SENTINEL POETRY

ONLINE MAGAZINE MONTHLY     ISSUE #10 SEPTEMBER 2003     ISSN 1479-425X

This is the concluding section of "MY E-CONVERSATION WITH STEPHEN VINCENT" by Nnorom Azuonye. The first part was published in the July 2003 issue of Sentinel Poetry Magazine

...an African writer's multi-lingual assets should
not be defined as a problem, but as a rich and
powerful resource... "The more languages you
know, the further your song will travel"

 
Nnorom Azuonye (NA): Just to pick up on what you said about Babatunde Lawal writing in a version of Pidgin English designed to be accessible to Europeans. You have had the unique experience of living among, teaching and working with African writers in their own environment. Is it your view that African writers should strive to work with language and images that speak an international dialect? If you hold this view, what do you consider would be its consequence on the authenticity of African writing and its trueness to itself?

Stephen Vincent (SV): Well first I would not want to suggest that Babatunde Lawal's use of English was Pidgin in some cliché sense, nor was he thinking particularly of writing to appeal to Europeans. My sense, in 1965, was that Nsukka writers were writing with a new Nigerian audience in mind, and the objective was to use English that had a much more indigenous rhythm, voice and feel to it. How to reshape English was, however, the source of much debate.
 
I well remember Dr. Obi Wali - in a lecture the campus community - satirizing Gabriel Okara's novel (The Interpreters) where he made its English sentences correspond to the grammatical sentence structures of his native Rivers tribe.

NA: And it worked?

SV: Not really. In fact it did seem very much an experimental failure - the English kept drawing attention to itself instead of the story.

In any case I would be the last person to suggest how African writers should resolve this issue! As a listener & reader I can only attest to what I sense is accurate in anyones' work, and that, too, may be very limited by the boundaries of my knowledge, etc. Ultimately as an "issue", an African
writer's multi-lingual assets should not be defined as a problem, but as a
rich and powerful resource.

NA: Have you ever experienced a multi-lingual performance by an artist first hand, and what effect, if at all did it have on you?

SV: In what was then Ogoja province of Nigeria, I once remember listening to a young singer  - a local troubadour who in Europe and America would now be automatically considered as a hip-hop artist. But in this very remote region, his lyrics would vary from his local Ogoja dialect into formal English, Italian and Pidgin, and then into dialects from several adjacent tribes. When I asked my colleague, Peter Obang, what accounted for this poly-lingual play, his answer was, "The more languages you know, the further your song will travel." And that was the local creed among the creative makers of language.

I have always remembered that answer and deeply value its sense of reciprocation and respect for others. Indeed when Babatunde Lawal went off to the University of Indiana to study Art History, I thought it had the makings of a death in the family! That is, I feared that the terribly formal language of art criticism would totally stifle Babatunde's wonderful ear for urban Lagos and rural Yoruba-land. In effect, to go back to your question, I thought he would lose his "authenticity". On the contrary, at least in my opinion, he has reshaped the American/European critical language of looking at and evoking the objects and rituals that surround traditional ceremonies. You would never confuse his approach with a traditional formal German art critic, for example, approaching the same materials. The language of Tunde's approach has a way of going "inside" the materials that  - while maintaining a critical edge - nevertheless refrains from what I find as a useless sense of Western abstraction. As to the loss of his creative fiction interest, Ben Okara has, in my opinion, beautifully taken up and done very wonderful in that same territory.

Continues on next page

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