Monday, January 17, 2011

Literature, in the Eyes of the Elite

Ever since Tricia Nwaubani's infamous article, In Africa, the Laureate's Curse, first published in The New York Times and then at the NEXT, a lot of comments and opinions have been shared. The majority of these have been against the theses posited by the writer. I personally wrote a response. The crux of Tricia's article are:
  1. An Ngugi Nobel would have resulted in the new generation of aspiring writers dreaming of nothing higher than being hailed as "the next Ngugi";
  2. An Ngugi award could have them [new writers] back to the old tried and tired ways [which Tricia described as 'an earnest and sober style' of Ngugi, Achebe and Soyinka];
  3. Instead of acclaimed Nigerian writers, we would have acclaimed Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa writers. We suffer enough from tribal differences already. This is not the kind of variety we need. [Here Nawaubani claims that writing in his native Gikuyu language or any other African language for that matter breeds tribalism].
Whereas most of the comments and articles (Molara Wood, Carmen McCain, Kinna) rebutted all three issues therein raised, one article has recently popped up on NEXT supporting the tribalism that writing in ones local language breeds. The author also discussed why we should write in English. The first response I read on this issue was by Amy.

This preposterous article by Arthur Anyadua, which rebutted the first two points but supported the latter, states that 
Nigeria, .., is a country and has remained so because of the English language and influence.
According to the writer 'anyone trying to reach a national Nigerian audience would be quite unserious writing in any of the native languages.

Like Tricia, I 'shudder' when I hear arguments coming from individuals who could be nothing but elitist blessed with the ability to speak excellently in an imposed language, without first having to translate from their local language. Africa is a continent with about 54 countries (waiting for the birth of the 55th - southern Sudan) and hence has numerous languages. Yet, in the midst of such varied languages, without the so-called 'English influence' we existed as Empires and Kingdoms, trading amongst ourselves successfully. My minute knowledge in History tells me of the Mali Empire, the Songhai Empire and the Ghana Empire, which all thrived successfully until conquest destroyed them. Many years ago, the Mongol Empire 
stretched from the Sea of Japan to Eastern Europe, covered Siberia in the north and extended southward into Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and the Middle East. It is commonly referred to as the largest contiguous empire in the history of the world. At its greatest extent it spanned 6,000 mi (9,700 km), covered an area of 33,000,000 km2 (12,741,000 sq mi), 22% of the Earth's total land area, and held sway over a population of 100 million. (Source Wikipedia).
And was this achieved after the 'English Influence'? Such comments show one thing and one thing only: the Elites of Africa when trusted with leadership positions would look only to the West for freedom. Such individuals have lost all sense of self and have placed themselves below all others. Is Arthur telling us that Nigeria would be this 'united' without the 'English Influence?' I guess they would be really UNITED when the unity is borne out of respect for each other's culture and when it is proposed from amongst the people themselves.

Besides, should writing be commercially motivated? Why can't one write to preserve a culture, to improve a language and to inspire? Why can't one write to express oneself in a language that ruled his or her formative years? In Ghana the preservation of most of local languages has been left in the hands of commercial drivers and signwriters to devastating effects, such that misspelt words are virtually pushed into one's face every day.

Arthur also pointed out that 
'the uneducated mass of Africans are still exempt from any form of written literature, be it in indigenous or Western languages.'
I don't know elsewhere but in Ghana the situation used to be different. My late grandmother read Twi and Ga like I would read English but she never could read English to any satisfaction. This has become a problem because of such thinking and thesis as
The English language is our academic language, our governing, official and economic language. (emphasis mine)
posited by Arthur and his kin. So that ones wisdom and capability is judged by his ability to fluently rattle English: the more foreign accent infused into it the better. As a result local folks who cannot even construct one grammatically correct sentence tend to infuse strange accents, not spoken anywhere, into their speeches. We call such accents, LAFA: Locally Acquired Foreign Accent. Yet, Swahili is spoken in East Africa and Hausa is spoken in most countries. It is a wonder and a pity that in an age where Google has seen it fit to have translations into many local languages (in Ghana we have Twi and Hausa, with work still on Ewe and Ga), Africans of such learning could write to belittle their own languages.

