Thiong’o has described English language and literature as a means of ‘spiritual subjugation’ responsible for taking postcolonial authors, ‘further and further from ourselves to other selves, from our worlds to other worlds.’ In contrast, Rushdie says that English is not ‘irredeemably tainted by its cultural provenance,’ and is simply one of a number of Indian languages. Who is right and does it continue to matter?

Sheila Chapman
Feb 25, 2017 · 95 min read

In his ‘tryst with destiny’ speech to the Constituent Assembly of India on the eve of Independence, Jawaharlal Nehru said: ‘A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.’[3] Nehru identified the end of colonial rule as the moment India would find its voice and give utterance to its soul; the animating principle of the new nation comprised of the collective histories, memories and experiences of its people. Nehru delivered his speech in English — the language of India’s political and cultural elite but one that few of its 350 million inhabitants understood — thereby embodying the problem that has raged in postcolonial discourse ever since; in what language can and should the soul of a postcolonial nation express itself? In answering this question, every postcolonial author is making a freighted judgement; attempting to reconcile often conflicting practical, moral, political and aesthetic imperatives.

This essay will interrogate the opposing positions taken by Rushdie and Thiong’o and the different conceptualisations of place, self and language upon which each rests to provisionally conclude that, for the contemporary postcolonial writer, the significance of language must yield to the need to challenge any: ‘ontologizing image of home or of a homeland, [as] a proper place where a spuriously pure ethnos can authenticate itself.’[4]

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Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o wrote Weep Not, Child[5], the first novel in English to be published by an East African writer in 1964, as James Ngugi. Only after the publication of his second novel, A Grain of Wheat[6], in 1967 did he renounce English, Christianity, and his name becoming (or perhaps reverting to), Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o; a writer of stories and essays in Gĩkũyũ and Kiswahili. In order to write in his native language Thiong’o had to slough off his identity as James Ngugi — his other self in the context of the titular quotation — and become Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o; implicitly a more authentic self.

The word authentic derives from the Latin autos (self) and hentes (doer, being), thus to act on one’s own authority. Postcolonial writers writing in English have been accused of inauthenticity; that by choosing to write in a language once used as a tool of oppression, they are electing to see themselves filtered through the hegemonic memory of the colonizing centre and thereby acting on the authority of their former colonial masters; that they have in fact been co-opted by the West to act as cultural overseers[7]. Thiong’o’s most recent collection of essays, Something Torn and New[8], may be read as a clarion call to postcolonial African authors, whom he describes as the keepers of communal memory, to write in native languages rather than choosing to express these memories (which, as the site of dreams, desire, image and consciousness, are the carriers of African civilisation) in ‘foreign languages’ which can only be shared with, ‘the foreign owners of the languages or among themselves as a foreign-language-speaking elite.’[9] By working outside their linguistic memory, Thiong’o argues, postcolonial writers are distancing themselves from their history as felt experience and perpetuating ‘linguifam’[10]. He argues that the consequences of linguifam, which occurs when a language is: ‘deprived of the food, water, light, and oxygen of thought, and of the constant conceptualizing that facilitates forging of the new and renewal of the old,’[11] include the production of a native class dismembered from its social memory and native languages becoming sites of shame, trauma and defeat[12].

Thiong’o sees writing as an act of re-membering; if colonial domination, with language as its spear, sought to destroy the wholeness of the African subject in active engagement with her environment, then postcolonial writing should be a negation of that legacy; a reclamation of cultural production from its Europhone exile. It is with evident impatience that he describes the reaction his views have garnered amongst postcolonial writers: ‘indifference, hurt surprise … hostility …[they] have come up with arguments about the inadequacy of their own means of memory, or with clever … claims as to how borrowed means of memory can prove equally effective or even more effective.’[13]

Examples of the attitudes identified by Thiong’o may be traced from Yeats who, resigned to the linguicide of Gaelic, advocated for a national literature, Irish in spirit, but expressed in English,[14] to Achebe (who used Yeats’ words for the epigraph and title of his most famous work) who claimed that English, ‘will be able to carry the weight of my African experience,’[15] to Gabriel Okara, the Nigerian poet and novelist who asks: ‘why shouldn’t there be a Nigerian or West African English which we can use to express our own ideas, thinking and philosophy in our own way?’[16] and finally to Rushdie who, in perhaps the most radical expression of europhonism, asserts that, ‘to conquer English may be to complete the process of making ourselves free.’[17]

In his novel, Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie tells the story of identical twins; Saleem Sinai, the garrulous chief protagonist and narrator and the modern Indian nation. This fantastical conceit allows Rushdie, in magical realist mode, to reflect upon the recent history of India from partition and Independence to Mrs Gandhi’s Emergency. The magically endowed children of midnight reflect the geographic, linguistic, religious and cultural diversity of the new republic. When the child Saleem acts as a telepathic conduit allowing a virtual assembly of the gifted children to take place within his consciousness, he is inundated by a cacophony of voices. The inability of the children to listen to one another or to comprehend the nature and meaning of their gifts is a satire on the issues faced by India in its early statehood.

Rushdie explains that Midnight’s Children is concerned with, ‘the slippages and distortions of memory.’[18] For Thiong’o: ‘Memory and consciousness are inseparable. But language is the means of memory, or following Walter Benjamin, it is the medium of memory’.[19] It is in their attitudes towards memory, that one can see the origin of their disagreement with regard to the dynamic between postcolonial literature and European languages. For Rushdie, memory is an unreliable, patchy thing. Midnight’s Children is set in a hyper real Bombay populated by larger-than-life characters and depicted in sometimes surrealist terms. Although Bombay is the city of his birth and early life, Rushdie acknowledges that his rendering of it in fiction is necessarily false because he has been separated from the place by the passage of time and the process of migration. These phenomena have acted as filters upon his memory and whilst he initially sought to imagine himself beyond those filters, he finally surrendered to them and became interested in the process of filtration. Rushdie recognises that the process of filtration means that he will be incapable of reproducing Bombay as it was; that he will instead create: ‘imaginary homelands, Indias of the mind.’[20] Rushdie’s conceptualisation of memory in the context of fiction is echoed by Milan Kundera who believes literary fiction to be a compensation for the leakage of information: because we cannot hold onto the present in memory or reconstruct it in our imagination, we cleave to fictions which: ‘allow us vicariously to possess the continuum of experience in a way we are never able to in reality.’[21] Rushdie’s ‘Indias of the Mind’ are not authentic — in the sense that they are not faithful replicas of an original Bombay — and in this sense, one could argue that Rushdie has allowed himself to be taken to the ‘other worlds’ of Thiongo’s titular quotation. But the implication that these ‘other worlds’ are false; inauthentic, should be resisted. To think in terms of worlds and other worlds (for which one could read our world and their world), is to pander to the old binary oppositions of Orientalist discourse (self/other; occident/orient; metropolis/colony) whose function was to sustain the imbalance of power on which the colonial experiment depended.

To return to the quotations at the beginning of the preceding paragraph, Rushdie seeks to explore, ‘the slippages and distortions of memory,’ and memory for Thiong’o is actualised in language. In this way, Rushdie may be regarded as seeking to explore the slippages and distortions of language. Rushdie, like Achebe[22], takes the view that English can be remade to suit the postcolonial writer’s purpose. His intention in writing Midnight’s Children was to: ‘create a literary idiolect that allowed the rhythms and thought patterns of Indian languages to blend with the idiosyncrasies of “Hinglish” and “Bambaiya”, the polyglot street-slang of Bombay.’[23] An idiolect is the distinctive and unique use of vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation by an individual, in this case, Saleem Sinai. Saleem has his own unique voice, his own individual language, which is imbued with the rhythms and vocabulary of Indian languages including English. Rushdie describes the Bombay vernacular as polyglot; it is a language that is an amalgam of other languages in the same way that the new languages of Patois, Creole and Ebonics were formed from the re-membered fragments of African speech and grammar by diasporic Africans; linguicide, in this instance, giving rise to the birth of something new[24].

It would be hard to argue that Rushdie has not achieved what he set out to do. Here is Saleem Sinai describing his own birth:

The monster in the streets has already begun to celebrate; the new myth courses through its veins, replacing its blood with corpuscles of saffron and green. And in Delhi, a wiry serious man sits in the Assembly Hall and prepares to make a speech. At Methwold’s estate goldfish hang stilly in ponds while the residents go from house to house bearing pistachio sweet-meats, embracing and kissing one another — green pistachio is eaten, and saffron laddoo-balls…. And in all the cities all the towns all the villages the little dia-lamps burn on window-sills porches verandhas, while trains burn in the Punjab, with the green flames of blistering paint and the glaring saffron of fired fuel, like the biggest dias in the world.[25]

The monster in the streets is the crowd celebrating the birth of the new Indian republic, described ironically by Saleem as a ‘new myth’ but about to be described in lofty terms by Nehru, ‘the wiry serious man’, in his ‘tryst with destiny’ speech quoted at the beginning of this essay. The colours of the new Indian flag, saffron and green, are woven throughout the passage. They feature in the joyful offerings of pistachio sweets and in the conflagrations of partition that saw a million die; reminding us that the new India contains serenity and violence; still goldfish and burning trains. Methwold’s estate has been bought by Saleem’s parents from an Englishmen who mandated that the transfer take place at midnight and that all his possessions remain in the house. As the Indian inhabitants of Methwold’s estate settle in they begin to imitate the departed Englishman’s habits; drinking cocktails and affecting an English accent. Like the Indians of the new nation, Saleem’s parents must live with the physical reminders of the estate’s former owner which will continue to exert a powerful influence. Just after the quoted passage Saleem reveals he was switched at birth so that the family history he has been recounting is not, strictly, his own. In fact, his father is the Englishman, Methwold, and his mother a poor Indian woman who died in childbirth. But he asserts his rights as the ‘true’ son of Amina and Ahmed Sinai, creating and shaping his own narrative as he goes along. Hindi and English words are fused together (laddoo-balls, dia-lamps) to form a new lexicon and the grammar (for example, the absence of commas in ‘window-sills porches verandhas’ and the missing ‘ands’ in ‘in all the cities all the towns all the villages’) replicates the fast paced speech patterns of English-speaking Indians.

The vibrancy of this short passage, careening towards the birth of India and Saleem, drawing on two cultures for its rhythms and allusions, allegorising the postcolonial experience and interrogating the notion of truth, is testament to the success of Rushdie’s experiment with language and form. Ignoring Thiong’o’s warning, he has allowed himself to be taken to ‘other selves’ and ‘other worlds’ and has revelled in the tumultuous journey. It is hard to conceive of Midnight’s Children as the creative output of someone whose spirit has been subjugated as Thiong’o alleges.

Returning again to the earlier quote in which Thiong’o claims that: ‘Memory and consciousness are inseparable,’ we might ask whether some of the shortcomings of postcolonial writing identified by Thiong’o (which for ease we may summarise as inauthenticity), may stem from the inadequacies of language — any language — as a means to portray consciousness. In Thiong’o’s schema, the communal memory bank of the African people equates to an African consciousness that must be expressed in an African language. But consciousness, collective or individual, is something that language is ill-equipped to represent. The task of understanding the world comes down to the problem of language as aphorised by Wittgenstein: ‘the limits of my language are the limits of my world.’[26] The linear form of words on a page works against the representation of the random and multiple way in which life is actually experienced and perceived. In addition, human consciousness is essentially self consciousness[27]; phenomenal experience a first person matter. How then to use language to represent the oxymoron of a collective consciousness? Derrida asserts that the nature of language means all discourse is full of gaps and contradictions with no stable, recuperable meaning. Instead, the meaning of a text is produced in the act of criticism through a process of play. Wresting meaning from a text requires its deconstruction; a thoughtful unravelling of language and an active engagement with it. This contrasts with the process of re-membering — a painstaking reassembling of something sacred — that Thiong’o calls for.

As a champion of indigenous languages, Thiong’o is reluctant to acknowledge that all languages (not just those of a former colonial power) are: ‘contaminated by previous usage, saturated with ideology, class associations and history.’[28] In failing to interrogate the evolution of indigenous languages and the structures of oppression they enshrine, there is a risk of falling prey to the essentialism of the benign Western observer; the liberal inversion of Orientalism. English, as Rushdie points out in Commonwealth Literature Does Not Exist[29], is just one of a number of Indian languages and, since the 1980s, the greatest contention regarding language in India pertains to the hegemony of Hindi. Some contemporary Indian writers, for example the Guajarati Suresh Joshi, have chosen to write in their regional languages as an act of defence of native Indian languages under threat from Hindi. In the context of the broader discourse of postcolonialism it is Hindi that is under threat from English but this should not obscure other linguistic struggles playing out on the subcontinent.

In addition to the structures of oppression enshrined within each native language, there is the further issue of their multiplicity. In what language should the African soul express itself when, to consider just two of Africa’s fifty three countries, South Africa has eleven official languages[30] and sixty nine languages are spoken within Kenya[31]. At the end of Something Torn, as an afterthought, Thiong’o acknowledges the problem. His proposed solution is the establishment of a continent-wide programme of mass, state-sponsored translation. This pan-African initiative would see texts produced by diasporic Africans in European languages translated into African languages and texts produced in one African language translated into other African languages. He does not interrogate the geo-political or economic factors that render such a proposal unrealistic neither does he consider the ethics and biases of translation.[32] However, his belief in translation as a tool capable of ushering in an African cultural renaissance provides a useful point of departure for this essay which will now consider translation in all its manifestations — linguistic, cultural and psychological — pertaining to the dialectic that this essay seeks to conduct. It can be said of postcolonial writers who move from their country of origin to another country (often the former ‘mother’ country) that they have been ‘translated’ and therefore a discussion of translation requires a discussion of the significance and function of place for postcolonial writers. This resonates with Thiong’o’s warning to the postcolonial writer not to allow herself to be taken by a foreign language to ‘other worlds’ which we can read to mean inauthentic places.

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The word ‘translation’ derives from the Latin translatus meaning carried over and, having been used in the Middle Ages to describe the removal of a saint’s body or relics to a new place, is imbued with notions of place and the sacred. According to Derrida: ‘if there is something untranslatable in literature (and, in a certain way, literature is the untranslatable), then it is sacred.’ [33] Implicitly then, by translating a text and purporting to carry the cultural memories stored within it from an originary language to a foreign one, one is also desacralizing it. This gestures towards a flaw in Thiong’o’s schema. Thiong’o’s view is that postcolonial African writers should portray African experience idiomatically in a native language in order to produce a text that is the authentic expression of the African cultural memory bank; a sacred (and, following Derrida, untranslatable) work. If the truth embodied within an authentic African text cannot be parcelled up and sent across the language barrier then what are the implications for Thiong’o’s vision of a pan-African translational utopia? To attempt to rescue Thiong’o’s argument by claiming that translation between African languages does not ‘count’ (i.e. does not compromise the authenticity of the original text), is to yield to the master trope of Orientalism — essentialism — because such an argument rests on the belief that all African languages are fundamentally the same and are all equally capable of conveying an homogenised ‘African’ truth. There is a danger that the political rally cry, ‘I am an African’[34] — a call for unity and a statement of pride — can become, in the artistic and cultural arena, a stymieing denial of difference.

