Friday, April 16, 2010

Ngugi in New York

So yes, I was there last night when Ngugi wa Thiong'o read here in NYC. I'm awfully glad I was. Partly just to see him and hear his voice, mostly to hear what he had to say.

Ngugi read several short excerpts from his new memoir Dreams in a Time of War. Before, during and after these readings he made related comments. When I say "related" I mean it in the sense of a world view that takes in everything and sees all the connections. His remarks were dazzlingly wide ranging and erudite. They made me want to go look up a million things to delve deeper into his references. They also made me want to sit quietly and think about the profound issues he addressed.

Most of all, he addressed colonialism. Its roots, its extent, its varied manifestations in Africa and elsewhere. Especially its effects on the consciousness of the colonizer and the colonized. Its effects on the mind. Its effects on language. Its role in education. He discussed how British colonialism tried to wipe out his native language Gikuyu, and linked it to how they outlawed the Welsh language, which reminded him of how the 16th-century English poet Edmund Spenser who wrote The Faerie Queene was a colonizer in Ireland and worked to suppress the Irish language.

Ngugi also shared some thoughts on the struggle, on perseverance and optimism, that I found inspiring. He said that when you are beaten down you have to stand back up. No matter how many times you are struck down, you must arise again. This was clearly meant in the broad sense about the fight, any fight for justice and liberation. But it came from someone who has experienced this literally, this kicking and beating and this getting back up. That gave it great impact, spoken as it was in his quiet voice. As was this point that he also made: Anger is necessary. Anger is good. Anger is righteous. Anger must be coupled with hope. Anger must be paired with a belief that victory is possible.

There was much more but these random highlights will have to do. I didn't take notes because if I had I wouldn't have been able to pay close attention, and he was for the most part so soft-spoken that I would have missed too much if I wasn't paying close attention. As a result, I can't offer direct quotes, which is a shame because there were several really sharp formulations. Nor did I get his autograph in my copy of Wizard of the Crow, or a picture with him. I could have -- he was going to do all that after the program ended -- but it would have meant standing in a long line and staying much later before even starting the long slog home to Queens, so I sadly decided to forgo it. As it is I got home very late and as a result my mind is even more befogged than usual. But I'm clear on this: I want to read more of his work. It is a gift to the international class struggle.

Which reminds me to thank again Tony Christini of Mainstay Press for introducing me to this important author.