14 March 2010


Milton Murayama, writing about his novel All I Asking for Is My Body (1975), says, “The aim of writing is to get as close as possible to the experience, and if the experience is dialect, you write dialect. But there is a danger in being unintelligible in dialect. .. I wanted my pidgin to be intelligible to readers of standard English only.” Here lies one problem facing writers working within multilingual situations. Should the writer be faithful to the experience or be kind to the reader? Sometimes, one can be both, but not all the time. African writers decided long ago that they would spell words the way they heard them, and non-African readers have accepted that, despite obvious difficulties. Murayama (as evidenced in the title itself of his novel) tries to be a bit kinder to readers, but he does not really have to be. The burden of reading literature lies with the reader. With other types of writing (notably journalism or speechwriting or even business writing), the reader reigns supreme, because we want the reader to do something (vote for someone or allow us to do something related to our jobs or whatever). Literature, however, as the aphorism ars longa, vita brevis puts it, transcends any group of readers. Witness writers known after their time (Emily Dickinson comes to mind immediately). For me, a writer should write regardless of reader reception. The work will create its own audience. A multilingual work will create a multilingual reader. Conversely, since so many readers today are multilingual by virtue of geography, multilingual works may have come into their own.

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