According to Walter Benjamin translation is not, ‘the sterile equation of two dead languages’ but instead a task, ‘charged with the special mission of watching over the maturing process of the original language and the birth pangs of its own.’[35] Here, translation (which Derrida describes paradoxically as both impossible and necessary) is framed as a potent site where the post-structuralist implications of language can be explored; a hyphen showing us the difference between the effable and the ineffable where even failures are revealing, drawing attention as they do to what is untranslatable and making us question why that should be. Spivak, herself a noted translator, has said: ‘The translator earns permission to transgress from the trace of the other — before memory — in the closest places of the self.’[36] This paradigm of translation: an equivocal space wherein language can be interrogated through a process of play, may be said to apply to postcolonial literature, a corpus generated by authors necessarily acting as cultural translators.

Having translated his own poems and songs from Bengali to English, Tagore became disenchanted with the possibilities of translation. He wrote in a private letter:

I ought never to have intruded into your realm of glory with my offerings hastily giving them a foreign shine and certain assumed gestures familiar to you. I have done thereby injustice to myself and the shrine of [the] Muse which proudly claims flowers from its own climate and culture. There is something humiliating in such an indecent hurry of impatient clamouring for one’s immediate dues in wrong times and out of the way places.[37]

Tagore suggests that his poems, having adopted ‘assumed gestures’ in translation, had become lesser objects. He suggests that, as the translator of his own works, he has debased himself by ‘clamouring’ for approbation from a foreign (Western) audience. His use of the phrase ‘out of the way places’ echoes Thiong’o’s ‘other worlds’. Tagore suggests that the Muse can only operate within the ‘culture and climate’ (which must include language) of the author: precisely the position taken by Thiong’o.

Tagore’s wholly negative view of translation softened in later years but his words are interesting in that they reveal his sense of shame at having desacralised his own work; of having, in contemporary parlance, ‘sold-out’. Tagore was writing in the context of the translation of poetry, a medium which Lodge has suggested represents mankind’s most successful attempt to define qualia (the specific nature of our subjective experience) through the use of metaphor and simile and one that is therefore highly resistant to successful translation.[38]

The process of colonialism has been described by Young as, ‘translational dematerialization’[39]; a form of translation whereby an indigenous culture is subordinated to a colonial regime and subjected to the apparatus of colonial rule. The typical hierarchy of translation as applied to literary texts — an original version created by an artist and an inferior copy produced by a functionary[40] — is inverted by the act of colonisation. The colonial copy is extolled as an improvement upon a defective and inferior indigenous original. However, the colonizing power inevitably encountered aspects of indigenous culture that were untranslatable — in Derrida’s conceptualisation — the sacred. It is this part of the culture that remained immune to ‘civilisation’ (to use the pejorative Orientalist term). The concept of ‘double-voicedness’ expounded by Henry Louis Gates in relation to black writing intersects with this discussion of attempts to translate metropolitan culture into (or perhaps onto), indigenous culture. Gates explains that the way in which black texts engage with white canonical discourse whilst still expressing a black consciousness renders them ‘two-toned’. These texts, written by the descendants of diasporic Africans (themselves carried over, or translated, across the Atlantic as part of the Middle Passage), undermine the essentialism of hegemonic white discourse notwithstanding that they are written in English. Similarly, Angela Smith writes in relation to Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea and Naipaul’s The Mimic Men: ‘The presence of the colonial other imitating the white male colonizer disrupts the authority of the colonizer’s language, and [reveals] an inherent absurdity in the colonial enterprise.’[41] The dissembling playfulness at work in Midnight’s Children is a further example of the disruption of, ‘the authority of the colonizer’s language’. Rushdie shows that language, like memory, is subject to, ‘slippages and distortions’; it is not stable and authoritative. Midnight’s Children, like a Trojan horse, satirises and challenges the discourse of imperialism from within, so that the act of writing in English becomes one of empowerment (the ‘final stage of setting ourselves free’ as Rushdie has said) rather than, as Thiong’o would have it, one of subjugation.

Translation, whether of a text or a people, is a political act. Someone is translating something or someone which means someone or something is being turned from subject to object. One of the first acts in any colonial enterprise is to translate important indigenous texts into the language of the colonizer. This often entails transforming oral cultures into written ones which serves as a mechanism for controlling access to culture (the illiterates, the peasants, the subalterns find their own culture withheld from them and are thereby doubly-othered). In the same way, places and geographical features are renamed or translated — an act of appropriation and power. Sacred places in colonies could not be translated into metropolitan terms whilst retaining their essence; their spirituality, so instead, ‘the [indigenous] landscape is blanketed with European memory of place.’[42]

Let us consider the role of India as place in some of Rushdie’s writing. Rushdie notes that the demand for authenticity (in the sense of faithfulness to an original) from postcolonial writers is predicated on the existence of a pure, unalloyed tradition to be faithful to[43]. This impetus has led, inter alia, to India, the place and the culture, being defined in exclusively Hindu terms. This conceptualisation sees Muslim culture being dismissed as ‘mughal’; the culture of a foreign invader and therefore imperialistic and inauthentic. In The Riddle of Midnight[44], Rushdie asks whether ‘India’ actually exists. He points out that in the whole history of ‘India’ there has never been a unified country with one ruler so that paradoxically, in 1947, something that never existed was set free. Rushdie refers to India’s fifteen major languages and lack of a common race, religion or culture to support his view that: ‘There can be no one way — religious, cultural or linguistic — of being an Indian, let difference reign.’[45] Rushdie reveals that the aim of authenticity is misguided because there is no one simple truth of India or Indianess that a writer can reveal, challenge or pay homage to. The cult of authenticity that seems to demand of postcolonial writers that they deliver up a stereotypical version of Africanness or Indianess that is palatable to a western sensibility is a reductive imperative; a blend of essentialism and its heir, exoticism. Literature that panders to this conception of, ‘the European … [as] a watcher, never involved, always detached, always ready for new examples of … “bizarre jouissance”,’ makes of the Orient, ‘a living tableau of queerness.’[46]

Rushdie’s view that the concept of ‘India’ is indefinable is endorsed at a geo-political level as all official maps of India bear the following legend: ‘The government of India states that the external boundaries of India are neither correct nor authenticated’[47]. Once again, the discussion returns to questions of authenticity. Here, on a literal level, the accuracy of the physical boundaries of India the nation are identified as the subject of disputation. One could also give an existentialist reading to the legend (itself an evocative term in the context of this discussion). If the boundaries are neither correct nor authentic, do they even exist? If they do not, or if no one really knows where they belong, then in what sense is ‘India’, the physical place, real? Perhaps India is nothing more than an ‘imaginary homeland’ after all. This idea is picked up by Young who notes that although the facticity of a nation is established by its borders, creating as they do physical limits which produce a space in which a nation’s ‘infrastructional machinery’ can operate,[48] it may be that a nation is given meaning by the, ‘nostalgic cultural imaginings’[49] of those people who, as part of diasporas, move beyond its borders. It is on these cultural imaginings’ that the myth of the nation — Rushdie’s ‘imaginary homelands’ — rests.

There is a point in Midnight’s Children where the themes of memory and place intersect. Having endured repeated migrations and wars Saleem experiences amnesia. He only recovers his memory following exile in the jungle of Sundarban. The Sundarbans is an ancient mangrove forest; a real place that may be located on a map. It is as if Saleem must return to a primeval place; an authentic place, to regain his memory and thereby his self. Despite their prehistoric status and their actuality, the Sundarbans still resist authoritative classification. The forest covers part of West Bengal (a state in eastern India) and Bangladesh. Bangladesh was formerly part of British India becoming ‘East Pakistan’ at the time of partition and, in 1971 after a war of independence, emerging into its current incarnation as Bangladesh. So Saleem’s attempted return to a stable place of origin; somewhere outside the man made complications of war and migration, is shown to be misguided. Like all other categories, place resists determinate meaning.

Buell[50] contends that in contrast to the environment (the physical world that exists outside the writer), place is constituted by both geographical/topographical locale and by how the writer places herself. Buell emphasises that place is subjectively felt and place consciousness — being mindful that every body occupies a bounded physical space — provides a check to the Heideggerean notion of the objective self. Buell cites Melville’s Ishmael from Moby Dick by way of illustration: ‘it is not down in any map; true places never are.’ The discourse of eco-writing to which Buell contributes, echoes the way in which Rushdie situates himself in relation to place. Rushdie acknowledges that his fictions offer, ‘imaginary homelands … Indias of the Mind,’ because his memories of India have been filtered by the process of time and migration. They have also been filtered by his consciousness and will further be filtered by the consciousness — the subjectivity — of each reader. His ‘Indias of the Mind’ are therefore not, ‘down in any map’ but they are no less ‘true places’ for that fact. In her introduction to Out of India, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala echoes the idea that a more interesting aspect of place in literature is its role in construction of the writing subject: ‘I am no longer interested in India. What I am interested in now is myself in India.’ This statement implies that Prawer Jhabvala’s self ‘in India’ is different to her self in an alternate location; that locale can change or translate the subjectivity of the author.

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Achebe’s claim (see page 24 below) that English, with its own ancestry, can provide a rich mechanism for revealing African experience, is developed and given a more contemporary expression by Rushdie who says, in relation to postcolonial Indian writers: ‘those peoples who were once colonized by the language are now rapidly remaking it, domesticating it, becoming more and more relaxed about the way they use it … carving out large territories for themselves within its frontiers.’[51] In his introduction to the 2005 edition of Midnight’s Children, Rushdie acknowledges his debt to the oral narrative traditions of India and to, ‘those great Indian novelists, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens.’[52] Rather than simply claiming his entitlement to cite the Victorian novelists as his literary precursors by dint of his identity as a postcolonial Indian, Rushdie applies the adjective ‘Indian’ to them. By appropriating the culture of the Mother country for his own purposes he is reversing the colonial dynamic; he is doing the naming. But how can these producers of the archetypal English novel, not born in India nor with any connection to the geographical place, be described as ‘Indian’? For Rushdie, Dickens’ Indianness lies in his rendering of London; a fetid yet beautiful, terrifying yet magical place depicted via a chaotic democracy of styles — surrealism, fantasy and social realism — a hyper real place that provided Rushdie with a template for his own Bombay. Likewise, Austen’s intelligent and ambitious women have their counterpart in Rushdie’s Indian heroines who must live similarly circumscribed lives as the currency in an economy ran by men. Rushdie does not allow himself to be taken to ‘other selves’ or ‘to other worlds’ by his English literary precursors; he is not anglicised; instead Dickens and Austen are Indianicised.

Dickens’ comic novels were considered by Bakhtin to be good examples of heteroglossia or ‘many-voicedness’. The function of heteroglossia is to disrupt purportedly authoritative discourse by stratifying language into its many constituent voices: ‘social dialects, characteristic group behavior, professional jargons, generic languages, languages of generations and age groups, tendentious languages, languages of the authorities, of various circles and of passing fashions.’[53] In this way words are shown to be at war with themselves and, as seen in Rushdie’s novels (in particular Midnight’s Children with its riotous, disembodied assembly of the children of midnight), subject to ‘slippages and distortions’.

In his introduction to The Satanic Verses Rushdie talks of repossessing the ‘poisoned wells’ of English’[54]. The metaphor reveals the intractability of the problem of language for even if, in the postcolonial era, Indians now own the well, it remains contaminated. Rushdie gestures towards the predicament; a facet of the classic postcolonial double bind[55], in the titular quotation by stating that English is not ‘irremediably tainted,’ — it is, implicitly, still tainted. V. S. Naipaul ironises a similar problem — the fact that English, as the authoritative medium of expression in postcolonial countries, is accompanied by a ‘normative but alien mythology,’[56] in A House for Mr Biswas. The eponymous hero, a man of Indian ancestry living in Trinidad[57], is required by the Ideal School of Journalism, based in London, to write about English seasons that he has never experienced. He describes this experience as leaving him ‘stumped’. His feelings of confusion are expressed in an imported idiom. Like Thiongo’s African child cited below, Mr Biswas is made to survey himself from outside and his own society, linguistically dependent on the coloniser, reveals itself as provisional, shallow and without history. As Boehmer observes: ‘the once-colonized country … needs its writers to supply the imaginative coherence that was undermined during colonial times.’[58] This ‘imaginative coherence’ is what Thiong’o argues will be supplied by, ‘the resurrection of African memory,’[59] which, in his view, requires literary production in native languages.

Thiong’o’s theory of the resurrection of African memory via the reclamation and celebration of native languages was influenced by Franz Fanon. In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon argued that psychological damage caused by colonial domination had produced a divided black subject[60]. It is of this same experience (the damage inflicted to the indigene’s sense of self) that Spivak writes: “If you are constructed in one … language, what kinds of violence does it do to your subjectivity … to move into another language, and suppress whatever selves or subjectivities were constructed by the first.’[61] This argument rests on the hypothesis of linguistic relativity[62] which provides that because linguistic categories and usage determine non-linguistic behaviours, speakers of different languages conceptualise and experience the world differently, i.e. language is not simply nomenclature that provides labels for pre-existing categories but instead generates its own categories. Spivak argues that it is an act of epistemic violence for a postcolonial subject to be compelled to speak a language they were not constructed in. This is echoed by Thiong’o who describes the experience of the African child being schooled in English as, ‘being made to stand outside himself to look at himself’[63] and is also evident in W.E.B. DuBois concept of the ‘double-consciousness’[64] of the African American: ‘always looking at oneself through the eyes of others’. [65] This kind of double perspective was said by Fanon to give rise to psychological fracturing wherein colonial subjects, finding themselves the object of a deriding metropolitan gaze, internalised that derision and came to regard themselves as lesser; other until, finally, actively desiring ‘whiteness’. Similarly, Thiong’o charged the English language with breaking the harmony between life as experienced by Kenyan peasant communities and the written word resulting in the uncomfortable experience of thought taking the visible form of a foreign language. Young uses the term metempsychosis to describe Fanon’s conception of the fractured black subject[66]. The word originates in Greek (meta, expressing change, en meaning ‘in’ and psukhē meaning ‘soul’) and refers to the transmigration of the soul, especially the passage of the soul after death from a human or animal to another human or animal body; hence, a process of translation. Zimbabwean novelist, Tsitzi Dangarembga describes her experience of this process as: ‘a nervous condition of ambivalence, uncertainty, a blurring of cultural boundaries, inside and outside, an otherness within.’[67] Fanon’s objective as a psychiatrist was to retranslate colonial subjects. By appropriating the concept of translation, with its usual connotation of translation of a text from one language to another, Fanon reminds us of the centrality of language to the way in which we perceive ourselves: ‘A man who has a language consequently possesses the world expressed and implied by that language.’[68] Spivak and Fanon would seem to support Thiong’o’s contention that writing in Europhone languages is responsible for taking postcolonial authors away from their own selves, ‘to other selves.’ Support for Thiong’o’s view can also be found outside the largely self-confirmatory world of postcolonial theorists as discussed in the next paragraph.

