Monday, March 29, 2010

Something Ngugi this way comes

New from Ngugi wa Thiong'o: Dreams in a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir

Ngugi is one of Africa's finest writers. But I profoundly disagree with some of his political ideas, particularly his notion of "the problematic interaction between dominant languages and marginalized ones." The interaction and intermingling of languages has been a feature of human society for thousands of years and needn't be viewed as "problematic". What emerges as the "dominant" language is not necessarily a result of anyone setting out to centralise or marginalise any particular language. The most widely used language in the Roman Empire, for instance, was not Latin, but Koine ("common") Greek. This was simply a function of the preceeding history of the ancient world and the huge diversity of peoples who lived under the Empire. Any attempt to impose Latin as the dominant language would have faced formidable, if not impossible, odds. Ngugi abandoned writing in English (the "dominant" language) in favour of Kikuyu (the "marginalised" language). Apparently, he now only translates his works into English after they have been written in Kikuyu.

The fact remains though: if Ngugi's work were only available in Kikuyu, we would never have heard of Ngugi wa Thiong'o and we would not be having this discussion. That's just a existential fact which it seems to me unwise to ignore.

But anyway, not to spoil the party: Ngugi's new book is a memoir, a childhood memoir. It is sure to take its place alongside the childhood memoirs of two other giants of African literature: Ake: The Years of Childhood by Wole Soyinka and The Education of a British-Protected Child by Chinua Achebe.

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