Wondering About African Languages, Literature, and Life, Composing, 16/06/2014

Over the last few years, the political philosophical concepts that I believe are most important have come from reflecting on the cultural and legacy of colonial empires. So many of the stereotypes I encounter about Africa, especially the ones that as a younger person I believed myself, come from a failure to understand the history that bounds my own culture to those of that continent. There is a reason why these countries are so poor, so riven with strife and war, why corruption is so endemic. 

In very short, I’ve come to the conclusion that, respectively, there were huge transfers of material wealth and resources from colonies to Europe enabled by military occupation, colonial administration exacerbated existing tensions among groups and cultures of their possessions to head off organized rebellions, and they enabled a centuries-long culture of bribery in the ruling classes as administrators of colonial enterprises which remained intact after the political independence of the colonized territories.

That was a damn long sentence. I’d only risk writing it on a blog. 

The more typical image of Chinua
Achebe we see is of him as an old man.
So I found a photo of him as a young
person, because I like it when people
look at the world differently than
they may have before.
I’m about two-thirds of the way through Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, the first book of African literature that, according to the stereotype, you always read if you’re a white person. It strikes me as very much of a pace with the mythical realism of other writers from outside the North/West in the mid to late 20th century. I’m particularly thinking of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. 

Politically, Things Fall Apart and One Hundred Years of Solitude run parallel purposes, in my estimation. Marquez described the turbulent politics and civil wars of Colombia through mythic language and imagery. Achebe described the collision of rural Igbo culture with the militarized Christianity of the English colonial force in language with the tone of the folk stories, fables, and myths his characters tell. Everyone calls it magical realism, but when I think about the language of those books, especially Achebe’s, I think mythical realism is more appropriate.

But I don’t really consider myself qualified to make any firm comments, literarily speaking, about these books. I know people who have become experts in literary analysis and history, and my own knowledge of African literature is extremely sketchy. Case in point, I’m only reading Chinua Achebe for the first time now. I similarly revealed my ignorance with a post last Winter about my thoughts on reading Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man for the first time. I wondered if anyone had ever considered the book a work of black existentialism, which I later discovered was one of the first reactions to the novel.

One thing I noticed when I was reading about some of the initial reactions to Things Fall Apart was the controversy Achebe first faced for publishing the book in English. Another African writer on my list to read soon, Ngugi wa’Thiong’o, stopped writing in English in his mid-life, deciding to compose all his works in Gikuyu from then on. I found some curious remarks Achebe made to explain his aesthetic decision, which is rooted in the colonial cultural destruction of Nigeria.

Igbo had no widespread formal written language when the region now called Nigeria was first colonized by the British military and government. There was an idiographic writing system, but it was used mostly by elites, and popular communication remained oral. Instead, the language was a complex panoply of dialects, largely mutually intelligible (though sometimes with effort). Igbo speaking peoples were rather like German or Mandarin speaking peoples that way, with a culture just as varied and complicated. 

The English, in their morally enlightened quest to spread true civilization to these ignorant peoples, created a formalized Igbo language itself for popular written communication. However, the English-designed Igbo writing system, using Latin letters, was designed entirely academically, a compromise among many complex grammatical and semantic variations made without any experimentation with practical use. The result was a stilted, fragmented language. In Achebe’s words, this colonially-made written Igbo could never sing. So he composed in the organic written vernacular of Nigeria, English.

Deleuze and Guattari's little book on Kafka is the
most remarkable engagement of philosophy with
fiction that I think I've ever read, and should be a
model for how the two disciplines should engage.
Wondering what a singing version of written Igbo would look like put me in mind of Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of minor language and minor literature. This is a creation of language, usually literary but it doesn’t have to be, that is in a language that you use fluently, but is not your vernacular. The writer’s subtle lack of comfort with this tongue results in unorthodox uses that create new modes of expression in that language, that use that language in a way that a native speaker would never be able to. Their central example is Franz Kafka: a Czech Jew (a citizen of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) who spoke Czech and German fluently, whose life and career was thoroughly Germanophone, but whose faith and personality was infused with Kabbalistic mysticism.

So an Igbo writing in English with a mythical realist style is writing in a minor language, and Things Fall Apart displays the same kind of productive literary and linguistic experimentation for which Deleuze and Guattari praise this approach. Achebe’s English, and his identity, is a complex blend that can never be pure, a system of dynamic tensions of the fable-like tone of his storytelling with the nature of English itself, a European language at home in Nigeria today because of long-lasting military occupation and cultural imperialism.

Yet I wonder if some Nigerian writer has since taken up Achebe’s gripe with the standardized written Igbo as a challenge. Achebe chose English to write his novels because popular written Igbo was an academic creation of a colonial power who knew nothing of Igbo life, who designed written Igbo as a West African Esperanto, a clunky language made in a laboratory instead of in life. 

I’m not a linguist, and personally know very little about the languages of Nigeria, but I can at least imagine a scenario like this. Today, the Nigerian economy is strong enough and literacy high enough that a book could be composed in Igbo that restores elements of the spoken dialects into the sterile standardized Igbo. Someone could revise written Igbo through the act of literary creation, breathing life from the vibrancy of the spoken dialects to make a literary art object of the language itself. Such an act of linguistic creation would take a concept like minor literature into a whole new territory. The living variations of Igbo dialects could vitalize the hierarchically sterile written Igbo.

Maybe this is happening already. Maybe it’s utter nonsense. But it’s an idea.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I think one of the most interesting features of language is that its very use changes it. This is something you alluded to, in your second-to-last paragraph. While I can completely understand Achebe's reticence in using a western imposed writing system, I personally feel that it would have been the best of a bad set of choices.

    By not publishing in his own language, he does not allow himself the chance to redefine his language's written form on his own terms. As such an influential figure, he could well have had a very positive impact and influenced others to follow his example of using or not using Igbo in writing. The less it is used, I worry, the less it will be used and runs the danger of being eventually supplanted by English.

    Also, no writing system is perfect (everyone knows how hard it is to learn to read and write English), and all were developed to some extent in a "laboratory" as you put it. The list of languages with imposed writing systems is long: almost all native american orthographies, Japanese, Korean, many African languages... The important thing is that through use, not rejection, a codified set of standards for writing emerges which reflect usage within the cultural context.

    Finally, it's important to remember that the symbols used in the vast majority of alphabets only represent sounds. That is, they do not constrain word choice, grammatical considerations, etc... This leaves a very wide latitude for people to use written language in different ways. For example, many researchers now suggest that online chat and text messages should be considered closer to spoken language than what we normally consider "written" language because of the ways in which spelling, grammar, and word choices are made.