In The Postmodern Condition, Lyotard describes narration as: ‘the quintessential form of customary knowledge.’[69] He credits narration, which, for purposes of this discussion, we can think of simply as storytelling, as the force which bestows legitimacy on social institutions and values; the criteria through which a community understands its relationship to itself and its environment. According to Lyotard, people serve the purpose of actualising narratives either by recounting them (as narrator) listening to them (as narratee) or recounting themselves through them (i.e. by putting themselves into play via an act of diegesis). Lyotard contends that the posts of sender (which we can take to mean storyteller), addressee and hero are double-grounded meaning that the right to occupy the role of sender is based:

upon the fact of having occupied the post of addressee, and of having been recounted oneself by virtue of the name one bears, by a previous narrative — in other words, having been positioned as the diegetic reference of other narrative events.[70]

Postcolonial writing in non-native languages disrupts this schema by effacing the natives (the non-elite majority in postcolonial countries who do not speak a European language). These natives are not recounting narratives (i.e. they are not the senders) and whilst they may be the subjects of the narratives, they are not narratees, i.e. they are not the intended audience of postcolonial texts (at least not of the ‘original’ text although they may have access to the text in translation). By writing in a ‘foreign’ language for an international audience, the postcolonial author would seem to have frustrated the very purpose of narrative which, according to Lyotard is to, ‘define what has the right to be said and done in the culture in question.’[71]

This experience of psychological rupture is not however unique to the postcolonial subject[72]. Since the end of the Enlightenment, the ‘I’ of western hegemonic discourse has suffered the multiple blows of Darwinism, psychoanalysis and cognitive theory and consequently has been radically decentred[73]. The fallacy of the ghost in the machine has been revealed: there is no transcendent immaterial soul and the individual consciousness is merely, ‘an epiphenomenon of brain activity.’[74] Shaken out of its solipsism, the Western self turned outside of itself in search of the locus of meaning only to find that Nietzsche had proclaimed the death of God (the ultimate ‘I’), the grand narratives had been debunked by Lyotard[75] and even the Author (who may have served as an acceptable God substitute) was also, courtesy of Barthes, dead.[76] Postmodernism, with its emphasis on intertextuality and parody, questions the very notions of origin, identity and presence, even blurring the distinction between signifier and signified; representation and simulation.[77] Consequently, since the middle of the nineteenth century,[78] all writers, not just postcolonial writers, have been writing against a backdrop of encroaching uncertainty; existential doubt. Thiong’o’s exhortation to postcolonial writers not to allow themselves to be taken to ‘other selves’ by language — implicitly to remain within their authentic selves constructed in native languages — is therefore misguided as it incorrectly posits the existence of a fixed, knowable and transcendent self.[79]

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In addition to the political implications of writing in English, Thiong’o argues that inauthenticity arises on an aesthetic level because English, as an alien language imposed upon indigenes, did not evolve in symbiosis with the lives of those forced to speak it. As a result the language does not contain the tools — the syntax, vocabulary, grammar and bank of rhetorical figures — to elucidate the particular reality of, for example, the Kenyan peasant. In contrast, Achebe claimed that: ‘a new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit new African surroundings,’[80] would be the best medium in which to express the African experience. This essay has argued that Midnight’s Children satisfies its author’s expressed ambitions to explore and challenge the distortions of language and memory whilst also succeeding aesthetically. Rushdie indulges in linguistic playfulness without sacrificing veracity (within the world of the novel that he has created) and fluidity. The same cannot consistently be said of Achebe’s seminal work, Things Fall Apart, which reads in places like a work of anthropology rather than literature: ‘Okonkwo … had a large compound enclosed by a thick wall of red earth. His own hut, or obi, stood immediately behind the only gate in the red walls. Each of his three wives had her own hut, which together formed a half moon behind the obi.’[81] When Achebe attempts to reveal the lives of Okonkwo and his clan to us in passages such as the following, one cannot help but feel that, contrary to the view of The Times Literary Supplement at the time of publication that the novel, ‘genuinely succeeds in presenting tribal life from the inside’[82], we are in fact being held at one remove from the lives being portrayed and that it is language itself that is the barrier.

At last the two teams danced into the circle and the crowd roared and clapped. The drums rose to a frenzy. The people surged forwards. The young men who kept order flew around, waving their palm fronds. Old men nodded to the beat of the drums and remembered the days when they wrestled to its intoxicating rhythm.[83]

This passage fails to convey the excitement of a long anticipated tribal wrestling tournament. Instead of a ‘new English’ we have cliché, with drums rising to ‘a frenzy’, a crowd ‘surging’ forwards and ‘intoxicating’ rhythms. The clapping of the assembled throng seems like a description of an African event rendered through a foreign consciousness and even the concepts of ‘teams’ and ‘keeping order’ are Western imports. When Achebe has the peasants in his novel speak English, the exchanges seem stilted as in the following passage where Okonkwo is reprimanded by a priest for beating his wife during a designated week of peace:

You know as well as I do that our forefathers ordained that before we plant any crops in the earth we should observe a week in which a man does not say a harsh word to his neighbour… you have committed a great evil.[84]

The language is idiomatically English (‘you know as well as I do’) and Achebe sacrifices realism by using the priest as a mouthpiece to explain Ibo rituals ostensibly to Okonkwo but in fact for the benefit of his Western readership. The result is heavy-handed English that, even without speaking an African language, a reader can instinctively tell does not reflect the rhythms nor inflections of the natural speech patterns of African tribes people speaking their own dialects. The Foucauldian assertion that supposedly basic categories (such as sex) are in fact produced by discursive practices seems to be manifest in these quotations. If the practices of Ibo peasant life do not simply exist to be described but are in fact produced by and in the native language of that community then it is inevitable that the attempt to portray the lives of that community in a foreign language will result in passages within the text such as those cited that seem stilted and inauthentic.

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In 1970 Muriel Spark noted that the depiction of suffering in art had ceased to be illuminating: ‘the art of pathos is pathetic, simply; and it has reached a point of exhaustion.’[85] Spark’s view was that the mere production of political content in a novel, for example a victim-oppressor narrative written to expose the tyranny of racial injustice, no longer constituted engagement. Spark advocated satire and ridicule (which she defined as something more committed than irony and more cutting than satire) as the mode of intelligibility best suited to offer an account of the political. In the nineteen thirties Mulk Raj Anand portrayed the plight of the lowest classes of Indian society in Untouchable[86] and Coolie[87] via a form of didactic social realism that can also be seen in Achebe’s work. Although effective at the time of publication in raising awareness of the cruelties of the caste system and the negative impact of European colonisation in Africa, this mode may, in Spark’s words, have reached ‘a point of exhaustion’. Spark was calling for something more nuanced to stand out from what McQuillan has termed the ‘noise of mediatic pseudo activity’[88] that represents the current political environment. Rushdie’s newly independent upper class Indians sipping cocktails amongst an Englishman’s abandoned possessions whilst trains filled with people burn, is perhaps the kind of ridicule that Spark had in mind. A similar ruthless mockery can be seen in Roy’s The God of Small Things[89] when Baby Kochamma fines her seven year old niece and nephew, Estha and Rahel, each time she overhears them speaking Malayalam and forces them to write ‘I will always speak English’ one hundred times. Similarly, the series of letters Balram Halwai writes to Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao, in Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger[90] boasting of how, as the son of a rickshaw puller, he murdered and bribed his way into the Indian middle class, is classic Sparkian ridicule steeped in a dark humour. Spark’s emphasis on the importance of the mode of intelligibility speaks to the argument this essay conducts in suggesting that the manner in which the postcolonial author seeks to engage with the political, in whatever language, is the most significant imperative. Coombes[91] makes a distinction between the Modernist art of collage (which articulates dialectical tensions whilst retaining the fractures) and Postmodern bricolage (which reproduces the tensions as free flowing confusion and flux; reproducing the qualities of collage whilst smoothing over the fractures) and it is perhaps the subtlety of bricolage that is needed from postcolonial authors now as opposed to the didacticism of early postcolonial works such as Things Fall Apart and Untouchable where the fractures are in such evidence.

Henry Louis Gates’ has written about the Signifying Monkey — a metaphor for one who dwells at the margins of discourse; the punning and reversing trickster figure and mediator. Like Spark’s use of ridicule as a mode of intelligibility, the practice of signifying involves indirect argument and persuasion; modes of figuration. Signifying encompasses the master tropes of metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche and irony to become what Gates calls, ‘the slave trope’ or ‘the trope of tropes’[92]. According to Gates, Zora Neale Hurston’s work exemplifies the practice of signification, containing a hidden polemic described by Bakhtin as follows:

The other speech act remains outside the boundaries of the author’s speech, but it is implied or alluded to in that speech … the author’s discourse brings a polemical attack to bear against another speech act, another assertion, on the same topic.[93]

By privileging the representation of the speaking black voice Hurston’s fiction embody just such a challenge to hegemonic discourse revealing that it is possible to assimilate Western culture and language without being deracinated by it. Hurston turns her knowledge of American culture and the African American experience of slavery, segregation and prejudice against the structures of oppression. Thiong’o’s advocacy of native languages fails to acknowledge marginalised writers, such as Hurston, who succeeded in challenging their status as othered in the language of their oppressors.

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Rushdie claims the most crucial dynamic within The Satanic Verses is hybridisation. He explains that it was: ‘written from the very experience of uprooting, disjuncture and metamorphosis … that is the migrant condition … from which … can be derived a metaphor for all humanity.’[94] This emphasis on migrancy and metamorphosis — of one thing becoming another and the provisionality of place inherent in the migrant condition — is a negation of the stasis that underlies Thiong’o’s project of re-membering. The categories of postcolonial subject, place and language are each sites of disputation prone to ‘slippages and distortions’ such that any attempt to ­re-member them; to write the authentic Indian or African soul dismembered by colonialism, is an exercise in absurdity. It has been convincingly argued that, rather than a collection of mutually exclusive and objectively verifiable ethnic divisions, race is no more than a social construction[95] and that the concept of the nation is a collection of myths propagated for political expediency[96]. Rivkin and Ryan provide a neat summary:

‘Supposedly stable equations of place, ethnos, and national political institution are imaginary constructs which displace displacement by substituting for the history of permanent migratory dislocation an ontologizing image of home or of a homeland, a proper place where a spuriously pure ethnos can authenticate itself.’[97]

In addition, and as discussed above, the subject, having endured centuries of assaults has lost even the illusion of integrity or know-ability. Consequently, inbetween-ness has come to be a major trope of contemporary cultural production. The frontier, both as a physical boundary (creating places and imposing limits) and a psychological imperative (the desire for advancement and progress), surrenders to the leitmotif of the border; a provisional division that can be crossed and re-crossed many times; a meeting place. It is the liminality of the border in both senses of the word — an object in a state of transition and one that exists on both sides of a boundary — that is what the successful contemporary postcolonial writer seeks to explore.

In this cultural climate, Thiong’o’s advocacy of re-membering — the exaltation of some mythic pre-lapsarian African-ness unsullied by the divisions and violence of colonisation, seems a misguided project. European colonialism was a brief epoch in Africa’s long history and was far from the only organised violence written on the continent. At the same time the African soul cannot be cauterised of the colonial experience and any attempt to do so is to negate the triumphs of resistance; the adaptability and creativity of the African diaspora that gave rise to the negro spiritual, jazz, blues, soul and the literature of the Harlem Renaissance. Like India, Africa the place, resists a final meaning. It comprises a collection of ‘nations’ (whatever may be understood by that label) that are cartographic constructions hastily drawn up in the ruling chambers of post-war Europe. To imbue the idea of ‘Africa’ — this European fiction — as a point of origin and meaning, an authentic place to be re-membered, is spurious.

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Kristeva’s description of l’abjet as a state of total exclusion where one is neither subject (self) nor object (other) but: ‘one of those violent, dark revolts of being … Unflaggingly, like an inescapable boomerang, a vortex of summons and repulsion places the one haunted by it literally beside himself,’[98] is strikingly similar to both Thiong’o’s description of the African child being made to stand outside himself to look at himself and Fanon’s psychologically translated indigenes. Interestingly, the experience of ek-stasis (standing outside), or of being taken over or transported, forms part of the mythology of ecstasy as the informing principle of creativity. This privileged state of ecstasy requires of its possessors that they stand outside themselves; that they occupy a marginal position which one might think of as translated person. This state of ek-stasis, a pre-requisite for ecstatic creativity, arguably finds its most absolute embodiment in the migrant: ‘Having translated themselves, migrants then encounter … other translated men and women, other restless marginals, and translate their experience to each other to form new languages of desire and affirmation: circuits of activism, circuits of desire.’[99] These ‘new languages’ transcend the old categories of indigenous versus Europhone and may be thought of as modes of intelligibility; forms of engagement that Spark has termed ridicule; exercises in bricolage or as the liminal space wherein the ‘slippage and distortions’ of language and memory can be fruitfully explored.

Rushdie said: ‘having been borne across the world, we are translated men’[100] and his work is an exploration and celebration of his condition as a translated man. Rushdie rejects what Rivkin and Ryan term the ‘imaginary constructs’ of ‘India’ and ‘Indianess’ in favour of the consciously held fictions[101] of his ‘imaginary homelands’ and ‘Indias of the Mind’. In Rushdie’s view, there is no need to write in a native language because there is no nation to lionise or defend or reconstruct and, if even if there were, English, as one of a number of Indian languages, is up to the task. This view that the ‘translated person’, the ‘restless marginal’, the person standing outside themselves, occupies a privileged position, is supported by Young who asserts that nomadism and migration — typically portrayed within Western hegemonic discourse as transgressive modes of existence; incomprehensible contraventions of contemporary social codes — are, in fact, productive forms of cultural identity. Identity for the nomad or migrant, is not, according to Young, derived exclusively from family and place (and one could add that neither is it derived exclusively from language). Instead, for these ‘restless marginals’, identity is constructed via creative perfomativity; something that Rushdie’s novel’s enact.

