Not so, Adaobi…

In the New York Times of 11th December, Adaobi ‘Tricia Nwaubani argues that it wasn’t such a bad idea that Ngugi wa Thiong’o missed out on the last round of Nobel Prizes because of the African penchant for emulation which would see another generation of writers aping yet another literary hero. She also suggests that Ngugi’s championing of the Gikuyu language was not the sort of influence that Nigeria needs right now. She writes:

‘I shudder to imagine how many African writers would be inspired by the prize to copy him. Instead of acclaimed Nigerian writers, we would have acclaimed Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa writers. We suffer enough from tribal [ethnic] differences already. This is not the kind of variety we need.’

Adaobi is of course the author of the brilliant ‘419’ lampoon, I do not Come to You by Chance. She was interviewed not too long ago for African Writing. She has not yet won the Nobel, but her not-inconsiderable success so far (the Commonwealth prize is in the bag) must have triggered some look-alike submissions to publishers up and down the continent. Methinks this risk of copy-cat writing goes with the literary territory.

More significantly of course is the issue of ethnic languages. I doubt that the atrophy of our languages will create either a more united Nigeria or a more progressive Africa. Our ethnicities have, and will always remain, significant resources that political leaders have abused to their own ends. (Petroleum is another resource by the way, that is currently a curse for millions of citizens.) In other more homogeneous societies, divisive political leaders have used class divisions to perpetuate wars on civil society. The egregious will always find schisms to exploit. A blander Africa where unique tongues have been stilled, where cultural differences have been beiged out, will find other fault lines to divide along.

We must not demonize ethnicity. There is a delicate balance between emphasizing our differences and embracing our uniqueness, but we must find it. Because self-love comes from understanding and being comfortable with these unique markers of who we are. European tribes warred for millenia along ethnic lines, but the European Union has managed to find some mutuality without the need to abrogate their linguistic differences. The ambivalence of this generation of Africans to their own languages is unhealthy. If linguistic death is a price we are willing to pay for national, or continental unity, what else will we give up to ‘fit into’ the global village?

I have of course taken a little liberty with Adaobi’s position to mount a hobby horse… a few months ago when I met her at a reading at the University of Lagos she wanted to know if I was happy to publish a story she had written in Igbo. On that occasion she caught me on the wrong foot: I offered to publish an English translation of her new fiction, but she wasn’t having any of it, so she is perhaps more Ngugian than most!

At any rate, wholesale cultural suicide is too high a price to pay for national unity, if only because it is just a deposit. The full-price is a level of self-hatred that is ultimately inimical to any nation.

7 thoughts on “Not so, Adaobi…”

  1. Bravo to you, Chuma.

    I could not have put it any better. You speak for millions of Africans when
    you point out the importance of not selling one’s soul just to be friends with
    someone else. Which is actually what it boils down to…the question of assimilation
    over real acceptance.

    Living in the United States, proud to be a Black Sudanese woman, I struggle
    horribly with these issues, because over here, the entire Black nation basically
    wants to be Mulatto, Blond & White. The level of self-hatred amongst Blacks and
    the potency of their contempt for all things African in the UK and US will shock
    you.

    I rebel against it.

    I believe that if you do not stand for something; you will fall for anything. And
    amongst the Black African peoples, there is a never-discussed psychotic need
    for erasure.

    Once you lose your language and no longer look like your ancestors–what is
    next??

    I do believe that one can be “too free”–and for me, a Nilotic, I was taught that
    “extinction is not honorable” (Nubian saying).

    Kola Boof

    1. Yes, Kola.
      With mega languages like English on offer that counts potential readers in billions, it may seem counter-intuitive to produce work in small languages with a total populations of a few millions or less… but these languages and cultures are the product of millenia of evolution. They are well worth our enterprise, especially when we realise that hundreds of narrow specialisms in universities are in many cases only a few decades old. Yet academics think nothing of spending their lives in those fields, publishing books and monograms that may be of little interest beyond an in-group of less than a thousand worldwide.

  2. “There is a delicate balance between emphasizing our differences and embracing our uniqueness, but we must find it. ” Word!

  3. Hello uncle Chuma,

    I like the twist in the tale about Adaobi requesting you publish something in Igbo. Ha! Irony can be a beautiful thing.

    As for her article…well sometimes people say anything just to satisfy an editorial commission. The more controversial the opinion the better whether they believe it or not.

    I agree with you that individual culture need not be eroded for the sake of some misguided idea of national unity. Nevertheless I think Adaobi’s position is a symptom of a wider problem. With the unfortunate consequence of the US’ international cultural impact the idea of a monolingual world is a greater threat than ever before. As you pointed out certain author’s probably think: why miss out on such a wide readership (English speaking) to publish in a parochial language, nevermind that it would subsequently be translated into the colonial tongue anyway?

    Thanks for the piece. We need to keep the discussion alive if the voice of those sympathetic to linguistic buoyancy as a means of preserving culture, is not to be silenced.

    Shalom x

  4. This may be a digression but…Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani’s “In Africa, the Laureate’s Curse” had been in my thoughts ever since I came across it.I have never read any of her novels but I do come across her interviews and excerpts of her books in the Nigerian press. I hear and read that her novels as well as that of ‘the generations next, next’ after the greats; Ekwensi, Soyinka, Okigbo, Achebe, Mabel Segun, is the exciting new voices of Nigerian Literature; Molara wood, Chimamanda, Nwaubani …

    However, I expect that’ the generation next, next’ are probably more famous and recognized in New York and London than in Lagos, Kaduna, or Port Harcourt or Ibadan. It appears just impossible to get anybody to read good literature again, what with the internet, reality shows, and the premier league. Even for people like me who cite reading as a hobby in my CV, I can’t remember when last I read a good book or any book at all! I do read, but mostly catchy magazines, sensational news prints with supposed leaked crimes of our rulers and the scandals of the high and mighty in the land. Of course I read yahoo news and any other news blog that claims to have interesting news item. Not much of lasting value I regret to say. Really, how many people want to read say Tom Clancy, or down in Lagos, Achebe or Soyinka? What with the Kardashians (I’m no fan) twittering their every lingerie change onto the internet?
    I think we need to get people to read again, whether in native languages or English. I wrote a piece in Royal times newspapers on this.

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