05 October 2009

Kenyan novels in English

In European-Language Writing in Sub-Saharan Africa (1986), the idea is suggested but unfortunately not elaborated that language might be a key to the popularity of Kenyan novels in English in the 1970s. Writes Elisabeth Knight: “This popular literature managed to create its own distinctive idiom, colloquial, confident, resembling the journalese of Drum and its sister magazine Trust. The style is usually converstational and intimate. Dialogue plays an important part; as in Mangua’s Son of Woman, it is frequently an amalgam of predominantly American with some British slang and a number of archaisms. The language and register are often uneven, with a tendency to sentimentality and melodrama.” (p. 911)

I have not kept up with scholarship on Kenyan writing in English, but it would seem to me that we should move from readings based mainly on character, plot, and theme and move into the more specialized but probably more fruitful area of language use.

There are clearly more things to say of fiction than these statements (valid though they may be) that Knight makes of those popular novels:

"Characters tend to be stereotypes."

"While plot (generally of the multiple climax variety) is as a rule more important than character, traditional communal values are usually rejected if mentioned at all."

"Few of these novels are really pornographic. Many are curiously moral."

"While the heroes are bent on asserting their manhood, the heroines are happily not passive, submissive creatures despite some vestiges of a Western-style romantic literature of the woman’s magazine type."

"Though these writers are Kenyan they are, in the main, agents of a kind of cultural imperialism."

New Criticism, moral criticism, feminist criticism, and postcolonial criticism may be useful in general, but we still need to do the more tedious but necessary linguistic analysis, if we are to appreciate fully the efforts put in by writers.

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