Black Women Be Like: An Interview with Andiswa Maqutu

Andiswa Maqutu describes herself as a pan-Africanist and feminist. She is the author of Black Women Be Like and the founding curator of the eponymous series that consists of stories, poetry, visual and audio art to be produced by black African women from around the continent. Whether exploring a lesbian couple in South Africa, or travelling around Asia as a black woman, Andiswa’s writing is a magnificent lens that captures so much of what it means to exist, on one level as a relational human being, and on another, as a black woman negotiating societal tensions. What could become a futile exercise in double consciousness instead becomes a work of art and genius in Adiswa’s hands. The ABR had a brilliant chat with Adiswa about Black Women Be Like and more.

 

Andiswa Maqutu

ABR: What inspired Black Women Be Like?

MAQUTU: Black Women Be Like-The Book, was inspired by my experiences as a woman who is black. It was driven by the conflict I had with my lived experience as a black woman in the 21st century, and the stories I had read and watched about black African women in short stories, books, films and music videos.

I believe the way to get a nuanced story about any people, is for those people to tell their authentic stories themselves. Even in stories that are purely from the imagination and may never take place in this realm, an authenticity needs to be tapped into. And if a storyteller wants to venture into the experiences of another person, she should do the necessary research.

But I struggled to find stories about women who looked like me and had similar conflicts to mine, even though I had read many stories about black women, especially African women. I mainly saw four recurring typecasts of black African women in the creative literature I read; the struggling, mystical and asexual grandmother raising her many grandchildren while dishing out pearls of wisdom or curses to strangers, the [perceived] oversexed jezebel who sleeps with army generals or older men to survive, the educated professional who is rude and proud, and the meek but passive aggressive black Muslim girl.

In her paper titled, Mammy, Jezebel, Sapphire and Their Homegirls: Developing an “Oppositional Gaze” Towards the Images of Black Women, Dr Carolyne West explores these stereotypes in American media and how they have narrowly evolved over the years. And I realized that it is not a problem unique to black women on the African continent, while the recurring stereotypes are sometimes the lived experiences of black women, particularly in Africa’s developing nations, they are not the only images of black women that exist. So I wrote the anthology with the intention to share stories of my experiences as a young black middle-class woman in South Africa.

Black Women Be Like-The Movement, was inspired by my desire to get other black African women writing their own stories, to get the nuanced story of the black African woman.

ABR: What was the process of writing the collection? Are they based on your experiences or on those of other people and was there any emotional/ personal journey that occurred as you confronted and wrote about these issues?

MAQUTU: The process turned out to be more emotional and conflicted than I had imagined. I usually carry a little black book to write down story ideas and experiences that I can explore in the form of short stories or poetry, so I can capture the emotion of each moment in the moment, so I had a list of potential stories and decided to choose the experiences that were closest to me for good and bad reasons.

I had intended to title the book When Black Women Speak for Themselves, because I felt that was what I was doing as a black woman who had been written about and yet had never seen her stories told. But I felt that title was too loaded and would distract from the content of the book, so I decided on Black Women Be Like, playing on the memes circulating social media and perpetuating stereotypes about black women.

I also wanted to shy away from exploring themes and experiences that presented new haughty extremes to combat existing stereotypes about black women. It was more important for me to share stories that were close to me, authentic and I could write well.

So the process of writing the book was me wrestling with trying to creatively write out my experiences using the characters in the book to explore internal conflicts, and worrying about how the book would be perceived because I am a woman who is black and aware of it. And I could have easily been labeled a number of things including angry black woman and/or using empowered black African women in my stories as a feminist trope and gimmick.

Each story has at least one of my experiences. The first and last stories titled My Favourite Aunt and Kulula Izila, are both inspired by my mother and her sisters, who have been my opinionated and empowered role models. .

The story When the Jacarandas Had Begun Rotting was inspired by friends who are lesbian and by the events and brutality against lesbians in South Africa and on the continent. I wanted to explore some of the forgotten ways black women are oppressed and how they fight back, love and are loved. I had my friends read the story to ensure I hadn’t explored it from the point of view of heterosexual privilege.
Out of Africa, is about my experiences and thoughts on my trips overseas during 2014. I was really emotional transferring that piece from my little book into a short story because the experience of the racism and otherness was fresh. I could still remember sitting on a bench outside the Ayasofya in Turkey, with people watching and pointing at me. On my visit to Istanbul, I experienced, for the first time, the kind of racism that made me fear for my life.

