ROSEMARY MCCLURE: In what language do you usually write?
NGŨGĨ WA THIONG’O: There was a time I wrote in English, but now I often write in my language, Gĩkũyũ [spoken by almost seven million Kenyans], and translate it back into English. It’s more of a challenge for me.
What sets “The Upright Revolution” apart from your other work?
I describe myself as a language warrior for marginalized languages. Much of the intellectual production in Africa is done in European languages: English, French, Portuguese. The people in Africa speak African languages. They have a right to cultural products written in their language. Translation is an important tool that makes it possible for different cultures to borrow from each other.
What are some examples of cultural borrowing?
The Bible and the Qur’an. People can read them because they’re available in their own languages. Here at UCI, we’re able to discuss Hegel, because his works have been translated. We don’t have to understand the German language to learn from his works. The same is true with Greek mythology; we can learn from it without knowing how to speak Greek. Translation becomes a process whereby languages can talk to each other.
Is that why you’re enthusiastic about the translations of your short story?
I became excited about this story because Jalada picked the story up, produced a translation journal that included it, and worked with many translators to make it available in many languages. It makes me feel very happy to see young people picking up these languages and showing that it can be done. I’m very proud of the project and that my story has been part of this phenomenon.
In 1977, you were imprisoned for a year for critical works about neocolonial Kenya. How did you cope?
For a writer, it was difficult. You were not allowed to write. You were not allowed to do anything, even ask, “Is it raining outside today? Is it sunny outside?” So the only way I could actually, literally, deal with my prison conditions — maximum-security prison for doing nothing — was by writing secretly. I wrote a novel, Devil on a Cross, in Gĩkũyũ on toilet paper with a pen they had given me to write a confession.