Ake Festival 2016 headliner Ngugi Wa Thiong’o was moderated by Okey Ndibe at the final book type event on November 19th.
The headliner event at Ake Festival is where the cover writer for the Ake Review in any given year gets to do their thing. This year Kenyan author, scholar, essayist and generally awesome gentleman Ngugi wa Thiong’o was the one receiving the honour. He had spent the week doing school tours and meeting the next generation of readers and writers. He had attended panels and book launches like that one for Odafe Atogun and he was an active participant. He was gracious to every person at the venue who asked to take a selfie with him even though he did look a mite tired.
The event at the Hubert Ogunde Hall June 12 Cultural Centre on November 19 was his time in the spotlight. His time to be the sun at a festival that had been full of literary stars.
The evening started with a reading of his now famous story The Upright Revolution which had been translated into 55 languages by the time that we had started the festival. On that day, a language would be added: Yoruba. A section of the story would be read in different languages by different speakers of that languages started off by Ngugi in Kikuyu. Also doing the readings would be Noviolet Bulawayo (Ndebele), Tendai Huchu (Shona), yours truly (Sheng) and more.
With the readings done, Ngugi’s discussion moderated by Okey Ndibe begun. Here are excerpts;
On the reading he had just listened to: He stated that he was moved with the performances, having first seen the first one being done by the Jalada Collective in Nairobi some days prior.
On how his story became so translated: The story was accidental when his grandkids demanded a story from him as a gift. He left the story on his hard drive for two years until the Jalada Collective requested a story for a translation edition. They took the story and translated into it 30 languages and since then the story has taken a life of its own. It affirmed his faith that all African languages could be in conversation with other world languages.
On the Jalada Collective and the Upright Revolution: He challenged publishers in Nigeria to take up The Upright Revolution and translate the story into their local languages.
On how he started writing fiction: He was inspired by John Kariara an older student and the editor of Penpoint Magazine – the journal of Makerere University. In 1960 as a freshman he asked Kariara if he would look at his short story which he had not written. Kariara asked for it and he worked overnight to write his first short story, The Fig Tree.
On literary prizes: He is not against prizes but against prizes for African writers that give conditions that the languages to submit in were either English or French.
On what is affecting African languages negatively: The biggest problem is government policies against our languages especially the education policies. Also on the list of the greatest impediments are publishers and writers.
On why European languages also had to go through struggles: European languages also went through this stage. When the Bible was first translated into the English language the comments that made at the time were rude and crude.
On his campaign for African languages: One incident happened when he was invited for Pen International conference when he was still a student at Leeds University where Arthur Miller who wrote Death of a Salesman was guest of honour. Ngugi was there as a regional guest of honour from Africa with a Grain of Wheat and Weep Not Child as his two books. He was having a ball until an Italian writer started disparaging African languages and he had to stand and defend his people. He also got into a crisis with his work with the Kamirithu Theatre Group when he was arrested and he was thrown in jail. The experience especially for him as a well off professor of literature was traumatising and affected his relationship with language thereafter.
On why women writers have been erased from the canon of his time; There were only two women writers at the Famous Makerere conference in 1962 (Grace Ogot and Ama Ata Aidoo). His take was that he was pleased that there were many more women now at this festival which was great. (He kinda side-stepped that one).
On his relationship with Marx in his work: He is not a Marxist. He is a Ngugist. The people who understand Karl Marx the most are Wall Street bankers which is why they have spent so much resources that his work isn’t read. He averred that more people needed to read Marx as it is very revealing.
On the novels he most enjoyed writing: He enjoyed writing Devil on the Cross which he wrote in prison as it showed the possibilities of art to free the human spirit from confinement. He also loved The Wizard of the Crow which he wrote in Kikuyu in America in a fully English environment. In spite of this he persisted on writing the 800 page novel and he was happy he did as it showed him the possibility in his language Kikuyu.
At the end of the discussions he was given tokens by Molara Wood and Dr Olaokun Soyinka who adopted him as his new author father. He was also a new Yoruba name; Babarinde which means “The father has come home.”