English PEN: PEN Atlas Q&A with Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

15 December 2016-The PEN Atlas, run by our colleagues at English PEN, is a gateway to a world of literature.  Every Thursday, English PEN posts literary dispatches from around the world, showcasing the very best international writers in order to bring new insights into the rich literary landscape that may be found beyond the English language.

Last week, they ran an interview with Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o.


Birth of a Dream Weaver is the latest in a series of chronological memoirs by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. The first, Dreams in a Time of War, published in 2010, describes Ngũgĩ’s childhood in rural Kenya in a traditional family consisting of his father, four mothers and twenty four children. The House of the Interpreter follows Ngũgĩ’s time at a segregated elite boy school, Alliance High, run by British missionaries. In this latest volume, Ngũgĩ remembers his time at Makerere University College in Uganda. The series offers a fascinating insight into the cultural and political shifts that created modern Africa, while also following the path of discovering one’s voice as a writer.

Interview by Tasja Dorkofikis.

Whilst a student at Makerere University, you were also a playwright, journalist and a budding novelist. Did these multiple writing forms complement one another for you?

Ngũgĩ: I saw them as complementary. My first love is fiction, the novel in particular. But it was drama and theatre that first launched me into the public eye; and the two have had more impact on my life including my writing of fiction, than the fiction. Theatre would later lead me to prison without trial, and then into Exile. My writing in Gĩkũyũ began in prison and flowered in exile.

Makerere University was a point when all your influences converged: English and European literature, your political awareness, local pre-colonial and oral cultural tradition – did you think at the time that these cultures were conflicting?

Ngũgĩ: No, not really. I have always enjoyed English and European literature, and many other literatures. I still do. But what I would later question is the priority given to European literatures and cultures, English mostly, over African ones. I reject the conception of relations among languages, cultures and literatures in terms of hierarchy.  Literatures and cultures should relate on an equal give and take basis of a network. Network Not Hierarchy. That is my take.

To read the full piece click here and follow #PENAtlas on Twitter for future dispatches from around the world.