Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Writing in a Universal Language

Joyce's post on the problems with artistic margins and the benefits of artistic universals reminded me of a recent article about the Nigerian novelist, Chinua Achebe in the New Yorker: "After Empire" by Ruth Franklin. An excerpt:

By deploying stock English phrases in unfamiliar ways, Achebe expresses his characters’ estrangement from that language. The phrases that Ezeulu uses—“be my eyes,” “bring home my share”—have no exact equivalents in Achebe’s “translation.” And how great the gap between “my spirit tells me” and “I have a hunch”! In the same essay, Achebe writes that carrying the full weight of African experience requires “a new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit its new African surroundings.” Or, as he later put it, “Let no one be fooled by the fact that we may write in English for we intend to do unheard of things with it.”

Achebe’s views on English were not yet widely accepted. At a conference on African literature held in Uganda in 1962, attended by emerging figures such as the Nigerian poet and playwright Wole Soyinka and the Kenyan novelist James Ngugi, the writers tried and failed to define “African literature,” unable to decide whether it should be characterized by the nationalities of the writers or by its subject matter. Afterward, the critic Obi Wali published an article claiming that African literature had come to a “dead end,” which could be reopened only when “these writers and their western midwives accept the fact that true African literature must be written in African languages.” Ngugi came to agree: he wrote four novels in English, but in the nineteen-seventies he adopted his Gikuyu name of Ngugi wa Thiong’o and vowed to write only in Gikuyu, his native language, viewing English as a means of “spiritual subjugation.”

At the conference, Achebe read the manuscript of Ngugi’s first novel, “Weep Not, Child,” which he recommended to Heinemann for publication. The publisher soon asked him to sign on as general editor of its African Writers Series, a post he held, without pay, for ten years. Among the writers whose novels were published during his tenure were Flora Nwapa, John Munonye, and Ayi Kwei Armah—all of whom became important figures in the emerging African literature. Heinemann’s Alan Hill later said that the “fantastic sales” of Achebe’s books had supported the series. But the appeal of English was not purely commercial. A great novel, Achebe later argued, “alters the situation in the world.” Igbo, Gikuyu, or Fante could not claim a global influence; English could.

1 comment:

Joyce Cheng said...

Just a response in passing: I was recently in a Brussels francophone bookstore where I saw an enormous stack of foreign literature translated into French. African, but also Pakistani, Israeli, Korean, Japanese. Lots of Japanese. When literature is successful, it gets translated into the languages such as English and French, Chinese and Arabic. We ought not to miss the fact that certain cultures put more emphasis on literature than on visual forms, rituals, dance, singing, and so forth, and their languages tend to win the semiotic war when it is fought on the literary front. Chinese mandarin wiped out Manchu as well as other minor languages, who remain alive in oral forms but do not have viable script tradition. I wonder if our African writers are not missing out on a fact long recognized by C├ęsaire, namely, to write in the language of the "enemy" gives you a chance to love and critique them at the same time.