Whilst this essay tends toward the view that Rushdie’s attitude to the English language and his own marginalised/translated status, is the more appropriate one for the contemporary postcolonial writer as compared to Thiong’o’s, it is necessary to heed Annie E. Coombes’[102] warning about the postmodern tendency to uncritically champion hybridity. Coombes interrogates hybridity as a cultural concept in her essay concerning Western metropolitan art exhibitions and the curatorial tendency since the 1980s to display transculturated objects in an uncritical way which threatens to:

collapse the heterogeneous experience of racism into a scopic feast where the goods on display are laid out for easy consumption [without challenging or exposing] the ways in which such difference is constituted and operates as a mechanism of oppression.[103]

In this way, Coombes argues, the hybridised object becomes a fetish onto which is displaced the West’s continued anxiety over miscegenation — the fear that the integrity of English culture is under threat from cultural mixing.[104]

This essay concludes with a quotation from Bakhtin that offers a resolution of sorts to the opposing positions represented by Rushdie and Thiong’o:

The word in language is half someone else’s. It becomes one’s “own” only when the speaker populates it with his own intentions, his own accent, when he appropriates the word, adapting it to his own semantic and expressive intention. Prior to this moment of appropriation, the word does not exist in a neutral and impersonal language… but rather it exists in other people’s mouths, in other people’s contexts, serving other people’s intentions; it is from there that one must take the word, and make it one’s own.[105]

Bakhtin states that a, ‘word in language is half someone else’s,’ which supports Thiong’o’s argument that a Europhone word is not the property of the postcolonial African writer. Rushdie would perhaps not take issue with this having acknowledged that the English language is ‘tainted’ (albeit not irredeemably) and something of a ‘poisoned well’. Rushdie’s essays reveal his agreement with Bakhtin’s next statement that when the author takes possession of a word and bends it to his own ‘semantic and expressive intention,’ he exerts his power, his victory even, over those words. This essay has sought to argue that Rushdie has succeeded in stealing the words of the English language from ‘other people’s mouths’ (those of the former colonial power) and remaking them his own in a polyphonic celebration of the, ‘slippages and distortions’ of language, memory, place and identity.

Advocacy of native languages in formerly colonised countries is surely sociologically and culturally worthwhile. However, Thiong’o’s insistence on their artistic primacy is part of his wider philosophy of re-membering the African subject. It is this underlying objective which, resting as it does on factitious notions of African identity and place, is a retrograde undertaking; a misguided quest for nonexistent authenticity. In implicitly rejecting hybridity in favour of static and monolithic conceptions of Africa and Africanness, Thiong’o is less able than writers like Rushdie to speak to the contemporary and universal experience of dislocation and translation in all its manifestations.

Word Count: 11,000

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[1] Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, ‘Decolonising the Mind’, in Literary Theory: An Anthology, ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan (Blackwell, 2009), p.1132.

[2] Salman Rushdie, ‘“Commonwealth Literature” Does Not Exist’, in Imaginary Homelands (London: Vintage, 2010), p. 64.

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tryst_with_Destiny

[4] Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan, ‘English Without Shadows: Literature on a World Scale’, in Literary Theory: An Anthology, ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan (Blackwell, 2009), p.1073.

[5] Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Weep Not Child (New York: Penguin, 2012).

[6] Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, A Grain of Wheat (London: Penguin, 2002).

[7] For example, John Sutherland writes in 50 literature ideas you really need to know: ‘The best known and best-selling post-colonial writers are necessarily indentured to Anglo-American publishers … What does it mean when writers of impeccable post-colonial sentiment such as V.S. Naipaul, or Salman Rushdie, go down on their knee, to be dubbed knight by the English Queen.’ (161).

[8] Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Something Torn and New: An African Renaissance (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2009).

[9] Thiong’o, Something Torn, p. 56.

[10] A term coined by Thiong’o to refer to the linguistic deprivation suffered by African languages on the African continent as a result of Europhonism amongst the cultural elite. Amongst diasporic Africans, African languages have died — linguicide — largely as a result of the upheavals of the slave trade and the plantation system.

[11] Thiong’o, Something Torn, p. 19.

[12] Thiong’o makes an interesting parallel between postcolonial Africa and Renaissance Europe. Impelled by the success of a vernacular bible, Europe was able to throw off Latin as the vehicle of intellectual life and the languages of English, Spanish, German et cetera ceased to be regarded as raw and crude; not up to the task of expressing a scientific or literary thought.

[13] Thiong’o, Something Torn, p. 41. (When Thiong’o refers to ‘means of memory’ he is referring to ‘langauge’.)

[14] In his 1892 essay, ‘The De-Anglicising of Ireland,’ Yeats wrote: ‘Can we not keep the continuity of the nation’s life … by translating or retelling in English, which shall have an indefinable Irish quality of rhythm and style, all that is best of ancient language’. Cited in Yeats’ Poetry, Drama and Prose, ed. James Pethica (Norton, 2000), p.261.

[15] Thiong’o, ‘Decolonising the Mind’, p.1129.

[16] Ibid., p.1130.

[17] Salman Rushdie, ‘Imaginary Homelands’, in Imaginary Homelands (London: Vintage, 2010), p. 17.

[18] Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children (London: Vintage, 2006), Intro p.xii.

[19] Thiong’o, Something Torn, p. 40.

[20] Rushdie, ‘Imaginary Homelands’, p. 10.

[21] David Lodge, Consciousness and the Novel (Secker & Warburg, 2002), p. 31.

[22] See Achebe quotation on page 24 of this essay.

[23] Rushdie, Midnight’s Children, Intro. xii.

[24] Zora Neale Hurston said: ‘the American Negro has done wonders to the English language …. [H]e has made over a great part of the tongue to his liking and has [had] his revision accepted by the ruling class.” Cited in Thiong’o, Something Torn, p. 48.

[25] Rushdie, Midnight’s Children, pp.154–5.

[26] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe (Oxford: Blackwell, 1979).

[27] W.E.B. DuBois expressed the view that the American world yielded the Negro, ‘no true self-consciousness.’ Cited by Henry Louis Gates in, ‘The Blackness of Blackness: A Critique of the Sign and the Signifying Monkey’, in Literary Theory: An Anthology, ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan (Blackwell, 2009), pp. 994.

[28] John Sutherland, 50 literature ideas you really need to know (Quercus, 2011), p.142.

[29] Rushdie, ‘Commonwealth Literature’.

[30] Zulu, the first language of 22.7 per cent of the population, Xhosa (16 per cent), Afrikaans (15.5 per cent) and English (13.5 per cent), with the remainder speaking one of the following first languages: Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Sotho, Swazi, Tswana, Tsonga and Venda. (Data taken from the 2011 census.)

[31] www.ethnologue.com.

[32] Thiong’o’s vision is altogether more utopian: ‘The success of such restoration would depend on a creative partnership among the writer, the translator, the publisher, and the government…[S]uch a partnership should be a conscious Africa-wide movement, an African restoration project calling for a grand alliance of publishers, translators, financiers, and governments.’ Something Torn, p.126.

[33] Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle, An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory (Harlow: Longman, 2009), p. 197.

[34] Taken from a speech by Thabo Mbeki as deputy president of South Africa in a statement on behalf of the African National Congress delivered in May 1996 when the Constitution Bill was adopted.

[35] Walter Benjamin, ‘The Task of the Translator’, in Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader, ed. David Lodge and Nigel Woods (Harlow: Longman, 2008), p. 75.

[36] Gayatri Spivak, Outside in the Teaching Machine, New York (New York and Abingdon: Routledge, 1993), p. 200.

[37] From the letters of Rabindranath Tagore quoted in Song Offerings (Gitanjali) trans. Joe Winter (London: Anvil Press, 2000), p. 19.

[38] Lodge, Consciousness, pp. 10–16.

[39] Robert J.C. Young, Postcolonialism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), p.140.

[40] As with all typologies this view of translation is flawed. There are many instances of translations of such artistic merit that the work enjoys a life of its own independent of the originating text. For example, The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, Edward FitzGerald’s translation of a selection of poems, originally written in Persian and attributed to Omar Khayyám, a Persian poet, mathematician and astronomer.

[41] Bennett and Royle, An Introduction to Literature, p. 248.

[42] Thiong’o, Something Torn, p.8.

[43] Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands.

[44] Salman Rushdie, ‘The Riddle of Midnight: India, August 1987’, in Imaginary Homelands (London: Vintage, 2010), pp. 26–36.

[45] Salman Rushdie, ‘The Assassination of Indira Gandhi’, in Imaginary Homelands (London: Vintage, 2010), p. 44.

[46] Edward Said, ‘Crisis (in Orientalism)’, in Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader, ed. David Lodge and Nigel Woods (Harlow: Longman, 2008), p. 375.

[47] Young, Postcolonialism, p. 59.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Young, Postcolonialism, p.63.

[50] Lawrence Buell, ‘Place’, in Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader, ed. David Lodge and Nigel Woods (Harlow: Longman, 2008), pp. 665–691.

[51] Rushdie, ‘Commonwealth Literature’, p.64.

[52] Rushdie, Midnight’s Children, p. xii.

[53] M.M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981). p.262–263.

[54] Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses, (London: Vintage, 1988).

[55] Nationalist, postcolonial and black writers expressing their desire for independence or asserting their actual independence or negritude, in the language of the coloniser/oppressor.

[56] Elleke Boehmer, Colonial and Postcolonial Literature: Migrant Metaphors (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p.169.

[57] Dennis Walder notes that V.S.Naipaul’s own identity (the grandson of indentured labourers from India, sent to Trinidad to replaced freed African slaves as plantation workers) was entirely constructed in acts of European colonialism. See bibliography.

[58] Boehmer, Colonial and Postcolonial Literature, p.169.

[59] Thiong’o, Something Torn, p. 121.

[60] ‘As I begin to recognise that the Negro is the symbol of sin, I catch myself hating the Negro. But then I recognise that I am a Negro.’ Franz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Charles Lam Markmann (London: Pluto Press, 2008), p.54.

[61] Gayatri Spivak, ‘Questions of multiculturalism,’ in Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader, ed. David Lodge and Nigel Woods (Harlow: Longman, 2008), p. 600.

[62] This theory has its origins in the work of Wilhelm von Humboldt, a Prussian philosopher and linguist of the early nineteenth century but is more commonly associated with early twentieth century linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf.

[63] Thiong’o, ‘Decolonising the Mind’, p.1135.

[64] In Bakhtin in African American Literary Theory (see bibliography), Dorothy Hale argues that DuBois’, ‘double consciousness’ is similar to Bakhtin’s notion of heteroglossia (as discussed above). Hale says that heteroglossia is part of African American linguistic identity because the competing forces of the American experience and African heritage create a persistent tension within the African American psyche.

[65] Gates, ‘The Blackness of blackness’, p. 1001.

[66] Young, Postcolonialism, p. 142.

[67] Ibid., p. 23.

[68] Fanon, Black Skin, p.67.

[69] Jean-François Lyotard, ‘The Postmodern Condition,’ in The Narrative Reader, ed. Martin McQuillan (London and New York: Routledge, 2003), p.158.

[70] Ibid., p. 159.

[71] Ibid., p. 160.

[72] The experience of psychological fracturing endured by the black subject and identified by Fanon bears similarities with Harold Bloom’s theory of the anxiety of influence. Bloom argued that poets work under a constant burden of anxiety — a kind of psychic disorder — induced by their ambiguous relationship with their literary precursors. Poets are productively influenced by their precursors but must engage in a (typically futile) struggle to avoid producing work that is derivative and therefore weak.

[73] Foucault claimed that modern developments in the fields of psychoanalysis, linguistics and anthropology served to “decentre” the subject in relation to the laws of its desires, the forms of its language and the play of its imaginative discourse.

[74] Lodge, Consciousness and the Novel, p. 5.

[75] Lyotard, ‘The Postmodern Condition’.

[76] Roland Barthes, ‘The Death of the Author’, in Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader, ed. David Lodge and Nigel Woods (Harlow: Longman, 2008), p. 314: ‘writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin. Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where out subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost starting with the very identity of the body of writing.’

[77] Baudrillard’s theory of the hyperreal (which he described as ‘the map that precedes the territory’) is set forth in his essay ‘Simulacra and simulations’ (see bibliography).

[78] Darwin’s The Origin of the Species was first published in 1859.

[79] Indeed, postcolonial theorists have noted that Orientalist discourse tends to see the self of the other as unproblematic in contrast to the complex and thereby interesting Western self. It is this kind of essentialism that perpetuates the old stereotypes of Orientalist discourse: the noble savage; the licentious native woman.

[80] Thiong’o, ‘Decolonising the Mind’, p.1129.

[81] Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (London: Penguin, 2010), p. 10.

[82] Philip Stanley Rawson’s review of Things Fall Apart appeared in the June 1958 edition of the TLS.

[83] Achebe, Things Fall Apart, p. 45.

[84] Ibid., p. 28.

[85] Muriel Spark, ‘The Desegregation of Art’, in Critical Essays on Muriel Spark, ed. Joseph Hynes (New York: G.K Hall, 1972), p.35.

[86] Mulk Raj Anand, Untouchable (London: Penguin, 1940).

[87] Mulk Raj Anand, Coolie (New Delhi: Penguin, 1936).

[88] Martin McQuillan, ‘The Same Informed Air: An Interview with Muriel Spark’, in Theorizing Muriel Spark: Gender, Race, Deconstruction, ed. Martin McQuillan (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002), pp. 220.

[89] Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things (London: Flamingo, 1997).

[90] Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger (London: Atlantic Books, 2008).

[91] Annie E. Coombes, ‘The Recalcitrant Object: culture contact and the question of hybridity’, in Postcolonial discourse/postcolonial theory, ed. Francis Barker, Peter Hulme and Margaret Iverson (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1994), pp. 89–114.

[92] Cited in Gates, ‘The Blackness of blackness’, p. 998.

[93] Ibid., p.995.

[94] Salman Rushdie, ‘In Good Faith’, in Imaginary Homelands Essays and Criticism 1981–1991, (London: Vintage, 2010), p. 394.

[95] See for example, ‘The Social Construction of Race’, and “Interrogating Whiteness’, both in Literary Theory: An Anthology, ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan (Blackwell, 2009), pp. 964–974 and 975–986 respectively.

[96] Homi K Bhabha says the idea of nationness is a cultural construction with both narrative and psychological force in that it: ‘transfers the meaning of home and belonging, across the ‘middle passage,’ or the central European steppes, across those distances, and cultural differences, that span the imagined community of the nation-people.’ ‘DissemiNation: Time, Narrative and the Margins of the Modern Nation’, in The Narrative Reader, ed. Martin McQuillan (London and New York: Routledge, 2000), p. 291.

[97] Rivkin and Ryan, ‘English Without Shadows’, p.1073.

[98] Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), p. 1.

[99] Young, Postcolonialism, p. 142.

[100] Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands, p.17.

[101] In A Sense of an Ending, Kermode asserts that fictions that are not consciously held degenerate into myth and that myths are ritualistic; presupposing that there is a total and adequate explanation for the ways things are. The purpose of fictions on the other hand, is to find things out. Fictions are capable of change when the needs of sense-making demand change. They call for conditional assent.

[102] Coombes, ‘The Recalcitrant Object’.

[103] Ibid., p. 92.

[104] The coloniser’s dread of cultural mixing is depicted in Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies when the imprisoned Raja of Raskhali fights back against his jailers by speaking to them in English: ‘Neel saw that he had nettled him, simply by virtue of addressing him in his own tongue — a thing that was evidently counted as an act of intolerable insolence in an Indian convict, a defilement of the language.’ (p.302).

[105] Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, ed. Michael Holquist trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), p.294.

