Where Do We Go From Here: To The Horseman of the Sixties – 我们从这里走向何方:六十年代的骑手

Earlier this year, Gayatri Spivak signed my copy of Breast Stories (1997), one of her English translations of Mahasweta Devi, with the inscription: ‘To the Horseman of the Sixties’. This made me time-travel back to 1966 and my first visit to the US. I was a postgraduate student at the University of Leeds and in the middle of my third novel, A Grain of Wheat (1967), but here I was, a regional guest of honour from Africa, at PEN International. The playwright Arthur Miller was president and the theme of the conference was the writer as an independent spirit. The idea was to bridge the cold war divide, and writers from the Eastern bloc were allowed into the country despite their communist connections. The large contingent of Latin American writers included Carlos Fuentes, Pablo Neruda and Mario Vargas Llosa.

I had published two novels, Weep Not, Child (1964) and The River Between (1965). Despite this, and despite my being invited to a gathering of the global literary elite, I would not call myself a writer. I stuck to my student status, though I tried a few poses to make me feel like a writer and to project myself as one. I was so into posing that I hardly followed the proceedings – until one of the last events, a panel discussion including Neruda and Ignazio Silone, the Italian author of Bread and Wine (1936). I was in the audience, deep into my Socratic pose, when I heard Silone complain of the dearth of translations of contemporary Italian works into English. ‘And you know, Italian is not like one of these Bantu languages with one or two words in their vocabulary.’ My Socratic pose was gone.

I was a guest of honour representing a continent emerging out of colonial bondage. Ghana under Kwame Nkrumah had gained independence in 1957, to be followed by a flood of others, including Nigeria (1960), Tanzania (1961), Uganda (1962), Kenya (1963). Some called it the Decade of Africa. African writers had come of age, with authors like Peter Abrahams, Chinua Achebe, Léopold Sédar Senghor and Wole Soyinka making their mark on the world. I had attended the Conference of African Writers of English Expression at Makerere University in 1962 – the first major African writers’ conference held on the continent. (Others, like the Black Writers Congresses, had been held in Rome in 1958 and Paris in 1956.) The New Africa was up and on the move.

And now, this Africa was under attack. I stood up to defend the honour of the continent. Africa had many languages, I assured the audience, and these certainly had more than two words in their vocabulary. To his credit, Miller was very diplomatic: he said people could praise their own languages, but they did not have to bad-mouth others’ in the process.

I felt slightly better, though I had conflicting emotions about the rest of my visit to the US. On the one hand, this was the country that had seen the assassination of John F. Kennedy. In Leeds, Barbara Garson’s MacBird! (1966) was circulating, depicting Lyndon B. Johnson as Macbeth and Lady Bird Johnson as Lady Macbeth. But Johnson had also signed the 1965 Voting Rights  Act, giving African Americans the vote. There was the US that waged colonial wars in Korea and Vietnam, yet many Americans opposed them – best symbolized by the activities of the Students for a Democratic Society. I had expected the US to be one imperial monolith, but here were Americans fervently against these colonial ventures.

It was with these emotions that I visited the University of Iowa, home of the famous International Writing Program. Paul Engle, the founder of the workshop, held a reception for the guests from Africa. Spivak, who was assistant professor of English at the time, also attended. She was among those who witnessed my horse-riding skills. Now, I had never ridden a horse in my life and, when Engle took us out to see his stable, I was reluctant to get on the back of one. Eventually, they got me a pony. I was so scared, I sat spread-eagled and was mighty glad to get off. This was the horseman of Spivak’s inscription.

I returned to Leeds, to my studies, to my Frantz Fanon and to my novel. My novel? A Grain of Wheat. In what language was I writing it? English. But had I not just come from New York where I had waxed ecstatic about the richness of African languages? That was my first major internal struggle with English and, at one time, I even contemplated giving up on the novel or on writing altogether. For whom was I writing? 

This question was not resolved and  A Grain of Wheat was published in English in 1967. Soon after, I was in Beirut, at the Afro-Asian Writers’ Conference, where I met a new community of writers, including Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Mulk Raj Anand. At PEN International, I was aware of cold war politics but in Beirut I became conscious of other issues. I visited a Palestinian refugee camp, which left an impression, reminding me of scenes of dislocation and desolation in Kenya. I also saw pamphlets circulating outside the official proceedings that described the Soviet Union as social imperialism. But the main impact was the interaction  I had with all of these writers from Asia and Africa. I had become aware of a much bigger literary world, well beyond William Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot.

