest of the population, there cannot be democracy for the writer." What is the role of African-language writers in contributing to economic, political, and cultural empowerment, strengthening civil society and current, emerging democratic traditions and governance, and reforming the language of African political discourse?

NWT: All over the world art is constantly attempting to return language to the people. Any moment of exceptional literary achievement in a national tradition signals a writer's return of language at its fullest to people in their daily life. In the context of Africa, writers need to return to the languages actually spoken by the people to enlarge the space of people's understanding to include more experiences. A writer makes a language for its speakers to comprehend their universe better than ever before. African languages can play a big role in Africa's democratization, its spiritual awakening and enhancement. But that spirit is repeatedly crushed because English and French continue to dominate a continent where most people speak African languages.

CC: Penpoints, Gunpoints and Dreams contains an extensive re-interpretation of the allegory of the cave from Plato's Republic. Roughly speaking, you argue that the dominance of European languages in the critical discourse of the majority of African intellectuals sets them, so to speak, forever outside the cave: the space of which they neither re-enter nor open. You also offer Ayi Kwei Armah's novel, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, as a kind of alternative to Plato's story. For example, replacing Plato's ideal, incorruptible, true philosophers with Armah's "beautiful ones" who are to lead the African state of the future, you write,

Such intellectuals, whenever they are born, will grow their roots in African languages and cultures. They will also learn the best they can from all world languages and cultures. They will view themselves as scouts in foreign linguistic territories and guides in their own linguistic space. In other words, they will take whatever is most advanced in those languages and cultures and translate those ideas into their own languages. They will have no complexes about borrowing from others to enrich their own....They will see their role as that of doing for African languages and cultures what all writers and intellectuals of other countries and histories have done for theirs.

What led you to Plato?

NWT: "The Beautyful Ones Not Yet Born" is a very beautiful phrase. The image of the cave is very distinct.It's an image with a logic that goes against Plato's philosophy itself. The assumption of the allegory of the cave that philosophers who see the light must come back - that an elite should come back to the people in a cave - goes against Plato's advocacy in the same book of an hierarchical society with categories like philosopher kings, the warriors and guardians of the state as opposed to its more lowly workers. Such an elite in fact does not return to the people. My work in performance has led me to re-examine more and more, or go back to and revisit classical Greece. I've found that it was a very oral society. To think of that society being literate in terms of writing is a 20th-century projection. In reality, we see a very oral society. Socrates, for instance, is working within theories of orature, conversing in the market place. Dialogues take place as he's coming from there or going to a festival. They take place in and around the house, by the fireside. He's not a writer. In a sense, this society exemplifies a kind of orature and Socrates is actually a philosopher within the oral tradition. Plato's dialogues assume a kind orality. Even bad translations cannot kill or hide this. It is everywhere.

CC: In Decolonizing the Mind (1987), you describe the condition of most African intellectuals being educated only in Europhone languages as "literally ...[a] split between the mind and the body of Africa, producing... nations of bodiless heads and headless bodies. The community puts resources in the education of a people who will never bring home their share of knowledge." In your new work, you write

[A]n intellectual is a worker in ideas using words as the means of production. It means that for Africa the thinking part of the population, the one with the pool of skills and know-how in economics, agriculture, science, engineering is divorced from the agency of social change: the working majority. At the level of economics, science, and technology Africa will keep on talking about transfer of technology from the West. There are countless resolutions about this in regional, continental, and international conferences. Yet the African intellectual elite ... refuse to transfer even the little they have already acquired in the language of the majority below....knowledge researched by sons and daughters of Africa, and actually paid for by the entire working majority who need it most, is stored in European-language granaries. There can be no real economic growth and development where a whole people are denied access to the latest developments in science, technology, health, medicine, business, finance and other skills of survival because all these are stored in foreign languages. Ignorance of progress in ideas is a guarantee against rapid economic growth.

Do you see any signs that the African mind and body need not be split by language in the future? As you yourself write, "If some of the best and most articulate of the interpreters of African total being insist on interpreting in languages not understood by the subject of their interpretation, where lies the hope of African deliverance?"

NWT: In Greek mythology, Zeus employs Prometheus to make men out of mud and water but, in pity for their state, he steals fire from Olympus and gives it to them. The image of fire is very strong for me. It is central to knowledge...light, technology, heat. Fire changes things. Fire is almost everything. I'm not surprised that many people used to worship the sun. They were not all that wrong in seeing the sun as God, the source of everything. The question is whether Prometheus leaves the fire to the gods or gives it to humans. Does he give them the fire or does he say that they can only use this fire when they come up the mountain. The whole idea is that he brings the fire to them. But where is the fire when we African intellectuals refuse to dialogue in African languages, the language of the vast majority of our people?

