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African literature, the English Language and the nation – Part 2


In another essay, “Where Angels Fear to Tread” (1962), Achebe observes: “The question then is not whether we should be criticised or not, but what kind of criticism.” He identifies three categories of critics who do not enjoy the respect of African writers: first, hostile critics; second, those critics who are amazed that Africans can write, and write in English too; third, those who say that African writers should be judged by the same standards as European writers, and then arrive at the logical conclusion that African writing is inferior to European writing (Morning Yet 47). Achebe is worried that Europeans and Americans pretend to know too much about Africa when in truth they neither understand the African world view nor can they speak any of the African languages.

May I at this point in this address express my gratitude to the early local critics and writers who took it upon themselves to build up and defend the sanctity of our literature until we met it. I use Nigerian writers and critics as points of contact with the larger body of African writers and critics. I have in mind, both dead and living, pioneer writers who are/were critics at the same time: Achebe, Soyinka, Clark, etc. Specific critics and theorists need to be mentioned: Solomon Iyasere, Obi Wali, Kolawole Ogungbesan, Abiola Irele, MJC Echeruo, Oyin Ogunba, E.N. Obiechina, D.I. Nwoga, D.S. Izevbaye, E.N. Emenyonu, C.E. Nnolim, Oladele Taiwo, Kalu Uka, Ben Obumselu, Sunday Anozie, Ime Ikeddeh, Isidore Okpewho, Biodun Jeyifo, N.J. Udoeyop, Femi Osofisan, etc. This list is not exhaustive. The writing of these men convinced some of us that a career in African literature would worth it. Each of these critics helped to raise the integrity of African literature through their incisive writings.

I choose one of them – Ernest Nneji Emenyonu – as another point of contact to demonstrate the nature and quality of service rendered to our literature by its pioneer critics for which Africa carted away the Nobel Prize for Literature for the first time in 1986. I in turn choose only two of his early essays: “African Literature: What Does it take to be its Critic?” (1971) and “Who Does Flora Nwapa Write For?” (1975). I do not want to recall the flak which his The Rise of the Igbo Novel (1978) drew when he referred to the novels written by Nigerian writers of Igbo extraction as first and foremost ‘Igbo novels’. The Ife-based critics objected to his assertion but he responded with sufficient conviction. Emenyonu’s “African Literature: What Does it take to be its Critic?” accuses some of the foreign critics of posing as ‘judges’ of African literature even though “they knew little or nothing of the existence and depth of oral literature of Africa and therefore, little or nothing of the true roots of written African literature”. One of those whose work benefited from Emenyonu’s intervention is Cyprian Ekwensi whose artistic enterprise was pooh-poohed by Bernth Lindfors as an example where “practice does not make perfect” since, as the latter insisted, not one of all Ekwensi’s novels, novelettes, folktales and short stories “is entirely free of amateurish blots and blunders, not one could be called the handiwork of a careful, skilled craftsman”. Emenyonu not only defended Ekwensi’s artistic legacy by turning the tables against Lindfors, more or less mimicking him: “It seems that ‘not one of Lindfors’ conclusions on Ekwensi’s art is entirely free from amateurish blots and blunders’”. He went ahead to write a book on Ekwensi and edited an anthology of essays, focused squarely on his writings under the title, The Essential Ekwensi (1987). Similarly, in the other essay, Emenyonu explains who Flora Nwapa addresses against who Adeola James would want her to address when she (James) remarks: “Considering her performances in both Efuru and Idu, one cannot help wondering what motivates Miss Nwapa beyond the elementary wish of everyone to be a writer. In her novels there is not the impulse to write which ‘kicks you in the pit of your stomach’.” Emenyonu identifies Nwapa’s audience target to be “the culture and life-ways of the Igbo and more specifically the fishing and farming residents of Oguta, who find the occupation and pleasure in the Oguta Lake, and to whom the ‘fantasies’ of the ‘woman of the lake’ are a reality”. He shows that Nwapa’s interests, for instance, barrenness in marriage, “something which is of great concern to the Igbo woman because invariably it sets her apart from friends and associates who are not sure whether her barrenness is as a result of her moral laxity or a divine curse.” Adeola James, on the other hand, had asserted that should a writer lack in his/her writing that which ‘kicks you in the pit of your stomach’, he/she must compensate the audience “by other things such as beautiful narrative style, amusing and vividly described incidents and powerful characterization”. According to the critic, these artistic tempers do not exist in Nwapa’s Idu.


