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The language of literature

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Ngugi_wa_Thiong'o_reading.jpgNgugi wa Thiong'o writes in Gikuyu, the language spoken by the Kikuyu tribe in Kenya.  He translates his own work into English.  

His choice to do so, as he recognizes in a recent video interview with Granta deputy editor Ellah Allfrey, is not popular with the "new generation" of African writers, many (if not most) of whom write in English.  Ngugi wa Thiong'o reserves judgment of these young writers, acknowledging that writing in an African language decreases the chances of publication.  But he criticized the assumptions underlying African literary prizes:   

Look at prizes given to promote African writing . . . They all assume that African writing is only that which is in English.  They assume that European languages are the beginning or the only means by which the African imagination can work, and it's not true.
The question of the language of the imagination is an important and interesting one.  But in framing the issue as he does (and in attacking the faceless "they" to whom "assumptions" can be attributed), Ngugi seems to be setting up a straw colonist for attack and missing the key issue: whether to write in the language of an oral society.

All written literature builds on other writings, through references, allusions, quotations or outright copying (Shakespeare, for example, used other authors' plots).  A writer who decides to write in a language that has no literary canon deprives his or her work of the richness of that dialogue with preexisting literary works.  Attaining aesthetic quality in such a context is an even greater challenge than normal.

That "new generation" African writers are writing in European languages may not simply be a function of wanting to be published, as Ngugi wa Thiong'o suggests, but may result from what Binyavanga Wainaina identifies as a desire for recognition based on "the very 'aesthetic' of their work, not their political leanings or their arrival from a wayward 'Dark Continent.'"  In other words, Wainana urges recognition for quality writing, rather than for the identity or politics of the author - or the language in which he or she writes.  

To produce quality writing, all writers must translate the story in their imagination to words on the page.  And, in the end, the language of the imagination and the language of literature differ, even when both nominally occur in English.  (For instance, the imagination can operate in pictures, while literature uses words.)  

When the writer in question has a choice of languages into which to translate the story in his or her imagination, selecting a non-native language has time and again resulted in innovative works that enrich the language in which they're written (think Vladimir Nabokov, Isak Dinesen, Ha Jin).  Penalizing African writers for choosing English is likely to result in a loss both to English and to literature.

(Photo of Ngugi wa Thiong'o from his website)   

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