And when it got to this:
Our civilisation is either borrowed or enforced. No language can strongly support a culture that lacks the commensurate strength to sustain it.
 and that:
The English language dominates modern technology, market, economy and even religion. Africa does not have any strong indigenous religion; no indigenous technology to compete with Western ones, no strong economies and markets. So, how do we expect to build a strong literary heritage that will identify with our weak indigenous languages without recourse to the cultural realities of our present existence?
when it got here, I knew Arthur is lost. Here the author is not equating his local language (which I believe he has) with Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Arabic, Spanish, French. He is eagerly putting his below all others, again! This is the kind of problem Africa has. The author's view of civilisation is skewed at best. He sees the Hollywoodification of the world as civilisation so that he who is not on such a path is uncivilised. We all know that the path to development for the Asian countries is far different from the path taken by the US and UK. Hence, there are several paths that lead to the same destination. The BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China) are hardly English-speaking and are they developed technologically, politically, commercially, as the author tend to define his civilisation? Is Russia not civilised because they speak Russian? And can Africans develop their language to such a level, and if yes where does it begin with? A century or two ago, Latin was the language of the academics, even in Britain. Which events led to this language coup? Is one civilised only if one speaks and write English?

Is not this a compelling reason for us to develop our local languages? Then there is the problem of what constitutes African or Nigerian literature. And is it because of this that we should all write in English? Because we cannot define what the African or Nigerian literature is? Like Soyinka said, the tiger does not exhibits its tigritude.

The author states that
The world is going global and cultures have intermingled.
When it got here I realised there is a new world order coming up. Are we aiming at a homogenous world culture with globalisation? Globalisation involves bringing to the table what you have and not losing yours to another because you consider it inferior. Should we begin to wear a three-piece suit, a felt hat with a walking stick in one hand, drink tea, and speak to be civilised or to be come part of the global village? The Japanese instead of throwing away their Kimono, their Buddha Statues, their tea houses, to become civilised, have developed and strengthened these because they take pride in them, seeing it not as second not another's culture but as superior to all. This is what the author has failed to see and instead of congratulating Ngugi for this he is condemning him on the pretext of tribalism.

According to the writer, a stone would be stone in any language it is spoken in. Arthur in this instance refers to literature as a material, a name given to an object and since this material remains same from one language to the other it does not matter the language within which one speaks, the understanding and self expression would be clear. When I say "W'amma wo yɔnko antwa ankɔ a, wo nso worentwa nnu" (If you don't let your companion clear the path forward, you also won't clear it to the end) there are sounds here that has multiple meanings. For instance, "ankɔ", which means, as used here, 'do not go (forward)", sounds similar to "nkron" (or nine in English), and "nnu" (not reach), also sounds like "du", ten. Hence, this simple proverb also could mean "if you do not allow your friend to harvest nine you would not harvest ten". Is this second meaning implied in the English version? This is the beauty of language that Arthur fails to appreciate. Literature is not just names it is the stringing together of words to create a work of art and in doing so assonance, cadence, nuance all come up to make the meaning whole.

Finally, the author warns
Rather than begin to romance with the cold of the past, African writers should immerse themselves into the spirit of the times and begin to use the available tools in their disposal to call humankind back to our common humanity. A man must dance the dance prevalent in his time, to echo Achebe.
To respond to this I would quote Armah (Two Thousand Seasons):
A people losing sight of origins are dead. A people deaf to purposes are lost. Under fertile rain, in scorching sunshine there is no difference: their bodies are mere corpses, awaiting final burial.
Woe the race, too generous in the giving of itself, that finds a road not of regeneration but to its own extinction. Woe the race, woe the spring. Woe the headwaters, woe the seers, the hearers, woe the utterers. Woe the flowing water, people hustling to death.
If we all take such an elitist view of Africa, its culture and literature, we would be lost and the only thing that would remain for us to do as a people at the final stage of this transfiguration would be to bleach ourselves, stretch our hairs, paint our pupils and if all these fail approach the genetic engineers (or th eugenics) for the removal of the melanin to help improve our race and reach the obtainable level of this Arthurian Civilisation.
To bestow universality to a borrowed language is to divest oneself of one’s identity. Let’s not be blind to the fact that ‘English’ as a language is another man’s culture; his local language.
This was my initial response to Anyaduba's article and it remains my response.