Emenyonu disagrees: “The evaluation of an Igbo work of art is essentially an appreciation of the validity of content as well as the appropriateness of technique. What the writer says about the Igbo is as important as how he says it. Neither alone can constitute his success but the failure in both could mean his failure as an artist. Flora Nwapa’s Idu is a successful Igbo novel by both standards. (“Flora Nwapa” 29).
The English Language

The English language as J.P. Clark would say is ‘The Legacy of Caliban’. Caliban is the savage/monster in Shakespeare’s The Tempest who told his master and redeemer, Prospero who had taught him language: “You taught me language; and my profit on’t/Is I know how to curse. The red plague rid you,/For learning me your language!” (Act 1 Scene ii). This defiant tone reminds one of Achebe’s “I have been given this language and I intend to use it” (“The African Writer” 62). To do what? To “carry the weight of my African experience” although “it will have to be in a new English still in full communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit its new African surroundings” (62). According to J.P. Clark, “having adopted a European language, how does the African writer use it, that is, with what sense of propriety? Does he fit the ‘foreign’ tongue to local subjects and characters? Is the language in his hands following the peculiar lie of the African situations he depicts?” (8).

Although it was Obi Wali who first made the problem of colonial language use a big issue in African literature, it was in fact Frantz Fanon who in 1952 examined the role of foreign tongues in the oppression of Africans. In his Black Skin, White Masks, he asserts that he attaches “a basic importance to the phenomenon of language” because it is implicit that to speak is to exist absolutely for the other” (17). Moreover, “a man who has a language consequently possesses the world expressed and implied by that language” (18). Language is the expression of the culture that owns it. Therefore, a colonized person who expresses himself in the language of the colonizer invariably propagates that culture. In other words, the basic aim of language in the colonial context is no more than the facilitation of cultural and political oppression: “Every colonized people – in other words, every people in whose soul an inferiority complex has been created by the death and burial of its local cultural originality – finds itself face to face with the language of the civilizing nation: that is, with the culture of the mother country.” (17-18)

An almost similar view has been advanced by Jean-Paul Sartre, Fanon’s intellectual friend and mentor. Fanon had a lot in common with him; notwithstanding that he a little later accused the French philosopher of sharing certain vices with his French people. For instance, certain aspects of Fanon’s view on violence are derived from Sartre’s Critique de la Raison Dialectique (1960). But in the matter concerning language and oppression, it seems that the influence was the other way round. Writing in the 1960’s, Sartre invariably agrees with Fanon on the latter’s opinion of the foreign language as an instrument of cultural and social domination of the African. In his Black Orpheus (1963), Originally written in 1948, Sartre agrees that language is an easy means of inferiorization: “… in passing it to the Negro, the instructor gives him in addition a hundred habits of language which consecrate the priority of white over black” (27). Sartre further observes: “Let him (the colonial) open his mouth and he condemns himself, except insomuch as he sets himself to destroy the hierarchy. And if he destroys it in French, he poetizes already: let one imagine the strange savor which terms such as ‘the blackness of innocence’ or the ‘shadows of virtue’ would have for us.” (27)

