Re-negotiating Identities: Literature and Language in the Aftermath of Colonisation
With the coming to an end of extensive colonies like South Africa, India and Nigeria throughout the twentieth century, the academic world witnessed the emergence of the term postcolonialism. However, pinpointing what Postcolonialist studies actually are is impossible, since so many critics have tackled the matter from a number of different angles, with a number of different attitudes. They are so diverse that under the umbrella term of postcolonialism questions ranging from the attempt to identify the circumstances that made colonialism possible to analysing how the indigenous culture developed under the influence of Western tradition and customs are raised and challenged.
This essay will be focusing on the ways in which writers Ngugi and Achebe try to reinstate African culture, and what possibilities they draw upon in order to raise the awareness of a culture distinctively African. For both Ngugi and Achebe, culture is at the very basis of the network of concepts that form our identity, hence their concern to give back to African peoples what is their original culture and so, provide them with a possibility to rethink their identity, not in terms of the colonised subject, the oppressed, but in terms of being African, speaking an African language, reading African literature, thinking in African tradition. In their essays treated in this text, Ngugi and Achebe, each in their own way, tackle the origins of alienation they suppose at the source of the identity of every African, as well as providing the reader with suggestions on how the once colonised people of Africa can attain their original, their initial culture and hence, identity.
Ngugi’s essay ‘The Language of African Literature’ is the core of his book Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. Significantly, the opening line of this work reads as follows: ‘This book is my farewell to English as a vehicle for any of my writings. From now on it is Gikuyu and Kiswahili all the way’. A forceful statement to open his text with, Ngugi makes it clear from the beginning what he has set out to do, namely, to reject the English language as a vehicle for African culture. In ‘The Language of African Literature’, he develops this point even further, by relating language to identity: ‘The choice of language and the use to which language is put is central to a people’s definition of themselves in relation to their natural and social environment, indeed in relation to the entire universe’. Although none of the African countries is a colony any longer, he claims that ‘even today as neo-colonies, [they] came to be defined and to define themselves in terms of the languages of Europe: English-speaking, French-speaking or Portuguese-speaking African countries’. Ngugi, in order to illustrate his argument, takes as endorsement for his contention the 1962 ‘Conference of African Writers of English Expression ’, which, in his eyes failed to address the core issue of African literature: ‘the domination of [the African] languages and cultures by those of imperialist Europe’. Ngugi himself then advances an argument brought forth by Chinua Achebe in his essay ‘The African Writer and the English Language’. ‘Is it right that a man should abandon his mother tongue for someone else’s? It looks like 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’. Similarly, the Indian critic Braj Kachru argues that, although English as a language might have limitations, ‘the English language is not perceived as necessarily imparting only Western traditions. The medium is non-native, but the message is not’. In other words, both Achebe and Kachru argue for English as a ‘neutral vehicle for communication’, a means of communication that transcends cultural differences generated through the different African and international languages. In fact, writing in English does not only encourage interaction between African writers from different backgrounds, but also provides an opening for the promotion of African literature worldwide. The vehemence with which Achebe believes in English as a neutral means of communication becomes more intense, almost biting in ‘A Defence of English? An open letter to Mr Tai Solarin’, where he calls the latter an ‘unfeeling, dry-as-dust logic-chopper with no capacity at all for respecting human anguish’ for wanting to impose Hausa (an African language) after there had been massive Ibo massacres just a few months before. Interestingly enough, it is the same Chinua Achebe who goes on to say, later on in his career, that this open letter now ‘sounds shrill in [his] ears’ and that now, ‘the fatalistic logic of the unassailable position of English in our literature leaves [him] more cold’.
 Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, (London: James Currey, 1986), p. 1.
 Ngugi wa Thiong’o, ‘The Language of African Literature’ in Literary Theory: An Anthology, ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan, second edition, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), p.1126.
 Ibid. p. 1127.
 Ibid. p. 1128.
 Chinua Achebe, ‘The African Writer and the English Language’ in Morning Yet on Creation Day, (London: Heinemann, 1975), p. 62.
 Braj B. Kachru, ‘The Alchemy of English’ in The Postcolonial Studies Reader, ed. by B. Ashcroft, G. Griffiths & H. Tiffin, (London: Routledge, 1997), p. 294.
 Chinua Achebe, ‘In Defence of English? An open letter to Mr Tai Solarin’ in Morning Yet on Creation Day, p. 88.
 Both quotations from the preface to Morning Yet on Creation Day, p. xiii-xiv.
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- Re-negotiating Identities Literature Language Aftermath Colonisation Literary Theory Module University Glasgow