In a way, these two conferences framed my experience of the second half of the 1960s. I did not realize their effect on me, though, until I returned to Kenya in 1968 and joined the English Department of the University of Nairobi. Within a year, I was in a deep debate about the place of this subject in Africa, joining two other faculties and calling for the abolition of the English Department. For me, 1968 was not the Paris of student revolts and thwarted revolution, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, but the time of our revolt against the dominance of English and European studies in our literary and intellectual universe. We were not calling for the abolition of English or European Literature. We were really questioning the organization of literary knowledge in Africa. Without giving it a name, we had launched the battle for decolonial theories.

The University of Nairobi was among the very first to overhaul a literature department dominated by European languages with a simple formula: African, Asian, Latin American, African American and Caribbean literature at the centre, followed by European and Euro-American literature – in that order. This is what now goes under the name of postcolonial literatures and theories. Our theory was based on the concept of the centre. Was Europe the centre of our being or was it Africa? It was not just a question of knowledge per se, but the order of knowledge. The colonial and imperial system had decreed that the cognitive process began in imperial centres and spread outwards to Africa, Asia and the formerly colonized world. We were saying that the normal cognitive process begins wherever people are and spreads outwards in a dialectical process of give and take. In our case, that centre was Africa. It is not too much to claim that postcolonial and decolonial theory began in Nairobi in 1968.

These two questions, language and centre, have been at the heart of my literary and theoretical explorations in Decolonizing the Mind (1986) and Moving the Centre (1993) and resulted in my eventually giving up English as the main language of my poetry, fiction and drama. I can write in Gkuyu, my mother tongue, and reach the world just as Shakespeare did in English, Miguel de Cervantes in Spanish or Dante Alighieri in Tuscan. I felt flattered when I was recently invited to Münster for the launch of the German translation of Decolonizing the Mind. One of the seminars was titled: ‘Gkuyu in World Literature’. I read my poetry in Gkuyu; somebody else read it in English and another in German. In Berlin, at the Dynamics of Interweaving Performance Cultures conference in June, my poems were read in Gkuyu, English, German and Yoruba. From whatever base in the world, we can still have a global conversation.

This is why Spivak’s inscription struck a chord. The book she was signing was written in Bengali by a leading Bengali writer. Devi’s compatriot, Rabindranath Tagore, also wrote in Bengali and has played a very important part in my life. In 1978, while languishing in a maximum security prison for writing my play I Will Marry When I Want (1977) in Gkuyu and having it performed by working men and women of the village, I came across a story attributed to Tagore in which a young writer visits him and brags about the many languages he knows. Tagore asks him: ‘Do you know your mother tongue?’ ‘No,’ he replies. ‘Then you don’t know any language at all.’ 

This text contributed to what I like to call, following Louis Althusser, my epistemological break with the past, in practice and theory. I embraced Gkuyu as my primary language of creativity and penned my first novel in Gkuyu, Devil on the Cross (1980), on toilet paper. The experience of writing such a novel while in prison is the subject of my memoir, Wrestling with the Devil (2018), and my concept of the unequal power relationship between languages is now at the centre of decolonial studies and aesthetics. In South Africa, it underwrites the call for decolonizing institutions and for fundamental changes in economy, politics and culture.

Language is fundamental to change. If you believe in the people, any people, then the availability of information in their mother tongue is essential. In 2002, I became the founding director of the International Center for Writing and Translation at the University of California, Irvine. We had a newsmagazine called From Here to There. There comes from here, in fact: here is always inherent in there. Knowledge begins where one is and all systems of repression begin by alienating the oppressed from that fact: from their own bodies, from their economic, political and cultural environment. Monolingualism is the carbon monoxide of culture; multilingualism is its oxygen.

Published in frieze, issue 199, November-December 2018, with the title ‘Where Do We Go From Here?’

Main Image: Iowa, 1966. Courtesy: Ngugi wa Thiong’o

Ngugi wa Thiong’o

Ngugi wa Thiong’o is an author and distinguished professor in the School of the Humanities at University of California, Irvine, USA, where he directs the International Center for Writing and Translation. Born in Lumuru, Kenya, in 1938, his memoir, Wrestling with the Devil: A Prison Memoir, was published this year by Penguin.

Issue 199

First published in Issue 199

November - December 2018

Features /

Ngugi wa Thiong'o
Franz Fanon
Decolonizing Culture
Gayatri Spivak
Where Do We Go From Here?