8 comments:

  1. Wow, what a powerful and beautiful article. This is a difficult argument and everyone is entitled to his opinion.
    I think that literature is very different from economics. I mean, one can (should!) write in whichever language he feels like. Nothing should stop a writer to express his/her emotions. The problem with English vs local languages is that the teaching of the latter is not encouraged enough, thus people "feel" they can write in English only, because they have always done so. Correct me if I'm wrong.

    I feel it is a different thing if we speak of economics. The countries you mentioned (Brazil, China, India, Russia) all have chosen one or two "national" languages which they use for commercial purposes, in spite of having many languages in their interior. China has many languages but i uses Mandarin as its primary language. This inevitably brings problems (if you don't speak that language well enough you won't make it to the top of the social ladder). Personally I think that every country has to choose one or two languages to achieve "national unity", to communicate and to express itself. It is always an act of violence. Even in Italy, there are many "dialects" (some of them are actually real languages) but the standard Tuscan dialect has been chosen for cultural reason many centuries ago. I don't think that my great-great-grandparents felt comfortable about using it, as it was not their native language.

    Working with languages is always complicated, but I think the solution stands in the middle. Somehow a balance should be found.

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  2. Yes, Stefania I wouldn't agree less with you on the first point. English is the language that is used in schools. But the local language is one that is used most often (home and elsewhere). As a result people feel comfortable with writing only in English. This used not to be so. In Ghana we used to learn the local language of the place where the school was situated. So that if I were an Twi-speaking Akan and I am in Accra schooling, I would have to learn the Ga. My problem with Arthur's school of thought is to see writing in one's native language as breeding tribalism as Tricia said in her article. If most of us find it difficult almost impossible to write in our local language why should we blame individuals who have taken it upon themselves to first write in that language and perhaps later translate it into English. How that breeds tribalism and hinder development I do not know. As you said Italy chose one of their own languages; China same! Why not any African country for that matter. South Africa aside the Afrikaan language spoken by the Boer which they fought against speak and write their own language. Swahili is spoken and written in most East African countries. Does this hamper 'civilisation'? Yes, it is every country's duty to search for its lingua franca but to say 'English is the medium through which civilisation could be obtained' is akin to saying that all non-English speaking countries are not civilised.

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  3. Fredua I'll give a good reply later. For starters, I have republished as we discussed. I must say that it is unfortunate when our intellectuals do the dirty job for those seeking our destruction all in the name of modernism. They are too quick to brand anything as tribal. As someone who studied Linguistics, one hot debate concerns language and thought. There are those who believe language influences thought. And I say that if you speak more than one language, you'd know how it feels like when you speak with another person who speaks 2 or more of the languages you speaks. You keep moving in between the languages and you'll experience different levels of thinking. I hope Arthur reads this.

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  4. @Obed, thanks for the comment. You know we would continue with this when we meet.

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  5. I'm late commenting, but I wanted to respond, as this is an issue that's much debated in India as well. Writing in English is definitely privileged over writing in Indian languages for many reasons, ranging from higher monetary rewards and the carrot of international recognition to issues of reader accessibility.

    OTOH, English is a cradle language for many, and often not considered an outsider's tongue. So it is really a very complicated issue. Have you read Derek Walcott's poem A Far Cry from Africa? I'm sure you have :) I think about it often in the context of India too...

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  6. @Niranjana, you aren't late. It is open for discussion 24/7/365. I believe it is a complicated issue. However, should we damn those who choose to write in their mother tongue? Does writing in one's mother tongue foster tribalism? In most countries, where English is not the first language, English is the medium of delivering education and mostly not used at home. Hence, one's command over it becomes skewed and poor. I have read a lot of manuscripts with beautiful story lines but which are written in one dimension English.

    Haven't read Derek's poem yet. Would look for it. Now.

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  7. Fantastic post Nana. I've really loved your two responses to the issue. You raise some great points that need to be taken into account. I do think it was a quite a lost argument against his own country and languages and culture. Shocking!

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  8. @Amy, thanks. I hope people would listen. I get scared if people think like this. What if they become future leaders in their various countries?

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