There are several informed views about the implications of foreign languages, and specifically the English language, on the creative process and product of African poets, whether they write in their vernacular languages or not.
Ngugi Wa Thiong’o of Kenya believes that “African poetry, true African poetry, is never written in any language outside the African’s mother tongue.”
Emmanuel Ngara of Zimbabwe feels that “to choose a language is to choose an audience and by the fact of writing in English, French, or Portuguese the poet has chosen to address members of the African petty bourgeoisie and westerners.
But others, like Dambudzo Marechera, the late Shona and Zimbabwean poet, choose the English language “as a means of escape and mental liberation while at the same time undermining and subverting the former colonial language and its implications.” (Edited here)
The English language and other Western influences pervade daily life in African countries, like Zimbabwe, once colonised by the British. Even today, the Western way of life is considered the ideal, while the traditional African lifestyles are quickly becoming part of a distant past, and persons who desire to write poetry are systematically forced to decide whether to write in English or in their own African languages.
Whatever their choices, African poets know that they are excluding part of their intended audience and limiting their own creative mode of expression, since most are, because of colonisation, quite literally multi-lingual people. Within these choices of language, such multi-lingual African poets find limitations to overcome and freedoms to enjoy. Use of the English language, which carries the baggage of the oppressor’s culture, usually becomes a mode of stimulating mental exercise.
On the other hand, the Shona and Ndebele languages, which are most Zimbabwean poets’ more natural forms of communication and expression of feelings, unfortunately limit the global exposure of their work.
Taken from Mother Tongue: Interviews with Musaemura B. Zimunya and Solomon Mutswairo, By Angela A. Williams. The Journal of African Travel-Writing, Number 4, April 1998 (pp. 36-44). Copyright © 1998 The Journal of African Travel-Writing
This raises these issues ...
1. Are you a poet dealing with this di-trichotomy? Speaking more than 1 language but writing only in English? Is this a matter of your ability to write best in English or for other reasons?
What is your experience? Have your say below.
The writer should be mastering the language. The language should be the slave, we must brutalize it into our own shape. This is the best way to fight back our own former slavery. But every time we try, language escapes. And so we have to beat it again and again and to capture and to punish it again and again.