Take on the world through words

The long trek of Pidgin English in the Western publishing world

(Part II)
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The Novel Harare North by the Zimbabwean author Brian Chikwava was published in April last by Jonathan Cape. A short story by the same author had been awarded the Caine Prize for African literature. This short story, entitled Seventh Street Alchemy, described, through a slice of life, the capital of Zimbabwe, the « real » Harare. The London described in Harare North is like a broken reflection of the real Harare. This break is transposed by the use of Broken English. An opportunity for us to explore the relationship between an African author, the world of Western publishing and the sensitive terrain of their exchange, that of language.

The world is also taken on through words. Taken and taken back (1).
To recount the world, one’s own land, its history and its relationship with other lands is just another way of (re)possessing it. The paradox, in the case of authors from the (former) colonies, is that this (re)claiming process implies the mastering of the language of the (former) masters. If the author is aiming for recognition beyond the limits of their regional or national territory, they will choose the language of the (former) colonizer – unless they decide to write in an African language (or in Arabic in the case of the Arab countries). But for economic reasons, those who are able to bring about this recognition through the publication of the work of African authors almost always belong to the sphere of the (former) colonial power.
This was a given during colonial times. It remains true nowadays too, at least for Africa. In Éditer dans l’espace francophone (‘Publishing in the French-speaking world »), Luc Pinhas notes that in 1960 the African continent (including the Maghrebian countries and Egypt) produced 1.4% of the 362.000 titles published worldwide, i.e. 5000 titles. And that « in the 1990s at a time when Africa represented 12% to 13% of the world’s population, this proportion of titles was identical« . He added that in 1994 for example, this equated to the production of 14 000 titles for a population of some 700 million people. These titles, he added, were for the most published in three countries: Egypt, Nigeria and South Africa. So the situation « at the turn of the 21st century, despite the difficulty in working out global figures, has not fundamentally improved – and this is an understatement » (2).
Beyond this, the fact that a large part of the titles published in Africa are actually academic or para-academic and aimed at young readers – and that the publishing houses of a decent size based in Africa are in fact subsidiaries or outlets of European groups – illustrates the fact that the dissemination of African literary creative works is dependent upon the North, its languages, its culture via London, Paris or Lisbon (3).
This rapport implies a particular relationship between the African author and the European publisher.
In simple terms, one could say that the publisher was both judge and jury back in colonial times. Judge because the publisher decided whether or not to publish the literary work. Jury because the publisher was also part of the author’s larger social relationship – which was one of power on the one hand and dependency on the other, which neither could avoid (4). And whether we like it or not, whether we admit it or not, today’s European editor has the same ambiguous relationship with the author of a former colony. History will at best taint the decision, at worst affect it. One way or the other. Either the publisher perpetuates the social dictates of colonisation. Or he attempts to make up for what he sees as being wrong in his heritage.
The decision to publish or not, the zone of tolerance or intolerance of texts awaiting greater scrutiny are not dependent on either political, cultural or even commercial factors. But rather on the language and how it is mastered. The master, « owner’ of the language of publication is judge and he assesses how the facets of this language are mastered by they who « borrow » it. He’s the one who decides whether they who inherited this language actually « own » it. This was most definitely true during colonial times. But it remains true – even if it is now more subtle and not so blatant – since the independence of the former colonies. Even though the concept of ownership of a language is less of a prerequisite and the very idea of property is incongruous when related to language, the distinction between the two seems to remain. Note for example the difference made between a French author and a French-speaking author: the latter speaks the language of the former…
The author needs to develop a strategy to deal with the triangular relationship between the publisher, the writer (i.e. him/herself) and the language – which is the common ground for agreement or disagreement. The strategy adopted can be one of submission: the author on the periphery will abide by the rules of the central power, academic institution, university, literary network. The strategy could equally be one of rebellion but these are rare for they can be perceived as clumsy (5). According to Senghor « To be able to manhandle the French language with confidence, the author needs to have learnt to master it through repeated exercises, just like a rider who has broken in a foal« . Senghor’s strange transfer from submission to a language to its mastering, from a possible « rebellion » against its rules to the rebellion of the language itself is significant.
The nuances and compromises between submission and transgression are numerous. Many authors will excel in the use of sophisticated language and laboured syntax and expressions, hence exceeding expectations. Others, such as Senghor, will exalt the language and will find in this lyricism the best way to convey the rhythm which they feel is part of their culture. And a growing number of authors – following on in the footsteps of Kourouma for instance who initially found it difficult to impose the intrusion of expressions, play on words and a certain malinke syntax in his stories – attempt to associate two languages: French and their monther tongue or the language of their land (6).
But authors always need to show that they understand the norm even when they diverge from it, either by accepting the requirement of the publisher (René Maran and Camara Layre are said to have rewritten their works several times before attaining a quality such that the publications were distributed in African schools) or through self-censorship: « To be able to write, one had to master the French language – which was not quite my case » says Ahmadou Kourouma to explain his belated beginnings as a writer (7).
To be fair to the publisher, one should add that it is no mean task to draw the line between a mistake and a gem, between approximation and syntaxic novelty, between an unfortunate expression and stylistic originality, between hybridisation and a hotchpotch construction (8). Beyond spelling and grammar, subjectivity is all powerful (9). And yet without going that far, we can see from at least one Western publication that there can be a choice in terms of spelling and grammar; that tolerance of irregularity and thus cultural marginality can be taken to levels deemed to be objective: The Palm-Wine Drinkard (10), translated into French by Raymond Queneau and entitled L’Ivrogne dans la Brousse (11).