ABR: There’s a thread of dissonance that runs through the collection, especially in the essay titled Out of Africa. Dissonance between how the protagonist is perceived based both on her gender and skin color, which is different from how she perceives her own self as a human being. Do you think that dissonance is reflected in black women today? And with regards to the dichotomy between how the protagonist sees herself vs. how the world sees her, is there any point in trying to reconcile both viewpoints? Is there a stage when one should be more important than the other? And is there a way to utilize both to one’s advantage?

MAQUTU: There is definitely that dissonance reflected in black women, and particularly young black women right now. And that’s one of the conflicts that I experience as a young black woman that I feel is not explored enough in creative writing, even by black women writers.

Black women are an acute reflection of how perceptions about both race and gender have changed very little, and where those perceptions have evolved, they have only evolved narrowly.

Black men are grappling with a similar conflict to what white people and previous oppressors of black people are; that these people (women and black people) who were supposed to keep quiet and do as they were told, now want to exercise their right to control their own actions and also have opinions about the status quo…as equals.

Continue reading “Black Women Be Like: An Interview with Andiswa Maqutu”

A Powerful Essay on Being A Black Woman: An Excerpt from ‘Black Women Be Like’ by Andiswa Maqutu

Out of Africa

The brave ones, or their nosy children, come closer to look over your shoulder and walk off muttering and giggling. But you keep yourself on display, because you hope the more of you they see, the more of you they will believe is actually human.

Their nosiness reminds you of the girls who ran to you at Guangzhou airport chanting something in Mandarin between excited smiles and squeals. You remember how they grabbed and touched your dreadlocks. You remember how one of the girls pulled out her cellphone and typed something on it with small pale hands. You watched as the slits she had for eyes read something on the screen and then she said, “You hair pretty”

“Is that a translator on your phone?” you asked her, moving your head around, trying to dodge the pats from her friend’s hand.

“She like your hair,” the girl repeated her meaning, pointing at her friend, who was still excitedly trying to touch your dreadlocks. You remember how you were disarmed. How you smiled and let her examine your hair. Were you condoning the common ownership of a black woman‟s hair or was that a display of tolerance?

You wonder if tolerance and not treating people who look different as if they were zoo animals, is a product of education and exposure to the world. But then you think of the rich American brats at the summer camp you ran in Kinetikit during your gap year. Who, when you tried to show them how to do an activity or tell them it was lights out, would say, “Shut up! You‟re from Africa; I don‟t have to listen to you”. And you remember how the camp organisers told you to smile, because for some reason you just weren‟t smiling enough, or you would ruin a teenager‟s summer.

You remember walking in the Ayasofya, its marble floors wrinkled and painfully etched with the memory of earthquakes. Overlooking you were ancient paintings of Christianity and Islam, side by side. You struggled to connect with a history that did not include your people, who may have been despised at the time. But you were drawn by the symbolism of religious tolerance and coming together in painful earthquake times. You longed for a racial tolerance and you wondered where this tolerance was lost. So you thought that maybe you were being hard on them. I mean, maybe you stared the first time you saw white or Indian women. Maybe you tried to grab the locks of her silky hair.

The ships below sail your mind from your notebook to Lagos. To memories of a visit where you felt you belonged. You are ashamed now of the pride you felt when you basked in compliments about how you were a lighter shade of black; “Are you South African or Kenyan?” they asked. “South Africans are beautiful, not dark like us”. But out here, brown is all the same. There is no yellow-bone privilege. It does not matter the shade. You miss seeing black women wearing their copper and brown Peruvian and Brazilian weaves and big black afros, walking into a hotel in Lagos. You miss seeing the birthday girl, wearing a pink sash with the words “Miss Lagos” stitched across it, wearing a long black dress that ran its material over every visible and secret curve of her body. You miss watching her walk into the hotel and command a table of the best French Champagne to celebrate her 21st birthday. You miss her friends‟ short mini-skirts and printed peplums. You miss how some of them wore dresses and pants made of “African print” fabrics. You miss the way some of them wore the latest trends hot off the pages of the latest magazines and not seeming any less African. You miss the way the whole restaurant would stare at each one walking in, one after the other, with stares that were not threatening or loathing or ashamed, but appreciative and often curious.