Thiong’o has described English language and literature as a means of ‘spiritual subjugation’ responsible for taking postcolonial authors, ‘further and further from ourselves to other selves, from our worlds to other worlds.’[1] In contrast, Rushdie says that English is not ‘irredeemably tainted by its cultural provenance,’[2] and is simply one of a number of Indian languages. Who is right and does it continue to matter?

In his ‘tryst with destiny’ speech to the Constituent Assembly of India on the eve of Independence, Jawaharlal Nehru said: ‘A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.’[3] Nehru identified the end of colonial rule as the moment India would find its voice and give utterance to its soul; the animating principle of the new nation comprised of the collective histories, memories and experiences of its people. Nehru delivered his speech in English — the language of India’s political and cultural elite but one that few of its 350 million inhabitants understood — thereby embodying the problem that has raged in postcolonial discourse ever since; in what language can and should the soul of a postcolonial nation express itself? In answering this question, every postcolonial author is making a freighted judgement; attempting to reconcile often conflicting practical, moral, political and aesthetic imperatives.

This essay will interrogate the opposing positions taken by Rushdie and Thiong’o and the different conceptualisations of place, self and language upon which each rests to provisionally conclude that, for the contemporary postcolonial writer, the significance of language must yield to the need to challenge any: ‘ontologizing image of home or of a homeland, [as] a proper place where a spuriously pure ethnos can authenticate itself.’[4]

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Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o wrote Weep Not, Child[5], the first novel in English to be published by an East African writer in 1964, as James Ngugi. Only after the publication of his second novel, A Grain of Wheat[6], in 1967 did he renounce English, Christianity, and his name becoming (or perhaps reverting to), Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o; a writer of stories and essays in Gĩkũyũ and Kiswahili. In order to write in his native language Thiong’o had to slough off his identity as James Ngugi — his other self in the context of the titular quotation — and become Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o; implicitly a more authentic self.

The word authentic derives from the Latin autos (self) and hentes (doer, being), thus to act on one’s own authority. Postcolonial writers writing in English have been accused of inauthenticity; that by choosing to write in a language once used as a tool of oppression, they are electing to see themselves filtered through the hegemonic memory of the colonizing centre and thereby acting on the authority of their former colonial masters; that they have in fact been co-opted by the West to act as cultural overseers[7]. Thiong’o’s most recent collection of essays, Something Torn and New[8], may be read as a clarion call to postcolonial African authors, whom he describes as the keepers of communal memory, to write in native languages rather than choosing to express these memories (which, as the site of dreams, desire, image and consciousness, are the carriers of African civilisation) in ‘foreign languages’ which can only be shared with, ‘the foreign owners of the languages or among themselves as a foreign-language-speaking elite.’[9] By working outside their linguistic memory, Thiong’o argues, postcolonial writers are distancing themselves from their history as felt experience and perpetuating ‘linguifam’[10]. He argues that the consequences of linguifam, which occurs when a language is: ‘deprived of the food, water, light, and oxygen of thought, and of the constant conceptualizing that facilitates forging of the new and renewal of the old,’[11] include the production of a native class dismembered from its social memory and native languages becoming sites of shame, trauma and defeat[12].

Thiong’o sees writing as an act of re-membering; if colonial domination, with language as its spear, sought to destroy the wholeness of the African subject in active engagement with her environment, then postcolonial writing should be a negation of that legacy; a reclamation of cultural production from its Europhone exile. It is with evident impatience that he describes the reaction his views have garnered amongst postcolonial writers: ‘indifference, hurt surprise … hostility …[they] have come up with arguments about the inadequacy of their own means of memory, or with clever … claims as to how borrowed means of memory can prove equally effective or even more effective.’[13]

Examples of the attitudes identified by Thiong’o may be traced from Yeats who, resigned to the linguicide of Gaelic, advocated for a national literature, Irish in spirit, but expressed in English,[14] to Achebe (who used Yeats’ words for the epigraph and title of his most famous work) who claimed that English, ‘will be able to carry the weight of my African experience,’[15] to Gabriel Okara, the Nigerian poet and novelist who asks: ‘why shouldn’t there be a Nigerian or West African English which we can use to express our own ideas, thinking and philosophy in our own way?’[16] and finally to Rushdie who, in perhaps the most radical expression of europhonism, asserts that, ‘to conquer English may be to complete the process of making ourselves free.’[17]

In his novel, Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie tells the story of identical twins; Saleem Sinai, the garrulous chief protagonist and narrator and the modern Indian nation. This fantastical conceit allows Rushdie, in magical realist mode, to reflect upon the recent history of India from partition and Independence to Mrs Gandhi’s Emergency. The magically endowed children of midnight reflect the geographic, linguistic, religious and cultural diversity of the new republic. When the child Saleem acts as a telepathic conduit allowing a virtual assembly of the gifted children to take place within his consciousness, he is inundated by a cacophony of voices. The inability of the children to listen to one another or to comprehend the nature and meaning of their gifts is a satire on the issues faced by India in its early statehood.

Rushdie explains that Midnight’s Children is concerned with, ‘the slippages and distortions of memory.’[18] For Thiong’o: ‘Memory and consciousness are inseparable. But language is the means of memory, or following Walter Benjamin, it is the medium of memory’.[19] It is in their attitudes towards memory, that one can see the origin of their disagreement with regard to the dynamic between postcolonial literature and European languages. For Rushdie, memory is an unreliable, patchy thing. Midnight’s Children is set in a hyper real Bombay populated by larger-than-life characters and depicted in sometimes surrealist terms. Although Bombay is the city of his birth and early life, Rushdie acknowledges that his rendering of it in fiction is necessarily false because he has been separated from the place by the passage of time and the process of migration. These phenomena have acted as filters upon his memory and whilst he initially sought to imagine himself beyond those filters, he finally surrendered to them and became interested in the process of filtration. Rushdie recognises that the process of filtration means that he will be incapable of reproducing Bombay as it was; that he will instead create: ‘imaginary homelands, Indias of the mind.’[20] Rushdie’s conceptualisation of memory in the context of fiction is echoed by Milan Kundera who believes literary fiction to be a compensation for the leakage of information: because we cannot hold onto the present in memory or reconstruct it in our imagination, we cleave to fictions which: ‘allow us vicariously to possess the continuum of experience in a way we are never able to in reality.’[21] Rushdie’s ‘Indias of the Mind’ are not authentic — in the sense that they are not faithful replicas of an original Bombay — and in this sense, one could argue that Rushdie has allowed himself to be taken to the ‘other worlds’ of Thiongo’s titular quotation. But the implication that these ‘other worlds’ are false; inauthentic, should be resisted. To think in terms of worlds and other worlds (for which one could read our world and their world), is to pander to the old binary oppositions of Orientalist discourse (self/other; occident/orient; metropolis/colony) whose function was to sustain the imbalance of power on which the colonial experiment depended.

To return to the quotations at the beginning of the preceding paragraph, Rushdie seeks to explore, ‘the slippages and distortions of memory,’ and memory for Thiong’o is actualised in language. In this way, Rushdie may be regarded as seeking to explore the slippages and distortions of language. Rushdie, like Achebe[22], takes the view that English can be remade to suit the postcolonial writer’s purpose. His intention in writing Midnight’s Children was to: ‘create a literary idiolect that allowed the rhythms and thought patterns of Indian languages to blend with the idiosyncrasies of “Hinglish” and “Bambaiya”, the polyglot street-slang of Bombay.’[23] An idiolect is the distinctive and unique use of vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation by an individual, in this case, Saleem Sinai. Saleem has his own unique voice, his own individual language, which is imbued with the rhythms and vocabulary of Indian languages including English. Rushdie describes the Bombay vernacular as polyglot; it is a language that is an amalgam of other languages in the same way that the new languages of Patois, Creole and Ebonics were formed from the re-membered fragments of African speech and grammar by diasporic Africans; linguicide, in this instance, giving rise to the birth of something new[24].

It would be hard to argue that Rushdie has not achieved what he set out to do. Here is Saleem Sinai describing his own birth:

The monster in the streets has already begun to celebrate; the new myth courses through its veins, replacing its blood with corpuscles of saffron and green. And in Delhi, a wiry serious man sits in the Assembly Hall and prepares to make a speech. At Methwold’s estate goldfish hang stilly in ponds while the residents go from house to house bearing pistachio sweet-meats, embracing and kissing one another — green pistachio is eaten, and saffron laddoo-balls…. And in all the cities all the towns all the villages the little dia-lamps burn on window-sills porches verandhas, while trains burn in the Punjab, with the green flames of blistering paint and the glaring saffron of fired fuel, like the biggest dias in the world.[25]

The monster in the streets is the crowd celebrating the birth of the new Indian republic, described ironically by Saleem as a ‘new myth’ but about to be described in lofty terms by Nehru, ‘the wiry serious man’, in his ‘tryst with destiny’ speech quoted at the beginning of this essay. The colours of the new Indian flag, saffron and green, are woven throughout the passage. They feature in the joyful offerings of pistachio sweets and in the conflagrations of partition that saw a million die; reminding us that the new India contains serenity and violence; still goldfish and burning trains. Methwold’s estate has been bought by Saleem’s parents from an Englishmen who mandated that the transfer take place at midnight and that all his possessions remain in the house. As the Indian inhabitants of Methwold’s estate settle in they begin to imitate the departed Englishman’s habits; drinking cocktails and affecting an English accent. Like the Indians of the new nation, Saleem’s parents must live with the physical reminders of the estate’s former owner which will continue to exert a powerful influence. Just after the quoted passage Saleem reveals he was switched at birth so that the family history he has been recounting is not, strictly, his own. In fact, his father is the Englishman, Methwold, and his mother a poor Indian woman who died in childbirth. But he asserts his rights as the ‘true’ son of Amina and Ahmed Sinai, creating and shaping his own narrative as he goes along. Hindi and English words are fused together (laddoo-balls, dia-lamps) to form a new lexicon and the grammar (for example, the absence of commas in ‘window-sills porches verandhas’ and the missing ‘ands’ in ‘in all the cities all the towns all the villages’) replicates the fast paced speech patterns of English-speaking Indians.

The vibrancy of this short passage, careening towards the birth of India and Saleem, drawing on two cultures for its rhythms and allusions, allegorising the postcolonial experience and interrogating the notion of truth, is testament to the success of Rushdie’s experiment with language and form. Ignoring Thiong’o’s warning, he has allowed himself to be taken to ‘other selves’ and ‘other worlds’ and has revelled in the tumultuous journey. It is hard to conceive of Midnight’s Children as the creative output of someone whose spirit has been subjugated as Thiong’o alleges.

Returning again to the earlier quote in which Thiong’o claims that: ‘Memory and consciousness are inseparable,’ we might ask whether some of the shortcomings of postcolonial writing identified by Thiong’o (which for ease we may summarise as inauthenticity), may stem from the inadequacies of language — any language — as a means to portray consciousness. In Thiong’o’s schema, the communal memory bank of the African people equates to an African consciousness that must be expressed in an African language. But consciousness, collective or individual, is something that language is ill-equipped to represent. The task of understanding the world comes down to the problem of language as aphorised by Wittgenstein: ‘the limits of my language are the limits of my world.’[26] The linear form of words on a page works against the representation of the random and multiple way in which life is actually experienced and perceived. In addition, human consciousness is essentially self consciousness[27]; phenomenal experience a first person matter. How then to use language to represent the oxymoron of a collective consciousness? Derrida asserts that the nature of language means all discourse is full of gaps and contradictions with no stable, recuperable meaning. Instead, the meaning of a text is produced in the act of criticism through a process of play. Wresting meaning from a text requires its deconstruction; a thoughtful unravelling of language and an active engagement with it. This contrasts with the process of re-membering — a painstaking reassembling of something sacred — that Thiong’o calls for.

As a champion of indigenous languages, Thiong’o is reluctant to acknowledge that all languages (not just those of a former colonial power) are: ‘contaminated by previous usage, saturated with ideology, class associations and history.’[28] In failing to interrogate the evolution of indigenous languages and the structures of oppression they enshrine, there is a risk of falling prey to the essentialism of the benign Western observer; the liberal inversion of Orientalism. English, as Rushdie points out in Commonwealth Literature Does Not Exist[29], is just one of a number of Indian languages and, since the 1980s, the greatest contention regarding language in India pertains to the hegemony of Hindi. Some contemporary Indian writers, for example the Guajarati Suresh Joshi, have chosen to write in their regional languages as an act of defence of native Indian languages under threat from Hindi. In the context of the broader discourse of postcolonialism it is Hindi that is under threat from English but this should not obscure other linguistic struggles playing out on the subcontinent.

In addition to the structures of oppression enshrined within each native language, there is the further issue of their multiplicity. In what language should the African soul express itself when, to consider just two of Africa’s fifty three countries, South Africa has eleven official languages[30] and sixty nine languages are spoken within Kenya[31]. At the end of Something Torn, as an afterthought, Thiong’o acknowledges the problem. His proposed solution is the establishment of a continent-wide programme of mass, state-sponsored translation. This pan-African initiative would see texts produced by diasporic Africans in European languages translated into African languages and texts produced in one African language translated into other African languages. He does not interrogate the geo-political or economic factors that render such a proposal unrealistic neither does he consider the ethics and biases of translation.[32] However, his belief in translation as a tool capable of ushering in an African cultural renaissance provides a useful point of departure for this essay which will now consider translation in all its manifestations — linguistic, cultural and psychological — pertaining to the dialectic that this essay seeks to conduct. It can be said of postcolonial writers who move from their country of origin to another country (often the former ‘mother’ country) that they have been ‘translated’ and therefore a discussion of translation requires a discussion of the significance and function of place for postcolonial writers. This resonates with Thiong’o’s warning to the postcolonial writer not to allow herself to be taken by a foreign language to ‘other worlds’ which we can read to mean inauthentic places.

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The word ‘translation’ derives from the Latin translatus meaning carried over and, having been used in the Middle Ages to describe the removal of a saint’s body or relics to a new place, is imbued with notions of place and the sacred. According to Derrida: ‘if there is something untranslatable in literature (and, in a certain way, literature is the untranslatable), then it is sacred.’ [33] Implicitly then, by translating a text and purporting to carry the cultural memories stored within it from an originary language to a foreign one, one is also desacralizing it. This gestures towards a flaw in Thiong’o’s schema. Thiong’o’s view is that postcolonial African writers should portray African experience idiomatically in a native language in order to produce a text that is the authentic expression of the African cultural memory bank; a sacred (and, following Derrida, untranslatable) work. If the truth embodied within an authentic African text cannot be parcelled up and sent across the language barrier then what are the implications for Thiong’o’s vision of a pan-African translational utopia? To attempt to rescue Thiong’o’s argument by claiming that translation between African languages does not ‘count’ (i.e. does not compromise the authenticity of the original text), is to yield to the master trope of Orientalism — essentialism — because such an argument rests on the belief that all African languages are fundamentally the same and are all equally capable of conveying an homogenised ‘African’ truth. There is a danger that the political rally cry, ‘I am an African’[34] — a call for unity and a statement of pride — can become, in the artistic and cultural arena, a stymieing denial of difference.

