Identity Theft and the Future of World Literature

Forbidden literature (The use of the Word) by Rene MagritteForbidden literature (The use of the Word) (1936) by Rene Magritte

Born and raised in Dublin, James Joyce never published in his native Irish tongue. Despite his roots and even though his stories take place in Ireland, Ulysses, Dubliners, and his other works are not contributions to Irish literature. Written and published in English, like most of his work,1 Joyce’s novels are contributions to English literature.

The same can be said of many authors of renown who choose to forego writing in their mother tongue. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita are not contributions to Nigerian, Dominican, or Russian literatures, respectively; they are part of the English literature canon.

In writing and publishing in another language (without translation), the author loses a sense of him or herself. To put a finer point on the matter, the identity is not lost—it is stolen. That’s the case Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o has made consistently since his seminal Decolonising the Mind (1986) and reinforces most recently in Globalectics: Theory and the Politics of Knowing (2012). On April 24 in New York, he distilled his theory in a masterful conversation hosted by Warscapes at The New School University. 

Authors experience literal identity theft, Ngũgĩ asserts, when they write in a language that is not their own. He speaks most passionately about this loss of identity for African writers, who adopt and write in the main European languages—English, French, German, and Spanish. This Europhone writing, he quipped in the hour-long discussion, includes anglophone, francophone, germanophone, hispanophone—“too many phonies.”

A Sense of Self

Decolonising the Mind by Ngugi wa Thiong'oA lover of languages, Ngũgĩ does not dispute that high quality writing can occur when one writes in a second language. Ulysses and Lolita are standout examples of superior writing done by authors working in an adopted tongue. So if writing in a second language can mean one is able to produce superior work, why is Ngũgĩ so concerned about the loss of identity among his fellow African writers?

A person’s understanding of the self is wrapped up in language. If one adopts the language of an Other, then foundational elements of a person’s roots (tied to place and time) are eroded. “People make sense of objects and events around them by classifying them into identifiable categories,” argue the authors of a study published in March in the journal Psychological Science. “[L]anguage effects on cognition are context-bound and transient, revealing unprecedented levels of malleability in human cognition.” In other words, when you start to speak (or write) in another language, your mind begins to think in the structures and rules of that language, which reflect the culture to which the language is bound. The more you write in Tagalog, for example, the more Filipino you “become.”

For Africans, the history of colonization and the erasure of culture that went along with those violent interventions cuts deep. Real deep. Thus, acquiescing to a conqueror’s tongue is tantamount to playing “Their” game. Acceptance, adoption, and use of a colonizing power’s language reinforces a cycle of destruction that obliterates a culture with the publication of each book, film, newspaper article, academic conference—you name it—in the colonizer’s language. A rejection—or at least the minimization—of the colonizer’s linguistics is the clarion call Ngũgĩ has sounded for decades.

And he’s very serious; in the late 1960s Ngũgĩ renounced writing in English and has since written in Gikuyu, a language spoken primarily by the Gĩkũyũ people of Kenya. He also edits the Gikuyu-language magazine Mũtĩiri

Ngũgĩ says that decolonizing the mind (in the literary space) requires three responsibilities:

First, to create conceptual tools for critical readings of English and other European literatures from anti-colonial, or now, post-colonial, standpoints; second, to challenge the status of English as the prestige language of literature; and third, to subvert the received boundaries that are assumed to be constitutive of literature, such as the distinction between literature and orature (a term that he prefers to ‘oral literature’).2

The Master-Slave Dialectic

Globalectics by Ngugi wa Thiong'oIt’s the second task—challenging English’s dominance in the literary world—of concern here. The struggle Ngũgĩ courageously fights is Hegelian in nature. In respect to colonial-African histories and relations, the master-slave dialectic is poetically applicable. Hegel’s philosophy explains the phenomenon of what happens when two self-conscious beings confront each other—how each thinks about the other and also reflects on the self in the confrontation. There is one dominant force (master) and one submissive (slave), but equally important is that each needs the other to exist. Without a slave, there is no master.

