Thursday, December 19, 2013

O Africa!

I am interested in the rest of the world. I have tried to read widely, especially in poetry, serving myself skinny and fat anthologies of poetry in translation from Europe, from the broad expanse of Asia, from Latin America, and from oral traditions. Some literary traditions stretch back hundreds of years - in the case of China and India one might say thousands. When I’ve read in African poetries, however, I’ve been surprised at how shallow in time the traditions are. Considering that humans originated in Africa and have the most diverse genetic heritage there and its current peoples live in a range of societies and environments, I expected more than the Twentieth Century. But when we’re talking sub-Saharan Africa we are talking primarily about oral literatures, it seems. Publishing African poets didn’t really build literary careers until the last hundred years, the majority in the last fifty. I was also surprised how often the poets I was encountering spoke of “Africa,” as though it were a unity, rather the way poets in the U.S. speak of America. Africa is not a unity. It is huge and various. So why were poets from up and down the continent claiming one identity?

Last year I copied out a poem by Bernard Dadie called “A Wreath for Africa.” Dadie was born in the Ivory Coast (between Ghana and Liberia in West Africa). He wrote in French. Some lines (as translated by Ellen Conroy Kennedy):

I shall weave you a wreath
of laurel and hibiscus
set in a butterfly’s wingspan
and the calm of underbrush in blossom.

… from the essence of flowers
with pendants of human life and wisdom.

I shall make you a crown
softly gleaming
with the brilliance of Tropical Venus
and in the orb of the feverishly shimmering
Milky Way.

I shall write
your name
in letters of
O Africa!

The anthology in which I found the poem was The Negritude Poets. Negritude is a francophone way of saying “blackness.” The poets weren’t just extolling Africa’s singular identity, they were self-identifying by the color of their skin. Other literary traditions tend to sort by nation-state and language. Africa encompasses many states, many languages. But the written languages were primarily introduced from Europe. The Negritude poets mostly wrote in French.

The Poetry of Our World: an international anthology of contemporary poetry includes a section of African poets. In his introduction Kwame Anthony Appiah offers his version of why the poets were talking about Africa (not Cote d’Ivoire, say):

It is one of the great ironies of history that the concept … the very idea of Africa - was itself a product of the encounter with European empires. Western-educated intellectuals articulated a resistance to colonialism not in the name of the specific precolonial societies whose heirs they were, but, almost always, in the name of Africa. The many colonial students gathered in London, Paris, and Lisbon in the years after the Second World War were brought together in their common search for political independence from a single metropolitan state. They were brought together too by the fact that their colonial rulers - those who helped as well as those who hindered - saw them all as Africans, first of all, because ‘race’ was central to Europe’s vision of them. But they were able to articulate a common vision of postcolonial Africa through a discourse inherited from prewar Pan-Africanism - a discourse that was the product, largely, of black citizens of the New World. Since what bound these African-American and Afro-Caribbean Pan-Africanists together was the African ancestry they shared, a racial understanding of their solidarity was, perhaps, an inevitable development.

Because the colonial powers were defining Africans by race/color - by “African-ness” - the poets, in order to find strength in solidarity and because they shared a common oppressor/ enlightener, also chose to define themselves by race and to embrace as homeland a unitary Africa. The Africans of the diaspora, “African-American and Afro-Caribbean Pan-Africanists,” had led the way. They already had been writing in European languages so had an older literary tradition. They already defined themselves primarily by color/race and by ancestral origin; because they often had little idea of where exactly in Africa their ancestors had come from these poets didn’t have much choice, it was all Africa. Of course, the Pan-Africanists already defined themselves by race because in the cultures into which they were born their whole lives were defined by race. Sure, you could deny and reject that identity but the larger society - White European Society - would still see you first by your skin. Also, of course, the Pan-Africanists had already produced a literature of resistance to European hegemony and African-born Africanists had a natural sympathy for this tradition.

So I get it a little better. I suspect the paeans to “Africa” will be fewer as time goes by, as national and language-centered native literatures develop, but Africa had a unity imposed upon it, and for the emerging poets of that continent embracing unity proved more useful/fruitful - and in some cases, beautiful - than ignoring it.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

“Sign Language is so beautiful!”

John McWhorter, in discussing the proposition that “language channels thought,” that because some languages seem to be better at expressing certain kinds of thoughts, then the people who speak these languages are able to think thoughts that others, handicapped by less artful languages, cannot, addresses the romanticization of “minority languages.” Some languages are supposedly purer or more spiritual, closer to the authentic, more natural, as though these languages retain the sheen of the Golden Age. This idea can be called “Whorfian” after the linguist Benjamin Whorf who claimed that the Hopi language was especially suited to a healthy Zen attitude because in that language there is no way of talking about time. Everything happens in an eternal now. John McWhorter says Whorf clearly didn’t know Hopi. Hopi marks time all the time.