You miss the way Lagos girls looked at you; sized up your hair and make-up by whatever standard they liked on that day, and walked off feeling more beautiful. The way they did not care that you looked foreign.

You miss measuring the size of their ass against yours, and sometimes coming up short. You miss watching women of your colour commanding appreciation from all kinds of women and men in ways that were not taboo. You feel superficial, as you miss having your beauty measured against your own kind.

Because yesterday, you took a selfie outside a store called “Gratis” in Istanbul, and giggled that everything in the store must be free, with the two blonde Afrikaans girls and the red haired male tourist with you on the trip. When you reviewed the selfie you felt like you stuck out repulsively among them. Then a group of young Turkish looking men told the other girls how pretty they were as they annoyed them with their advances. While you stood awkwardly aside, trying not to be seen, but wanting desperately to be noticed.

You wondered when you loathed yourself so much.

You are nostalgic. You miss hearing Kabelo‟s “Ngicela ukuhamba nawe” and singing along to the words. You wonder if it is okay, even for black men, to sing that way about black women‟s‟ bodies. But you are too desperate for home and belonging to care. A stranger‟s back that presses against your own as they take a picture of the ships sailing across the bay startles you back into the present. Maybe they didn‟t mean to, but it‟s the first physical contact you have had with a stranger on this trip. Maybe the display is working. Maybe their fear and ignorance is beginning to wear off, you think. But then you sneeze, once, and then again. And a third time too many. You are reaching for your purse, reaching for some tissues. And they begin to move away in panic. After a few sneezes, your hay fever has failed you. The café owner walks over to let know “No Ebola allowed here.” You try to explain that‟s it‟s an allergic reaction to the rose bed behind you. He tells you he doesn‟t speak English. He tells you to leave…in English.

And then walks off.

You are the dark brand face of a hemorrhagic disease some three thousand kilometres away because you sneezed. Suddenly you fear your own display. The stares are no longer curious. They are no longer excited. No one is taking pictures. Some are moving away slowly, more of them briskly. Some are standing just staring at you. Challenging. You are afraid. You are alone. You think of the reports you read about restaurants and shops in Thailand and Korea with signs at their doors reading “No Africans”, an uninformed fear, or precaution, that all black people suffer from Ebola. You think back to your trip to Mozambique and are convicted by how you kept your distance from the local people, out of a fear of contracting malaria. Or when you joked with friends about making sure you don‟t befriend anyone from anywhere “north of the Zambezi River” until “this Ebola thing” blows over.

You stand up to leave. They grab their children and dash off in different directions. You are left with the cries of those children reaching for your eardrums from distant places you can‟t see, and then slipping until faint and no more. You are alone, except for a few men who stayed behind. Their eyes are threatening. You move forward to leave. They remain stationed. You swear you see another smile. You see another caressing your skin and your behind with his eyes. The same way that store manager did when you ran back to spend the last of your last Turkish Lira on those sunglasses. Or the Chinese men whose eyes followed you as you walked down the beach on Hainan Island. Or when you were shopping downtown for cheap souvenirs in Sao Paulo. Or walked into the hotel elevator in Madrid. Those men who, when you caught them staring at you, would quickly look away, offended. Not out of respect for you, but from the self-damning shame of finding you attractive. Those scare you, because you don‟t know how dark their fantasies of exploring a dark woman might be.

You push through the remaining men, the last kick of your dying display. One of them grabs your arm and twists it. He mutters something and the others laugh. They move closer. He moves his grip from his arm to your face. He holds your chin between his thumb and index finger. His eyes are a muddy green covered by a hanging forest of dark eyebrows. His olive skin is weathered; maybe from drinking, definitely from smoking, as he breathes foreign words laced with tobacco onto your face and the others laugh, again.

His face is analysing your skin; like fine cocoa granules moulded into a face. You struggle from his grip only to walk into more grips; from different hands, because a black woman‟s body is for common ownership. On every visible and secret curve of your body. You struggle, and struggle some more to keep the glass sheets over your eyes from shattering into stinging tears. You are saving them to stain your pillow with muddy foundation. You struggle until you break away.