今年早些时候,Gayatri Spivak在我的《乳房故事》(1997)上签了字:“献给六十年代的骑士”。这使我的时间旅行回到1966和我第一次访问美国。我是利兹大学的研究生,在我的第三部小说《一粒小麦》(1967)的中途,但在这里,我是来自非洲的PEN国际的荣誉嘉宾。剧作家阿瑟·米勒是总统,会议的主题是作家作为一个独立的精神。这个想法是为了弥合冷战的分歧,尽管东欧作家与共产党有联系,但他们还是被允许进入这个国家。拉丁美洲作家队伍包括卡洛斯·富恩特斯、巴勃罗·聂鲁达和马里奥·巴尔加斯·略萨。我已经出版了两部小说,哭不,孩子(1964)和河之间(1965)。尽管如此,尽管我被邀请参加全球文学精英的聚会,但我不会把自己称为作家。我坚持我的学生身份,虽然我尝试了一些姿势,让我感觉自己像个作家,把自己想象成一个作家。我如此喜欢摆姿势,以至于我几乎没能跟上会议进程——直到最后一项活动,小组讨论包括Neruda和Ignazio Silone,意大利《面包与葡萄酒》(1936)的作者。当我听到席龙抱怨意大利当代作品缺乏英译本时,我深深地陷入了苏格拉底式的听众中。“你知道,意大利语不像班图语,他们的词汇里只有一两个单词。”我的苏格拉底式的姿态消失了。我是一位尊贵的客人,代表着一个摆脱殖民束缚的大陆。夸梅·恩克鲁马统治下的加纳在1957年获得独立,随后是其他国家的大洪水,包括尼日利亚(1960)、坦桑尼亚(1961)、乌干达(1962)、肯尼亚(1963)。有些人称之为非洲的十年。非洲作家已经成熟,像彼得·亚伯拉罕、奇努亚·阿奇比、莱奥波德·塞达·森戈尔和沃勒·索因卡等作家在世界上留下了自己的印记。1962年,我参加了在马克雷尔大学举行的非洲英语表达作家会议——非洲大陆第一届主要作家会议。(其他的,像黑人作家大会,1958年在罗马举行,1956年在巴黎举行。)现在,非洲受到了攻击。我站起来捍卫这块大陆的荣誉。非洲有很多语言,我向观众保证,这些词汇中肯定有两个以上的单词。值得称赞的是,米勒很外交:他说人们可以称赞他们自己的语言,但是在这个过程中不必说别人的坏话。我感觉稍微好一点,虽然我对美国的余访有矛盾的感觉。一方面,这是一个看到John F. Kennedy遇刺的国家。在利兹,Barbara Garson的McBo鸟!(1966)循环,描绘Lyndon B. Johnson为麦克白,Lady Bird Johnson为麦克白夫人。但约翰逊也签署了1965项投票权法案,给予非裔美国人投票权。美国曾经在朝鲜和越南发动过殖民战争,但是许多美国人反对他们——最能体现为学生争取民主社会的活动。我原以为美国是一个帝国的巨无霸,但这里有美国人强烈反对这些殖民地的冒险活动。正是怀着这些情感,我访问了著名的国际写作计划的爱荷华大学。研讨会的创始人Paul Engle为来自非洲的客人举行了招待会。当时担任英语助理教授的Spivak也出席了会议。她是那些见证我骑马技术的人之一。现在,我一生中从未骑过马,当恩格尔带我们出去看他的马厩时,我不愿意骑在马背上。最后,他们给了我一匹小马。我吓坏了,坐在那里大摇大摆地走着,非常高兴下车。这是Spivak题词的骑手。我回到了利兹,回到了我的书房,回到了我的Frantz Fanon和我的小说。我的小说?一粒小麦我用什么语言写的?英语。但是,我不是刚从纽约来的吗?我对非洲语言的丰富程度感到欣喜若狂。那是我第一次与英语进行内部斗争,有一段时间,我甚至打算放弃写小说或写作。我在为谁写作?这个问题没有解决,一个小麦的种子在1967出版了英文。不久之后,我在贝鲁特参加了亚非作家会议,在那里我遇到了一个新的作家群体,包括法兹·艾哈迈德·法兹和穆尔·拉杰·安南德。在Pink International,我意识到冷战政治,但在贝鲁特,我意识到了其他问题。我参观了一个巴勒斯坦难民营,留下了一个印象,让我想起了肯尼亚的混乱和荒芜的景象。