In response to a piece by the novelist Eghosa Imasuen which calls for a more confident and less-explanatory use of local words in writing, the Booker Prize-shortlisted author of The Fishermen, Chigozie Obioma, penned an argument criticizing such storytelling politics as ‘provincial writing,’ arguing that it limits the understanding of literary works. The arguments by Chigozie were in reply to a question many African writers —and especially non-native speakers of English— get: who is your audience? Who do you write for? It is not surprising that those who get many of these questions are African writers and those who ask these questions are the Western audience.
Contrary to Chigozie’s statement, where he says those writers concerned with provincialism are concerned with pleasing a particular base of readers, one can equally say that those concerned with explaining local words are similarly concerned with pandering to the West and pleasing the readers from the West, otherwise why would one explain eba as a ‘yellow globular mashed potato clone made from cassava chippings’? If I used ugali instead of eba in a sentence, would it change anything? Unless, according to Chigozie, I am trying to convey a vivid sense of something. Maybe just curiosity as to what ugali is, and how ugali is different from eba, say in preparation and content. What then does the reader gain or lose in a story in being told eba is a ‘globular mashed potato clone’ if the eba itself doesn’t serve any other purpose in the story other than it being just food?
Chigozie further buttresses his point against provincialism by stating that a provincial writer ‘will almost always falter in his writing, and yield, more often than not, to telling rather than showing.’ He further states:
Suppose the African author wants to write about the molue, the iconic Lagos bus, and simply refers to it mid-sentence. He might praise himself, or be praised by defenders of this kind of politicised provincialism, for having been brave or authentic. But what does a reader see?
Contrary to Chigozie’s statement, where he says those writers concerned with provincialism are concerned with pleasing a particular base of readers, one can equally say that those concerned with explaining local words are similarly concerned with pandering to the West and pleasing the readers from the West
In his short story, ‘My Maths Teacher Hates Me,’ published by Jalada, Paul Ugbede uses the word ‘uwai’ in mid-sentence without describing it. The story starts:
My Maths teacher hates me. He asked me to find y… I mean, bearded man just walked into the class, straight to the board. X2+3y=1. Find y.
Paul Ugbede then goes on to link “y” the letter, with a word, “uwai”. As at when reading the story, if Paul had attempted to describe what uwai was, he would have killed the story. I wasn’t concerned if uwai was an Igbo or Yoruba or Igala word. In fact he links a letter “y”, sound /’wai/ with a word “uwai” which is, in itself, an innovative look into two different languages. It is later in the story that Paul uses dialogue, not to describe what uwai is to us, but as a continuation of the story.
She laughed a high pitch laughter when I told her what I was looking for.
‘It is not called Wai. It is called Uwai.’
‘I used to have two. Some school children from Nevasity came the other day saying they wanted to dance with it and I gave them one…’
… she gave me the wooden bowl covered with sooth.
Attempting to describe a molue is tantamount to describing Lagos, a city and a space which can’t be squeezed into any description. Does the reader really need to have two sentences describing matatu even after reading that someone in the story “boarded” the matatu or paid their fare?
Does the reader really need to have two sentences describing matatu even after reading that someone in the story “boarded” the matatu or paid their fare?
To qualify provincial writing as not being self-sufficient is to be ignorant of what provincial writing helps to do linguistically. It shows how Obioma seems not to understand that explaining a word sometimes does more harm to the word, because, in a way, the writer gives a subjective translation of the word, which narrows the imagery and feeling for the reader. He also denies the world these words that they can be exposed to. I believe the word ‘safari’ as used in Kenya and Tanzania is not construed the same way as by white people who only use ‘safari’ in relation to seeing lions and elephants. In fact, the Longman Dictionary’s definition of safari makes reference to these wild animals. Whereas travelling from Kisumu to Nairobi would be termed a ‘safari’ and, therefore, necessitates a kind of greeting: ‘safari njema’. This shows a colonisation of the word ‘safari’, misrepresented to suit the activity and taste of a people that have no relation to its culture and therefore assign their own meaning to the word, which meaning only involves the activity of coming to East Africa, travelling on land to see lions and cheetahs.
The word ‘harmattan’ has so much been used by Nigerian writers that, inasmuch as a foreign reader might not fully comprehend what ‘harmattan’ is, they probably understand it is a season.
A reader, when picking up a book, ultimately becomes a researcher with or without having to Google any word. The very act of picking a book is accepting to learn new words and cultures and, ultimately, making use of a dictionary or Google as the case may be. Therefore, for Chigozie to state that, ‘a writer, in the name of political defiance, has abstained from his duty and tasked the reader with research,’ is simply to give an excuse for lazy readers.
What is probably more insulting is when he further argues that:
In an age when we complain of short attention spans and books compete with variegated media, some contemporary writers compel their readers to be distracted.