CC: Citing Marx's observation "that an idea grasped by the masses becomes a material force," you suggest that "language is obviously the best, the cheapest, and the most effective way of disseminating such ideas." Does this imply that the discouragement and outright suppression of education and writing in African languages, even now in a postcolonial era, is a deliberate means of social and political oppression of, perhaps, the worst sort?

NWT: If and when African intellectuals are progressive, for example, through an emphasis on democracy, there can still be a fundamental contradiction about their ideas if, as in the biblical parable, their light is hidden under the bushel basket of European languages that the majority of the people do not understand. In this sense, African intellectuals continue, ironically, a tradition of their own enslavement. They are like people who work for a feudal lord. Their happiness, even though they are honest, depends on working in his house. Their sense of being connects to their constant narration of what goes on around the feudal lord, his comings and goings.

CC: American slave plantations also had their house hands and field hands.

NWT: We are operating with European languages where there are African languages whose space we could be opening out.

CC: Are you suggesting that writers and scholars make a deliberate choice of language and that there is no "sitting on the fence" concerning this issue amidst the struggle of African people for greater cultural, political and economic empowerment within a democratic space?

NWT: Yes. After much wavering, I came to this conclusion in my book, Decolonizing the Mind. But in Penpoints ...[and]Gunpoints I take a firmer position. I look at language and a whole history of interpretation over five hundred years. I trace the issue of plantation slavery and how language is used as a way within the plantation of keeping practical communication bound exclusively to itself. Not only are various African languages suppressed as a means of communication among the slaves. Colonial plantations themselves enforce their own language as a means of enclosure, be they English, French or Spanish. They never meet unless through conquest or reconquest. The colonizing power in Africa of Europe similarly keeps people bound to its languages. Yet the struggle of African people in the "New World" also takes the form of creating new languages. These people's conditions of life also mean a struggle to construct the world in their own terms. Thus we find Creole languages, patois and much more. Africa should learn from that tremendous struggle to recompose a new world: to create new languages that owe their being to African languages. Colonizing principles are very clear about the role of language. The widespread practice of linguistic engineering would create a vast army of Africans whose interpretations in the languages of their colonizers would reinforce their power over their subjects.

CC: Linguistic engineering: this sounds a little like 'ethnic cleansing.' To recognize the hyper-conscious and deliberate imposition of colonial languages and not merely their absorption is a horror, indeed.

NWT: Ironically, in not working more through African languages we are continuing, even when we are conscious of it, a neocolonial system that still binds African people. At an economic level, Africa produces raw materials that are processed in Europe and returned to Africa. At the level of culture, we see the same pattern. We draw our own resources in African languages and this is processed in English or French and then brought back as a finished product in French or English for African consumption. And still it does not reach a level of consumption as great as if it had remained in African languages, in the same way that gold that is mined in Africa and brought back from Europe is too expensive and inaccessible to all but the few. In the same way, we draw upon the linguistic resources and life of Africa, even in political struggles, and they are processed in English or French. But when they are brought back in this form they are lost and inaccessible to the vast majority of the population who only speak African languages.

CC: You call "the ascendance of capitalist fundamentalism and the Darwinian ethical systems which it is generating ... the mother of all fundamentalisms, religious and nationalistic." You insist that "there should be no ambiguity about the necessity to abolish the economic and social conditions which bring about the need for charity and begging within any nation and between nations, and language should sensitize human beings to that necessity." "Art," you claim, "should join all the other social forces in society to extend the performance space for human creativity and self-organizations and so strengthen civil society." You even predict that "just as it was the case in some pre-capitalist societies, it is possible that ...[in]a post-capitalist society, production will be geared not towards social domination of others but towards meeting human needs, culture and creativity." Is a "reign of art" precisely in African languages a key to democratic empowerment and success in such a struggle?

NWT: The empowerment of African languages is clearly part of this process. If we look at the period in our history when questions of privatization and profit become the barometer for progress in society instead of class solidarity, what do we find? Consider Yugoslavia now with its ethnic massacres and when there was more emphasis on class solidarity. The moment we come to a post-cold war de-emphasis of class begins a new period of ethnic fundamentalism. It corresponds to a puritanism of capitalism. This fundamentalism of finance capital occurs within the same period of all sorts of other fundamentalisms, sometimes even in alliance with it, as in Christian-right fundamentalism; or in opposition to it. How do we fight against this force of fundamentalism, whatever form it takes, which seems to threaten people who often do not understand what is threatening them, as class solidarity has been de-emphasized in recent thinking in favor of national wars, ethnic and religious boundaries or whatever seems to present some kind of assurance and stability more readily known? Art connects. It says that human beings are connected. Art says, "Look. We are connected. It's like ecology. Human beings are connected: trees to animals to other human beings." Art tends to say, "we live in one universe, you know?" Art seems to emphasize spirituality, the spiritual expression of human life.

CC: The role of art is to break through fundamentalisms?

NWT: Yes. To break boundaries and borders that separate. (source)

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