Enole Ditsheko steps into the ongoing, and sometimes treacherous, conversation about the choice of African authors to write in English or in indigenous languages, such as Setswana or Gujarati. Ditsheko, who wrote his novel in English, agrees with many strong voices that it is a loss for indigenous languages to fall further out of use with each generation, but challenges the notion that a culture diminishes along with its language.
The trouble however, is that this line of argument disregards the truth that language itself, is not the culture, neither can it be the sole epitome nor the single embodiment of a society, but it only remains a component like the rest, which when put together, a society - a unique people can be identified....
I must state, lest I be misunderstood by many readers that, I take my hat off for writers in Setswana and others elsewhere who promote mother tongues in the body of literature. That same recognition I give to those of us whose narratives employ our colonisers' language to share the written word with the rest of humanity. Writing is about expression of inner thoughts and feelings in the most profound manner and certainly, a serious writer wants to do so in the language that gives him the most comfort. It might be ironical that sons and daughters of the soil profess to have mastery of their imperialists' language over their indigenous languages that they suckled from day one.
Approaching from a practical mindset, Ditsheko adds that if he were to write in Setswana, he simply couldn't making a living out of writing, and that he worked for years to master English so that he could live doing what he loves. But things get really interesting when Ditsheko turns to the giants of African literature -- including Ngũgĩ wa'Thiongo, a titanic force in the movement for writing in indigenous languages.
During my university days, I had the rare opportunity of pressing flesh with Ngugi at a public lecture. I dared to pose rather a direct question at him: if you advance the argument of writing in our native languages, why are you in America teaching at the university in English? At that time, literary giants of Africa were earning their living by teaching at overseas universities, where their works were widely read in schools and colleges: Achebe was in New York, Ngugi was in Georgia, Wole Soyinka was at Cambridge, Tsitsi Dangaremba was teaching in England and so was Bernard Dadie in Paris. Surely they got professorship positions because of their works in European languages that earned them the stripes as writers of great repute. What they might do once they have established themselves as serious authors is their choice - perhaps using the native tongues will not be as steadfastly a fact as to promote our languages.
For my part, from my notably distant vantage, I find much that rings right in Dithsheko's argument, and much that I find myself bristling at. I believe he diminishes that fact that language, while not being a complete container for a culture, is political. It by nature defines a particular way of viewing the world -- and this, not necessarily aesthetics, is what is lost when languages go extinct. And there is much to be said for why adopting the viewpoint encapsulated by a colonizing culture via its language is troubling, even painful. More than that: language is so often a tool of power, used to control and resist. To pretend otherwise seems disingenuous. Much is at stake in choosing what language we nourish a literary culture.
On the other hand, I believe in the evolution of language, its mutability, and English has been a living presence in African nations for many generations -- not just by colonizers and tourists, but by people who have adopted it, used it, made it their own. So it seems to me a false divide to oppose English and African languages as opposites; there is too much linguistical hybridity for that to be true. And frankly, as a working writer, I empathize with Ditsheko's desire to simply make a living as a writer and his awareness that if he is to do so, engaging with international publishers and working in English make it a hell of a lot easier -- as the examples of his African contemporaries and forebears make clear. Translation for non-English literature in the United States--a huge publishing and literary market--is at less than three percent of the total number of books we publish each year. While Ngũgĩ may write his novels in Gujarati these days, he also immediately (simultaneously) translates them into English.
I think it's worth revisiting the wisdom of another of Africa's great writers: the Nigerian Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who, too, is making her life writing in English and living outside of her native continent. She speaks of the danger of the single story:
Ditshenko link via The Literary Saloon.