Do we then also say that, for this reason, we should as well use words that won’t make the reader go to the dictionary simply because we don’t want the reader to be distracted? Or rather, due to attention span, we should restrict storytelling to one hundred and forty characters? It is implausible that a reader will not, in one way or the other, refer to a dictionary, thesaurus, or Google. Therefore, blaming research on provincial writing is simply not an argument.
Art is universal even if it stems from the local. It is in recognizing the local in the universal that we feel attached to a larger scheme of things. Marlon James would probably pass for a provincial writer considering all the patois sentences he used in The Book of Night Women or A Brief History of Seven Killings, when, in fact, those sentences open us to a new world and new feeling. Take for example, Marlon’s The Book of Night Women:
People think blood red, but blood don’t got no colour. Not when blood wash the floor she lying on as she scream for that son of a bitch to come, the lone baby of 1785.
Or A Brief History of Seven Killings:
I know I was fourteen. That me know. I also know that too many people talk too much, especially the American, who never shut up, just switch to a laugh every time he talk ‘bout you, and it sound strange how he put your name beside people we never hear ‘bout, Allende Lumumba, a name that sound like a country that Kunta Kinte come from.
If a Nigerian writer wrote something similar in Nigerian Pidgin I can imagine how many hells would break loose. But reading what Marlon wrote, there’s a feeling it gives that the Queen’s English will never produce. More and more Nigerians unapologetically use pidgin and local languages in their fiction.
Words, no matter how much we try to describe them, will retain their own individual meaning to the owners of the language and this in no way undermines any writing. How does one describe a word like abiku?
To quote Chigozie Obioma:
In truth, most Americans know close to nothing about Nigeria, but no Nigerian, even in the remotest of villages, can make a similar claim about the US. Thus, because of the obscurity of the nation, it would be foolhardy to set your book in Lohum, or Tse-Agberagba, with no explanation of its geography, and dare your American or Serbian reader to consult Google. Even most people in Abuja or Lagos do not know where those places are.
This statement shows the lack in the appreciation of individual places. Why should it matter if I set my story in Ikare or Kisumu? That a place is unfamiliar does not remove anything from the stories that can be found or created in it. And that reading about these places, in as much as it might at once be strange because it is new, doesn’t mean those places are irrelevant or don’t have the same characters as those in the US. And it is not foolhardy to set a book in Lohum or Tse-Agberagba, it is in fact a broadening of horizon and further exposure. I’m not sure Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingnbird, if set in New York or any other place not as remote as Maycomb, Alabama, would have gotten the unexpected success it received because towns and places are characters.
How does one squeeze over two thousand languages from fifty-four countries and one continent into one language? When it comes to provincial writing, the African is the culprit, he’s being told, time and time again, to speak English and not to grunt. If a Western editor can’t stand five indigenous words in a page, it’s not because he thinks ‘a vivid sense’ is not being created, but rather because, he himself has a political role to play. Why then should the provincial writer play any different role?
When it comes to provincial writing, the African is the culprit, he’s being told, time and time again, to speak English and not to grunt. If a Western editor can’t stand five indigenous words in a page, it’s not because he thinks ‘a vivid sense’ is not being created, but rather because, he himself has a political role to play. Why then should the provincial writer play any different role?
If the only rice known to the Western audience is white rice, and my character loves ofada rice, does it then behove me to explain what ofada rice is? The African writer unfortunately finds himself in a position of weakness in relation to the use of his language, even if it’s just in mid-sentence. This puts him in no other position other than that of being political, being provincial, even when he doesn’t want to. He is forced to describe basic things his Western counterpart doesn’t bother describing, and what he is left with is a sketchy skeleton of his origin.
Does the Russian writer bother to describe his words? Is literature made accessible simply by description? What then is literature if not an appreciation of other people’s culture and value or an understanding of people’s ways of life? Is it not really contradictory to the very essence of writing, of self-expression, when all you express should be passed through the eye of the needle that is another’s point of view, language, and culture simply because the person doesn’t want to stoop to see where you’re coming from?
In an interview in Poets & Writers Magazine, Toni Morrison says:
All good art is political! There is none that isn’t… we’ve just dirtied the word ‘politics,’ made it sound like it’s unpatriotic or something… I’m not interested in art that’s not in the world. And it’s not just the narrative, it’s not just the story; it’s the language and the structure and what’s going on behind it.
If one is to go with what Morrison said, the term ‘provincial writer’ seems to have been dirtied too.
Socrates Mbamalu was born in Nigeria and grew up in Kenya. His works have appeared in Waza Africa, Saraba Magazine, Deyu African, Kalahari Review, African Writer, Sankofa Mag, Jalada and adda. He is a 2016 Saraba Nonfiction Manuscript prize awardee. His Saraba nonfiction manuscript The Kenyan Boy is due for publication as an Ebook next year. His nonfiction piece Lives of Trailer Drivers was recently published by adda stories.