writing Africa in English

Some really interesting writing going on at Petina Gappah's blog. She shares the first two sentences of her upcoming novel, The Book of Memory:

"Nyaya yawanditi ndikunyorere pasi haina kutanga nekupondwa kwaLloyd Henderson kwete, asi kuti yakatanga mumwe musi muna Kukadzi, pandaiva kamwana kemakore pfumbamwe, zuva richirova nhongonya yangu nemaronda aiva kumeso kwangu, baba namai vangu ndokunditengesera kune mumwewo mutorwa. Ndinoti zvangu ndibaba namai vangu vakadaro, as chokwadi ndechekuti vaiva mai vangu chete."

I don't speak Shona, and I don't understand a word, but maybe that's okay. Gappah writes:

"As part of my commitment to being a Real Genuine Authentic African Writer, I have chosen to give these sentences to you in the Real Genuine Authentic African language of Shona. And if you don't understand it, well, that could well mean you are not as Real and Genuine an Authentic African as me...to be an African writer is to be proud to be an African Writer and it is all About the Positive Image of Africa and so on. The authentic, positive image. So that's me from now on, Really Genuinely and Authentically and Most Positively African:) And if the meaning of my authentic positive African words is lost to you, too bad, as long as I am authentic:):):) And positive!!"

She is of course joking here, responding to recent criticism of her outspoken desire to not be labeled an "African writer," but there is some truth in it. We had a conversation in one of my writing classes in college, Prof Marvina White, about writers choosing deliberately not to write in English as a political statement, instead using their native languages.

I am always searching the pages of certain books by certain writers to see how they treat this (adichie, achebe, abani), how I will treat this in mine. Adichie tends to explain the phrase right in the text. Or she sometimes writes, in anticipation, that such and such phrase was spoken in Ibo, while then writing the phrase in English.

I wonder what it is lost when these Ibo phrases are written in English? Or Gappah's Shona phrase is translated? When the English itself often lacks sufficient letters and/or meanings to represent the language of origin. I think there is something lost in the translation.

And then we can look at issues of dialect and how to represent English spoken by a non-native speaker. Or pidgin, in the work of Adaora Lily Ulasi. (Can someone please explain to me what Abani's doing in Graceland? It took reading a critical essay to learn that I am not the only one not vibing his imaginary dialect.)

There is nothing worse than writing that should sound familiar, but intead sounds foreign or false. Reading Secrets by Somali Nuruddin Farah, who has been racking up awards left and right, I couldn't help but wonder why this man is writing in English at all when it is largely useless at communicating his characters' feelings and thoughts.

And I think Achebe's English reads perfectly well, but sometimes it is overly aggressive and forceful, anti-poetic, unable to transmit the warmth or emotion he might find in his native tongue. He wields English like a sword, or perhaps that is just my impression of the man.

So many languages, so many choices. How to write them? I am having big thoughts today. Here is another perspective from Emmanuel Sigauke.

1 comments:

{ Anna Renee } | January 26, 2010 at 11:53 AM said...

I read her post as well. This question of language and the use of English to express oneself is quite complex! Even with natural "English" speakers like myself, I find that I can't express certain thoughts without using this hotly debated "Negro Dialect" or should I say African American dialect. It doesn't come across with the same power in standard english.

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
 

Copyright © 2010 The African Muse All Rights Reserved

Design by Dzignine