It was in fact the intellectual polemics initiated by Frantz Fanon on the language question in Africa and the Third World that gave rise to the question of language in African literature. Fanon’s treatise was revelatory and courageous but it had the pitfall of virtually equating language with culture. The relativist theory of Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, we must remember, contends that language is an expression of a particular culture, but it does not consider language as being able to replace culture. Language is only one of the communicative resources of a people, yet even all the communicative resources of a speech community put together do not constitute its culture. The other interactive resources include, code of vocal gesture in intonation, manual gesture, visual art, dance and instrumental music. There are also genres built somewhat from the resources of language such as song, myth and drama. Dell Hymes posits: “as a selectively utilized resource, language is never the adequate expression of the whole thought of a people” (311-312).
The African Writer and the Language Liability

The African writer’s handicap with regard to the language praxis is a complex one. First, he/she is an African who enjoys a double heritage of cultures – one by ordination, and the other acquired through formal education and exposure. Second, he is formally educated in European world-view but his writing is informed by his people’s weltanschauung. Third, by the fact of his deploying a foreign language in his writing, he writes essentially for an outside audience. Fourth, the characters in the work are usually Africans who are supposed to speak in an African language. However, in reality, these characters are constrained to express themselves in English or French or Spanish or Portuguese. Fifth, he enjoys the ironic fate of having to condemn Europhilism literally using an European tongue to do so. And sixth, if he has to survive as a writer, if he has to earn enough royalties for personal sustenance, he has to be published in a foreign language.

These problems remain liabilities to the African writer as long as he writes in a borrowed language. The reality of his language acquisition is one which invariably leaves a deep vacuum in his art. It is true, for instance, that the African writer is a product of two or more cultures. However, we must also take into account the fact that the acquisition of the second culture is usually shallow, for to truly acquire a culture to a reasonable depth, one needs to be sociologically and psychologically immersed in that culture. Abiola Irele’s view on this contention is worth referring to: “The educated African completely at home in his traditional culture as well as in the European culture is a very rare bird indeed. The vast majority of us move and live in a dim region of cultural and linguistic ambiguity.” (49)

Even more problematic is the fact that the African writer – who is often a cultural nationalist – is engaged in projecting his people’s cultural point of view with his later-day exposure to Europeanism. Often times he considers himself as a spokesman of his people and culture. Since his people are confronted by acceptability problems, he forever strives to explain away the logic of his culture in the structure of equivalences. This is harmful to the culture, of which literature is a part.


This necessarily takes us to the third problem – the problem of audience consciousness. Because he employs a foreign language, the writer can only address outsiders and the restricted population of the local elite. This creates a chasm between African literature in European tongues and the African public. The truth is that much of what our writers have written in European languages in the past 60 years or so cannot be read by even 5% of the African population. As things are, it is even to be observed that the African writer who employs a Western framework such as our great African poets often do, may not be adequately understood by the typical African student except he is himself a committed product of the Western legacy which is often a rarity. Therefore, the gulf further deepens between the local writer writing in a foreign language and the local reader.

It is also worth pointing out that part of the African writer’s hindrance arises from the concomitant structures and actions in his work. Often his/her characters, symbols and allusions are African but they express themselves – as in the case of the characters – in a foreign tongue. There is an incongruity in watching a dramatic enactment on stage where an African elder or a peasant dweller speaks a very refined English. Nor would the writer allow his/her character to speak in halting English since that would give the impression that there is something wrong with the elder or villager in question. Not even Pidgin English would solve this impasse. As J.P. Clark observes, “to employ Pidgin English or some such patois because his client is an Urhobo farmer or an Ijaw fisherman writing to his son in the city or petitioning the government against a wrong, would be to do him the worst of wrongs” (28). Yet if such a character speaks in his native tongue, there is automatically a linguistic blackout between him and some of the spectators who are not versed in this African language. The symbols and allusions which are Africa-derived suffer in translation: they lose both their meanings and their effectiveness in the transformation.

• Nwachukwu-Agbada is a professor of Literature at Abia State University (ABSU), Uturu.

NOTE: “The Guardian Literary Series (GLS), which focuses on Nigerian Literature is published fortnightly. Essays of between 2500 and 5000 words should be sent to the series editor Sunny Awhefeada at” 08052759540.

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