Tuesday, September 08, 2020

The African Novel

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in the BBC programme

I'm a great fan of David Olusoga. Over the last few months, he's been particularly impressive, not only making some superb historical documentaries (A House Through Time from Bristol being a case in point), but also keeping his cool and arguing coherently in the face of absurd online arguments around Black Lives Matter, the toppling of statues etc. The timely repeat of Britain's Forgotten Slave Owners (an important inspiration for THE GREAT EXPERIMENT) was provocative and moving. Last night, I watched his new documentary on the African novel: Africa Turns the Page - The Novels that Shaped a Continent.  It's on i-Player for the next month, and well worth watching.

The programme started (of course) with Heart of Darkness, and the pioneering role of Chinua Achebe in claiming the form for himself in Things Fall Apart. But, as the programme went on, I found myself becoming disturbed by a teleological subtext, which seemed to suggest that the African novel, originating in Africa, has now become a "global" phenomenon, triumphant in it conquest of international markets.  There were lots of shots of Booker dinners, with the acceptance speeches of Ben Okri and Bernardine Evaristo.  There was a great celebration of Oyinkan Braithwaite's My Sister, the Serial Killer as "a novel that everybody is reading." I couldn't help feeling that Chinua Achebe would have been very surprised to be told that "everybody" spoke English, lived in the Western world, and could afford the latest bestseller. I have absolutely no objection to the prizes, authors and novels in question - in fact, I thought Girl, Woman, Other quite stunning - but I do worry that a documentary about post-colonial literature should see the validation of that literature in terms of global (for which read globalised, Western) markets, and prizes bestowed in the former imperial centre.

The novel is, of course, a globalised form in a way that theatre is not.  There were theatre-makers included in the programme, but they were tellingly discussed only in terms of the novels they had written. This seemed particularly obtuse in the case of Wole Soyinka, whose work has been predominantly in theatre, and only occasionally in the novel. Watching this programme, you would have thought the Nobel prize was awarded for Season of Anomy alone. But perhaps the more telling figure for this discussion is Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o. 

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o

Ngũgĩ also appeared in the programme, again discussed solely in terms of his novels, and not as a theatre-maker. Because of this, his hugely important decision to write in his native Gĩkũyũ, rather than the élite global English, seemed almost absurd. He was contrasted with the apparently more cosmopolitan Achebe, whose use of English was regarded as somehow more progressive. It was patronisingly explained that the use of Gĩkũyũ "wasn't really a problem", because the novels could be translated into English. Of course this is true, and from English they can also be translated into other African languages, much in the way that Girish Karnad used to translate his Kannada plays into English so that they could then be translated into other Indian languages. But the implication of the programme was that translation into English - the language of the Booker - was an end in itself. The programme included clips from Gavin Esler's Hard Talk interview with Ngũgĩ, but not the bit where he points out the absurdity of the Caine Prize for African Literature being confined to work written in English. 

Ngũgĩ's son, interviewed in the programme, did say that writing in Gĩkũyũ meant "his mother could read it" - but it also meant that all the other Gĩkũyũ could as well. It was through his work in theatre that Ngũgĩ, who has long been aware of African culture as oral rather than literary, came to the realisation that language choices are central. Ngũgĩ had already written novels that were socially and politically critical when he began the Kamĩrĩĩthũ Popular Theatre experiment, so brilliantly described in his book Decolonising the Mind. It was the staging of plays in Gĩkũyũ that led to his imprisonment and subsequent exile (as well as that of his collaborator Ngũgĩ wa Mĩriĩ, whom I was lucky enough to meet in Zimbabwe), and to the forced closure of the theatre group.  As Fancis Wade has argued in the New York Review of Books:

His play had been critical of the regime of Jomo Kenyatta, also a Gĩkũyũ; it depicted the leadership as inward-looking and elitist, far removed from the Kenyan peasantry whose interests it claimed to champion, and responsible for the acute economic inequalities that persisted long after independence. But, then again, the books he’d written before in English had similarly taken aim at postcolonial power-holders. Could it be that his crime, even long after Kenya had returned to indigenous rule, was to shun the English language? Had his jailers—among them, political leaders who had been the vanguard in the anticolonial struggle—taken up the mantle of linguistic authoritarianism from the same foreign power they had driven out? And did his use of the vernacular threaten the leadership by speaking directly to the masses not literate in English, thereby continuing the anticolonial struggle, in effect, après la lettre?

This is spot on, and underlines the importance of writers like Ngũgĩ shunning the glittering prizes of the global stage for an engagement with the realities of African societies. Of course it's great that his novels, and his plays, have been translated into English: I wouldn't be able to discuss him otherwise, and his exile in America would be pretty challenging.  But wouldn't it also be helpful if the work of African writers in English could be translated into African vernaculars?  Achebe's Things Fall Apart is the most translated of all African novels, yet of the 61 languages listed on this website, only 9 are African languages, and Gĩkũyũ is not among them.  To put that in perspective, there are around 2,000 different languages spoken on the continent.