SF in SA (27) One Language is Never Enough: On Both Harnessing and Resisting the Western Gaze (May 2016)

Why do we write? And, perhaps even more importantly, for whom do we write? We certainly would not write if there was no reader, even if that reader remains just us. So writing appears to form an act of communication, often with our selves, but we may also write with a reading audience in mind. The problem I’ve found though is, what happens if you try and target (at least two), quite radically disparate audiences? But then that’s been a constant tension I’ve faced, growing up white in Africa. Where do I belong – and who is my ‘audience’ as a writer?

This was driven home in a critical response to my debut SF novel ‘AZANIAN BRIDGES‘, set in a current but counterfactual South Africa where apartheid remains. The reviewer (in a western SF magazine that shall remain nameless) referred to being ‘annoyed’ by my use of isiZulu/Afrikaans words and occasional phrases, without the provision of clear translations. I had in fact toyed with the idea of providing a glossary – They were not aware of all the background agonising I had done exactly around this issue.

The book itself was birthed in a country with eleven official languages, of which the only one I could realistically write in was English. English itself was of course a colonising language, following after the Dutch and the eventual genesis of Afrikaans, a mixture of English, Dutch and several indigenous languages. So I was writing in a colonial language but incorporating oppressed cultures and identities within the context of a story centred on the survival of apartheid. Given all of this, issues of power, representation and language had to be carefully considered, considering the political sensitivity (and relative recency) of apartheid. Who, actually, was this story for? Well, initially I focused my attention on local,South African publishers as my first wish was for this to be read there, given it was a South African story…But no one wanted it.

So I widened my approaches to the SF markets of the west and was very pleased when it was eventually picked up by the British independent, NewCon Press. I was then faced with a dilemma. The book, as written, would have been easily understood by most South African readers. But how much did I need to adapt it, for a western audience to understand? How much did I need to tweak it, in order to make it comprehensible to a more ‘Western’ gaze? Or would this not be an issue at all, given the reach of Lauren Beukes’ books in publicising South African speculative fiction, including her usage of local South African words in both Moxyland and Zoo City? And was it actually right to adjust local material to suit a foreign market – and if so, how much, in order to avoid compromising the integrity of the original source material, which includes the language?

My thinking had also been shaped in parallel discussions with Rochita Loenen-Ruis, on language and colonisation, as Rochita was addressing the issue of Decolonising in her own approach to writing, seeking to express creative fidelity to her Filipino roots. I had been particularly struck by a beautiful story of hers, for which I had struggled to provide any helpful beta reader advice, entitled ‘Bagi‘ – a rich tantalising tale with mythical monsters and a peeling of feminine self to find oppressed, hidden and ancestral sources of power and identity. But, unfamiliar with some of the language, at times it felt like I was groping amongst a colourful, powerful set of events, viewing through glasses fogged by my own English whiteness.

When I spoke to Rochita about whether it may help to anglicise some of her language, in order to sell it to a western market, she baulked. Her reasons were sound of course – the story was itself about the colonisation of indigenous experience and translating the shards of local language into western terms would undermine one of the implicit messages of the story. Not to do so, though, risked a potential sale to a perhaps more lucrative western market. Unsurprisingly, Rochita stuck to her narrative guns and ended up selling the story to Bahamut Journal 1.

I admired this stance and thought it was a worthwhile position to adopt. I had done my best to try and contextualise each and every use of indigenous terms, in order to enable meaning to be inferred. But I knew it would still require some effort on the part of the western reader. The publisher and editor was happy with the book as such and so I decided to roll with this, hoping to both engage a western audience, but also to challenge them somewhat, with the continued insertion – at appropriately authentic points for the characters – of Afrikaans and isiZulu terms. (I am indebted to Busi Siyathola for help with the isiZulu in the book.) Both writing and reading – or ‘Reviewing the Other‘, as Nisi Shawl neatly put it – may be a bit like ‘Dancing About Architecture

Challenges can, I guess, lead to annoyance on the part of the reader. I hope I don’t annoy too many readers, as I appreciate them taking the time, cost and effort to engage with my story. But there is also the ethical issue of continually representing colonised languages, before they are ‘disappeared’ off the face of the Earth, as is happening with the Khoi-San, who are marginalised and yet speak one of the most ancient of human languages.

Languages, like people, need representation too. Translations are another way of cross fertilising literature and thought, as they open us up to new conceptual and emotional experiences. Jalada Africa have recently and commendably published the most translated short story (30 African languages) by Ngugi wa Thiongo, the English version being ‘The Upright Revolution: Or Why Humans Walk Upright’a story covered in The Guardian.

Although I speak only English and vrot Afrikaans, remember what I said in the beginning about the tension within my own identity as a white African? Unpacking more identity intersectionalities, I am a white male English South African – and the Afrikaners used to have a great term for us: ‘soutpiel‘, literally meaning ‘salty penis.’ Why, you may well ask? Well, supposedly because we were seen to have only one foot in Africa…the other foot was back in England and our penis dangled in the Atlantic Ocean in between.

There’s a lot of tension in holding such a wide stance surely? But there’s also a certain joy in straddling such a large space. Yes, I love SF, as I’ve read it in English from the west. But I’ve also loved and value indigenous literature, albeit read in English or translated form. There’s something to be said for widening your stance to feel more of the world underneath your feet, This, I hope, is part of what my book may do, although I know this may still annoy some.

What, then, is my final response to those annoyed ones, for my lack of direct translations?

Ek gee nie om nie… Anginandaba

And finally, Ulwimi ululodwa alonelanga – Just for this time, one language is never enough.

Other suggested readings of note from this article:

ENDS (May 2016)