Linguistic strategies in post-apartheid fiction.

Author:Adebiyi, Kazeem
Position::Critical essay


The power and overarching influence of language in literature has been underscored by structuralist and postmodernist conception of language as a shaper of what we think; and that there can be no thought without language. According to Ann Jefferson (1982:88), structuralists believe that not only does language organization precede message or reality--and by implication literature--messages or realities are products constructed by language system. They insist that if literature has any content at all, language is it. Although our interpretation of data in this paper is not essentially from structuralists' perspective, their view that language organization precedes any message is briefly explored as metonymic of a tentative valuation of the emerging linguistic configuration in South African post-apartheid literary imaginary.

Commenting on the controversy about the place of different languages in post-apartheid South Africa, Ngidi (2006:5) observes 'a renewed interest in the debate'. In the introductory note to his interview with Ntongela Masilela, a South African scholar of English and World Literature, Ngidi commends Masilela's attention to the role of literature in encouraging linguistic and cultural independence.

He further supports his position by paraphrasing a view expressed by Lewis Nkosi at the inaugural Cape Town Book Fair in 2006 to the effect that literature, an aspect of culture, is, in the final analysis, about the power of representation. To be certain, this is incontrovertible because literary expressions are not only executed through language, they simultaneously signify a linguistic code. Ngidi seems to be of the opinion that there is injustice in the linguistic space made available to indigenous languages in the apartheid years. He therefore argues for the translation of writings in indigenous languages, as done for Afrikaans during apartheid years as 'an act of justice, reconciliation and literary repositioning' (7). While Ngidi's position and advocacy are both legitimate and realistic, they are also patently political. They resonate as language planners' push for policy action. While his arguments actually speak for professional or political language planning, it is coincidental and interesting to note that creative writers of the new era also appear to be making their own push through what, in the South African context, can be regarded as linguistic experimentations. This paper attempts a tentative evaluation of this tendency.

Language Controversy in African Literature

In the early years of critical interrogation of modern African literature, one of the most controversial issues was the language issue. At the forefront of the debate, on one hand, were critics like Obi Wali (1963) and Ngugi wa Thiongo (1994) who espoused the use of African languages as the authentic and best medium to express African literature. On the other hand were some critics, led by Achebe (1963), who thought differently. This latter group were of the view that both African and foreign languages can be used to express African literature. While the debate between the two divides seems to have petered out, the issue still raises its 'strong' head from time to time. For instance, not quite long ago, Pius Adesanmi (2002) speaks in support of the Achebean position that African writers can continue to use European languages in creative ways, and that this would not necessarily amount to promoting linguistic imperialism. In fact, he readily endorses what appears to him to be Nigerian writers' linguistic genius in handling the English language to project the African experience. Here is the way he describes it:

My generation writes predominantly in English, Nigerian English, and shall continue to do so in the foreseeable future. That does not in any way make us Europhiliacs or agents of imperialism. The Igbo genius is unmistakable in Oguibe's poetry as the Yoruba genius is in the poetry of Adewale and Raji. (126) Because each of the positions has its own merits and demerits, their enduring pertinence in the study of African literature cannot be overemphasized. In fact, the controversy inscribes the centrality of language to literary and cultural practice. It also indirectly comments on the issue of identity, unquestionably signified by language, which has come to dominate discourses in postcolonial studies. Some of these discourses include issues of linguistic alienation, marginalization, expatriation, translation, transliteration, and so on. For instance, in his study of linguistic expatriation in modern African drama, Fashina (1992:7) identifies the challenge of 'psychological "distance"' between the African indigenous cultural ideas, tones, rhythm and sensibilities on the one hand, and the foreign linguistic medium on the other. He describes this as issues of alienation and identity crisis. He goes further to argue that 'the African cultural dramatic tradition cannot be effective and successfully harmonized with a foreign linguistic medium to produce a dramaturgy that is truly and purely African'. As evident in his phraseology, Fashina can easily be identified with the school of cultural purism and linguistic decolonization project in Africa. His dismissal of Ajeigbe's (1983) suggestion that the imagination be stretched as a coping strategy in instances of psycho-linguistic alienation for the audience of Africa drama presented in a foreign language as simplistic is not totally acceptable. In fact, his suggestion that African writers and intellectuals should have their writings in foreign languages translated into African indigenous languages begs the issue. The only advantage in this, as later admitted by Fashina himself, is that such as an arrangement will encounter minimal linguistic challenge due to a supposed cultural contiguity among Africans. Indeed, the theory of linguistic contiguity may not even hold in many cases. Although Fashina gloss over areas on the issue of language in African literature, our reference to his objection and concession is intended to underscore the problematics of the language issue in African creative writing.

In contrast to the general perception by people, Tollefson (1991:2) demonstrates an acute awareness of the significance of language when he notes that it is 'built into the economic and social structure of society so deeply that its fundamental importance seems only natural' Indeed, the significance of language in the existential conditioning and experiences of man and, especially in literature, has been extensively remarked upon. Ezenwa-Ohaeto (2013:284) credits another scholar, Archibald Hill, with describing language as 'the primary and most highly elaborated form of human symbolic activity'. This is also corroborated by Halliday and Martin (1993:10) when they note that 'The history of humanity is not only a history of socio-economic activity. It is also a history of semiotic activity;' the semiotic activity which, of course, includes language. These views underscore the importance of language in human undertakings, and bring us to the symbolism and metaphorical import of language in post-apartheid fiction, especially in its capacity to encourage, facilitate or impose change.

Language in Postcolonial Studies and Post-Apartheid Era

As a signifier of identity and instrument of hegemonic pursuit or imperial subjugation, language is very central to colonial discourses and cardinal in postcolonial cultural disquisitions. Leading postcolonial scholars and theorists such as Edward Said, Homi Bhaba, Gayatri Spivak, Bill Ashcroftt, Helen Tiffen, and Gareth Griffith have drawn attention to the centrality of language to the contest between the cultures of the centre and the margin. This notion of centrality is wellarticulated by Moore-Gilbert et al. when they note that language is crucial 'not simply at the level of a national language, but in terms of idiom, since many of the arguments within postcolonial theory turn exactly on how critics should turn on their subject'(1997:4). It may...

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