A speaker of American Sign Language captured the essence of how Whorfianism unintentionally demeans minority languages, mocking outsider fans of Sign. In an interview, the signer feigned ‘a vapid, rapt look on his face. “Sign language is so beautiful,” he signs, in a gushing mockery of the attitude that exoticizes sign and correspondingly reduces deaf people to the status of pets, mascots. “It’s just so wonderful that deaf people can communicate!”’ Or, as I would have it, ‘It’s just so wonderful that people who aren’t like us can think and process reality as richly as we do!’

I think American Sign Language is beautiful. I don’t feel weird about saying so. It’s clear to me as well that Deaf people are people and can think and communicate. I’m glad they can do it in a manner I find transfixingly beautiful. Maybe they don’t care that I find it beautiful. Whatever. I’ve resisted the notion that there are spoken languages that sound lovelier than others. But I’ve come around. I’d rather listen to a Brazilian speaking legalese than a German uttering sweet nothings, a Francophone pontificating over poetry recited in Hebrew, as much as I don’t understand any of it. Once we come to meanings I’m sure my mind would change. Idiosyncratic ear (or eye) aside there is no language that can’t express beautiful thoughts. There is no language that limits the mind it inhabits, making categories of thoughts unthinkable. At least, not according to John McWhorter. I’m inclined to believe him.

source: Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: the untold history of English by John McWhorter

Tuesday, December 17, 2013


Since English already has an example of a pronoun that is used both as a singular and a plural and used that way in grammar so proper even the snootiest grammargendarme prescribes it (I’m talking about you, of course), I don’t see why we can’t allow that sort of use for another pronoun. Everybody knows that using he or she in order to make sure there is agreement in a sentence feels tiresome and awkward, especially when speaking. Yet it is conventionally considered the best alternative when looking to de-gender the generic. “Everybody loves to kiss his or her lover!” Please. “Everybody loves to kiss their lovers!” Everybody is supposed to be a singular, according to the grammar logic crowd. But everybody knows that in real life, outside the textbooks, it’s a plural. “Everybody get out your textbook.” That’s grammatically acceptable, isn’t it? “I want everybody to get out their textbook.” Not correct! No? Pooh on that. “I asked for a wheat-back penny. Suddenly everybody was looking through their change.” I’m grammar-sensitive enough to wonder if sentences where a “their” sounds natural in speech could or should be rephrased when written. “Suddenly you could hear the jingle of change as every hand dug through their stash.” Oops. Did it again. “Suddenly everyone was looking through his or her coins.” “Suddenly all the kids were digging through their change.” Functionally, “all the kids” and “everybody” are equivalents. We treat them that way in speech. I think we ought to treat them that way in writing. English has a very formal neuter - one. “One ought to know one’s mind.” It sounds a bit off, a bit British, even. And using one that way has its problems, too. “One was standing on the platform when the train arrived.” One was? One what?

In Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue John McWhorter looks to see if there’s any their there:

Take the idea that it is wrong to say If a student comes before I get there, they can slip their test under my office door, because student is singular and they ‘is plural.’ Linguists traditionally observe that esteemed writers have been using they as a gender-neutral pronoun for almost a thousand years. As far back as the 1400s, in the Sir Amadace story, one finds the likes of Iche mon in thayre degree (‘Each man in their degree’). … Shakespeare is not assumed to have been in his cups when he wrote in The Comedy of Errors, ‘There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me / As I were their well-acquainted friend’ … Later, Thackeray in Vanity Fair tosses off ‘A person can’t help their birth.”

McWhorter has been asked, if this use of they/their/them is so appropriate why don’t linguists use it themselves? It’s the copy editors, he says. “[E]ven linguists have to submit to their publishers’ copy editors’ insistence on expunging it … At best I can wangle an exception and get in a singular they or their once or twice a book.”

It may still be that books are copyedited by human beings, but most of the writing on the internet clearly isn’t. No copy editor touched this post, for instance. Other than me, and I don’t claim the title.

source: Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: the untold history of English by John McWhorter

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Legion of Decency

I didn’t grow up in an era in which “decent” meant bowdlerized. By the time I was an adventurous reader explicit condemnatory censorship was relatively muted and powerless.

