Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Whose 'tongue'?

Geoffrey Philp posted reference to this article on facebook recently
It contains extremely interesting observations on colonization in Africa and India, and how ‘natives’ were  colonized more by language than the gun. 
Here's an extract:          
When done right, the native comes to elevate and mimic his master’s ways, to see his own culture as inferior, and to look down on his past as ‘a wasteland of non-achievement’. He begins to defer to the colonizer’s ideas on fundamental things like beauty, art, and politics. In time, he begins to understand himself and his culture through the eyes of the colonizer—using the latter’s concepts, categories, and judgments. Before too long, he turns into a proxy for his master: colonialism with a native face.
How does the colonizer gain such control? The easiest method is to actively spread his language among the natives, and to simultaneously denigrate the language of the natives as crude and unfit for proper education.
Consequently, the article continues, ex-colonial writers are still rated by their expertise in, and given recognition for use of the ‘mother’ tongue.  Release from this straight -jacket, it seems to suggest, is for writers to return to writing in the native ‘tongue’.

The Caribbean colonial experience is similar, except that the majority of us, coming from Africa, very early lost our languages and our cultures, which were replaced by a (still) confusing mix (adaptations)  –  of what was forced on us, together with our dim memories.  We were thoroughly creolized. So while Indians and Africans never really lost their languages , what do we in the Caribbean have to fall back on?

Our language debate continues  –  local dialects(languages) versus standard ‘Mother tongue’. It is hardly realistic to write a story about children in Jamaica, for example, and use standard English dialogue only, when the majority of our children speak variations  of our creole.

 My Awakening
In my story Good Morning Corner in a collection entitled Ramgoat Dashalong, the protagonist, a wayward street boy, named Ginseng  is taken off the streets of Kingston  by his grandmother to live with her in her rural home high in the hills of Portland. Ginseng is very uncomfortable and regularly ridicules the customs of these rural folk, is disobedient to his grandmother and rude to the older folk.  He is anxious to return to the street life he left behind. The villagers only tolerate him because of their respect for his grandmother.
Then, one night during a storm, he has a magical encounter with his ancestors and begins to understand the importance of family and community.
One of the ancestors, a powerful African woman, gives him the lecture which changes his attitude.
Great –great-great grandmother Addie stood over him. Her voice filled the cave like thunder rolling in from a far distance. Her words echoed  and re-echoed as if to make sure that all who listened, heard and understood.
“Ef you nuh know where you a come from, you cyan know where you a go. The future can ongle come out a the past. One,one smaddy nuh have no strength. Strength come from all the living which everybody roun you do fi you, and wid you.”
In my first draft I had her delivering these words of wisdom in standard English!  although she had previously been using the creole. That’s my colonial heritage – Creole is for entertainment, mostly laughter. To be taken seriously, her wisdom had to be delivered in Standard English.

I was horrified when I realized how my thought processes were working, so  I revised and creolized her speech.  But even then , in writing the words, they came out nearer standard than how she would sound,realistically.

Of course I had in mind the fact that our dialogue is one of the main reasons agents say that our fiction will not be attractive to foreign publishers or to a foreign audience. Since we, as yet, have no standard way of writing the creole each writer is on his own when it comes to how he presents dialogue. It remains an interesting dilemma -  more so in writing for children than for adults. ( Both teachers and parents are uncomfortable with what goes against the Ministry of Education's preferences. After all, the children have to pass standard English exams!!)
 I tell students in my writing classes that I have no answers.  I do what feels right at the moment. The debate will go on for a while yet.
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