According to Walter Benjamin translation is not, ‘the sterile equation of two dead languages’ but instead a task, ‘charged with the special mission of watching over the maturing process of the original language and the birth pangs of its own.’[35] Here, translation (which Derrida describes paradoxically as both impossible and necessary) is framed as a potent site where the post-structuralist implications of language can be explored; a hyphen showing us the difference between the effable and the ineffable where even failures are revealing, drawing attention as they do to what is untranslatable and making us question why that should be. Spivak, herself a noted translator, has said: ‘The translator earns permission to transgress from the trace of the other — before memory — in the closest places of the self.’[36] This paradigm of translation: an equivocal space wherein language can be interrogated through a process of play, may be said to apply to postcolonial literature, a corpus generated by authors necessarily acting as cultural translators.

Having translated his own poems and songs from Bengali to English, Tagore became disenchanted with the possibilities of translation. He wrote in a private letter:

I ought never to have intruded into your realm of glory with my offerings hastily giving them a foreign shine and certain assumed gestures familiar to you. I have done thereby injustice to myself and the shrine of [the] Muse which proudly claims flowers from its own climate and culture. There is something humiliating in such an indecent hurry of impatient clamouring for one’s immediate dues in wrong times and out of the way places.[37]

Tagore suggests that his poems, having adopted ‘assumed gestures’ in translation, had become lesser objects. He suggests that, as the translator of his own works, he has debased himself by ‘clamouring’ for approbation from a foreign (Western) audience. His use of the phrase ‘out of the way places’ echoes Thiong’o’s ‘other worlds’. Tagore suggests that the Muse can only operate within the ‘culture and climate’ (which must include language) of the author: precisely the position taken by Thiong’o.

Tagore’s wholly negative view of translation softened in later years but his words are interesting in that they reveal his sense of shame at having desacralised his own work; of having, in contemporary parlance, ‘sold-out’. Tagore was writing in the context of the translation of poetry, a medium which Lodge has suggested represents mankind’s most successful attempt to define qualia (the specific nature of our subjective experience) through the use of metaphor and simile and one that is therefore highly resistant to successful translation.[38]

The process of colonialism has been described by Young as, ‘translational dematerialization’[39]; a form of translation whereby an indigenous culture is subordinated to a colonial regime and subjected to the apparatus of colonial rule. The typical hierarchy of translation as applied to literary texts — an original version created by an artist and an inferior copy produced by a functionary[40] — is inverted by the act of colonisation. The colonial copy is extolled as an improvement upon a defective and inferior indigenous original. However, the colonizing power inevitably encountered aspects of indigenous culture that were untranslatable — in Derrida’s conceptualisation — the sacred. It is this part of the culture that remained immune to ‘civilisation’ (to use the pejorative Orientalist term). The concept of ‘double-voicedness’ expounded by Henry Louis Gates in relation to black writing intersects with this discussion of attempts to translate metropolitan culture into (or perhaps onto), indigenous culture. Gates explains that the way in which black texts engage with white canonical discourse whilst still expressing a black consciousness renders them ‘two-toned’. These texts, written by the descendants of diasporic Africans (themselves carried over, or translated, across the Atlantic as part of the Middle Passage), undermine the essentialism of hegemonic white discourse notwithstanding that they are written in English. Similarly, Angela Smith writes in relation to Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea and Naipaul’s The Mimic Men: ‘The presence of the colonial other imitating the white male colonizer disrupts the authority of the colonizer’s language, and [reveals] an inherent absurdity in the colonial enterprise.’[41] The dissembling playfulness at work in Midnight’s Children is a further example of the disruption of, ‘the authority of the colonizer’s language’. Rushdie shows that language, like memory, is subject to, ‘slippages and distortions’; it is not stable and authoritative. Midnight’s Children, like a Trojan horse, satirises and challenges the discourse of imperialism from within, so that the act of writing in English becomes one of empowerment (the ‘final stage of setting ourselves free’ as Rushdie has said) rather than, as Thiong’o would have it, one of subjugation.

Translation, whether of a text or a people, is a political act. Someone is translating something or someone which means someone or something is being turned from subject to object. One of the first acts in any colonial enterprise is to translate important indigenous texts into the language of the colonizer. This often entails transforming oral cultures into written ones which serves as a mechanism for controlling access to culture (the illiterates, the peasants, the subalterns find their own culture withheld from them and are thereby doubly-othered). In the same way, places and geographical features are renamed or translated — an act of appropriation and power. Sacred places in colonies could not be translated into metropolitan terms whilst retaining their essence; their spirituality, so instead, ‘the [indigenous] landscape is blanketed with European memory of place.’[42]

Let us consider the role of India as place in some of Rushdie’s writing. Rushdie notes that the demand for authenticity (in the sense of faithfulness to an original) from postcolonial writers is predicated on the existence of a pure, unalloyed tradition to be faithful to[43]. This impetus has led, inter alia, to India, the place and the culture, being defined in exclusively Hindu terms. This conceptualisation sees Muslim culture being dismissed as ‘mughal’; the culture of a foreign invader and therefore imperialistic and inauthentic. In The Riddle of Midnight[44], Rushdie asks whether ‘India’ actually exists. He points out that in the whole history of ‘India’ there has never been a unified country with one ruler so that paradoxically, in 1947, something that never existed was set free. Rushdie refers to India’s fifteen major languages and lack of a common race, religion or culture to support his view that: ‘There can be no one way — religious, cultural or linguistic — of being an Indian, let difference reign.’[45] Rushdie reveals that the aim of authenticity is misguided because there is no one simple truth of India or Indianess that a writer can reveal, challenge or pay homage to. The cult of authenticity that seems to demand of postcolonial writers that they deliver up a stereotypical version of Africanness or Indianess that is palatable to a western sensibility is a reductive imperative; a blend of essentialism and its heir, exoticism. Literature that panders to this conception of, ‘the European … [as] a watcher, never involved, always detached, always ready for new examples of … “bizarre jouissance”,’ makes of the Orient, ‘a living tableau of queerness.’[46]

Rushdie’s view that the concept of ‘India’ is indefinable is endorsed at a geo-political level as all official maps of India bear the following legend: ‘The government of India states that the external boundaries of India are neither correct nor authenticated’[47]. Once again, the discussion returns to questions of authenticity. Here, on a literal level, the accuracy of the physical boundaries of India the nation are identified as the subject of disputation. One could also give an existentialist reading to the legend (itself an evocative term in the context of this discussion). If the boundaries are neither correct nor authentic, do they even exist? If they do not, or if no one really knows where they belong, then in what sense is ‘India’, the physical place, real? Perhaps India is nothing more than an ‘imaginary homeland’ after all. This idea is picked up by Young who notes that although the facticity of a nation is established by its borders, creating as they do physical limits which produce a space in which a nation’s ‘infrastructional machinery’ can operate,[48] it may be that a nation is given meaning by the, ‘nostalgic cultural imaginings’[49] of those people who, as part of diasporas, move beyond its borders. It is on these cultural imaginings’ that the myth of the nation — Rushdie’s ‘imaginary homelands’ — rests.

There is a point in Midnight’s Children where the themes of memory and place intersect. Having endured repeated migrations and wars Saleem experiences amnesia. He only recovers his memory following exile in the jungle of Sundarban. The Sundarbans is an ancient mangrove forest; a real place that may be located on a map. It is as if Saleem must return to a primeval place; an authentic place, to regain his memory and thereby his self. Despite their prehistoric status and their actuality, the Sundarbans still resist authoritative classification. The forest covers part of West Bengal (a state in eastern India) and Bangladesh. Bangladesh was formerly part of British India becoming ‘East Pakistan’ at the time of partition and, in 1971 after a war of independence, emerging into its current incarnation as Bangladesh. So Saleem’s attempted return to a stable place of origin; somewhere outside the man made complications of war and migration, is shown to be misguided. Like all other categories, place resists determinate meaning.

Buell[50] contends that in contrast to the environment (the physical world that exists outside the writer), place is constituted by both geographical/topographical locale and by how the writer places herself. Buell emphasises that place is subjectively felt and place consciousness — being mindful that every body occupies a bounded physical space — provides a check to the Heideggerean notion of the objective self. Buell cites Melville’s Ishmael from Moby Dick by way of illustration: ‘it is not down in any map; true places never are.’ The discourse of eco-writing to which Buell contributes, echoes the way in which Rushdie situates himself in relation to place. Rushdie acknowledges that his fictions offer, ‘imaginary homelands … Indias of the Mind,’ because his memories of India have been filtered by the process of time and migration. They have also been filtered by his consciousness and will further be filtered by the consciousness — the subjectivity — of each reader. His ‘Indias of the Mind’ are therefore not, ‘down in any map’ but they are no less ‘true places’ for that fact. In her introduction to Out of India, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala echoes the idea that a more interesting aspect of place in literature is its role in construction of the writing subject: ‘I am no longer interested in India. What I am interested in now is myself in India.’ This statement implies that Prawer Jhabvala’s self ‘in India’ is different to her self in an alternate location; that locale can change or translate the subjectivity of the author.

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Achebe’s claim (see page 24 below) that English, with its own ancestry, can provide a rich mechanism for revealing African experience, is developed and given a more contemporary expression by Rushdie who says, in relation to postcolonial Indian writers: ‘those peoples who were once colonized by the language are now rapidly remaking it, domesticating it, becoming more and more relaxed about the way they use it … carving out large territories for themselves within its frontiers.’[51] In his introduction to the 2005 edition of Midnight’s Children, Rushdie acknowledges his debt to the oral narrative traditions of India and to, ‘those great Indian novelists, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens.’[52] Rather than simply claiming his entitlement to cite the Victorian novelists as his literary precursors by dint of his identity as a postcolonial Indian, Rushdie applies the adjective ‘Indian’ to them. By appropriating the culture of the Mother country for his own purposes he is reversing the colonial dynamic; he is doing the naming. But how can these producers of the archetypal English novel, not born in India nor with any connection to the geographical place, be described as ‘Indian’? For Rushdie, Dickens’ Indianness lies in his rendering of London; a fetid yet beautiful, terrifying yet magical place depicted via a chaotic democracy of styles — surrealism, fantasy and social realism — a hyper real place that provided Rushdie with a template for his own Bombay. Likewise, Austen’s intelligent and ambitious women have their counterpart in Rushdie’s Indian heroines who must live similarly circumscribed lives as the currency in an economy ran by men. Rushdie does not allow himself to be taken to ‘other selves’ or ‘to other worlds’ by his English literary precursors; he is not anglicised; instead Dickens and Austen are Indianicised.

Dickens’ comic novels were considered by Bakhtin to be good examples of heteroglossia or ‘many-voicedness’. The function of heteroglossia is to disrupt purportedly authoritative discourse by stratifying language into its many constituent voices: ‘social dialects, characteristic group behavior, professional jargons, generic languages, languages of generations and age groups, tendentious languages, languages of the authorities, of various circles and of passing fashions.’[53] In this way words are shown to be at war with themselves and, as seen in Rushdie’s novels (in particular Midnight’s Children with its riotous, disembodied assembly of the children of midnight), subject to ‘slippages and distortions’.

In his introduction to The Satanic Verses Rushdie talks of repossessing the ‘poisoned wells’ of English’[54]. The metaphor reveals the intractability of the problem of language for even if, in the postcolonial era, Indians now own the well, it remains contaminated. Rushdie gestures towards the predicament; a facet of the classic postcolonial double bind[55], in the titular quotation by stating that English is not ‘irremediably tainted,’ — it is, implicitly, still tainted. V. S. Naipaul ironises a similar problem — the fact that English, as the authoritative medium of expression in postcolonial countries, is accompanied by a ‘normative but alien mythology,’[56] in A House for Mr Biswas. The eponymous hero, a man of Indian ancestry living in Trinidad[57], is required by the Ideal School of Journalism, based in London, to write about English seasons that he has never experienced. He describes this experience as leaving him ‘stumped’. His feelings of confusion are expressed in an imported idiom. Like Thiongo’s African child cited below, Mr Biswas is made to survey himself from outside and his own society, linguistically dependent on the coloniser, reveals itself as provisional, shallow and without history. As Boehmer observes: ‘the once-colonized country … needs its writers to supply the imaginative coherence that was undermined during colonial times.’[58] This ‘imaginative coherence’ is what Thiong’o argues will be supplied by, ‘the resurrection of African memory,’[59] which, in his view, requires literary production in native languages.

Thiong’o’s theory of the resurrection of African memory via the reclamation and celebration of native languages was influenced by Franz Fanon. In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon argued that psychological damage caused by colonial domination had produced a divided black subject[60]. It is of this same experience (the damage inflicted to the indigene’s sense of self) that Spivak writes: “If you are constructed in one … language, what kinds of violence does it do to your subjectivity … to move into another language, and suppress whatever selves or subjectivities were constructed by the first.’[61] This argument rests on the hypothesis of linguistic relativity[62] which provides that because linguistic categories and usage determine non-linguistic behaviours, speakers of different languages conceptualise and experience the world differently, i.e. language is not simply nomenclature that provides labels for pre-existing categories but instead generates its own categories. Spivak argues that it is an act of epistemic violence for a postcolonial subject to be compelled to speak a language they were not constructed in. This is echoed by Thiong’o who describes the experience of the African child being schooled in English as, ‘being made to stand outside himself to look at himself’[63] and is also evident in W.E.B. DuBois concept of the ‘double-consciousness’[64] of the African American: ‘always looking at oneself through the eyes of others’. [65] This kind of double perspective was said by Fanon to give rise to psychological fracturing wherein colonial subjects, finding themselves the object of a deriding metropolitan gaze, internalised that derision and came to regard themselves as lesser; other until, finally, actively desiring ‘whiteness’. Similarly, Thiong’o charged the English language with breaking the harmony between life as experienced by Kenyan peasant communities and the written word resulting in the uncomfortable experience of thought taking the visible form of a foreign language. Young uses the term metempsychosis to describe Fanon’s conception of the fractured black subject[66]. The word originates in Greek (meta, expressing change, en meaning ‘in’ and psukhē meaning ‘soul’) and refers to the transmigration of the soul, especially the passage of the soul after death from a human or animal to another human or animal body; hence, a process of translation. Zimbabwean novelist, Tsitzi Dangarembga describes her experience of this process as: ‘a nervous condition of ambivalence, uncertainty, a blurring of cultural boundaries, inside and outside, an otherness within.’[67] Fanon’s objective as a psychiatrist was to retranslate colonial subjects. By appropriating the concept of translation, with its usual connotation of translation of a text from one language to another, Fanon reminds us of the centrality of language to the way in which we perceive ourselves: ‘A man who has a language consequently possesses the world expressed and implied by that language.’[68] Spivak and Fanon would seem to support Thiong’o’s contention that writing in Europhone languages is responsible for taking postcolonial authors away from their own selves, ‘to other selves.’ Support for Thiong’o’s view can also be found outside the largely self-confirmatory world of postcolonial theorists as discussed in the next paragraph.

