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Studies of literature in African languages offer insights into local culture, values

SUN XIAOMENG | 2018-06-06 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)


Arabic alphabets played a vital role in recording indigenous African languages in the early days. Pictured here is the Quranic manuscripts stored at Al Ahmed Mahmoud Foundation Library in Chinguetti, Mauritania. (CFP)


In contemporary research on African literature, the works of Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka and novelist Chinua Achebe have received quite a lot of attention. The former is recipient of the Nobel Prize in literature while the latter has been described as the “father of modern African literature.”

Even though the two mainly write in English, it would be wrong to assume that Nigerian or African literature originated in European languages. Africa’s first batch of modern literary works was created in neither English nor French but rather indigenous African languages, which is indeed the origin of the modern African literature. These works are an important source that cannot be ignored.

Given the special historical context of the colonial era, African works written in indigenous languages have also taken on diverse forms, such as novel, dramas and prose while there has been a dramatic transformation in themes as well. Therefore, we need to understand the production and development of a series of literary phenomena through a specific framework.

African literature at the time was produced in various native African languages. Through the narrative process, each nation’s own historical situation provided a unique realistic reflection and motivation and source of literary creation. A comparative analysis from the perspective of external colonial history and African nations’ self-development could then offer an insight into the evolution of native African literature and the history of colonialism in Africa.


Rising to spotlight
The study of African literature started quite early in Western academia. A number of publications such as The Cambridge History of African and Caribbean Literature and The Languages and Literatures of Africa offer a systemic explanation of literacy creation on the continent and are by all means conducive for readers to gaining a panoramic view of African literature. In the West, in addition to scholars specialized in the field of research, there are also officials, missionaries and social anthropologists engaged in the study of African literary texts in their respective research.

Language barriers have inhibited the study of African literature written in indigenous languages, and a large number of valuable texts and research fields have yet to be explored. Research on English-language African literature often references native works, and there has been little textual analysis on these. Though the Western academics touch upon this field of study and some former colonial powers conducted regional literary studies, on the whole, research activities and achievements tend to be generalized, falling short of an integrated review and pattern analysis of native literature in Africa.

In contrast, research on African literature in China was primarily carried out based on translation and selection of Western documents. With African writers winning the Nobel Prize and other international literary awards, the study of African literature has become a new research focus in Chinese academic circles. Many of the big African names and masterpieces are becoming increasingly popular among domestic scholars.

Chinese scholars started to understand the importance of native literature in postcolonial literary criticism, proposing that the non-English literature from the Third World nations is vital to explain the indigenous literature. In The History of Oriental Literature composed by editor-in-chief Ji Xianlin, there are independent chapters dedicated to Swahili and Hausa literature. Native literature has also been included in other Chinese works of Orientalist literary theory. However, past research mainly relied on translated works and we are still at an infant stage in the study of native African literature.


Development of written language
One of the important factors driving the development of African literature is African written languages. The people of Africa have, for centuries, handed down from one generation to the next a tradition of oral literature in their various native languages. Thus, Africa has long been regarded as a non-literate society. With the Islamization of Africa, Arabic script began to play an important role in recording African language in the early days. Hausa, Kanuri and Fulbes all include Ajami writing practices, which use the Arabic alphabet, expanding the reach of African literature beyond the Muslim intellectual elites.

As the Western powers carved up Africa, the Latin alphabet also came to be used to record native African languages. Initially, written African languages were adopted to spread Islam and Christianity, so early writing served the purposes of religious propaganda. Writing was not widely used to record daily life and writing until after literature became more secularized.

During colonial rule, one of the important cultural strategies of the colonizing countries was to subordinate the development of native African literature to the interests of the Western powers. Therefore, research on the patterns of native African literature during the colonial era must comprehensively take into account the language, culture and education policies against the particular historical and cultural background.

After World War II, when African countries gained their independence, the world turned its gaze to African culture, including its writing system, which to a certain extent has promoted the spread of native African literature. African unity, racism, apartheid and the aftermath of colonial rule have become common themes in African literature written in different native languages.

French sociologist, anthropologist and philosopher Pierre Bourdieu’s concepts of habitus, field and capital has had great influence on the theoretical construction of research on native African literature. Relevant theories take the internal and external aspects of literature as a whole to explore the modernity of native African literature in the colonial period. It Involves a range of topics, such as native African literature writing competitions, newspaper distribution, operation of various types of publications, mass reading and writers’ groups as well as the establishment of the education system, popularization of public knowledge, the emergence of a new generation of intellectuals, reshaping of the national character and cultivation of modern citizens.

Though African writing practices were created for the purpose of promoting Islam, publication culture was in fact driven by the spread of Christianity, which helped postcolonial governments promote indigenous language and literature to a degree. However, it is noteworthy that the publication of native African literature continued to be dominated by European colonial powers long after independence, which caused reading groups, literary themes and aesthetic orientation to diverge from the path that native literature should embark on. More importantly, it lacked an endogenous driving force to support the true development of African national literature.


Understanding African culture
The study of native African literature goes beyond aesthetic research based on literary texts and will help deepen our understanding of the cultural modernity of different countries in Africa.

First of all, it is important to improve the structural comprehension of African literature because native African literature in the colonial era was produced in the special historical and cultural context and it is indispensible part in the history of African literature. Also, the study, to some extent, compensates for the previous one-sided emphasis on English literature in Africa.
In addition, the shift from the study of African national literature to the study of regional literature and comparative studies will be helpful to understand and grasp the connotation of African literature.

Second, in terms of improving the oriental literature disciplinary system, native African literary research offers new insight into the research object, scope and method, thus helping to review and summarize the discourse pattern and narrative structure of Oriental literature. The study of native African literature as a whole could lead to some common law and patterns that provide reference, comparison and reflection for Oriental literature research. It is an effort that Oriental countries must make to break Occidentalism and hegemony and to form the research paradigm with the characteristics of Oriental literature, perfect the Oriental literature as a disciplinary system, and strengthen the international academic discourse of Oriental literature.

Finally, the study of documents written primarily in African native languages will narrow the gap between Chinese and Western scholars in the field of African literature research. Compared with their Western counterparts, Chinese scholars have a more neutral and objective standpoint in the study of African literature. Chinese scholars can follow the principle of equal dialogue between Eastern and Western literature and culture to discuss the same topic from the different cultural standpoint, so as to promote China’s international discourse in the field of African literature studies.

Native African literature carries distinct African cultural traits. Through the study of African literature, we can gain a better appreciation of traditional African culture, national values and behavioral logic to enhance the mutual understanding of China and African countries and build a harmonious China-African relation.

At the same time, African literature produced in indigenous language in the colonial period also aroused cultural and political concerns and is the ideological origin of Africa’s struggle for national independence under colonial rule. The research in this field is of great reference and value to examine the current world cultural relations and break the world cultural order dominated by western countries.

Sun Xiaomeng is from the School of Asian and African Studies at Beijing Foreign Studies University.

(edited by YANG XUE)