Language and Postcolonialism

"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 it is ancestral home but altered to suit its new African surroundings." (Chinua Achebe)

Orality as a literary form has been devalued in modern Western literature, implying as it does a certain primitiveness and lack of education. Written discourse is characterized by integration: more information is packed into each idea unit, therefore giving a sense of greater sophistication. Oral discourse is characterized by fragmentation: idea units strung together without connectives, a trait which is not usually seen as commendable in the literary. The relationship between the oral and the literary is of particular importance in the production and reception of texts written about non-English cultural communities, and even more so if the text was written by a member of this community. Literary texts written in English (or other colonial languages) by authors with an indigenous ancestral background and drawing on and technically exposing their non-English cultural experience have always run the risk of being conceived of as representing either a continuation or, depending on the critics' point of view, a replacement of traditional forms of oral cultural life which themselves are vanishing rapidly or have vanished already.

During colonization, colonizers usually imposed their language onto the peoples they colonized, forbidding natives to speak their mother tongues. In some cases colonizers systematically prohibited native languages. Many writers educated under colonization recount how students were demoted, humiliated, or even beaten for speaking their native language in colonial schools. In response to the systematic imposition of colonial languages, some postcolonial writers and activists advocate a complete return to the use of indigenous languages. Others see the language (e.g. English) imposed by the colonizer as a more practical alternative, using the colonial language both to enhance inter-nation communication (e.g. people living in Djibouti, Cameroon, Morocco, Haiti, Cambodia, and France can all speak to one another in French) and to counter a colonial past through de-forming a "standard" European tongue and re-forming it in new literary forms. Most radical among those writers who have chosen to turn away from English. Ngugi wa Thiong'o, a Gikuyu writer from Kenya, began a successful career writing in English before turning to work entirely in his native language. In Decolonising the Mind, his 1986 "farewell to English," Ngugi posits that through language people have not only describe the world, but also understand themselves. For him, English in Africa is a "cultural bomb" that continues a process of erasing memories of pre-colonial cultures and history and as a way of installing the dominance of new, more insidious forms of colonialism. Writing in Gikuyu, then, is Ngugi's way not only of harkening back to Gikuyu traditions, but also of acknowledging and communicating their continuing presence. Ngugi is concerned primarily not with universality, though models of struggle can always move out and be translated for other cultures, but with preserving the specificity of his individual groups. In a general statement, Ngugi points out that language and culture are inseparable, and that therefore the loss of the former results in the loss of the other:

"[A] specific culture is not transmitted through language in its universality, but in its particularity as the language of a specific community with a specific history. Written literature and orature are the main means by which a particular language transmits the images of the world contained in the culture it carries.

"Language as communication and as culture are then products of each other... Language carries culture, and culture carries, particularly through orature and literature, the entire body of values by which we perceive ourselves and our place in the world. Language is thus inseparable from ourselves as a community of human beings with a specific form and character, a specific history, a specific relationship to the world."

On the other side of the language debate is Salman Rushdie. Although Rushdie's novels often tackle the history of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Great Britain, his comments have wider relevance, particularly considering his stature in world literature. He comments on how working in new Englishes can be a therapeutic act of resistance, remaking a colonial language to reflect the postcolonial experience. In the essay "Imaginary Homelands" (from the eponymous collection published by Granta in 1992), he explains that, far from being something that can simply be ignored or disposed of, the English language is the place where writers can and must work out the problems that confront emerging/recently independent colonies:

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