In The Postmodern Condition, Lyotard describes narration as: ‘the quintessential form of customary knowledge.’[69] He credits narration, which, for purposes of this discussion, we can think of simply as storytelling, as the force which bestows legitimacy on social institutions and values; the criteria through which a community understands its relationship to itself and its environment. According to Lyotard, people serve the purpose of actualising narratives either by recounting them (as narrator) listening to them (as narratee) or recounting themselves through them (i.e. by putting themselves into play via an act of diegesis). Lyotard contends that the posts of sender (which we can take to mean storyteller), addressee and hero are double-grounded meaning that the right to occupy the role of sender is based:

upon the fact of having occupied the post of addressee, and of having been recounted oneself by virtue of the name one bears, by a previous narrative — in other words, having been positioned as the diegetic reference of other narrative events.[70]

Postcolonial writing in non-native languages disrupts this schema by effacing the natives (the non-elite majority in postcolonial countries who do not speak a European language). These natives are not recounting narratives (i.e. they are not the senders) and whilst they may be the subjects of the narratives, they are not narratees, i.e. they are not the intended audience of postcolonial texts (at least not of the ‘original’ text although they may have access to the text in translation). By writing in a ‘foreign’ language for an international audience, the postcolonial author would seem to have frustrated the very purpose of narrative which, according to Lyotard is to, ‘define what has the right to be said and done in the culture in question.’[71]

This experience of psychological rupture is not however unique to the postcolonial subject[72]. Since the end of the Enlightenment, the ‘I’ of western hegemonic discourse has suffered the multiple blows of Darwinism, psychoanalysis and cognitive theory and consequently has been radically decentred[73]. The fallacy of the ghost in the machine has been revealed: there is no transcendent immaterial soul and the individual consciousness is merely, ‘an epiphenomenon of brain activity.’[74] Shaken out of its solipsism, the Western self turned outside of itself in search of the locus of meaning only to find that Nietzsche had proclaimed the death of God (the ultimate ‘I’), the grand narratives had been debunked by Lyotard[75] and even the Author (who may have served as an acceptable God substitute) was also, courtesy of Barthes, dead.[76] Postmodernism, with its emphasis on intertextuality and parody, questions the very notions of origin, identity and presence, even blurring the distinction between signifier and signified; representation and simulation.[77] Consequently, since the middle of the nineteenth century,[78] all writers, not just postcolonial writers, have been writing against a backdrop of encroaching uncertainty; existential doubt. Thiong’o’s exhortation to postcolonial writers not to allow themselves to be taken to ‘other selves’ by language — implicitly to remain within their authentic selves constructed in native languages — is therefore misguided as it incorrectly posits the existence of a fixed, knowable and transcendent self.[79]

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In addition to the political implications of writing in English, Thiong’o argues that inauthenticity arises on an aesthetic level because English, as an alien language imposed upon indigenes, did not evolve in symbiosis with the lives of those forced to speak it. As a result the language does not contain the tools — the syntax, vocabulary, grammar and bank of rhetorical figures — to elucidate the particular reality of, for example, the Kenyan peasant. In contrast, Achebe claimed that: ‘a new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit new African surroundings,’[80] would be the best medium in which to express the African experience. This essay has argued that Midnight’s Children satisfies its author’s expressed ambitions to explore and challenge the distortions of language and memory whilst also succeeding aesthetically. Rushdie indulges in linguistic playfulness without sacrificing veracity (within the world of the novel that he has created) and fluidity. The same cannot consistently be said of Achebe’s seminal work, Things Fall Apart, which reads in places like a work of anthropology rather than literature: ‘Okonkwo … had a large compound enclosed by a thick wall of red earth. His own hut, or obi, stood immediately behind the only gate in the red walls. Each of his three wives had her own hut, which together formed a half moon behind the obi.’[81] When Achebe attempts to reveal the lives of Okonkwo and his clan to us in passages such as the following, one cannot help but feel that, contrary to the view of The Times Literary Supplement at the time of publication that the novel, ‘genuinely succeeds in presenting tribal life from the inside’[82], we are in fact being held at one remove from the lives being portrayed and that it is language itself that is the barrier.

At last the two teams danced into the circle and the crowd roared and clapped. The drums rose to a frenzy. The people surged forwards. The young men who kept order flew around, waving their palm fronds. Old men nodded to the beat of the drums and remembered the days when they wrestled to its intoxicating rhythm.[83]

This passage fails to convey the excitement of a long anticipated tribal wrestling tournament. Instead of a ‘new English’ we have cliché, with drums rising to ‘a frenzy’, a crowd ‘surging’ forwards and ‘intoxicating’ rhythms. The clapping of the assembled throng seems like a description of an African event rendered through a foreign consciousness and even the concepts of ‘teams’ and ‘keeping order’ are Western imports. When Achebe has the peasants in his novel speak English, the exchanges seem stilted as in the following passage where Okonkwo is reprimanded by a priest for beating his wife during a designated week of peace:

You know as well as I do that our forefathers ordained that before we plant any crops in the earth we should observe a week in which a man does not say a harsh word to his neighbour… you have committed a great evil.[84]

The language is idiomatically English (‘you know as well as I do’) and Achebe sacrifices realism by using the priest as a mouthpiece to explain Ibo rituals ostensibly to Okonkwo but in fact for the benefit of his Western readership. The result is heavy-handed English that, even without speaking an African language, a reader can instinctively tell does not reflect the rhythms nor inflections of the natural speech patterns of African tribes people speaking their own dialects. The Foucauldian assertion that supposedly basic categories (such as sex) are in fact produced by discursive practices seems to be manifest in these quotations. If the practices of Ibo peasant life do not simply exist to be described but are in fact produced by and in the native language of that community then it is inevitable that the attempt to portray the lives of that community in a foreign language will result in passages within the text such as those cited that seem stilted and inauthentic.

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In 1970 Muriel Spark noted that the depiction of suffering in art had ceased to be illuminating: ‘the art of pathos is pathetic, simply; and it has reached a point of exhaustion.’[85] Spark’s view was that the mere production of political content in a novel, for example a victim-oppressor narrative written to expose the tyranny of racial injustice, no longer constituted engagement. Spark advocated satire and ridicule (which she defined as something more committed than irony and more cutting than satire) as the mode of intelligibility best suited to offer an account of the political. In the nineteen thirties Mulk Raj Anand portrayed the plight of the lowest classes of Indian society in Untouchable[86] and Coolie[87] via a form of didactic social realism that can also be seen in Achebe’s work. Although effective at the time of publication in raising awareness of the cruelties of the caste system and the negative impact of European colonisation in Africa, this mode may, in Spark’s words, have reached ‘a point of exhaustion’. Spark was calling for something more nuanced to stand out from what McQuillan has termed the ‘noise of mediatic pseudo activity’[88] that represents the current political environment. Rushdie’s newly independent upper class Indians sipping cocktails amongst an Englishman’s abandoned possessions whilst trains filled with people burn, is perhaps the kind of ridicule that Spark had in mind. A similar ruthless mockery can be seen in Roy’s The God of Small Things[89] when Baby Kochamma fines her seven year old niece and nephew, Estha and Rahel, each time she overhears them speaking Malayalam and forces them to write ‘I will always speak English’ one hundred times. Similarly, the series of letters Balram Halwai writes to Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao, in Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger[90] boasting of how, as the son of a rickshaw puller, he murdered and bribed his way into the Indian middle class, is classic Sparkian ridicule steeped in a dark humour. Spark’s emphasis on the importance of the mode of intelligibility speaks to the argument this essay conducts in suggesting that the manner in which the postcolonial author seeks to engage with the political, in whatever language, is the most significant imperative. Coombes[91] makes a distinction between the Modernist art of collage (which articulates dialectical tensions whilst retaining the fractures) and Postmodern bricolage (which reproduces the tensions as free flowing confusion and flux; reproducing the qualities of collage whilst smoothing over the fractures) and it is perhaps the subtlety of bricolage that is needed from postcolonial authors now as opposed to the didacticism of early postcolonial works such as Things Fall Apart and Untouchable where the fractures are in such evidence.

Henry Louis Gates’ has written about the Signifying Monkey — a metaphor for one who dwells at the margins of discourse; the punning and reversing trickster figure and mediator. Like Spark’s use of ridicule as a mode of intelligibility, the practice of signifying involves indirect argument and persuasion; modes of figuration. Signifying encompasses the master tropes of metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche and irony to become what Gates calls, ‘the slave trope’ or ‘the trope of tropes’[92]. According to Gates, Zora Neale Hurston’s work exemplifies the practice of signification, containing a hidden polemic described by Bakhtin as follows:

The other speech act remains outside the boundaries of the author’s speech, but it is implied or alluded to in that speech … the author’s discourse brings a polemical attack to bear against another speech act, another assertion, on the same topic.[93]

By privileging the representation of the speaking black voice Hurston’s fiction embody just such a challenge to hegemonic discourse revealing that it is possible to assimilate Western culture and language without being deracinated by it. Hurston turns her knowledge of American culture and the African American experience of slavery, segregation and prejudice against the structures of oppression. Thiong’o’s advocacy of native languages fails to acknowledge marginalised writers, such as Hurston, who succeeded in challenging their status as othered in the language of their oppressors.

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Rushdie claims the most crucial dynamic within The Satanic Verses is hybridisation. He explains that it was: ‘written from the very experience of uprooting, disjuncture and metamorphosis … that is the migrant condition … from which … can be derived a metaphor for all humanity.’[94] This emphasis on migrancy and metamorphosis — of one thing becoming another and the provisionality of place inherent in the migrant condition — is a negation of the stasis that underlies Thiong’o’s project of re-membering. The categories of postcolonial subject, place and language are each sites of disputation prone to ‘slippages and distortions’ such that any attempt to ­re-member them; to write the authentic Indian or African soul dismembered by colonialism, is an exercise in absurdity. It has been convincingly argued that, rather than a collection of mutually exclusive and objectively verifiable ethnic divisions, race is no more than a social construction[95] and that the concept of the nation is a collection of myths propagated for political expediency[96]. Rivkin and Ryan provide a neat summary:

‘Supposedly stable equations of place, ethnos, and national political institution are imaginary constructs which displace displacement by substituting for the history of permanent migratory dislocation an ontologizing image of home or of a homeland, a proper place where a spuriously pure ethnos can authenticate itself.’[97]

In addition, and as discussed above, the subject, having endured centuries of assaults has lost even the illusion of integrity or know-ability. Consequently, inbetween-ness has come to be a major trope of contemporary cultural production. The frontier, both as a physical boundary (creating places and imposing limits) and a psychological imperative (the desire for advancement and progress), surrenders to the leitmotif of the border; a provisional division that can be crossed and re-crossed many times; a meeting place. It is the liminality of the border in both senses of the word — an object in a state of transition and one that exists on both sides of a boundary — that is what the successful contemporary postcolonial writer seeks to explore.

In this cultural climate, Thiong’o’s advocacy of re-membering — the exaltation of some mythic pre-lapsarian African-ness unsullied by the divisions and violence of colonisation, seems a misguided project. European colonialism was a brief epoch in Africa’s long history and was far from the only organised violence written on the continent. At the same time the African soul cannot be cauterised of the colonial experience and any attempt to do so is to negate the triumphs of resistance; the adaptability and creativity of the African diaspora that gave rise to the negro spiritual, jazz, blues, soul and the literature of the Harlem Renaissance. Like India, Africa the place, resists a final meaning. It comprises a collection of ‘nations’ (whatever may be understood by that label) that are cartographic constructions hastily drawn up in the ruling chambers of post-war Europe. To imbue the idea of ‘Africa’ — this European fiction — as a point of origin and meaning, an authentic place to be re-membered, is spurious.

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Kristeva’s description of l’abjet as a state of total exclusion where one is neither subject (self) nor object (other) but: ‘one of those violent, dark revolts of being … Unflaggingly, like an inescapable boomerang, a vortex of summons and repulsion places the one haunted by it literally beside himself,’[98] is strikingly similar to both Thiong’o’s description of the African child being made to stand outside himself to look at himself and Fanon’s psychologically translated indigenes. Interestingly, the experience of ek-stasis (standing outside), or of being taken over or transported, forms part of the mythology of ecstasy as the informing principle of creativity. This privileged state of ecstasy requires of its possessors that they stand outside themselves; that they occupy a marginal position which one might think of as translated person. This state of ek-stasis, a pre-requisite for ecstatic creativity, arguably finds its most absolute embodiment in the migrant: ‘Having translated themselves, migrants then encounter … other translated men and women, other restless marginals, and translate their experience to each other to form new languages of desire and affirmation: circuits of activism, circuits of desire.’[99] These ‘new languages’ transcend the old categories of indigenous versus Europhone and may be thought of as modes of intelligibility; forms of engagement that Spark has termed ridicule; exercises in bricolage or as the liminal space wherein the ‘slippage and distortions’ of language and memory can be fruitfully explored.

Rushdie said: ‘having been borne across the world, we are translated men’[100] and his work is an exploration and celebration of his condition as a translated man. Rushdie rejects what Rivkin and Ryan term the ‘imaginary constructs’ of ‘India’ and ‘Indianess’ in favour of the consciously held fictions[101] of his ‘imaginary homelands’ and ‘Indias of the Mind’. In Rushdie’s view, there is no need to write in a native language because there is no nation to lionise or defend or reconstruct and, if even if there were, English, as one of a number of Indian languages, is up to the task. This view that the ‘translated person’, the ‘restless marginal’, the person standing outside themselves, occupies a privileged position, is supported by Young who asserts that nomadism and migration — typically portrayed within Western hegemonic discourse as transgressive modes of existence; incomprehensible contraventions of contemporary social codes — are, in fact, productive forms of cultural identity. Identity for the nomad or migrant, is not, according to Young, derived exclusively from family and place (and one could add that neither is it derived exclusively from language). Instead, for these ‘restless marginals’, identity is constructed via creative perfomativity; something that Rushdie’s novel’s enact.

