I attended some events of the Kwani? Literary Festival that was held 2 weeks ago in various locations around Nairobi. The festival brought together authors from countries including South Africa, Somalia, D.R.C., Senegal, U.S.A., Ghana, Tanzania, Italy and our very own Kenya to consider questions of language in new ways.
If you are familiar with African writing, then you know that the question of what language to write in, and how to justify your choice, if not to others most certainly to yourself, is one often asked. It is also a question that spills into other spheres of life and drags along with it, unsolvable riddles by the names of authenticity, tradition, modernity, colonial, post-colonial, decolonising, and so on.
Serendipitiously, Cape Talk Radio SA had a show this week in which Redi Tlhabi and Thando Mgqolozana, both authors, discussed the decolonisation of South Africa’s literary landscape- what that means, what it can look like, what it must look like, etc. They noted that a challenge to many would-be projects is a lack of funds and backing. Initiatives that survive and thrive either team up and acquire sponsors, or like Kwani? and PAWA254 happen because someone put their prize winnings to a bigger cause.
But this literary festival with its mix of youth, age, geographies, genders and more provided new ways to think about these age-old, and ultimately perhaps, only personally answerable questions. Titled “Beyond the Map of English: Writers in Conversation on Language” here’s a few of the gems I took away with me from the speeches, lectures and discussions I attended:
“My mother had the ability to reinvent the world daily through her singing”
“Publishers don’t want to publish something that might not have a chance to be on a school syllabus.”
Siphiwo Mahala discussing the difficulties of publishing in indigineous languages.
“In school the books stayed the same, and all that happened was the switch from European names. So it was a superficial change.”
Patrick Mudekereza commenting on the authenticité policy championed by Mobutu Sese Seko, and more. I don’t know myself whether I completely agree that changing names is merely superficial…
“The whole post-colonial, national project is to make a people where previously peoples were.”
“English was imposed on my forefathers, but I have now imposed my forefathers’ values onto English. Why can’t it also be mine.”
Taiye Selasi explaining her view of English as one that belongs and can belong to many, including her.
“A hunchback lives with his discomforts”
Nurrudin Farah on the discomforts of writing in a language that is not comfortably yours or does not fully render what you want to say. Being a proverb, it is open to interpretation.
“So then I realised, I am stealing these peoples’ story, but then they can’t access it.”
Siphiwo Mahala tells a story about a neighbour, an old woman who bought his book in English and had a relative read it to her in isiXhosa so she could know what they boy next door was writing about. He also explains why he committed to translating his novel ‘When a Man Cries’ into isiXhosa.
“The fact that these languages are not represented in the novel form might not necessarily be a tragedy. There are other forms of story”
Taiye comments on the tendency to view it as sad and something amiss that African authors don’t write novels in indigenous languages.
“The novel is a cosmopolitan invention in the way that it tells a story”
“Let us not be fooled by the fact that we write in English, for we intend to do with it unheard of things.”
Chinua Achebe in a 1975 article ‘Colonialist Criticism’, quoted by Taiye
“she chose her identity and stood in it and by it and damn anyone’s hang-ups”
Yvonne Adhiambo eulogising Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye
“I spent years letting this music gather in me and then more years learning to play it, and then to be asked about fuel subsidies….”
Taiye commenting that authors want to be asked about their work.
“Because England is their country too. And if England didn’t want it to be theirs, maybe they shouldn’t have colonised Nigeria.”
Taiye Selasi speaking about her aunts who live in London and (her belief) that they too belong there.
“The ground on which I am standing I cannot see.”
Nurrudin Farah responding to a question about whether he is ‘out of touch’ since he writes about Somalia but lives outside of it. He added that he can write better about Somalia living away from it.
and lastly a joke:
An interviewer once asked Taiye Selasi if she ever suffered from inferiority complex as an author. An aunt from her Nigerian side sitting in the audience stood up furiously saying “A-a, don’t you know she’s Nigerian?! She be suffering from superiority complex!”