Postcolonial Identity and the Position of English in African Literature

Heather Sofield, English 119, Brown University, 1999

Part 7 of "Who Am I? : Negotiation of Identity in A Post -Colonial State"

If education and literature can forge a sense of identity in a society torn between dominator and dominated, what then can we say about the position of English in African academics and the usage of the English language in African literature?

First, let us address the issue of language. It could be said that writing African literature in English is a capitulation of sorts. The use of a foreign language sends a mixed message and demeans the tale. It should not be called African literature because it is in English. What could a reader ascertain or conclude about his or her own identity when s/he must confront in a single volume the undying conflict between African and English. Even if the literature itself serves to provide a progressive positive conceptualization of post-colonial society, thus encouraging a similar self-identification, does the use of a foreign language completely undermine such a message?

In 1975 Chinua Achebe gave a speech entitled "The African Writer and the English Language". He answered the above challenge with these words,

"Is it right that a man should abandon his mother tongue for someone else's? It looks like a dreadful betrayal and produces a guilty feeling. But for me there is no other choice. I have been given the language and I intend to use it." (Thiong'o, p.285)

African writer Gabriel Okara also addresses the issue of writing African literature in English. He wrote,

"Some may regard this way of writing in English as a desecration of the language. This is of course not true. Living languages grow like living things, and English is far from a dead language.... Why shouldn't there be a Nigerian or West African English which we can use to express our own ideas, thinking and philosophy in our own way?" (Thiong'o, p.287)

Again, Achebe agrees,

"I feel that the English language will be able to carry the weight of my African experience. But it will have to be a new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit new African surroundings." (Thiong'o, p.286)

These two African writers agree that there is no use returning to a moot past. In order to successfully find a sense of identity, it is necessary to recognize the infiltration of foreign culture. Zimbabwe is in fact a new hybrid culture and the use of the English language is evidence. But it is not traitorous to tradition or culture rather writing in English is a way of giving new life and form. A way to affirm the possibility of existing in a foreign culture. For example, if we imagine the English language as representing western culture, post-colonial literature is an example of a successful cultural transplant. Post-colonial literature written in English should only serve to strengthen a sense of identity by proving that African values and ideas can survive the translation. The key is to make the language one's own, to incorporate rather than being incorporated.

Who Am I? : Negotiation of Identity in A Post-Colonial State

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