African literature has for a long time struggled to define itself. The Anglophone, Lusaphone and Francophone categorizations have literally stolen the identity of African literature. Yet there are more than two thousand languages that form a perfect arbiter for our rich literary traditions. We continue to celebrate that which comes from, or identifies with, the West. And we forget the indescribable beauty of the cultural wealth that was preserved through the telling of stories in our African languages. We still struggle to appreciate African languages as important participants in the global literary conversation.
The Jalada Translations Issue is a statement to the effect that African languages can find their place in dialogue among themselves; exist with equal power alongside Asian and European ones and inspire global conversations. And they can do so with pride, and without the asinine notion that using our own languages is a potential cause for “tribal” division. In fact African languages help us get rid of the negative word “tribe” for describing African peoples.
I see it as a source of pride in recognition of our roots. We live in a global context where English continues to dominate. Our literary race in pursuit of Anglophone perfection in text does not hinder our love for other languages, our mother tongues especially.
Ituĩka rĩa Mũrũgamo the first featured story in this series was written for Jalada by the distinguished author, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Kumar S of the Bangalore–India- based daily, Kannadaprabha, translated this story into Kannada, a Dravidian language, and sought to find out more from Professor Ngũgĩ about the story, the Jalada project and the advance in literary translations. The story reached 30 Lakhi, ie three million, readers, according to Kumar. Below is their conversation.
1. What inspired you to write this story?
Ngũgĩ: In my family, for birthdays and seasons of gifts, we sometimes exchange stories instead of material gifts. I wrote this story for my daughter Mũmbi—as a Christmas gift.
2. Through this story, are you trying to say that we have lost our rational mind? Or is there anything beyond this that you intended?
Ngũgĩ: Mũmbi is fascinated by the concept of dialectics—from Plato to Hegel. She is also fascinated by the idea of ONE as containing the many and being contained in the many, their inter-connectedness. This came out in what we called “our daily dialogue.” It seemed to me that the body, the human body, illustrates this dialectics. But I write fiction, so I tried to express the same in the workings of the human body. The body is after all the first and primary field of knowledge. The story also critiques the tendency to explain the whole through any one-sidedness: class, race, ethnicities, religions etc. The Head through the Mouth talks about “my this, my that” and many social authorities—from Presidents to Kings and Priests and others—tend to talk of “My this! My that!”, “I will do this and that,” forgetting the concept and reality of “we.” When the “I” replaces the “We” concept, we are in trouble. But in the end, Ituĩka rĩa Mũrũgamo or the Upright Revolution, is just a fable to be enjoyed as a story and not a treatise on politics and philosophy.
3. In many parts of the world, rational thinkers and writers are being threatened and some have lost their lives, like in India. What you want to say about this?
Ngũgĩ: The Poet, William Blake, once wrote that without contraries, there is no progression. And Fredrick Douglass once said, (I paraphrase), that progress is not given to us on a silver platter. The human body illustrates this truth. There is constant struggle and movement in the human body. Blood circulation, breathing itself, etc are examples of continuous struggle, without which there is no life. Life is motion and motion involves struggle and change. We think of death as cessation of movement! All art, including literature, embodies motion and change, which is life.
4. The world has seen number of wars by so called superior group (they may be religious, social, political). How do we confront this situation?
Ngũgĩ: The human body rejects fundamentalism of any one of its parts. It is the mutual give and take of all human parts on the basis of their equality that makes the whole possible. We must reject these fundamentalisms in our societies, from community to the national to the international. Fundamentalisms, premised on superiority, are a danger to the health of the whole. So, we must reject these fundamentalisms in our words, our positions, our deeds.
5. Conservative and fundamental minds and thoughts are dividing the human community through the concepts of superiority and inferiority. How do we counter it?
Ngũgĩ: Reject and struggle against all fundamentalism— from Capitalist fundamentalism (today seen in the absolute dominance of finance capital over the globe) and what it has spawned, religious fundamentalism, either in opposition to it or in alliance with it! What about this! Away with all fundamentalisms! Please read my other book, Secure the Base: Making Africa Visible In The World. The ideas I develop there about capitalist fundamentalism in relation to Africa are equally applicable to Asia and other parts of the globe.
6. In the midst of political upheaval, what is the responsibility of a writer?
Ngũgĩ: To their imagination. Without imagination, we can never think of different possibilities in a situation. Humans have progressed because they can imagine different futures. Repressive politics and religions try to narrow the capacity of their societies to imagine a different future that challenges the status quo. Remember Voltaire’s Candide and the notion that we have arrived at the best of all possible worlds? Writers and artists try to smash that notion.
7. Your recent story is getting translated to so many languages. Are you happy? Did you think of its rapid translations in such a short duration? What do you feel about this trend?
Ngũgĩ: All the credit goes to the Jalada Writers Collective, a pan-African group of writers based in Nairobi, and to their Managing Editor Moses Kilolo, who conceptualized and coordinated the Translations Issue—they are a group of young, practical visionaries. What they have done speaks to what should be the norm in the relations between languages and cultures in the world: mutual give and take on the basis of equality. Translations should enable creative dialogue among the languages and cultures of the world. I hope this trend will become the norm. Europe is not the center of the world. The center of the world is the meeting point of all cultures and languages of the earth. Aime Cesaire once said that culture contact was the oxygen of civilization. But it is contact on the basis of equal give and take. Translation can help and the Jalada Africa group just proved that.