Namibian writer, Sylvia Schlettwein, uses German titbits in her English stories not as an expression of Germanness, but rather of Namibianness and Africanness.
I don’t have any problem being classified as an African writer. When I am asked whether I see myself as an African writer I don’t retort: “What is an African writer?” I don’t proclaim: “There are no African writers. We are all writers.” I am a writer and I come from Africa— I am an African writer. Any other expectations, stereotypes, prejudices or biases linked to the idea of the “African writer” are just that: expectations, stereotypes, prejudices or biases. My writing home base is Africa. It is not Europe or Asia, North or South America, Scandinavia or Australia, the Caribbean or Antarctica. That doesn’t mean I only write about Africa and for African audiences or that I think non-African literature has no place on African bookshelves. I’m also not saying that Africa is a country. I’m just saying I have no problem with positioning myself as a writer who comes from Africa.
Like many African writers I write in English and my vernacular. I write whole texts in my vernacular and whole texts in English. I often write two versions of a text, one in English, one in my vernacular. I frequently add my vernacular to my English texts for various reasons that other writers more eloquent than me have amply explored and explained and defended. When I write an English text, I sometimes employ clever techniques to translate or render the meaning of my vernacular titbits to those who have no knowledge of my vernacular. If I run out of clever techniques I just leave the titbits and claim that they are there “to speak for themselves”. That is normal for African writers; we all do that, don’t we?
Dear reader, before you scroll to the next item because you are getting the impression that you are reading an essay by an African writer who does not have language issues, hold on: Of course I have language issues! All African writers have language issues! I have a very particular case of language issue, I promise. In fact, it is a very particular case of English and my vernacular.
Issue number one: I am from Namibia and I am not the so-called born-free type. I was born before Independence. At Independence, 21 March 1990, I was still fifteen years old. When I held my grade 12 certificate in my hand in 1993, it said “English Second Language”. Okay, the mark was good, but when I went to study at the University of Cape Town, I had to write an English proficiency test. Today Namibia’s official language is English, but the portion of the Namibian population that speaks it as a native language is minute. Strictly speaking, in Namibia English is a minority language of an absolute minority ethnic group. It is not even our former colonial language, even though we were under British rule between World War One and Two. I don’t want to venture too far into the relationship Namibians have with English and into the decision to make it our official language; this is not an article about language politics and policy. I am writing as a writer. My issue is that I— like the majority of Namibians, I dare say— have no deep personal history or relationship with English, not even one warped by colonialism.
I value English as a language because I also happen to be a linguist. I have learnt to express myself in English to the point that I can tell stories, that’s it. Yet, my relative successes in writing have mostly been in English. I write in English for practical reasons – because it is the most widely published language worldwide and has the most potential readers worldwide and like all writers (not only African writers) I write in the hope of that worldwide recognition. I do not dream in English, I do not count in English, I do not think about life and possible universes and our place in them in English. But I write about my dreams in English, I get royalty statements in English and write my invoices in English and I write about life and possible universes and our place in them in English. Weird, no? I think writing in English works precisely for that reason: English often gives me the narrator’s distance that I need for imagining and writing fiction, for taking the story from the autobiographical, folkloristic and anecdotal to the realm of literary fiction. English is what discerns Sylvia, the jovial storyteller around the African campfire from Sylvia Schlettwein, the African writer.
But then there still is issue number two: My vernacular is, äh, German. Didn’t she just say she is an African writer and she has no problem with that? She did indeed. And didn’t she mention she sprinkles her English medium writing with her “vernacular” like pretty much any African writer? She did indeed. And now she says her vernacular is German? Deutsch? She does indeed. If “vernacular” is the “the language of a particular clan or group” as defined by the Concise Oxford Dictionary, then German is my vernacular. German-speaking Namibians are a particular group in Namibia and their language is German. I am one of them. Therefore my vernacular is German. I could leave it at that and be deconstructionally cool. Not that simple.
German is a colonial, an imperialist language in Namibia, I hear you say— rightly so. And the Oxford Dictionary gives another definition of “vernacular”, namely the “homely speech of one’s native country; not of foreign origin or of learned formation”. Surely German is of foreign origin in Namibia. Yes, of foreign and colonial origin, but not of learned formation. I dream in German, I count in German, I think about life and possible universes and our place in them in German— not because German was an official language in Namibia (which, contrary to popular belief, it never was), but because it was and is the “homely speech” used by my clan. And I did not acquire this German in Germany; I acquired my German mother tongue in Africa from my mother and father, who both only set foot on German soil for the first time— as tourists—when they were well into their thirties. I am not trying to erase my colonial German ancestry, nor do I want to transform German into a Bantu or Khoisan language. That is historically and linguistically impossible.
Still, as strange as this may sound, when I use German titbits in my English stories, this is not an expression of Germanness, but of Namibianness, and Africanness. If English creates the narrator’s distance in my writing, German brings my narration closer to the campfire again – and that fire burns in the wide open spaces of Namibia, not in the leafy coverage of a West-European forest.
Sylvia writes, translates and edits short fiction and poetry in English, German and Afrikaans. She received a Highly Commended Award in the 2010 Commonwealth Short Story competition for her story Framing the Nation. In July 2012 her short stories were published in the collection Bullies, Beasts and Beauties. She was chosen to attend the 2011 Femrite Writer’s Residency in Kampala/ Uganda and was part of the Moving Africa group of African writers sent to the Kwani? Literary Festival in Nairobi/ Kenya in 2012. She is currently long listed for Short Story Day Africa’s speculative fiction short story competition Terra Incognita. Sylvia lives, loves, works and writes in Windhoek where she is involved in various literary projects.