And now you sit in your hotel room nursing the bruised brown of your skin. It will never turn into a pale shade of white. You think about the interview on the talk radio station back home, about why it is not okay to mock black women‟s bodies. You remember the emotional voice of the woman who called in describing the struggles she had with the voluptuous body that carried her. You remember the men who called in saying it did not matter what anyone thought or said or did, and she should be proud of her body. The glass sheets over your eyes do not shatter. If people only get a certain amount of tears to cry about one thing, you‟ve long used up your ration. You resolve to go and report the men to the police, even though you don‟t believe it will make a difference.

But you will keep yourself on display, because you hope the more of you they see, the more of you they will believe is actually human.

 

Black Women Be Like by Andiswa Maqutu | Buy the Book | READ OUR INTERVIEW WITH ANDISWA MAQUTU HERE

Andiswa Onke Maqutu | 2014 |  B00OM907TO

The African Writer and the English Language | Chinua Achebe

Chinua Achebe

In June 1962, there was a writers’ gathering at Makerere, impressively styled: “A Conference of African Writers of English Expression.” Despite this sonorous and rather solemn title, it turned out to be a very lively affair and a very exciting and useful experience for many of us. But there was something which we tried to do and failed—that was to define “African literature” satisfactorily.

Was it literature produced in Africa or about Africa? Could Af­rican literature be on any subject, or must it have an African theme? Should it embrace the whole continent or south of the Sahara, or just black Africa? And then the question of language. Should it be in indigenous African languages or should it include Arabic, English, French, Portuguese, Afrikaans, and so on?

In the end we gave up trying to find an answer, partly—I should admit—on my own instigation. Perhaps we should not have given up so easily. It seems to me from some of the things have since heard and read that we may have given the impression of not knowing what we were doing, or worse, not daring to look too closely at it.

A Nigerian critic, Obi Wali, writing in Transition 10 said: “Perhaps the most important achievement of the conference … is that Af­rican literature as now defined and understood leads nowhere.”

I am sure that Obi Wali must have felt triumphantly vindicated when he saw the report of a different kind of conference held later at Fourah Bay to discuss African literature and the university curriculum. This conference produced a tentative definition of African literature as follows: “Creative writing in which an Afri­can setting is authentically handled or to which experiences orig­inating in Africa are integral.” We are told specifically that Con­rad’s Heart of Darkness qualifies as African literature while Graham Greene’s Heart of the Matter fails because it could have been set anywhere outside Africa.

A number of interesting speculations issue from this definition, which admittedly is only an interim formulation designed to pro­duce an indisputably desirable end, namely, to introduce African students to literature set in their environment. But I could not help being amused by the curious circumstance in which Conrad, a Pole, writing in English could produce African literature while Peter Abrahams would be ineligible should he write a novel based on his experiences in the West Indies.

What all this suggests to me is that you cannot cram African literature into a small, neat definition. I do not see African lit­erature as one unit but as a group of associated units—in fact the sum total of all the national and ethnic literatures of Africa.

A national literature is one that takes the whole nation for its province and has a realized or potential audience throughout its territory. In other words, a literature that is written in the national language. An ethnic literature is one which is available only to one ethnic group within the nation. If you take Nigeria as an example, the national literature, as I see it, is the literature written in English; and the ethnic literatures are in Hausa, Ibo, Yoruba, Efik, Edo, Ijaw, etc., etc.

Any attempt to define African literature in terms which over­look the complexities of the African scene at the material time is doomed to failure. After the elimination of white rule shall have been completed, the single most important fact in Africa in the second half of the twentieth century will appear to be the rise of individual nation-states. I believe that African literature will follow the same pattern.

What we tend to do today is to think of African literature as a newborn infant. But in fact what we have is a whole generation of newborn infants. Of course, if you only look cursorily, one infant is pretty much like another; but in reality each is already set on its own separate journey. Of course, you may group them together on the basis of anything you choose—the color of their hair, for instance. Or you may group them together on the basis of the language they will speak or the religion of their fathers. Those would all be valid distinctions, but they could not begin to account fully for each individual person carrying, as it were, his own little, unique lodestar of genes.

Those who in talking about African literature want to exclude North Africa because it belongs to a different tradition surely do not suggest that black Africa is anything like homogeneous. What does Shabaan Robert have in common with Christopher Okigbo or Awoonor-Williams? Or Mongo Beti of Cameroun and Paris with Nzekwu of Nigeria? What does the champagne-drinking upper-class Creole society described by Easmon of Sierra Leone have in common with the rural folk and fishermen of J. P. Clark’s plays? Of course, some of these differences could be accounted for on individual rather than national grounds, but a good deal of it is also environmental.