As colonizers descended from the European continent, they pillaged the lands while systematically erasing local culture. European languages—English, French, Dutch, etc—became the dominant tools not just for making and enforcing law, doing business, and educating children, but also the prevailing form of cultural expression. Educated in the West, Chinua Achebe wrote and published his breakthrough Things Fall Apart (1958) not in his native Igbo tongue, but in the language of the oppressor. Translated into more than 50 languages, the Igbo-language edition did not appear until 2008, 50 years after the book’s debut. In the decades since Achebe’s breakthrough hit, writers from every generation on the continent have sought fame, recognition, and influence by publishing in a Europhone language, mostly English.

The distance one puts between her self and her history and culture by writing in the language of another can be immense. If the process is repeated again and again by the writer, the writers she influences, and the generations that follow suit, the distance is increased to a point where it becomes near impossible to define a worldview based in what should have been a mother tongue. It is a slow, systematic erosion of a people, history, a point of view, an identity. That’s why Ngũgĩ identifies language as colonialism’s weapon of choice. He argues that “English functions as the language of capital, industry, technology, and war and that the phenomenon of Africans writing in English suggests that the situation for ‘Third World’ writers is neocolonial, rather than postcolonial.” Further:

…to command someone to write in English is not just to command the use of a grammar or vocabulary or to command the demonstration of a technical literacy but is also to command the performance of a particular cultural identity.3

This, says Ngũgĩ, cannot stand.

A Call for Globalectics

When he wrote Decolonising the Mind, Ngũgĩ and his contemporaries were facing the real struggles of being dominated by a foreign power and culture, and then breaking free of those chains through revolution, self-determination, and violent conflict. While the need to create and foster a cultural identity remains true and very much needed, the world has dramatically changed. Writers in Africa today are not engaged in a post-colonial struggle. They are, as Nigerian author Emmanuel Iduma writes in the introduction to Gambit: Newer African Writing, contending with and shaping a post-postcolonial worldview. The postcolonial struggle is that of Ngũgĩ’s generation. Young Africans have new cultural battles to fight, many of them on the home front.

In Globalectics, Ngũgĩ revisits his Decolonising manifesto, arguing for “a concept of world literature that emphasizes the necessity of ‘mutually affecting’ cultural exchange that transcends national or regional boundaries.” The two main obstacles to creating a globalectical construct are a) a hierarchy of languages and cultures and b) the acceptance of Euro-centric conceptions of what literature is.4

In a post-postcolonial era, the master-slave dialectic of Ngũgĩ’s heyday need not remain between Africans and Europeans (and also Americans). Technology—namely the Internet—can foster creative dialogues and constructive critiques in domestic African spheres, where the battles of what is African literature can be fought by local intellectuals, academics, and creative-types. There is much that remains to be done; indeed it will take several generations to undo the cultural damage wrought by colonialism. It is a fight worth having. At stake is not just the idea of African writing, but an enlightened concept of world literature.

Ngugi wa Thiong'oNgugi wa Thiong'o spoke about language and identity at The New School. Photo by The Mantle from our Instagram account @mantlepublishing.

 

  • 1. A polyglot, Joyce sometimes published in other European languages. When he worked for the Italian newspaper Il Piccolo, for example, he wrote and published in Italian.
  • 2. Devin Zane Shaw. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Globalectics: Theory and the Politics of Knowing,” Society & Space (undated): http://bit.ly/1EgwgCI.
  • 3. John Charles Hawley. Encyclopedia of Postcolional Studies (Greenwood Publishing, 2001): 25.
  • 4. Shaw.

Shaun Randol founded The Mantle in 2009. Today he is the Editor-in-Chief and Publisher. You can email him at shaun [at] themantle.net. Shaun is the co-editor of Gambit: Newer African Writing.