The River Between is the first work of Ngugi Wa Thiong’o that I’ve read, but I’ve known of him since my first introduction to African writing – rather predictably through Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka – during my literature classes when I was 17.
It’s perhaps more accurate to say I was in awe of Ngugi for what I still think is an act of immense boldness: In the late 1960s, after receiving much acclaim for his first three novels (Weep Not, Child; The River Between and A Grain Of Wheat), the Kenyan writer gave up writing in English and began writing in his native language, Gikuyu. He considered English a remnant of Africa’s imperialist past and writing in the language a form of neocolonialism over African languages, culture and philosophy – subjects that he explores in his 1986 book of essays, Decolonising The Mind: The Politics Of Language In African Literature.
It is also accurate to say I was rather shamed by Ngugi, for my literary experience back then was confined to works in English. This despite the fact that I have been educated in Bahasa Melayu (BM) since I was seven and learnt to read and write in Tamil when I was six (the languages of my country and my ancestors, respectively).
Even today, I read almost exclusively in English. I read books in BM perhaps once a year or so, and have never read a book in Tamil in my life.
It was perhaps inevitable. The last three generations of my family have lived through or experienced British colonisation in either India or Malaya. Despite that, or perhaps because of that, there is a strong tendency in my family to valourise English as a marker of intelligence and achievement. Reading, specifically reading works in English, was a way to connect and engage with a larger world of intellect and culture.
It was when I heard of Ngugi that I first began questioning why only English was deemed the conduit to these. Some of it is practicality, of course. Given the pervasiveness of the English language, it is invariably easier to gain access to people and information by using it.
But as a result of reading, learning and speaking in English since I was a child, I now think in English. And I do wonder what that does to my self-expression, my way of thinking and the way I frame and reflect on my own cultures – cultures that are shared, shaped and expressed by language, whether BM or Tamil. Am I another example of a long line of colonised minds?
This is something I think about even more now as a writer. The reality is that I can only properly express myself in writing through English. But I also feel very strongly that my writing should reflect Malaysianness, that it should sound like Malaysians do. So what does it mean that I can only tell those Malaysian stories in a language that colonised the ones I can call my own? (Localise columnist Daphne Lee has spoken about what it means for Malaysian writers to write in English.)
I greatly admire Malaysian writers like Uthaya Sankar S.B. and Gina Yap Lai Yoong who write in BM (Uthaya also writes in Tamil); they are able to express themselves in a way that isn’t available to me.
However, I am also inspired by writers like Rehman Rashid, Shih-Li Kow, Brian Gomez and Zen Cho, who, while writing in English, do it with such unique Malaysianness that it almost feels subversive – to take the language of the coloniser and remake it according to our own definitions.
So the lesson I learnt from Ngugi is something that continues to resonate with me today. Not everyone will make the choice that he did, and neither should they be expected to. We do owe it to ourselves, though, to take control of our stories, to use them to reflect our own identities instead of those ascribed to us by someone else. I may not be able to write in anything other than English, but that does not mean my stories should remain colonised.
Sharmilla Ganesan is reading her way through the titles in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. Join the conversation at facebook.com/BeBookedOut or Tweet @SharmillaG.