I have indicated somewhat offhandedly that the national lit­erature of Nigeria and of many other countries of Africa is, or will be, written in English. This may sound like a controversial statement, but it isn’t. All I have done has been to look at the reality of present-day Africa. This “reality” may change as a result of deliberate, e.g., political, action. If it does, an entirely new situation will arise, and there will be plenty of time to examine it. At present it may be more profitable to look at the scene as it is.

What are the factors which have conspired to place English in the position of national language in many parts of Africa? Quite simply the reason is that these nations were created in the first place by the intervention of the British, which, I hasten to add, is not saying that the peoples comprising these nations were in­vented by the British.

The country which we know as Nigeria today began not so very long ago as the arbitrary creation of the British. It is true, as William Fagg says in his excellent new book, Nigerian Images, that this arbitrary action has proved as lucky in terms of African art history as any enterprise of the fortunate Princess of Serendip. And I believe that in political and economic terms too this ar­bitrary creation called Nigeria holds out great prospects. Yet the fact remains that Nigeria was created by the British—for their own ends. Let us give the devil his due: colonialism in Africa disrupted many things, but it did create big political units where there were small, scattered ones before. Nigeria had hundreds of autonomous communities ranging in size from the vast Fulani Empire founded by Usman dan Fodio in the north to tiny village entities in the east. Today it is one country.

Of course there are areas of Africa where colonialism divided up a single ethnic group among two or even three powers. But on the whole it did bring together many peoples that had hith­erto gone their several ways. And it gave them a language with which to talk to one another. If it failed to give them a song, it at least gave them a tongue, for sighing. There are not many countries in Africa today where you could abolish the language of the erstwhile colonial powers and still retain the facility for mutual communication. Therefore those African writers who have chosen to write in English or French are not unpatriotic smart alecks with an eye on the main chance—outside their own countries. They are by-products of the same process that made the new nation-states of Africa.

You can take this argument a stage further to include other countries of Africa. The only reason why we can even talk about African unity is that when we get together, we have a manageable number of languages to talk in—English, French, Arabic.

The other day I had a visit from Joseph Kariuki of Kenya.  Although I had read some of his poems and he had read my novels, we had not met before. But it didn’t seem to matter. In fact I had met him through his poems, especially through his love poem Come Away My Love, in which he captures in so few words the trials and tensions of an African in love with a white girl in Britain:

Come away, my love, from streets

Where unkind eyes divide

And shop windows reflect our difference.

 

By contrast, when in 1960 I was traveling in East Africa and went to the home of the late Shabaan Robert, the Swahili poet of Tanganyika, things had been different. We spent some time talking about writing, but there was no real contact. I knew from all accounts that I was talking to an important writer, but of the nature of his work I had no idea. He gave me two books of his poems, which I treasure but cannot read—until I have learned Swahili.

And there are scores of languages I would want to learn if it were possible. Where am I to find the time to learn the half dozen or so Nigerian languages, each of which can sustain a literature? I am afraid it cannot be done. These languages will just have to develop as tributaries to feed the one central language enjoying nationwide currency. Today, for good or ill, that language is English. Tomorrow it may be something else, although I very much doubt it.

Those of us who have inherited the English language may not be in a position to appreciate the value of the inheritance. Or we may go on resenting it because it came as part of a package deal which included many other items of doubtful value and the pos­itive atrocity of racial arrogance and prejudice, which may yet set the world on fire. But let us not in rejecting the evil throw out the good with it.

Some time last year I was traveling in Brazil meeting Brazilian writers and artists. A number of the writers I spoke to were con­cerned about the restrictions imposed on them by their use of the Portuguese language. I remember a woman poet saying she had given serious thought to writing in French! And yet their problem is not half as difficult as ours. Portuguese may not have the universal currency of English or French but at least it is the national language of Brazil with her eighty million or so people, to say nothing of the people of Portugal, Angola, Mozambique, etc.

Of Brazilian authors, I have only read, in translation, one novel by Jorge Amado, who is not only Brazil’s leading novelist but one of the most important writers in the world. From that one novel, Cabriella, I was able to glimpse something of the exciting Afro-Latin culture which is the pride of Brazil and is quite unlike any other culture. Jorge Amado is only one of the many writers Brazil has produced. At their national writers’ festival there were liter­ally hundreds of them. But the work of the vast majority will be closed to the rest of the world forever, including no doubt the work of some excellent writers. There is certainly a great advan­tage to writing in a world language.

