Thursday, February 11, 2016

What is an African Writer?

What is an African writer?  This question of if a writer is or is not considered part of a certain ethnic or geographic society is not a questioned one we ask of British literature or Russian literature, but it does plague any society deemed “post colonial”, including the United States.  Many of the works I have been reading have attempted to answer this in a variety of ways.  The first, and arguably most controversial, way is language, in other words if you don't write in an African dialect then you're not an African writer.
There are obvious points to be made for this argument since it, on the surface, makes a lot of sense.  British authors write in the Queen’s English, or the equivalent of the time period they lived in, and the French write in French primarily.  Following a Western frame of thought this theory makes complete sense, but two concepts need to be explored if we are to agree with this idealism.  The first is the idea of globalization.  With the dawn of mass colonization by the European powers, and eventually America, the blank spaces of the map began to rapidly be filled in, thus cultures were experiencing each other on a massive scale.  This led to the opportunity for people to show off their culture on a world stage, but obviously many people won't speak your same language.  Thus the language of the conquerors, primarily English and French in this part of the world, became a semi universal language.  This idea leads into the second, practicality.
One of the key reasons for Africans wanting their literature to be acknowledged was to reclaim an identity of their own that was appropriated by the colonizer so through their own art and literature, especially in the British adventure novels like the Allan Quartermaine series.  In these pieces that went on to represent the “reality” of African identity until the end of post colonialism, and debatably well past that, they had no voice unless it was garbled language or submissive language spoken in the colonizer’s tongue.  Furthermore they became represented as animalistic and savage, thus becoming literally inhuman in every way.   Even the few souls who considered them human still saw them as a lesser race, a “little brother”, to be uplifted as part of the “white man’s burden”.  In any event, this led to the spread of the dominant languages of English and French, thus to reach the largest audience, one must write in one of these two languages, especially English because it was spread by the immense British empire and by the neocolonialist Americans.  Thus it becomes practical to use the language of the colonizer in order to reclaim your stolen identity.
The counter argument to that of practicality goes back to those who believe in using primarily African languages, some go as far as to denounce translations even.  This group believes that by using the language of the colonizer, you are accepting continued subjugation by being in debt a foreign language.  Another argument is that if the goal of African literature is to reclaim African identity, how can a true African be described in a non African language?  To these arguments there are three primary idealists formed in defense of the use of foreign language.  The first completely agrees with the accusations, but they believe that it is ultimately the price you must pay in order to reach the larger audience and spread your ideas.  The next group includes writers like Achebe who believe in the Africanization of foreign languages like English, in Achebe’s case.  They argue by adapting the foreign language to African sensibilities, by adding African phrases in African or changing the spelling of words in some cases, you are not being subjugated by the language of the colonizer's, but instead working with a global community in order to define your own niche.  The last is a more radical frame of mind, and includes many Africans who subscribe to the negritude movement, in that they go so far as to say that African languages are not adequately eloquent enough to define African identity and languages, especially French, of the Western nations are objectively more eloquent and better for the writing of literature.  I do not have any knowledge of any African language and as a result cannot lend comment to the last ideology, thus I will express my viewpoints on the other two.
Between the practical approach, which seem defeatist in my opinion whether true or not, and the Africanization of foreign languages, I tend to side with Africanization.  Dialectical differences have always lent literature an interesting edge, especially when you use America as an example.  First off, no one would try to claim American literature is British by nature because it uses English originated in England.  Primarily this is because the stories told are uniquely tied to an American identity and use English that is dialectic ally distinct from the Queen’s English.  Even within the United States there are dialectical differences that cause debate.  Many argue that Sound and the Fury by Faulkner is not as much an American novel as a southern novel, partially because the story told seems like an experience that is uniquely southern in nature, but there are also arguments that the language itself has phrases and word use that is southern in nature.  Though very evident in American literature, this is not unique to America and Africanization is well in place in Africa.
As aforementioned, one of the prime defenders of the ideology of African English was Achebe and as such he put this idea into place in his writing.  Just as in the case of America, no one would say that his novel is British or American because they are the prime users of English, though some might claim that it is not African.  Achebe uses parables and phrase along with a story that is African in nature to evoke the culture of Africa without using an African language.  Similarly, Ptaaje also evokes a definable feeling of African culture without using an African language in Mhudi.  I don't have the book with me so I cannot quote and I'll add some in when I return to campus.  However, Ptaaje does so stylistically more so than through parables and phrasing.  He is stylistically oral, which is to say he uses his word to paint the setting and the mood that is taking place during the novel.  Furthermore he narrates the story as if you are a ghost hanging on the shoulder of the characters through 3rd person limited narration which creates a sense of familiarity with the characters while making it impossible to step into their shoes, these they are truly characters in a book and not a pair of pants for the reader to wear.
Another major qualification question that is discussed in the debate over what an African writer is, is their ethnic and national background.  The main split is quite obvious, the side that claims only Africans born and raised in Africa can be African writers and those who believes that if you have roots in Africa and strive to write for the African people then you are an African writer.  This differentiation of views is, yet again, one birthed of colonialism.  African languages had writing systems, but unlike in Western nations there were no formal schools for teacher writing, so only those who needed to write knew how to write.  When colonization was in full bloom, the colonizer's started building some schools for teaching, or more accurately indoctrinating, Africans.  However these were still a privileged few and thus a education disparity was created.  Some of a few even more privileged individuals were able to then go to Europe and further their education.  When colonialism was legally ended and African literature started to come onto the scene, many of the well known writers were those who studied in Europe.  This education disparity is the root of the nationality issue in being an African writer, as well as the language debate in some ways.  This question was pushed even more into the limelight when African literary critique started to come onto the scene.
Many argued that traditional literary critique could not apply to Africa because it was specifically designed for Western art.  Thus a cacophony of viewpoints came from throughout Africa and Europe, one of the most controversial being the inclusion and importance placed upon biographical information on the writer.  With this trend on the rise, many writers that were considered African came into question, a common occurrence being that they might have been born Africa, but moved to Europe early in life or spent much of their life in Europe only to come back in an attempt to reclaim their African identity.  This issue in combination with language and education debates creates issues to this day in regards to literature.
The final, and debatedly least controversial but still evident, argument that comes up almost immediately after the legal end of colonialism is that of writing form.
Many would successfully argue that the novel form was the child of European literature and it was best executed by Europeans and Americans, but an unfortunate assumption comes out this argument, that the novel form is solely a Western literary form.  This creates similar divisions that I described with language, that you can't use the novel for African literature because that is willingly allowing your art form to be subjugated to a foreign power or, on the other side, you use it purely for practicality or, finally, you africanize the form.  Much how English and French became more than a national language with the rise of colonization and became the property of all effected nations, so to the novel form is not Europe's because art is not the artist's but everyone who consumes it.  Back to Achebe and Ptaaje, both of these authors chose to adopt the novel  to African sensibilities, to Africanize the form.

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