PEN International Vice President Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is a novelist, essayist, playwright, academic and social activist, who has played an integral role in the shaping of African literature and culture.
Thiong’o’s engagement with PEN stretches for more than 70 years. He reminisced in a piece for Frieze in 2018 about attending the 1966 New York Congress organised by then PEN International President Arthur Miller. Thiong’o’s essay offers a crucial and fascinating perspective on the congress and on some of PEN’s biggest figures.
At the time, he was a postgraduate student at Leeds University. He described his surprise at being invited as a regional guest of honour to represent Africa. PEN, of course, during this period, was increasingly looking to represent the newly independent African nations. The author of two novels already, the young Thiong’o described feeling a little out of place and trying ‘a few poses to make me feel like a writer and to project myself as one.’
His ears pricked up when he heard Ignazio Silone (President of PEN International 1946-7) complaining about the lack of translations of Italian writers into English and rudely asserting that ‘Italian is not like one of these Bantu languages with one or two words in their vocabulary.’ Thiong’o was rightly outraged and stood to correct this slur on African language. He remembers that the Chair Arthur Miller ‘was diplomatic: he said people could praise their own languages, but they did not have to bad-mouth others’ in the process.’
The incident illustrated, for Thiong’o, the tensions between what he called the ‘Decade of Africa’ in which nations gained independence and African writers began to get global recognition for their work, and the racism and imperialism that remained at the heart of many of the historically Eurocentric international organisations.
Thiong’o himself described this informing, for him, a reassessment of the role of English literature in Africa, particularly in African Universities: ‘We were really questioning the organisation of literary knowledge in Africa. Without giving it a name, we had launched the battle for decolonial theories.’ His critical and creative work began to take a different path from this point on, revolutionising African literature but also English Literature and the teaching of literature (and even history) in universities, alongside other postcolonial scholars. This growing African consciousness led to the founding of Pan-African writers’ organisations which operated independently to address the growing concerns of the continent’s own literary community.
After moving back to Africa in 1977, Thiong’o continued his revolutionary progress by embarking on a novel form of theatrical performance in his landmark play Ngaahika Ndeenda which sought to address hierarchies in the theatre and beyond. The play, co-written with Ngugi wa Mirii, was shut down by the authoritarian Kenyan regime six weeks after its opening. Thiong’o was imprisoned for over a year. In prison, he wrote Devil on the Cross on prison-issued toilet paper, much like fellow PEN revolutionary and #100PENMembers Nawal Al Saadawi. He also decided to cease writing in English and to begin composing all of his creative works in Gikuyu, his native tongue.
During this time, he was the subject of campaigns by both PEN and by Amnesty International. Upon his release he fled to the United States.
His work on promoting minority or marginalised languages has been integral to his time with PEN. In 2017 he wrote an introduction to ‘Culture’s Oxygen’ report, published on International Mother Language Day stating that: ‘I believe in the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights, Barcelona, 1996 which recognises that the right to a mother tongue or the language of one’s culture is not a privilege to be granted or withdrawn at will, it’s a human right.’
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o only returned to Kenya, with his family, in 2002 after the retirement of autocratic Vice President Daniel Arap Moi.
As well as serving on the board of PEN International, he has also acted as Erich Maria Remarque Professor of Languages at New York University and Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine.
This year he was nominated for the International Booker Prize for his book The Perfect Nine: The Epic of Gikuyu and Mumbi, the first book in an indigenous African language ever to be nominated. Thiong’o is also the first to be nominated as both writer and translator of the same work.