Ngugi’s point that English isn’t an African language is, in the native sense, strictly true. I think in the broader sense, however, it must be said that English is an African language in the world today. There are Africans, born and raised in Africa, who speak English as a first language. It is illegitimate for anyone to approach those native Africans and tell them they are, somehow, not African. His more subtle point, that there is a difference between writing in a native African language and then translating it into English is different than simply writing it first in English is something I really agree with. I think this idea plays directly into the notion of each language having things it ‘must say’. Ideally the story would be written and read in its author’s native tongue, whatever that may be, but the reality is that very few westerners are going to take the time and effort necessary to learn a ‘minor’ – a charged word there – African language in order to better appreciate its relatively small library of works. Then again, if nobody writes in these languages, there will never be anyone who bothers to learn or understand them.
In writing that I am immediately reminded of Adiche’s commentary on the principle of nkali – the possession of power. In most spheres of media production the widely accepted fact that, in the world today, a work must be in English to be internationally available (and thus profitable) is the chief motivator for the spread and establishment of the Anglo-American cultural hegemony. I think that, beyond the obvious forces of capitalism, there is also a degree of inherent cultural condescension involved in that judgment: that success only in Africa (or even only in Asia, or South America) isn’t really success at all. That a work hasn’t really ‘made it’ until it’s been translated into English and recognized as ‘real literature’ by the western world.
Despite the obvious problems with the English hegemony over world culture, it doesn’t invalidate the contribution of native African authors who use it to tell their stories. Is it damning for the native languages of Africa to have its best and brightest default to English? Maybe. Is giving those best and brightest a voice on the world stage worth that sacrifice? I think it is. Achebe fundamentally changed the dialog about Africa with a novel written in English. Adichie and other new, young African writers have continued to champion the idea that Africans have culture and perspective that adds to and enriches the world with its contribution to the human experience. The world can’t just have ‘one story’ about Africa, ‘something had to be done’ and it continues to need doing.
One of my first thoughts at Angele Kingue’s reading was: “I’m here to listen to a black woman speak, but what I’m actually hearing is a white lady mumble.” I don’t speak French, and while I’ve been assured it sounds wonderfully pleasing it doesn’t amount to much more than noise to my ear. This is due to the poverty of my education and I lament that, but it’s also true. Would I have had this reaction if Professor Gillespie had been the one to render it in English? Probably not, but I couldn’t help but relate my experience back to the discussion we had on Tuesday and the debate going on between African literati (such as Ngugi and Adichie) about the power of language. If I can’t understand the words being spoken I can’t really appreciate what a person has to say, no matter how beautifully they say it. Listening to another person, a person whom is almost never as interesting or charismatic as the actual speaker, deliver his/her necessarily compromised and often somewhat muted version is just never going to have the same rhetorical impact as the original. If we take a powerful black speaker and give her an uninspired interpreter, haven’t we robbed her of something?
We had already discussed the interesting phenomenon of ‘multiple personalities’ stemming from language switching in class, but I don’t think any of us took the matter quite as seriously as Angele clearly does. Her insistence that she cannot possibly be understood (herself, as a person) in English was obviously sincere, if a little off putting. That she could only really create in her native tongue was an idea I had a much easier time sympathizing with. I can’t imagine trying to really write prose in a second language. (All credit to Achebe!)
I also got something of a charge from the idea of non-lingual communication she did so much with in her novel. Botany as a kind of poetry, an outfit designed as a cohesive message. I think the latter is something that probably goes on more than I realize or can apprehend. I have enquired about the depth and breadth of female closets and parsed exactly enough of the provoked responses to understand that there is complexity at work there that rivals most syntaxes… While on the topic of gender I have to admit that listening to Angele’s version of a man to man conversation was revealing. While she was talking about women, while women were talking to women, the story had a rainbow of sights, smells and sounds – all of which were rendered in loose, near verse-like prose. The scenes she read with men were in rooms, in front of televisions, over beer and were about money, jobs and politics. In addition to the stark contrast in topic and scenery, there was a profound shift in tone and format: the two men took turns delivering huge bricks of wordy philosophy interspersed with astonishingly personal observations about either themselves or one another.
The candor between these two men, their willingness to talk so intensely and directly about their feelings – it only made sense to me if they were lovers. She skipped around the book somewhat, and I didn’t really have a lock on much of it, but I’m fairly sure the two men were not supposed to be gay. It occurred to me that if they had both been women, I wouldn’t have questioned the conversation. It then occurred to me that standards and expectations of manliness (or even male-ness, to use a less loaded term) are not globally uniform. Maybe French guys talk like this? Maybe that seeped into the African cultures French got injected into? I remember being surprised while I read Adichie’s Americanah that her Nigerian protagonist thought it was “irresponsible” for grown men to eat ice cream cones in public.