The Fabrication of Orality

The term "oral literature" is by nature oxymoronic. Orality may enter the written text in a number of different forms. However, in most of these cases the oral original is reduced by its transcription. This holds particularly true for most early recordings and transliterations of oral folk texts. Focusing mostly on content, transcribers and collectors like the Grimm brothers in Germany not only neglected the intricacies of oral performance and audience orientation, they also made the recorded text conform to pre- fabricated genteel models. Whatever was considered crude, scatological, sexually loaded, or simply redundant was deleted, and suppressed. In colonial environments, recordings were usually made in the local language but the published versions appeared in English translation.

The professed aim of literary texts using fabricated orality may be to invoke a sense of an oral tradition, but granting that already anticipates a reader-response adequate to the author's intentions. What it does on the page is generate an impression of textual otherness. On this formal level it does not matter whether the material is used in an attempt at reconstruction or if it is entirely fictional, or even both, if it is an invention of tradition (Hobsbawm).

Khalil Gibran is perhaps the best known of all Arabic writers. His great work of homily and philosophy, The Prophet was a massive success in post First-War America, offering as it did an alternative to traditional religion, and capturing enthusiasm for Eastern learning. Gibran, however, was a New York socialite who was engaged to a society hostess, Mary Haskell. His work is a watered-down version of actual Arabic oral homily, translated both literally and metaphorically into the language of his American friends. It is notable that it took another twenty years for the work to be translated into Arabic, and has not sold anywhere as well in Gibran's land of birth. The Prophet manages to superimpose the 'otherness' of Arabic sentence structure onto English, aided by constant collaboration between Gibran and Haskell. The work deliberately fuses a Biblical register: thus associating it in Western readers' minds with the Holy Land, and giving it a sense of age and holiness, with the register of traditional Arabic storytelling: therefore creating a sense of the 'other':

"And a man said, "Speak to us of Self-Knowledge."
And he answered, saying:
Your hearts know in silence the secrets of the days and the nights.
But your ears thirst for the sound of your heart's knowledge."

Thus Gibran performs an effective but cynical rendition of his native culture through the manipulation of oral discourse.

Given these conditions, it becomes obvious how indigenous writers using oral traditions in their texts are working under a special predicament. Not only do they use languages (English, Spanish, or French) not native to their groups of origin, but also, the idea that their literary productions constitute part of a "culture of resistance" (Hobsbawm) is mostly romantic myth, as long as the texts are written for distribution in the dominant culture's marketplace. Their process of writing takes place within a system that is directly related to the colonial discourse which helped to threaten and/or displace indigenous oral traditions and languages (and on many occasions also with their bearers/speakers). But what has been more significant until the very recent past is the fact that current perceptions of orality and oral tradition as both generating and transporting a set of positive values are basically a romantic irony.

The modern concept of orality as different from and even opposed to the written comes to full bloom first during the Romantic age and in the novels of Sir Walter Scott, whose "Scottishness" found its expression among other things in vernacularized dialogues, songs, and instances of traditional behaviour and ceremony, all of which were, formally speaking, instances of fabricated orality.

Not only the ideological concepts of orality date back to the 18th century. Most of the techniques employed by authors, indigenous or not, to authenticate orality in their texts likewise use well-trodden paths. Attempts to oralize literary language so that it will signify spoken language in general, a spoken dialect, or another language usually take on a limited number of forms, the most important of which is the distribution of authenticity markers in the text: names of places, occasions, and characters are given in the "other" languages; individual language phrases or expressions appear together with their English translation, or the translation stands

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