African Literature's Unending Battle With the Language Question

Long after decolonisation, the grip of English as a 'metaphysical empire' has remained at the centre of a battle amongst writers. 'The Rise of the African Novel', authored by Ngugi wa Thiong’o's son Mukoma wa Ngugi, is the latest intervention into this continuing debate.

Earlier this month, as a prelude to an impending visit to Africa, Barack Obama listed six books for recommended summer reading, “some from a number of Africa’s best writers and thinkers”. Featuring Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Nelson Mandela, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, it was a watered-down and unambitious reading list, almost palpably seeking to avoid controversy – much like its author. Perhaps its only eyebrow-raising feature was Obama’s choice of Achebe and Thiong’o next to each other: the two famous contemporaries who, over the course of time, had found themselves on opposite sides of one of the most divisive questions in 20th-century African literature – the language question.

The Makerere generation

As young writers, more than five and a half decades ago, Achebe and Thiong’o had been present together at one of the defining moments of Pan-African literary exchange. In 1962, a conference at Uganda’s Makerere University, tellingly titled the “Conference of African Writers of English Expression”, had brought together many writers who “viewed themselves as instigators and vanguards of an emerging literary tradition” (p.2), and who would go on to become literary giants.

Apart from Achebe and Thiong’o, there was Wole Soyinka, Christopher Okigbo, Grace Ogot, and many others. On the cusp of decolonisation, these young men and women urgently debated how to define African literature, who could write African literature, and which languages it could be written in. Although the debates were inconclusive, some of the participants believed that the dice had been loaded from the start, in the very title of the conference: limiting it to African writers of “English expression” indicated that “the question for the Makerere writers was not how to write, translate, and market books written in African languages. Rather, it was how best to make English work for the African literary imagination.” (p. 4)

From left to right, Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Credit: Wikimedia

And so, after the conference was over , the critic Obi Wali published an article called “The Dead End of African Literature”, where he argued that “an African writer who thinks and feels in his own language must write in that language”. English was simply incapable of being able to “carry the African experience”. (p. 47)

A decade-and-a-half later, Ngugi wa Thiong’o would come around to this view, abandoning English to write in his native Gikuyu, and arguing that language was so deeply implicated in culture that decolonisation was impossible as long as English remained the primary vehicle of communication.

Achebe demurred. Even though as he confessed his guilt at having abandoned his mother tongue, he famously said that “I have been given the [English] language… and I intend to use it.” Contrary to Wali, Achebe would argue that it was possible to “fashion out an English which is at once universal and able to carry [the African’s] peculiar experience.” (p. 47)

The battle was joined, and has remained joined since. The Zimbabwean writer Dambuzdo Marechera, while admitting that “I was a… keen accomplice in my own mental colonisation”, nonetheless violently rejected any attempt to cabin African writers to writing in African languages.

In a gentler and more humorous protest, Binyavanga Wainaina wryly noted in his memoir that, after all, Ngugi wa Thiong’o himself had elected to teach in an American university. The most well-known writers from the continent today – not least Obama’s fourth pick, Chimamanda Adichie – write in English, having made the language theirs, and with none of the obvious hesitation and sense of betrayal that an Achebe had to contend with when he made that choice.

Meanwhile, in 2017, the Pan-African writers’ collective Jalada embarked upon an ambitious project to translate a story into over 70 African languages – and in a move whose symbolism would be lost on none, picked Ngugi wa Thiongo’s The Upright Revolution as the story that would be translated.

Mukoma Wa Ngugi
The Rise of the African Novel: Politics of Language, Identity, and Ownership
University of Michigan Press, 2018.

The Rise of the African Novel – authored by Mukoma wa Ngugi, the son of Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and a novelist and critic in his own right – is the latest intervention into this continuing debate.

However, while the language question features prominently in The Rise of the African Novel, Ngugi centres his argument around a different question. Apart from picking two of the most famous figures on either side of the language question, Barack Obama’s reading list inadvertently reveals something else: the longstanding assumption – carefully cultivated by publishers and literary critics over decades – that the “African novel” began with the Makerere generation (we’ve all grown up hearing about Achebe as “the father of the African novel”). This, Ngugi believes, is the critical issue. “What does it mean for the African literary tradition,” he asks, “when there is an absence of sustained critical readings of African writing before the Makerere writers?” That question – and the language debate enfolded within it – motivates much of The Rise of the African Novel.

The language question

That the Makerere conference was missing important figures was pointed out at the time itself. Obi Wali asked why Amos Tutuola, the author of the famous The Palm-Wine Drinkard (1952), had not been invited to the conference. Ngugi suggests that this was because Tutuola was something of an embarrassment to the Makerere generation, who had been educated at the best public schools that the colonies had to offer, and prided themselves on their mastery of “Standard English”.

Tutuola, on the other hand, who was “a blacksmith in the British colonial army and later… an office messenger” wrote The Palm-Wine Drinkard in broken English, and it was on those terms that the book was accepted by Faber. In a chapter devoted entirely to Tutuola, Ngugi painstakingly excavates the publishing history of The Palm-Wine Drinkard: from an inadvertent typographical error in the title (“Drinkard” is not a word) that was deliberately left uncorrected to make it sound more exotic, to Faber’s conscious decision not to intervene and improve Tutuola’s language so that it would sound more “authentic”, the interaction between the African author and his (Western) publisher was conducted on distinctly unequal terms. The Palm-Wine Drinkard was presented to its English-speaking audiences as something drawn unmediated from the wellsprings of deepest African folk tradition, warts, grammatical errors and all. Its reception closer home, therefore, was understandably mixed.

