A Battle of the Tongues

‘Writing from the edges’, a conversation with Azila Reisenberger, Carole Bloch, Billy Kahora, and Kgebetli Moele, 16 May 2014, Franschhoek Literary Festival.


The debate around language in literature is an inexhaustible one, but it’s not very often that one comes across a conversation as stimulating as the one held at Franschhoek Literary Festival’s panel on Writing from the Edges.

Carole Bloch’s statement that our indigenous languages are as capable of carrying stories as English set the proverbial ball rolling. Bloch is the director of PRAESA, the driving force behind the Nal'ibali National Reading for Enjoyment Campaign, which seeks to transform the way children are taught to read and write. We’ve often heard concern expressed about the rate at which the number of people reading on the continent is in decline. In a digital world that continues to celebrate brevity and immediate gratification, the long form literature is a genre that is facing rapid extinction.

Billy Kahora, editor-in-chief of Kenya’s Kwani Trust, expressed his objection to this statement. In Nairobi, hundreds of people still gather around street corners to read a rented copy of the local newspaper for a few minutes before they begin their day. The question is not whether or not people want to read, there is evidence that they do. What needs to be clarified is why people read, and what they like to read. These are the things that Kwani Trust is concerned with. Kwani Trust’s move to publish stories in Sheng, a local slang popular among the middle class youth, addresses the need for literature that exists in language that resonates with the intended reader.

According to Kgebetli Moele, the award winning author of Room 207 (Kwela, 2006), The Book of the Dead (Kwela, 2009) and Untitled (Kwela, 2013), the conversation around language in literature is a futile one. “Vernacular writers are just not given any space in the literary world,” he says citing the selection of writers at this very festival as proof of this. All one hundred and twenty seven writers invited to speak at the festival are published in English.

The session moderator, Dr Azila Talit Reisenberger agrees with Moele. She recently visited the University of Cape Town’s library to see how many texts were published in African languages. The collection didn’t even warrant a shelf of its own – but they exist. So what is to be said of the efforts of the brave authors who dare to write in their indigenous languages? Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o dominated this section of the discussion. The Kenyan writer is most popularly known for denouncing all fruits of colonialism, including English, when he wrote and published A Grain of Wheat (1967) in his mother tongue, Gikuyu. To this end, Moele asks a pertinent question: what was the point of Ngũgĩ’s effort to write in Gikuyu, seeing as how the book was translated into English shortly after its initial release?

It goes without saying that debates around the English language would be pointless if authors such as Ngũgĩ do not continue to feel the need for their stories to be presented in the same language in which they are created. It is for this reason that initiatives such as Nal’ibali, which publishes children’s books filled with stories in all South African languages are so important. As adults we have failed to realise the importance of our indigenous languages, but this is a lesson we can hopefully learn from our children.

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