09 February 2011
Chinua Achebe on English
Here's a familiar quote from Chinua Achebe's “English and the African Writer” (1965):
"My answer to the question, Can an African ever learn English well enough to be able to use it effectively in creative writing? is certainly yes. If on the other hand you ask: Can he ever learn to use it like a native speaker? I should say, I hope not. It is neither necessary nor desirable for him to be able to do so. The price a world language must be prepared to pay is submission to many different kinds of use. The African writer should aim to use English in a way that brings out his message best without altering the language to the extent that its value as a medium of international exchange will be lost. He should aim at fashioning out an English which is at once universal and able to carry his peculiar experience."
Literary critics in postcolonial countries tend to focus on one or both of two aspects of English: how a writer's English differs but should not differ from so-called "Standard English" (whatever that is) and/or how a writer's mother tongue influences (more often, distorts) his or her English. The kind of literary theory I am pushing for should remove the center of power from English (decenter or unprivilege it, as critics love to say) and to talk instead of the literary language that is created out of the merger of two languages - the mother tongue and the second language. The English of a literary text is not the English that the linguists are talking about (the "authentic language," as they love to say). Rather, it is a language that is intelligible only to readers and critics (and, of course, writers) of literature.