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Post/colonial English: The language of African literature?

In light of our translation project, case.sensitive., we’ve had cause to think once more about the relationships between different languages, and how these work in regard to power. Inevitably, in the context of poco.lit., this also brings to mind the language questions that arise in postcolonial contexts. Language debates played a significant role in burgeoning postcolonial literatures and postcolonial studies from its earliest days, and they raise issues that are integral to both colonial and postcolonial histories.

The debate around colonial languages as the medium of writing for (formerly) colonised peoples was a prominent and early form the discussion about language took in the postcolonial sphere. On the African continent, the opposing sides of this discussion were probably most famously represented by Chinua Achebe and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. In simplified terms, one could delineate their positions as Achebe coming down in favour of English as a vehicle for African literature, and Ngũgĩ against – to the extent that he opted to stop writing in English and instead pen his works in his native Gikuyu. As is perhaps so often the case in debates that are structured as fostering either/or positions, it is not so much the settling on a side that is interesting, as are the ideas raised over the course of the discussion.

Often, the genealogy of this discussion is traced back to a conference that took place at Makerere University in Uganda in 1962. The title of the conference – which would also be subject to critique given its implicit exclusion of writers who chose another medium of expression – was “A Conference of African Writers of English Expression”. Many heavyweights of what we might today recognise as a postcolonial canon were in attendance, including both Achebe and Ngũgĩ – the latter a student with a manuscript in hand he was hoping to get the already well-respected Achebe to read. Both writers would subsequently cite this conference when they articulated in writing their positions on the language question.

Achebe’s take is embedded in a pragmatic assessment of the status quo: African writers were writing in English, and this was doing important work. As he put it in his 1965 article “English and the African Writer”: “If it [colonialism] failed to give them a song, it at least gave them a tongue for sighing”. In Achebe’s view, English had become an important lingua franca for peoples from different parts of the African continent who might otherwise have struggled to communicate across a multitude of mother tongues. Es’kia Mphahlele even pointed out how useful this could be for anticolonial struggles, since English could serve as the common medium for building alliances across groups with different native languages.

After briefly assessing the question of whether African writers could write well enough in English – which, of course, he answers in the affirmative, though that he addresses the query at all seems to indicate what was likely a typical allegation at the time – Achebe speaks to the more pertinent question of whether they ought to. While he grants that English came to Africa with colonialism and its violence, he still sees it as his inheritance, and one that he will mould to suit his needs. He asks, “Is it right that a man should abandon his mother tongue for someone else’s? It looks like a dreadful betrayal, and produces a guilty feeling”. Interestingly, Ngũgĩ’s choice to stop writing in English is also often framed in terms of ‘abandonment’ – as if the language might somehow feel the loss. And clearly, Achebe feels some kind of duty to his mother tongue. But he concludes that the English language can and will be shaped and altered so as to fit the needs of the African writers using it.

While Achebe points to English as having national currency in the emerging independent nation-states of Africa, obviously there is also the question of real currency and sheer visibility. A thought at the forefront of many a would-be writer on the African continent also today might well be how to get their work out there – published, marketed and sold – and for better or (probably) worse, that is more likely to happen in English. English-language writing is more likely to reach a broader audience, then as now.

Choosing a language is thus also, at least initially, choosing an audience. This is one of the points that Ngũgĩ raises in his discussion of the issues in his influential book Decolonising the Mind, published in 1986. He speaks to what English meant when he was growing up in Kenya, and when he was being educated at British-colonial institutions. Makerere University itself, at which he was a student of English, was an overseas college of the University of London. Ngũgĩ notes how English, and facility with the English language, came with prestige and privileges. It meant upward mobility; it gave entry into the elite. For him, choosing to continue to write in this language is to some degree to uphold these structures. It is implicitly to seek the approval and legitimation of the (colonial) British canon; it is to pay homage to this literature (and the cultural imperialism that imposed it as desirable), and it constitutes an ongoing subservience. To choose to write in English meant choosing to write for those who could and would read in English.

Choosing English also meant, for Ngũgĩ, participating in the enrichment of this colonial language at the continued expense of Indigenous languages. Instead of enriching their native cultures and languages by creating art in these linguistic worlds, African writers of English expression ran the risk of coming to their Indigenous languages with an extractivist logic all too familiar from colonialism, mining it for material that would ultimately strengthen literature in the English language.

Ngũgĩ’s most compelling arguments for me emerge from his emphasis on the colonisation of the mind that was so integral to the colonial project, and his drawing out language as a fundamental component of this subjugation. As he writes, “The night of the sword and the bullet was followed by the morning of the chalk and the blackboard”. A child who speaks one language at home, and another, colonial language at school and other institutions must live with an integral disjuncture, as she is taught that one of the two is valuable and the way to advancement, while the other is made small. Crucially, this language teaches colonised peoples their own alterity; they are taught to conceive of themselves, in and by this language, as Other.

Beyond this, language is for Ngũgĩ a chalice of collective memory, it gathers in itself a people’s history. As such, it must be nurtured. Perhaps for these reasons, he sees a duty on the part of African writers to write in their mother tongues, and finally finds that African literature must be written in African languages.

Certainly, there have been developments in these debates in the decades that have passed since these two writers made these arguments. But it seems important to keep in mind the texture of the history of colonial languages, and the political freight that these may still carry, as we consider politically sensitive language today.