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So what is the connection between East African and experimental writing? Inspired by Clifton Gachagua’s love of the Beats, I reread On the Road by Jack Kerouac.

Kerouac was from a French-Canadian family, living in the United States. He grew up speaking a local language—the French-Canadian dialect of joual. He did not speak English fluently until he was six years old (in other words, when he needed it for school). One can imagine he went through a school-enforced change of language similar to that experienced by many Kenyans.

The introduction to the Penguin Classics edition quotes a critic from Québec, Maurice Poteet, who feels that “Kerouac’s heroic efforts” to find his own language and technique of spontaneous prose “was a way to deal with bilingualism—the riddle of how to assimilate his first and most spontaneous language, joual, into a colloquial, American prose style.” The wordplay, the 120-foot-long continual scroll of manuscript that let Kerouac write the first draft in a blind fervour, and the language experiments permitted him “to build bridges to and from a number of inner and local realities which might not otherwise ‘become’ American at all.”

In other words, spontaneous writing and effect are one answer, at least, to an ethnic situation that in many ways resembles the ‘double bind’ of psychology: if a writer cannot be himself in his work (a minority background) he is lost; if he becomes an ‘ethnic’ writer he is off on a tangent …

—Ann Charters quoting Maurice Poteet, Textes de L’Exode. Guérin littérature, 1987 from her introduction to On the Road, Penguin Modern Classics Kindle edition

Nothing can be proved, but it seems to me likely that East African writers are experiencing a similar linguistic stress.

If so, similar forces might be driving the urge to experiment. Some of the writers echo the Beat/Byronic/Wild Boys lifestyle as well. “I want hallucinogens,” said one of these authors with a smile. The writing shows no sign of needing them.

What is happening in Nairobi is a synthesis that learns from the stories and languages of local people, from science fiction, from experimental and literary Western fiction, and from new technology.

Back in London, I talked with visiting South African scholar Brenda Cooper, who nailed it for me:

“Referring to the stories that your grandmother tells you is another coded language. It is a gesture writers make to the inheritance of the wisdom of the past. It sounds like what you’re getting in Nairobi is a fusion, a syncretic form. Writers take inspiration from many different sources and domesticate them and make them fit for their own artistic purpose.”

The next question is—why don’t West African writers also empathize with the Beats and experimental writing? Nigeria, the home of Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, has anything from two hundred to four hundred or even more languages. Despite this linguistic stress, Nigerian literature is by and large classical in both language and form. Nigeria produced Fela Kuti, but his influence on prose fiction seems minimal.

The final instalment of this series will visit Nigeria, where most African SFF writers live. It will talk with the founders of the African SFF magazine Omenana. Other instalments will interview writers and artists in Uganda and Malawi, and explore that other giant of African SFF, South Africa. Skype will reach more isolated writers in Rwanda and elsewhere, and at some point the series will publish results of a questionnaire of African SFF writers and readers.

Next, however, will be interviews with the diaspora in the UK.

(Return to 100 African Writers of SFF)

(Return to Part One: Nairobi)

(Continue to Part Two: Writers in the U.K. (to be published 2 March 2017))



Geoff Ryman is Senior Lecturer in School of Arts, Languages and Cultures at the University of Manchester. He is a writer of short stories and novels, and science fiction and literary fiction. His work has won numerous awards including the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, the Arthur C. Clarke Award (twice), the James Tiptree Jr. Memorial Award, the Philip K. Dick Award, the British Science Fiction Association Award (twice), and the Canadian Sunburst Award (twice). In 2012 he won a Nebula Award for his Nigeria-set novelette "What We Found." His story "Capitalism in the 22nd Century" is part of Stories for Chip, edited by Bill Campbell and Nisi Shawl and published by Rosarium.
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