What does it mean to be shaped by the lan­guage of the colonis­ers?

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - BOOKED OUT - Ar­milla wa t ro fac w an t an i titl on fic­tion 1. ran l a in by Tun Musa Hi­tam 2. M am a ma 4. i by Boey Cheem­ing fl ction f Man by Mr Amari Soul o if o t n if ol by Diana Rikasari n n olorin o n oo by Jo­hanna Bas­ford i ort o rn o by Yeonmi Park if , n l

THE River Be­tween is the first work of Ngugi Wa Thiong’o that I’ve read, but I’ve known of him since my first in­tro­duc­tion to African writ­ing – rather pre­dictably through Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka – dur­ing my lit­er­a­ture classes when I was 17.

It’s per­haps more ac­cu­rate to say I was in awe of Ngugi for what I still think is an act of im­mense bold­ness: In the late 1960s, after re­ceiv­ing much ac­claim for his first three nov­els ( Weep Not, Child; The River Be­tween and A Grain Of Wheat), the Kenyan writer gave up writ­ing in English and be­gan writ­ing in his na­tive lan­guage, Gikuyu. He con­sid­ered English a rem­nant of Africa’s im­pe­ri­al­ist past and writ­ing in the lan­guage a form of neo­colo­nial­ism over African lan­guages, cul­ture and phi­los­o­phy – sub­jects that he ex­plores in his 1986 book of es­says, De­colonis­ing The Mind: The Pol­i­tics Of Lan­guage In African Lit­er­a­ture.

It is also ac­cu­rate to say I was rather shamed by Ngugi, for my lit­er­ary ex­pe­ri­ence back then was con­fined to works in English. This de­spite the fact that I have been ed­u­cated in Ba­hasa Me­layu ( BM) since I was seven and learnt to read and write in Tamil when I was six ( the lan­guages of my coun­try and my an­ces­tors, re­spec­tively).

Even today, I read al­most ex­clu­sively in English. I read books in BM per­haps once a year or so, and have never read a book in Tamil in my life.

It was per­haps inevitable. The last three gen­er­a­tions of my fam­ily have lived through or experienced Bri­tish coloni­sa­tion in ei­ther In­dia or Malaya. De­spite that, or per­haps be­cause of that, there is a strong ten­dency in my fam­ily to val­ourise English as a marker of in­tel­li­gence and achieve­ment. Read­ing, specif­i­cally read­ing works in English, was a way to con­nect and en­gage with a larger world of in­tel­lect and cul­ture.

It was when I heard of Ngugi that I first be­gan ques­tion­ing why only English was deemed the con­duit to these. Some of it is prac­ti­cal­ity, of course. Given the per­va­sive­ness of the English lan­guage, it is in­vari­ably easier to gain ac­cess to peo­ple and in­for­ma­tion by us­ing it.

But as a re­sult of read­ing, learning and speak­ing in English since I was a child, I now think in English. And I do won­der what that does to my self- ex­pres­sion, my way of think­ing and the way I frame and re­flect on my own cul­tures – cul­tures that are shared, shaped and ex­pressed by lan­guage, whether BM or Tamil. Am I another ex­am­ple of a long line of colonised minds?

This is some­thing I think about even more now as a writer. The re­al­ity is that I can only prop­erly ex­press my­self in writ­ing through English. But I also feel very strongly that my writ­ing should re­flect Malaysian­ness, that it should sound like Malaysians do. So what does it mean that I can only tell those Malaysian sto­ries in a lan­guage that colonised the ones I can call my own? ( Lo­calise colum­nist Daphne Lee spoke about what it means for Malaysian writ­ers to write in English on Feb 28; on­line at tinyurl. com/ star2- lo­calise.)

I greatly ad­mire Malaysian writ­ers like Uthaya Sankar S. B. and Gina Yap Lai Yoong who write in BM ( Uthaya also writes in Tamil); they are able to ex­press them­selves in a way that isn’t avail­able to me.

How­ever, I am also in­spired by writ­ers like Rehman Rashid, Shih- Li Kow, Brian Gomez and Zen Cho, who, while writ­ing in English, do it with such unique Malaysian­ness that it al­most feels sub­ver­sive – to take the lan­guage of the coloniser and re­make it ac­cord­ing to our own def­i­ni­tions.

So the les­son I learnt from Ngugi is some­thing that con­tin­ues to res­onate with me today. Not ev­ery­one will make the choice that he did, and nei­ther should they be ex­pected to. We do owe it to our­selves, though, to take con­trol of our sto­ries, to use them to re­flect our own iden­ti­ties in­stead of those as­cribed to us by some­one else. I may not be able to write in any­thing other than English, but that does not mean my sto­ries should re­main colonised.

r a in in

oin t con r ation at oo com oo t or t ar­milla r by Dr Siti Has­mah Mohd Ali 3. W 5. 6. Ma ical n l ition n or lt 7. 8. 9. n Wa

n r r o or an irl r om ala in n m ir if i in by Jojo Moyes by Jojo Moyes

Ngugi gave up writ­ing in English to avoid con­tin­u­ing the ‘ neo­colo­nial­ism of African lan­guages’. — face­book. comNgugi­waThion­goAuthor

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