By By Lisa Vives
Some two decades ago, Ngugi wa Thiong’o challenged African writers to break their colonial chains and write in African languages.
He then shocked the literary world and took on the challenge himself. Although he continued to write nonfiction in English, Ngugi wrote his novels and plays in Gikuyu and translated some of his works into other African languages.
Today, the author of “Decolonizing the Mind—The Politics of Language in African Literature” is on the longlist for the International Booker Prize 2021. The Perfect Nine is the first novel written in the regional language of Gikuyu to win a Booker nomination.
“The question is this,” he wrote in 1998. “We as African writers have always complained about the neo-colonial economic and political relationship to Euro-America. But by our continuing to write in foreign languages, paying homage to them, are we not on the cultural level continuing that neo-colonial slavish and cringing spirit?
“What is the difference between a politician who says Africa cannot do without imperialism and the writer who says Africa cannot do without European languages?”
Ngugi points out that the Christian bible is available in unlimited quantities in even the tiniest African language. Meanwhile, “comprador ruling cliques are quite happy to have the peasantry and the working class all to themselves: distortions, dictatorial directives, decrees, museum-type fossils paraded as African culture, feudalistic ideologies, superstitions, lies—all these backward elements and more are communicated to the African masses in their own languages without any challenges from those with alternative visions of tomorrow who have cocooned themselves in English, French and Portuguese.”
His latest book in his own translation—”The Perfect Nine: The Epic Gikuyu and Mumbi”—was called “dazzling” by reviewers. The award celebrates the best translated fiction from around the world.
Blending folklore, mythology and allegory, The Perfect Nine chronicles the adventures of Gikuyu and Mumbi, and how their daughters became matriarchs of the Gikuyu clans.
“Ngũgĩ masterfully sings us through an origin story written in verse. This book is a magisterial and poetic tale about women’s place in a society of Gods. It is also about disability and how expectations shape and determine characters’ spiritual anchoring.”
The award has previously been shared between an author and their English-language translator—but Thiong’o is the first listed writer to translate his own novel.