#100PENMembers No.62: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

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.

Courtesy Random House: Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

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.

#100PENMembers No.18: Wole Soyinka

Our writer for today is the Nobel Prize winning author and playwright, Wole Soyinka. First as an imprisoned writer who required defending, and then as a literary activist working to protect other writers, Soyinka is one of the most important figures in the organisation’s history.

Since the mid-1960s Soyinka’s writing has confronted tyrannical governmental authority, first in his native Nigeria, where he was imprisoned in solitary confinement for two years for his criticism of the Yakubu Gowon’s government, and then in countries across the world. As he put it, ‘books and all forms of writing are terror to those who wish to suppress the truth.’

On Soyinka’s imprisonment in 1967 International PEN acted quickly. Arthur Miller, International PEN President at the time, dispatched Peter Elstob to Nigeria to gather information and make the case for his freedom. At the International PEN Congress in Menton, France, David Carver, International PEN Secretary, reported back on the success of Elstob’s trip. Despite his efforts over several days, Elstob had not been ‘permitted to see Soyinka, and he was understood still to be in prison and to be suffering from a disease of the eyes’. 

Elstob’s endeavours were followed-up by cables from both the American and English PEN centres to the Nigerian Government. The Congress expressed dismay that Soyinka has never appeared in court to address the charges against him. They decided to continue to rally the British and Nigerian governments. 

Soyinka was finally released in 1969, when the Nigerian Civil War ended and an amnesty was declared, and not – as PEN myth proclaims – because Gowon received a telegram from Arthur Miller and was star-struck into fulfilling a request from Marilyn Monroe’s husband.

As with many of its efforts on behalf of writers in prison PEN’s influence lay in ensuring that Soyinka’s name was brought to the attention of the world-wide public. It was the beginning of Soyinka’s life-long connection to the organisation. 

Soyinka acknowledged these connections, as well as the power of literary naming, in his lecture for the Sixth Annual PEN America Arthur Miller Freedom to Write lecture, delivered in 2011. He spoke of his appreciation of the human rights organisations who bore witness to his own imprisonment; and the importance more broadly of writers bearing witness to and publicising the names of the imprisoned. 

Recognising the multiple meanings of the word freedom, from the ‘freedom to cow-tow to power’ to the ‘freedom of exile’, which ‘for some is no freedom at all’, he was also sober about the protests of the ‘literary tribe’ which can often be so much ‘sound and fury’, signifying nothing. However, writers can sometimes mobilise their power to challenge authority through the power of the name and the word. Relating his experience of visiting Tunisia in 2011 to give a lecture on behalf of International PEN, he described the moment he spoke the names of imprisoned dissident writers, including Taoufik Ben Brik. The authorities, believing in the power of Soyinka’s public declaration of the names of the imprisoned, immediately extinguished the lights.

For Soyinka, this moment reveals both the authoritarian state’s belief in the power of the word, and the responsibilities of writers to defend other writers. The names of dissidents, as he put it, ‘have meaning’ in such contexts. Soyinka’s literary anti-authoritarianism and experiences of imprisonment make him one of the most insightful writers in identifying the limits, and the power of authors. He continues to be a powerful activist in defence of free expression.