我还看到在官方程序之外流传的小册子,描述苏联是社会帝国主义。但主要的影响是我和亚洲和非洲的所有作家的互动。我已经意识到了一个更大的文学世界,远远超出了威廉·莎士比亚和T.S. Eliot。在某种程度上,这两个会议构成了我60年代后半期的经历。但是,直到1968年我回到肯尼亚,加入内罗毕大学英语系,我才意识到它们对我的影响。在一年之内,我参加了关于该科目在非洲的地位的深入辩论,加入了另外两个学院,并呼吁取消英语系。对我来说,1968年不是学生起义和挫败革命的巴黎,不是马丁·路德·金和罗伯特·F·肯尼迪被暗杀,而是我们反抗英语和欧洲研究在我们的文学和智力世界中的统治的时代。我们并不是在呼吁废除英语或欧洲文学。我们真的质疑非洲文学知识的组织。我们没有给它取名字,而是发动了非殖民主义理论的斗争。内罗毕大学是最早对以欧洲语言为主导的文学系进行大修的学院之一,其中有一个简单的公式:以非洲、亚洲、拉丁美洲、非洲裔美国人和加勒比海文学为中心,其次是欧洲和欧美文学——按顺序排列。这正是后殖民主义文学和理论的名称。我们的理论是以中心的概念为基础的。欧洲是我们的中心还是非洲?这不仅仅是知识本身的问题,而是知识的秩序。殖民和帝国体系已经规定,认知过程开始于帝国中心,并扩展到非洲、亚洲和以前殖民的世界。我们说过,正常的认知过程始于人们所处的任何地方,并以给予和接受的辩证过程向外传播。在我们的例子中,那个中心是非洲。可以说,后殖民主义和非殖民化理论于1968开始于内罗毕。这两个问题,语言和中心,一直是我在《非殖民化心灵》(1986)和《搬迁中心》(1993)的文学和理论探索的核心,并导致我最终放弃英语作为我诗歌、小说和戏剧的主要语言。我可以用我的母语国语写作,并且像莎士比亚用英语写作,塞万提斯用西班牙语写作,但丁阿利吉耶里在托斯卡纳写作一样,能够到达世界。当我最近被邀请去MunnStter为德语译名的时候,我感到很荣幸。其中一个研讨会的题目是“世界文学中的Guuu”。我在Gkuyu读诗,有人用英文读,另一篇用德语读。在柏林,在六月份的交织表演文化动力学会议上,我的诗用国语、英语、德语和约鲁巴语朗诵。从世界上任何一个基地,我们仍然可以进行全球对话。这就是为什么Spivak的题词产生了共鸣。她签署的这本书是由孟加拉国著名作家在孟加拉语写的。Devi的同胞Rabindranath Tagore也写在孟加拉语,在我的生活中扮演了非常重要的角色。1978年,我在一所戒备森严的监狱里苦苦挣扎,因为要写我的戏剧《我要结婚就结婚》(1977年)在古峪,由村里的工人男女表演。诺斯。泰戈尔问他:“你知道你的母语吗?”“不,”他回答。“那么你根本不懂任何语言。”这篇课文促成了我喜欢说的,跟随路易斯·阿尔都塞,我在实践和理论上与过去的认识论上的突破。我接受国语作为我创造力的主要语言,并用卫生纸写了我在国语的第一部小说《十字架上的魔鬼》(1980)。在监狱里写这样一部小说的经历是我回忆录《与魔鬼摔跤》(2018)的主题,而我对语言之间不平等的权力关系的概念现在成了非殖民研究和美学的中心。在南非,它支持对非殖民化机构和经济、政治和文化的根本变革的呼吁。语言是改变的基础。如果你相信人民,任何人,那么在他们的母语中提供信息是必不可少的。2002年,我成为了加州大学欧文分校国际写作和翻译中心的创始主任。我们从这儿到那里打了一个新闻杂志。从这里来,事实上:这里总是固有的。知识始于一个人所处的地方,而所有压迫制度始于使受压迫者远离这一事实:远离他们自己的身体,远离他们的经济、政治和文化环境。单语是文化的一氧化碳,多语言是它的氧。发表在FreeZe,第199期,十一月- 2018年12月,标题是“我们从何而来?”主要形象:爱荷华,1966。礼貌:恩格瓦娃


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