Whilst this essay tends toward the view that Rushdie’s attitude to the English language and his own marginalised/translated status, is the more appropriate one for the contemporary postcolonial writer as compared to Thiong’o’s, it is necessary to heed Annie E. Coombes’[102] warning about the postmodern tendency to uncritically champion hybridity. Coombes interrogates hybridity as a cultural concept in her essay concerning Western metropolitan art exhibitions and the curatorial tendency since the 1980s to display transculturated objects in an uncritical way which threatens to:

collapse the heterogeneous experience of racism into a scopic feast where the goods on display are laid out for easy consumption [without challenging or exposing] the ways in which such difference is constituted and operates as a mechanism of oppression.[103]

In this way, Coombes argues, the hybridised object becomes a fetish onto which is displaced the West’s continued anxiety over miscegenation — the fear that the integrity of English culture is under threat from cultural mixing.[104]

This essay concludes with a quotation from Bakhtin that offers a resolution of sorts to the opposing positions represented by Rushdie and Thiong’o:

The word in language is half someone else’s. It becomes one’s “own” only when the speaker populates it with his own intentions, his own accent, when he appropriates the word, adapting it to his own semantic and expressive intention. Prior to this moment of appropriation, the word does not exist in a neutral and impersonal language… but rather it exists in other people’s mouths, in other people’s contexts, serving other people’s intentions; it is from there that one must take the word, and make it one’s own.[105]

Bakhtin states that a, ‘word in language is half someone else’s,’ which supports Thiong’o’s argument that a Europhone word is not the property of the postcolonial African writer. Rushdie would perhaps not take issue with this having acknowledged that the English language is ‘tainted’ (albeit not irredeemably) and something of a ‘poisoned well’. Rushdie’s essays reveal his agreement with Bakhtin’s next statement that when the author takes possession of a word and bends it to his own ‘semantic and expressive intention,’ he exerts his power, his victory even, over those words. This essay has sought to argue that Rushdie has succeeded in stealing the words of the English language from ‘other people’s mouths’ (those of the former colonial power) and remaking them his own in a polyphonic celebration of the, ‘slippages and distortions’ of language, memory, place and identity.

Advocacy of native languages in formerly colonised countries is surely sociologically and culturally worthwhile. However, Thiong’o’s insistence on their artistic primacy is part of his wider philosophy of re-membering the African subject. It is this underlying objective which, resting as it does on factitious notions of African identity and place, is a retrograde undertaking; a misguided quest for nonexistent authenticity. In implicitly rejecting hybridity in favour of static and monolithic conceptions of Africa and Africanness, Thiong’o is less able than writers like Rushdie to speak to the contemporary and universal experience of dislocation and translation in all its manifestations.

Word Count: 11,000

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[1] Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, ‘Decolonising the Mind’, in Literary Theory: An Anthology, ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan (Blackwell, 2009), p.1132.

[2] Salman Rushdie, ‘“Commonwealth Literature” Does Not Exist’, in Imaginary Homelands (London: Vintage, 2010), p. 64.

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tryst_with_Destiny

[4] Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan, ‘English Without Shadows: Literature on a World Scale’, in Literary Theory: An Anthology, ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan (Blackwell, 2009), p.1073.

[5] Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Weep Not Child (New York: Penguin, 2012).

[6] Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, A Grain of Wheat (London: Penguin, 2002).

[7] For example, John Sutherland writes in 50 literature ideas you really need to know: ‘The best known and best-selling post-colonial writers are necessarily indentured to Anglo-American publishers … What does it mean when writers of impeccable post-colonial sentiment such as V.S. Naipaul, or Salman Rushdie, go down on their knee, to be dubbed knight by the English Queen.’ (161).

[8] Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Something Torn and New: An African Renaissance (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2009).

[9] Thiong’o, Something Torn, p. 56.

[10] A term coined by Thiong’o to refer to the linguistic deprivation suffered by African languages on the African continent as a result of Europhonism amongst the cultural elite. Amongst diasporic Africans, African languages have died — linguicide — largely as a result of the upheavals of the slave trade and the plantation system.

[11] Thiong’o, Something Torn, p. 19.

[12] Thiong’o makes an interesting parallel between postcolonial Africa and Renaissance Europe. Impelled by the success of a vernacular bible, Europe was able to throw off Latin as the vehicle of intellectual life and the languages of English, Spanish, German et cetera ceased to be regarded as raw and crude; not up to the task of expressing a scientific or literary thought.

[13] Thiong’o, Something Torn, p. 41. (When Thiong’o refers to ‘means of memory’ he is referring to ‘langauge’.)

[14] In his 1892 essay, ‘The De-Anglicising of Ireland,’ Yeats wrote: ‘Can we not keep the continuity of the nation’s life … by translating or retelling in English, which shall have an indefinable Irish quality of rhythm and style, all that is best of ancient language’. Cited in Yeats’ Poetry, Drama and Prose, ed. James Pethica (Norton, 2000), p.261.

[15] Thiong’o, ‘Decolonising the Mind’, p.1129.

[16] Ibid., p.1130.

[17] Salman Rushdie, ‘Imaginary Homelands’, in Imaginary Homelands (London: Vintage, 2010), p. 17.

[18] Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children (London: Vintage, 2006), Intro p.xii.

[19] Thiong’o, Something Torn, p. 40.

[20] Rushdie, ‘Imaginary Homelands’, p. 10.

[21] David Lodge, Consciousness and the Novel (Secker & Warburg, 2002), p. 31.

[22] See Achebe quotation on page 24 of this essay.

[23] Rushdie, Midnight’s Children, Intro. xii.

[24] Zora Neale Hurston said: ‘the American Negro has done wonders to the English language …. [H]e has made over a great part of the tongue to his liking and has [had] his revision accepted by the ruling class.” Cited in Thiong’o, Something Torn, p. 48.

[25] Rushdie, Midnight’s Children, pp.154–5.

[26] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe (Oxford: Blackwell, 1979).

[27] W.E.B. DuBois expressed the view that the American world yielded the Negro, ‘no true self-consciousness.’ Cited by Henry Louis Gates in, ‘The Blackness of Blackness: A Critique of the Sign and the Signifying Monkey’, in Literary Theory: An Anthology, ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan (Blackwell, 2009), pp. 994.

[28] John Sutherland, 50 literature ideas you really need to know (Quercus, 2011), p.142.

[29] Rushdie, ‘Commonwealth Literature’.

[30] Zulu, the first language of 22.7 per cent of the population, Xhosa (16 per cent), Afrikaans (15.5 per cent) and English (13.5 per cent), with the remainder speaking one of the following first languages: Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Sotho, Swazi, Tswana, Tsonga and Venda. (Data taken from the 2011 census.)

[31] www.ethnologue.com.

[32] Thiong’o’s vision is altogether more utopian: ‘The success of such restoration would depend on a creative partnership among the writer, the translator, the publisher, and the government…[S]uch a partnership should be a conscious Africa-wide movement, an African restoration project calling for a grand alliance of publishers, translators, financiers, and governments.’ Something Torn, p.126.

[33] Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle, An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory (Harlow: Longman, 2009), p. 197.

[34] Taken from a speech by Thabo Mbeki as deputy president of South Africa in a statement on behalf of the African National Congress delivered in May 1996 when the Constitution Bill was adopted.

[35] Walter Benjamin, ‘The Task of the Translator’, in Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader, ed. David Lodge and Nigel Woods (Harlow: Longman, 2008), p. 75.

[36] Gayatri Spivak, Outside in the Teaching Machine, New York (New York and Abingdon: Routledge, 1993), p. 200.

[37] From the letters of Rabindranath Tagore quoted in Song Offerings (Gitanjali) trans. Joe Winter (London: Anvil Press, 2000), p. 19.

[38] Lodge, Consciousness, pp. 10–16.

[39] Robert J.C. Young, Postcolonialism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), p.140.

[40] As with all typologies this view of translation is flawed. There are many instances of translations of such artistic merit that the work enjoys a life of its own independent of the originating text. For example, The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, Edward FitzGerald’s translation of a selection of poems, originally written in Persian and attributed to Omar Khayyám, a Persian poet, mathematician and astronomer.

[41] Bennett and Royle, An Introduction to Literature, p. 248.

[42] Thiong’o, Something Torn, p.8.

[43] Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands.

[44] Salman Rushdie, ‘The Riddle of Midnight: India, August 1987’, in Imaginary Homelands (London: Vintage, 2010), pp. 26–36.

[45] Salman Rushdie, ‘The Assassination of Indira Gandhi’, in Imaginary Homelands (London: Vintage, 2010), p. 44.

[46] Edward Said, ‘Crisis (in Orientalism)’, in Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader, ed. David Lodge and Nigel Woods (Harlow: Longman, 2008), p. 375.

[47] Young, Postcolonialism, p. 59.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Young, Postcolonialism, p.63.

[50] Lawrence Buell, ‘Place’, in Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader, ed. David Lodge and Nigel Woods (Harlow: Longman, 2008), pp. 665–691.

[51] Rushdie, ‘Commonwealth Literature’, p.64.

[52] Rushdie, Midnight’s Children, p. xii.

[53] M.M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981). p.262–263.

[54] Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses, (London: Vintage, 1988).

[55] Nationalist, postcolonial and black writers expressing their desire for independence or asserting their actual independence or negritude, in the language of the coloniser/oppressor.

[56] Elleke Boehmer, Colonial and Postcolonial Literature: Migrant Metaphors (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p.169.

[57] Dennis Walder notes that V.S.Naipaul’s own identity (the grandson of indentured labourers from India, sent to Trinidad to replaced freed African slaves as plantation workers) was entirely constructed in acts of European colonialism. See bibliography.

[58] Boehmer, Colonial and Postcolonial Literature, p.169.

[59] Thiong’o, Something Torn, p. 121.

[60] ‘As I begin to recognise that the Negro is the symbol of sin, I catch myself hating the Negro. But then I recognise that I am a Negro.’ Franz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Charles Lam Markmann (London: Pluto Press, 2008), p.54.

[61] Gayatri Spivak, ‘Questions of multiculturalism,’ in Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader, ed. David Lodge and Nigel Woods (Harlow: Longman, 2008), p. 600.

[62] This theory has its origins in the work of Wilhelm von Humboldt, a Prussian philosopher and linguist of the early nineteenth century but is more commonly associated with early twentieth century linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf.

[63] Thiong’o, ‘Decolonising the Mind’, p.1135.

[64] In Bakhtin in African American Literary Theory (see bibliography), Dorothy Hale argues that DuBois’, ‘double consciousness’ is similar to Bakhtin’s notion of heteroglossia (as discussed above). Hale says that heteroglossia is part of African American linguistic identity because the competing forces of the American experience and African heritage create a persistent tension within the African American psyche.

[65] Gates, ‘The Blackness of blackness’, p. 1001.

[66] Young, Postcolonialism, p. 142.

[67] Ibid., p. 23.

[68] Fanon, Black Skin, p.67.

[69] Jean-François Lyotard, ‘The Postmodern Condition,’ in The Narrative Reader, ed. Martin McQuillan (London and New York: Routledge, 2003), p.158.

[70] Ibid., p. 159.

[71] Ibid., p. 160.

[72] The experience of psychological fracturing endured by the black subject and identified by Fanon bears similarities with Harold Bloom’s theory of the anxiety of influence. Bloom argued that poets work under a constant burden of anxiety — a kind of psychic disorder — induced by their ambiguous relationship with their literary precursors. Poets are productively influenced by their precursors but must engage in a (typically futile) struggle to avoid producing work that is derivative and therefore weak.

[73] Foucault claimed that modern developments in the fields of psychoanalysis, linguistics and anthropology served to “decentre” the subject in relation to the laws of its desires, the forms of its language and the play of its imaginative discourse.

[74] Lodge, Consciousness and the Novel, p. 5.

[75] Lyotard, ‘The Postmodern Condition’.

[76] Roland Barthes, ‘The Death of the Author’, in Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader, ed. David Lodge and Nigel Woods (Harlow: Longman, 2008), p. 314: ‘writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin. Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where out subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost starting with the very identity of the body of writing.’

[77] Baudrillard’s theory of the hyperreal (which he described as ‘the map that precedes the territory’) is set forth in his essay ‘Simulacra and simulations’ (see bibliography).

[78] Darwin’s The Origin of the Species was first published in 1859.

[79] Indeed, postcolonial theorists have noted that Orientalist discourse tends to see the self of the other as unproblematic in contrast to the complex and thereby interesting Western self. It is this kind of essentialism that perpetuates the old stereotypes of Orientalist discourse: the noble savage; the licentious native woman.

[80] Thiong’o, ‘Decolonising the Mind’, p.1129.

[81] Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (London: Penguin, 2010), p. 10.

[82] Philip Stanley Rawson’s review of Things Fall Apart appeared in the June 1958 edition of the TLS.

[83] Achebe, Things Fall Apart, p. 45.

[84] Ibid., p. 28.

[85] Muriel Spark, ‘The Desegregation of Art’, in Critical Essays on Muriel Spark, ed. Joseph Hynes (New York: G.K Hall, 1972), p.35.

[86] Mulk Raj Anand, Untouchable (London: Penguin, 1940).

[87] Mulk Raj Anand, Coolie (New Delhi: Penguin, 1936).

[88] Martin McQuillan, ‘The Same Informed Air: An Interview with Muriel Spark’, in Theorizing Muriel Spark: Gender, Race, Deconstruction, ed. Martin McQuillan (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002), pp. 220.

[89] Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things (London: Flamingo, 1997).

[90] Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger (London: Atlantic Books, 2008).

[91] Annie E. Coombes, ‘The Recalcitrant Object: culture contact and the question of hybridity’, in Postcolonial discourse/postcolonial theory, ed. Francis Barker, Peter Hulme and Margaret Iverson (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1994), pp. 89–114.

[92] Cited in Gates, ‘The Blackness of blackness’, p. 998.

[93] Ibid., p.995.

[94] Salman Rushdie, ‘In Good Faith’, in Imaginary Homelands Essays and Criticism 1981–1991, (London: Vintage, 2010), p. 394.

[95] See for example, ‘The Social Construction of Race’, and “Interrogating Whiteness’, both in Literary Theory: An Anthology, ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan (Blackwell, 2009), pp. 964–974 and 975–986 respectively.

[96] Homi K Bhabha says the idea of nationness is a cultural construction with both narrative and psychological force in that it: ‘transfers the meaning of home and belonging, across the ‘middle passage,’ or the central European steppes, across those distances, and cultural differences, that span the imagined community of the nation-people.’ ‘DissemiNation: Time, Narrative and the Margins of the Modern Nation’, in The Narrative Reader, ed. Martin McQuillan (London and New York: Routledge, 2000), p. 291.

[97] Rivkin and Ryan, ‘English Without Shadows’, p.1073.

[98] Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), p. 1.

[99] Young, Postcolonialism, p. 142.

[100] Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands, p.17.

[101] In A Sense of an Ending, Kermode asserts that fictions that are not consciously held degenerate into myth and that myths are ritualistic; presupposing that there is a total and adequate explanation for the ways things are. The purpose of fictions on the other hand, is to find things out. Fictions are capable of change when the needs of sense-making demand change. They call for conditional assent.

[102] Coombes, ‘The Recalcitrant Object’.

[103] Ibid., p. 92.

[104] The coloniser’s dread of cultural mixing is depicted in Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies when the imprisoned Raja of Raskhali fights back against his jailers by speaking to them in English: ‘Neel saw that he had nettled him, simply by virtue of addressing him in his own tongue — a thing that was evidently counted as an act of intolerable insolence in an Indian convict, a defilement of the language.’ (p.302).

[105] Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, ed. Michael Holquist trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), p.294.

Sheila Chapman

Written by

Lawyer; writer; school governor; trustee & IMB member for HMP Pentonville. Fabian Women's Network mentee and part of 2016 Jo Cox Women in Leadership scheme.