Tutuola’s treatment (with its racist undertones, especially in some of the correspondence of T.S. Eliot) is not merely of historical interest. Ngugi demonstrates how it deeply affected the language question, in ways that continue to bite. The Palm-Wine Drinkard set the stage for a discourse where serious, novelistic questions were to be addressed in English, while indigenous African languages were the vehicles for (the inferior) poetry and “folk tradition.” This dichotomy is present in Achebe and, most recently, in Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun and NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names. In these (contemporary) novels, as Ngugi points out, ”African languages are not invoked to discuss philosophy or the stuff of high culture; they are used to express idioms, proverbs, folktales, and songs.”

It is as James Baldwin famously wrote: the cultural achievements (in this case, language) of the West remain centred, while “I am in African, watching the conquerors arrive”.

This, naturally, speaks to the continued relevance of the language question, more than three decades after Ngugi wa Thiong’o bade his “final farewell” to English. Long after decolonisation, the grip of English as a “metaphysical empire” remains tight.   

The margins and the centre

While Tutuola’s broken English cast a long shadow over Makere 1962, there was another set of novels that did not even leave the vanishing imprint of breath on glass. In the early 1900s, pre-apartheid South Africa witnessed an explosion of multi-lingual literary talent, with Thomas Mofolo (who was from Lesotho), A.C. Jordan, and Sol Plaatje all publishing novels. Treating the Makerere generation as the founders of the African novels entails the erasure of what came before, prompting Ngugi to ask “What does it mean for a literary tradition if the contemporary writing of Chimamanda Adichie and NoViolet Bulawayo, for example, are not read within a literary tradition of the African novel that starts with the South African writers?”

At one level, the answer is that it simply distorts, falsifies, and impoverishes the literary tradition. In these pre-apartheid works, the novelists grappled with a colonial world that was replacing their own, but where the possibilities for co-existence had not yet been ruled out. But by 1962, and the Makerere generation, decolonisation was on the agenda, and the novels of the time reflect that sensibility. And contemporary novels, written in the post-colonial era, are of a time when “the betrayal of African nationalism is complete … [and] as globalisation becomes more and more contested, the contradictions of decolonisation have ripened.” (p. 108) But it is only by reading these three literary eras – or epochs – together that “it becomes possible to draw out a African literary tradition that is truer to the African literary clock.” (p. 108)

Mukoma Wa Ngugi . Credit: Twitter

A deeper problem with a truncated tradition, however, is the ease with which it can be marginalised. Ngugi quotes the Introduction to a book called Minor Transnationalisms, where the authors observe that “we study the centre and the margin but rarely examine the relationships among different margins.” Ngugi observes that “the problem with their premise is the acceptance of terms such as minority, centre, and periphery as starting points even as they question them. There is nothing minor about the meeting between Africans and African Americans…” (p. 183 – 4)

A fully reconstituted literary tradition would, naturally, be far harder to be treated as “minor”, “peripheral”, and “marginal”, and perhaps facilitate Seamus Heaney’s famous dream of a world culture. While considering the often misunderstood and marginalised poetry of John Clare – who unsurprisingly features as a foil in Ngugi’s book as well – Heaney wrote, in The Redress of Poetry:

“The dream of a world culture, after all, is a dream of a world where no language will be relegated, a world where the ancient rural province of Boeotia (which Les Murray has made an image for all the outback and dialect cultures of history) will be on an equal footing with the city-state of Athens; where not just Homer but Hesiod will have his due honour. Clare’s poetry underwrites a vision like this, where one will never have to think twice about the cultural and linguistic expression of one’s world on its own terms since nobody else’s terms will be imposed as normative and official. To read him for the exotic flavours of an archaic diction and the picturesque vistas of a bucolic past is to miss the trust he instills in the possibility of a self-respecting future for all languages, an immense, creative volubility where human existence comes to life and has life more abundantly because it is now being expressed in its own self-gratifying and unhindered words.”

To achieve this even in the midst of the contested language debate, in his final chapter, Ngugi proposes an approach to literature and writing that he calls “rooted transnationalism”: taking the example of Aminatta Forna, a Sierre Leonean writer of Scottish descent (who lost her father to a military execution) and whose book The Hired Man is written in English and set in Croatia, Ngugi defines rooted transnationalism as that which:

“… will account for particularities of national cultures and at the same time for a literary arc across two or more nations. That is, novels will be rooted in multiple particularities. In this sense, the novels are not global, they are local in two or more places at once, and yet in conversation across those localities.” (p. 180)


In Brian Friel’s famous play, Translations, the year is 1833. The English are trying to put a stamp over their subjugation of Ireland by changing the names of all geographical spaces from Gaelic to English, and redrawing the maps. And when an English soldier and an Irishwoman fall in love, they have no common language to express themselves in. “I will provide you with the available words and the available grammar,” says the endearing schoolmaster Hugh, “But will that help you to interpret between privacies?”

Rooted transnationalism – Ngugi’s answer to the language question – will, he believes, help us interpret between privacies, and free us from staying “trapped withinin the metaphysical empire [of English].” (p. 20) It imagines an equality of languages, which – of course – is the premise of Jalada’s translations project – that will answer the language question on its own terms.

And who knows, perhaps it would help Barack Obama to make his next list somewhat interesting.

Gautam Bhatia is a Delhi-based lawyer. He reviews books for Strange Horizons magazine and on his blog.

Note: This article has been edited to clarify that Thomas Mofolo was from Lesotho, or Basutoland as it was known at the time.