African literature written in English: a cultural betrayal?

Outside of the English speaking world, authors whose nationalities hail from Asia, the Middle East, Russia, continental Europe and South America will be widely published (and in some cases will write) in their native tongue for a local audience.

In 1975 Chinua Achebe wrote a speech entitled “The African Writer and the English Language“.  It raised the vexed, emotionally fraught question of why most of our celebrated African literature is written and published in Sub-Saharan Africa only in the English language.

Achebe’s rhetorical question was phrased with his usual flair; “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. But for me there is no other choice. I have been given the language and I intend to use it.”  His calm acceptance of this cultural conundrum that accepts that novels by modern African authors, living in independent nations, would be written in the language of their former colonial masters, is in some respects, secondary to the more powerful commercial argument which requires that novels be presented in the English language to ensure the widest possible audience for their readership.

There are several simple and self-evident arguments as to why African literature is written in English. Firstly, most of Sub-Saharan Africa uses English as the language in which to teach in schools, political discourse and business dealings in the formal sector. This obviously varies in parts of Lusophone and Francophone Africa. Secondly, there are over 1500 languages and numerous dialects spoken in Africa. Following its population explosion, it is reported that one in every five Africans on the continent is Nigerian.  In Nigeria alone, there are hundreds of languages spoken including Yoruba, Igbo, Fula, Hausa, but the official language is English. This fact demonstrates the challenges which a publishing house would face in seeking to publish in a local language.  Finally, storytelling in local languages in many parts of Sub-Saharan Africa is still based in part on oral narratives passed down from different generations. This tradition has its own rich cultural history which has equal standing in many communities alongside the written text of modern African literature.

Whilst there is a market for books written in Afrikaans for the South African market, elsewhere on the continent, the evidence is patchy.  That said, larger bookshops in East and West Africa all include a small section of fiction and non-fiction written in local languages.  The cultural advantage inherent in this offering is to provide access to a neglected readership less comfortable in English than they are in their mother tongue.  The unspoken risk is that without African literature in local languages, it may be reduced to a spoken word only.  This point was alluded to by a managing director at Fourth Dimension Publishers, who was reported as stating that “African languages are nothing but “talking languages”.  They must cross this basic description and become languages of discourse, of diplomacy, international relations, literature and criticism, science and technology…..”.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o is the celebrated Kenyan writer who has acted as the Professor of Comparative Literature and English at the University of California, Irvine. He wrote the popular novel “Weep Not, Child” which was one of the first novels to be published in English by an East African author.  His argument  is that African languages are the “authentic voice” of African literature, while his arguments on this issue are both passionate and eloquent, they ignore some of the realities of publishing novels in the twenty first century.  He is a legitimate regional literary hero for his principled stance in announcing that he would write in Kikuyu or Kiswahili going forward, although later works were eventually translated into English.  His thought provoking collection of essays, “Decolonising the Mind: the Politics of Language in African Literature” advanced a forceful argument regarding African languages and African literature.  He deserves the final word in this ongoing debate; “……African writers are bound by our calling to do for our languages what Spencer, Milton and Shakespeare did for English; what Pushkin and Tolstoy did for Russian; indeed what all writers in world history have done for their languages by meeting the challenge of creating a literature in them…….”.