I think I have said enough to give an indication of my thinking on the importance of the world language which history has forced down our throats. Now let us look at some of the most serious handicaps. And let me say straightaway that one of the most serious handicaps is not the one people talk about most often, namely, that it is impossible for anyone ever to use a second language as effectively as his first. This assertion is compounded of half truth and half bogus mystique. Of course, it is true that the vast majority of people are happier with their first language than with any other. But then the majority of people are not writers. We do have enough examples of writers who have per­formed the feat of writing effectively in a second language. And I am not thinking of the obvious names like Conrad. It would be more germane to our subject to choose African examples.

The first name that comes to my mind is Olauda Equiano, better known as Gustavus Vassa, the African. Equiano was an Ibo, I believe from the village of Iseke in the Orlu division of Eastern Nigeria. He was sold as a slave at a very early age and transported to America. Later he bought his freedom and lived in England.  In 1789 he published his life story, a beautifully written document which, among other things, set down for the Europe of his time something of the life and habit of his people in Africa, in an attempt to counteract the lies and slander invented by some Europeans ­to justify the slave trade.

Coming nearer to our times, we may recall the attempts in the first quarter of this century by West African nationalists to come together and press for a greater say in the management of their own affairs. One of the most eloquent of that band was the Honorable Casely Hayford of the Gold Coast. His presidential ad­dress to the National Congress of British West Africa in 1925 was memorable not only for its sound common sense but as a fine example of elegant prose. The governor of Nigeria at the time was compelled to take notice, and he did so in characteristic style: he called Hayford’s congress “a self-selected and self-appointed congregation of educated African gentlemen.” We may derive some amusement from the fact that British colonial administra­tors learned very little in the following quarter of a century. But at least they did learn in the end—which is more than one can say for some others.

It is when we come to what is commonly called creative lit­erature that most doubt seems to arise. Obi Wali, whose article “Dead End of African Literature” I referred to, has this to say:

until these writers and their Western midwives accept the fact that any true African literature must be written in African languages, they would be merely pursuing a dead end, which can only lead to sterility, uncreativity and frustration.

 

But far from leading to sterility, the work of many new African writers is full of the most exciting possibilities. Take this from Christopher Okigbo’s “Limits”:

Suddenly becoming talkative
like weaverbird
Summoned at offside of
   dream remembered 

Between sleep and waking
I hand up my egg-shells
To you of palm grove,
Upon whose bamboo towers hang
Dripping with yesterupwine
A tiger mask and nude spear…. 

Queen of the damp half light,
   I have had my cleansing.
Emigrant with air-borne nose,
   The he-goat-on-heat.

Or take the poem Night Rain, in which J. P. Clark captures so well the fear and wonder felt by a child as rain clamors on the thatch roof at night, and his mother, walking about in the dark, moves her simple belongings

Out of the run of water

That like ants filing out of the wood

Will scatter and gain possession

Of the floor.

I think that the picture of water spreading on the floor “like ants filing out of the wood” is beautiful. Of course, if you have never made fire with faggots, you may miss it. But dark’s inspi­ration derives from the same source which gave birth to the saying that a man who brings home ant-ridden faggots must be ready for the visit of lizards.

I do not see any signs of sterility anywhere here. What I do see is a new voice coming out of Africa, speaking of African experience in a worldwide language. So my answer to the ques­tion Can an African ever learn English well enough to be able to use it effectively in creative writing? is certainly yes. If on the other hand you ask. Can he ever learn to use it like a native speaker?  I should say, I hope not. It is neither necessary nor desirable for him to be able to do so. The price a world language must be prepared to pay is submission to many different kinds of use. The African writer should aim to use English in a way that brings out his message best without altering the language to the extent that its value as a medium of international exchange will be lost. He should aim at fashioning an English which is at once universal and able to carry his peculiar experience. I have in mind here the writer who has something new, something different to say. The nondescript writer has little to tell us, anyway, so he might as well tell it in conventional language and get it over with. If I may use an ex­travagant simile, he is like a man offering a small, nondescript routine sacrifice for which a chick, or less, will do. A serious writer must look for an animal whose blood can match the power of his offering.

