What does it feel like to abandon the language one’s been writing and thinking in for decades and turn to another one? Acclaimed author Ngugi Wa Thiong’o probably has an answer. Having famously discarded English and turning to Gikuyu in his fifties, Ngugi will deliver the address “Decolonizing the Mind: Are We There Yet?” on Tuesday, April 21.
A recipient of the Nonino International Prize for his work and a nominee for the Nobel Prize in literature for several times, Ngugi is a Kenyan writer, postcolonial theorist, and social activist. Some of his influential works include A Grain of Wheat, Petals of Blood, Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, and Globalectics, his latest work on which the lecture will largely based.
Ngugi’s visit to Vassar started from a conversation between Associate Professor of French and Francophone Studies, Patricia-Pia Célérier and one of her students last semester, Noah Goldberg ’17.
Last summer, Goldberg interned at the Los Angeles Review of Books. There he worked extensively with with Ngugi’s son, Mukoma Wa Ngugi, who was writing a review for the magazine.
Goldberg said, “When Professor Célérier was talking in class about Ngugi, I decided to approach her to tell her about my work this summer. ”
Célérier added, “I had wanted to invite Ngugi to this campus for long and this was an opportunity. So I asked Noah if he could get Ngugi’s contact, and he did. So I took it from there and secured the funding.”
Various members from the Africana Studies Porgram, the Departments of Political Science, French and Francophone Studies and the Office of the Dean of Faculty came together to sponsor the event. “It was really a group effort,” Célérier commented.
Célérier specifically pointed to Ngugi’s exploration and contemplation on the question of language, as he sought to establish African literature on its own terms.
“Ngugi is a foremost authority on post-colonial literature…Being born in Kenya which was then a British colony, he pointed to the absurdity of actually being an African writer but writing in English. He has looked at this idea throughout his career – what is the status of African literature, particularly within this context of globalization…The question of language is absolutely seminal to literature. ”
Moreover, Célérier considers the event to be an opportunity of exchange and conversation as well. “Many faculty here already work and publish in the issue. But this will be a great opportunity for us to share our thoughts, and to raise new questions.” said Célérier.
Students from various departments including Africana Studies, Political Science and French and Francophone Studies plan to attend the lecture. Alessandra Seiter ’16 said, “I’m currently enrolled in Professor Muppidi’s ‘Decolonizing International Relations’ seminar, and he alerted our class to Ngugi’s visit. I definitely plan on attending–Muppidi might even make the lecture our class for the week if its scheduling interferes with our regular class time.”
At the same time, David Finger ’15 is looking forward to a more personal take on these issues. “I’m hoping to gain from hearing someone speak in person on this, given that I have only ever really interacted with issues regarding decolonization in terms of text,” he said.
A student from Célérier’s class last year, Shiqi Lin ’17 is especially interested in the conversation between Ngugi and Vassar. “I’m particularly curious about what kind of a conversation would happen between the speaker and Vassar members. It’d be interesting to see where the conversation can go when led by a provoking theorist and writer such as Ngugi.”
She continued, “We don’t have a lot of Asian or African speakers come for visits, so I’d love to take each opportunity when they do. The previous lectures on similar topics I went to have all greatly opened up my imagination of the world. So I’d love to be able to communicate with Ngugi face to face and hear about his views of the world.”
Many students also spoke about the colonialism in their daily lives at Vassar. Seiter commented, “I think that virtually everyone on this campus has grown up with, inherited, internalized, etc. a colonial mindset, which guides and shapes our interactions with the world and, I feel, really prevents us from coexisting with others.”
Michael Nishimura ’15 pointed to the difficulty of removing these mindsets. “I think for most people at Vassar, we profit from the relics and the persisting nodes of colonialism; we are at a colonial institution after all. And because we have the privilege of receiving a world-class education, we don’t have to think about decolonizing ourselves very much. In order for that to happen, we need to make serious sacrifices in our daily lives, and I don’t think many are willing to do that, let alone even know how to go about that process in the most inclusive and just way.”
He continued, “There are some classes devoted to this, but I think it’s just as important that we have these ideas in our heads constantly, to see how we reproduce these oppressions we talk about so much in class, manifest in the mundane, everyday spaces.”
The event this time is probably a step at tackling with these concerning issues. As Célérier concluded, “The ultimate goal of this event is to have a sustained conversation on the profound effect that colonization has had on modernity, and on such values as democracy, progress, justice, which very much inform our reality today and also define dignity and self-worth.”