What is ‘national’ literature

January 22, 2017

Reacquainting with the issue of literature written in English by African writers and how it applies to the subcontinent

What is ‘national’ literature

While reading the highly learned review of Kenya’s celebrated novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s memoirs Birth of a Dream Weaver by Nigerian writer, Adewale Maja-Pearce I was reacquainted with a long-raging debate about national literature and literature written in English by African writers. The debate, though largely forgotten today, remains of relevance nonetheless.

The genesis of this debate can be located in the 1960s at the time of the process of decolonisation in Africa. The departing colonial power, Britain, in areas of its possession, sought to ensure its post-colonial influence through perpetuation of English language. To this end, centres of higher learning were established in the British-ruled Africa: Makerere College in Uganda and Fourah Bay College in Sierra Leone and Ibadan. The ostensible purpose of these universities was to groom a new generation of African writers in the image and tradition of the departing British colonialists according to Adewale.

This strategy had echoes of a similar plan outlined in Lord Macaulay’s now famous treatise on education in India. In all these universities, English language and literature departments were staffed by British academics. Among the British academics there was a dominant view, in Adewale’s view, that newly independent African nations cannot attain all attributes of nationhood unless they are able to produce national literature. By ‘national’ literature, Adewale helpfully suggests, was meant Africa literature written in English. Ireland was often cited as an example whereby the country had ditched its national language in favour of national literature in English.

Today’s African writers of English expression are mostly alumni of these three universities. Chinua Achebe graduated from Ibadan while Ngugi is an alumnus of Makerere. In fact, the debate about national literature and African-English literature began at the Makerere Conference of 1962 attended by Ngugi, Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, three pre-eminent African writers of English expression. The other stalwart figure attending the conference was Langston Hughes, the poet spearheading the Harlem Renaissance movement in the US. Perhaps Hughes was there not only, as the in the words of Adewale, to give the conference the breath of geography and depth of history, but also to demonstrate how a peculiar African (In Langston’s case Afro-American) experience can be distilled into English language.

In contrast, Ngugi, much influenced by this debate, broke an entirely new path. After publishing three highly successful novels in English, he took to writing in his regional language.

Chinua, Wole and Ngugi responded to and resolved this question in three different ways. Chinua’s response was to say that the African writer "should aim to use English in a way that brings out his message best without altering the language to the extent that its value as a medium of international exchange will be lost". Yet that same writer must also fashion "an English which is at once universal and able to carry his peculiar experience". At the same time, Chinua also worried aloud that "writers who took up the colonial language were guilty of a ‘dreadful betrayal’."

Wole Soyinka dealt with the question in a different way. When asked about his decision to write in English rather than Yoruba, he said "To go back and say that you will write only in your local language is, for me, very defeatist … Why should I speak only to the Yoruba alone? … I will be willing and ready to use a language that not only reaches all those people within the continent, but actually expands outside the continent".

In contrast, Ngugi, much influenced by this debate, broke an entirely new path. After publishing three highly successful novels in English, he took to writing in his regional language. In this, he was much influenced by the thinking of Nigerian activist and intellectual Obi Wail who argued that "any African True African literature must be written in the African languages". Ngugi outlined his ideas in his famous book Decolonising the Mind: The politics of Language in African Literature.  In the book, Ngugi challenges the dominance of European languages which are seen as universal while regional and national leagues in post-colonial Africa are treated as particularistic.

In 1986, Ngugi said "farewell to English as a vehicle for any of my writings". ‘European’ languages, Ngugi insisted, inscribe a neo-colonial dependency in African cultures that use them: freedom can only be achieved through the medium of languages that contain the ‘collective experience’ of Africans.

Translating the forgoing debate into the Indian and Pakistan context, a number of conjectures can be made.

One, unlike Africa, Urdu became the language of Muslim nationalism. This development entailed many consequences of huge import. One, Urdu acquired national dominance of the kind that no African national language could command amid robust regional languages and literature.

Two, given the dominance of Urdu and its widespread use, discussion on producing national literature in English was largely deemed irrelevant in the subcontinental context.

Three, a tiny layer of elite educated in English continued to express themselves mostly in Urdu or both in Urdu and English. Professor Ahmed Ali, Maulana Mohammad Ali Johar, Allama Iqbal spring to mind immediately as representatives of both right and progressive persuasion. Most of progressive writers continued to write in Urdu despite English education. I suspect those educated in English used the language to ease into government employment whose business was conducted in English.

Four, the dominant position of Urdu in the narrative led to relegation of other regional literatures to the margins, most notably in relation to the Punjabi language. Sindh has done slightly better by holding onto its regional literature.

I will round off this discussion on the point that Chinua Achebe’s observation about crafting a national literature combining both English as a medium of international exchange and expressing a particularistic national experience applies mostly aptly to Salman Rushdie’s novel Midnight’s Children. Even in this novel the tensions generated between the collision of Urdu culture, English education and the place of religion and secularism remain prominent as indicated by the African writer.

I cannot develop this point further within the given space but further thoughts from more learned leaders and contributors would be welcome.

What is ‘national’ literature