In this respect Amos Tutola is a natural. A good instinct has turned his apparent limitation in language into a weapon of great strength—a half-strange dialect that serves him perfectly in the evocation of his bizarre world. His last book, and to my mind, his finest, is proof enough that one can make even an imperfectly learned second language do amazing things. In this book, The Feather Woman of the Jungle, Tutola’s superb storytelling is at last cast in the episodic form which he handles best instead of being pain­fully stretched on the rack of the novel.

From a natural to a conscious artist: myself, in fact. Allow me to quote a small example from Arrow of God, which may give some idea of how I approach the use of English. The Chief Priest in the story is telling one of his sons why it is necessary to send him to church:

I want one of my sons to join these people and be my eyes there. If there is nothing in it you will come back. But if there is something there you will bring home my share. The world is like a Mask, dancing. If you want to see it well you do not stand in one place. My spirit tells me that those who do not befriend the white man today will be saying had we known tomorrow.

Now supposing I had put it another way. Like this, for instance:

I am sending you as my representative among these peo­ple—just to be on the safe side in case the new religion de­velops. One has to move with the times or else one is left behind. I have a hunch that those who fail to come to terms with the white man may well regret their lack of foresight.

The material is the same. But the form of the one is in character and the other is not. It is largely a matter of instinct, but judg­ment comes into it too.

You read quite often nowadays of the problems of the African writer having first to think in his mother tongue and then to translate what he has thought into English. If it were such a simple, mechanical process, I would agree that it was pointless— the kind of eccentric pursuit you might expect to see in a modern Academy of Lagado—and such a process could not possibly pro­duce some of the exciting poetry and prose which is already ap­pearing.

One final point remains for me to make. The real question is not whether Africans could write in English but whether they ought to. Is it right that a man should abandon his mother tongue for someone else’s? It looks like a dreadful betrayal and produces a guilty feeling.

But, for me, there is no other choice. I have been given this language and I intend to use it. I hope, though, that there always will be men, like the late Chief Fagunwa, who will choose to write in their native tongue and ensure that our ethnic literature will flourish side by side with the national ones. For those of us who opt for English, there is much work ahead and much ex­citement.

Writing in the London Observer recently, James Baldwin said:

 

My quarrel with the English language has been that the lan­guage reflected none of my experience. But now I began to see the matter another way…. Perhaps the language was not my own because I had never attempted to use it, had only learned to imitate it. If this were so, then it might be made to bear the burden of my experience if I could find the stamina to challenge it, and me, to such a test.

 

I recognize, of course, that Baldwin’s problem is not exactly mine, but I feel that the English language will be able to carry the weight of my African experience. But it will have to be a new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home but al­tered to suit its new African surroundings.

 

 

Mozambique: Sapphic Ode | Campos Oliveira

If from your eyes temptingly, lively looking,
a tender glance over my way were sent me,
you would touch my bosom and dull the pain that’s
fervently burning!

If upon your carmine and perfumed lips there’s
found a kind smile lovingly formed for me then
all the tears I sorrowing shed would soon be
over and done with!

If allowed to kiss your sweet lovely face where
always shines bright innocence smiling shyly,
then perhaps I’d feel my own soul reviving
black now and freezing!

If your love you’d finally given to me,
love for which I never would trade a scepter
happy I would be for I’d found in living
fortune celestial!

 
Jose Pedro da Silva Campos e Oliveira (Campos Oliveira) (1847-1911) was born in Cabaceira, Mozambique. He studied law in Goa, India and is regarded as the ‘first’ Mozambican poet of Portuguese expression from the nineteenth century. He served as the nation’s director of postal service and in 1888 published a collection of previously unknown verses by the great eighteenth century poet, Tomas Antonuo Gonzaga.

 

The Sapphic ode is a poetic form with a specific strophic pattern and meter named for the Greek poetess, Sappho, who wrote around 600 B.C. The pattern consists of three verses of eleven syllables or hendecasyllables, each containing five feet.

Culled from: Poets of Mozambique (2005), Translated by Frederick G. Williams.

The African Book Review is posting a poem from each of Africa’s 55 countries over the next few weeks. Poem suggestions can be sent through the comments form below. ‘Like’ us on FacebookTwitter, and Tumblr to read all the poems.