Translated from French by Romaine Johnstone

Next: Part III: Amos Tutuola, a didactic style.

1. This is more or less the meaning of the title Africa Writes Back in which James Currey examines the past of the famous books series « African Writers » and published by Heinemann. James Currey, African Writes Back, The African Writers Series and the Launch of African Literature, Oxford, James Currey Publishers, Johannesburg, Wits University Press; Ibadan, Hebn; Nairobi, EAEP; Harare, Weaver Press; Dar Es Salaam, Mbuki na Nyota, 2008.

2. Luc Pinhas, Éditer dans l’espace francophone, Paris, Alliance des Editeurs Indépendants, 2005, p.4.

3. For several years however and as a result of greater dispersion of immigration on the European continent, we note that a number of African authors are either writing in a European language which is not that of the former colonial power or first publishing their works as a translation. This is the case, amongst others, of authors in Italy such as Aminata Fofana from Guinea (La Luna che mi seguiva, Torino, Einaudi, 2006) or in the Netherlands, for authors such as the Ugandan Moses Isegawa or the Nigerian Chika Unigwe, already mentioned (Part I, note 7). It would be interesting to examine the triangular relationship between their original culture, perhaps too their mother tongue (when it’s different form the former), the European language spoken in their country of origin and the language of the host country or country of publication.

4. As illustrated by Albert Memmi in Portrait du colonisé and Portrait du colonisateur, Paris, Gallimard  (The Colinizer and the Colonized, translated by H. Greenfeld, 3rd ed., London Earthscan, 2003).

5. Noted by Gabriel Manessy, Le français en Afrique noire. Mythe, stratégies, pratiques, Paris, L’Harmattan, coll.  » Espaces francophones « , 1994, p. 35.

6. « The French language is subject of great devotion, the object of a certain sterile fetichism which jeopardised, until recently, the works of non-French authors whose only means of expression was nonetheless French… The style that is said to be mine comes from the fact that I do no attempt to stem the flow of African word plays but to channel it ». Ahmadou Kourouma, quoted by Alain Ricard, Littératures d’Afrique noire. Des langues aux livres, Paris, Cnrs Editions/Karthala, 1995, p. 246.
Reference taken from the thesis which Jean-Francis Ekoungoun has devoted to the genesis of Soleil des Dépendances and which includes numerous pages on the dialectics between respect for the norm and departure from the norm (Le manuscrit intégral des Soleils des Indépendances d’Ahmadou Kourouma, Essai d’analyse sociogénétique, Thesis, Université Paris III, 2005).

7. Tirthankar Chanda,  » Les derniers mots d’Ahmadou Kourouma « , http://ww.rfi.fr/actufr/articles/048/, 2004. In J.-F. Ekoungoun, op.cit.

8. See Jean-Pierre Orban, Ethique éditoriale et manuscrits africains, http://www.harmattan.fr/_uploads/complements/EDMA1.pdf

9. A subjective dimension which is of course influenced if not submitted to codes and to cultural, social, political and economic practices and requirements.

10. London, Faber&Faber, 1952, New York, Grove Press, 1953.

11. Paris, Gallimard, 1953.///Article N° : 9388


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