Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o

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Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o is a Kenyan writer, postcolonial theorist, and a professor of comparative literature at universities across the world, including most recently the University of California, Irvine.  Recurrently regarded as a likely candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature, he is the author of numerous classics, including Weep Not, Child (1964), The River Between (1965), Grain of Wheat (1967), Petals of Blood (1977), Devil on the Cross (1980), and Wizard of the Crow (2004).


Q: What is your writing process like?

Very simple. It takes me a long time to get an idea, a theme, a subject that fires my imagination, but once I get it, I am very persistent, and I can write under any condition, time, and space.

Q: How do you edit your work?

In the course of writing, I often go over the paragraphs and chapters already done. When I get stuck in the middle, I often return to the beginning to be in the mood, the moment, the momentum, and even the rhythm. After the first draft, I go back over the whole manuscript, as many times as necessary. I once recalled my manuscript from the publisher—it was already in the page proof stage. The publisher was not amused. They made me pay for the extra cost involved, but they were happy with the results.

Q: What advice do you have for budding writers?

I give the same advice to writers who come to me for guidance. It is simple. Write Write Write again, and you will get it right. In short: Write and write makes it right.

Q: As someone who has pioneered audience participation in theatre, what are your thoughts on the writer's responsibility to the reader and, likewise, the reader's responsibility to the writer?

It’s mutual responsibility. I write for a reader. The reader is the recipient of the final product. Their reception of a work of art completes the work. That also means that each reader’s completion of a work of art is different than another reader’s. Their reactions, whenever it is possible for the writer to get them, does of course inspire the writer for the next creative act. Buying a book is a really good way of telling the writer, “Write On!”

Q: Your writing has sociological and political motifs closely related to your life and experiences. What are your thoughts on literature's role in relation to society and politics? Does it have the power to enact change, or is it more of a mirror to the world?

Food nourishes the body. Religion and other moral systems nourish the soul. Art nourishes the imagination. We often take imagination for granted. But it is one of the most important elements of the human; it’s what differentiates the human from the animal or the plant. We can recall the past and imagine the future. We can imagine a building in our mind and then realize it with our hands. Without imagination, there is no architecture, no technologies. These are first imagined in the mind before being realized in fact. Art itself is the product of imagination, which it in turn nourishes. Art is the food, water, and oxygen of the imagination, and we need lively, healthy imaginations for human life to be. That is why dictatorships imprison writers, artists, singers, etc. They want to shrink the collective imagination. They don’t want any calls for the populace to imagine a future different from the one decreed by the oppressive state.

Q: While imprisoned in the Kamiti Maximum Security Prison by the administration of Arap Moi for the writing of your play, I Will Marry When I Want, you wrote the novel Devil on the Cross on toilet paper. What does the act of writing mean to you personally?

By the way, I am telling the story of my writing Devil on the Cross in a shortened version of my prison memoir. It will be released in 2018 under the title Wrestling with the Devil. Actually, I was imprisoned under the government of Jomo Kenyatta. He died when I was in prison. I came out under the reign of Daniel Arap Moi, who then forced me into exile. When, in 2015, the current President, Uhuru Kenyatta, received me at the State House, I made up a line. Jomo Kenyatta sent me to prison, guest of the state. Daniel Arap Moi forced me into exile, enemy of the state. Uhuru Kenyatta received me at the State House. Writing is that which I have to do. Storytelling. I see life through stories. Life itself is one big, magical story.

Q: Do you have any quirks, as a writer, that most people would not know about, such as only writing in the mornings or preferring to write standing up?

No, not writing standing up. But once I start work while seated in a particular chair in a particular corner of the table or the house, I always gravitate to the same spot. But once the work is done, I lose all interest in the chair and the spot.

Q: Considering the continuing state of global power relations, should we view the term "postcolonialism" as misleading or premature?

I have talked about the problematic nature of the term in my book, Globalectics: Theory and Practice of Knowing. The postcolonial is a term that continues to expand in its application. It does really illuminate the condition of those societies that have emerged from domination by another. But the postcolonial should lead us to the global. There is no way we can understand the modern world that begins, say, in the 15th century without colonialism.

Q: In your work, does symbolism naturally emerge in the process of writing, or do the symbols precede and shape the composition?

It depends on the story. There are some which have first appeared to me as an image; others, as a dialogue between two characters.

Q: What is one of your greatest fears as a writer?

Not being able to write.


Editor's note: This interview was conducted in conjunction with Howl.  It has been edited for content.