It helped that my mother made no attempt to restrict what my brother or I would read or try to prevent us from going to scandalous movies - not, at least, once we were old enough to seek them out for ourselves. But then there was more available by the 70s than there was when my mother was a girl because organizations like the Legion of Decency could no longer prevent work they found objectionable from being published and distributed. The first naughty stuff I bought was in the form of underground comix. As a kid I wasn’t attracted to the sexy, but the anarchic and psychedelic was appealing. Loved The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, for instance.

As I read up on the situation for readers before I came along, I feel increasingly fortunate. The historian Lillian Faderman talks about how lesbians could only appear in fiction if portrayed as damaged, criminal, fated to come to a bad end; otherwise stories featuring lesbians fell afoul of organizations like the National Organization for Decent Literature and the Legion of Decency. When I came across mention of the “Legion of Decency” it sounded, frankly, like a supervillain group. Of course, independent and underground cartoonists were lampooning just such groups and I didn’t realize that the joke was actually pretty serious. As far as I was concerned “decent literature” was literature that was competently written rather than literature that had been neutered. Lucky me for thinking so.

source: Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: a history of Lesbian life in Twentieth-Century America by Lillian Faderman

Thursday, December 12, 2013

notes toward an autobiography by others, part 15

Donovan Hohn became fascinated by the story of the well-traveled rubber ducks. A shipment of the toy was lost in the Pacific and the little critters floated all around, some (perhaps) even making it all the way across the Arctic Sea to the Eastern shores of the United States. Hohn wanted to find one for himself. In the process he wrote a book about the ducks, where they came from and what became of them. It’s called, Moby-Duck. Early in his research Hohn consults beachcombing guides:

[Amos] Woods writes … [A] “serious searcher plans his hike, selects the tide and wind conditions that are favorable, prepares for an extended trip, and has a particular objective in mind.” [On the other hand, Henry David] Thoreau’s rambling style of beachcombing - extravagant sauntering, he would call it - appeals to me far more than Wood’s forensic treasure hunting does. If I tried to follow Wood’s advice, I wouldn’t last a weekend before retiring my metal detector to that cabinet of fleeting enthusiasms which also contains various musical instruments, a teach-yourself-Russian CD-ROM, and a guide to bicycle repair.

When Kent and I visited Oahu in September we saw two men using a metal detector on a popular beach. They were wading in water up to their thighs. It was hard to imagine they were finding enough of value to justify two people but it looked like they were being methodical about it. The beach adjoined a wealthy community, the water protected by a wide reef, and was picturesque, so I suppose there were more than the usual number of diamond rings slipping off fingers into the sand and a better than average chance of locating those that got lost. It looked like work.

I remember seeing men walking along with metal detectors at beaches when I was a kid. It looked like fun at the time - hunting for treasure! scooping up money just waiting for you! I may have put a metal detector on my Christmas wish list. I remember working over the page that featured the object in the Montgomery Wards catalog. I remember working over the page that featured the rock polishing machine, too. Imagine turning ordinary rocks into gleaming, smooth beauties you could line up on your window sill. Mom did not get me either gadget.

Just as well. I shudder to think how many hours of beach plodding I would have had to force myself to do in order to justify the metal detector’s expense. It was easy to picture the delights, but the work of the process I now picture as a big hassle. I remember at least once Mom approaching one of these treasure hunters (probably dragging me along); as I recall he was philosophical about it. It was something to do. Did it pay? Oh. No. Not really. He found something while we talked, leaned over and brushed the sand away. Was it a penny? It was no diamond ring.

Like me, Kent had a hankering for a polishing machine. Unlike me, he got one. My memory produces no plan beyond admiring the polished stones. That gets old, Kent says. And the polishing machine was noisy. It required investment in polishing sand. It took a long time.

Among other “fleeting enthusiasms” was, yes, a teach-yourself-Russian book (this was before CD-ROMs). I taught myself DA (yes) and DOM (house) but I figured I wouldn’t be able to make myself understood by a Russian as I didn’t really know how to pronounce any of it. Not like I would be able to understand them, either! I thought I might be able to take Russian language classes in college. But by then the Cold War was over and learning Russian seemed not so valuable, especially considering the investment of money, time, and effort. Instead I took Spanish and Portuguese and American Sign Language, all of which I’ve had occasion (very occasional occasion) to use.

I’ve made attempts at making music - I have an electronic keyboard which sounds rather nice. Maybe nicer when I’m not playing it.

Extravagant sauntering, however, has provided much pleasure over the years.

Donovan Hohn's Moby-Duck is quirky, rather long & rambling, and a pretty good read.

quote source: Moby-Duck: an accidental odyssey: the true story of 28,800 bath toys lost at sea and of the beachcombers, oceanographers, environmentalists, and fools, including the author, who went in search of them by Donovan Hohn