Finding My Voice Creative Writing and The Burden of Language

‘My fear of writing in pidgin English stemmed majorly from an anxiety that foreign readers might not understand my work,’ the author writes. ‘But everything changed after I read Vagabonds!. I now know that I have a responsibility to write in my most authentic voice.’

When I first started writing, I avoided allowing my indigenous language, Yoruba, to ‘interfere’ in my work. I struggled through the process of explaining in English what I could easily have expressed in Yoruba. If I had to use a word like garri, I would spend the next few sentences explaining that garri is a food product extracted from cassava and either eaten plain with cold water or prepared with hot water to make eba. I would then also launch into a long-winded explanation of what eba was.

This tendency to over explain was influenced by the kinds of books I read growing up. Until I started reading books by African authors, there were things I mixed-up, such as using ‘high school’ when I really meant ‘secondary school’ in my writing. In some books I read, high school students didn’t wear uniforms and left the class immediately after the bell rang. In Nigeria, secondary school students wear uniforms and do not leave class unless the teacher does. I would also contest the usage of certain words, such as when I argued with my brother that his use of the word ‘flushing’ was wrong because ‘Flushing’ is a place in New York. At the time, I was reading Bharati Mukherjee’s Jasmine.

Everything changed when I started reading African books. It became difficult to revert to my old habits of thinking and writing. Some months ago, for the first time in my life, I pulled a piece out of a publication because the editor brutally edited the work to meet the taste of the audience of the publication. Though the crux of my ideas remained intact, some of my expressions—which were directly translated from my language—were altered. A part of me still feels like I made a mistake. Getting featured in that publication would have been a very important milestone in my career as a writer. But it would have come at the cost of compromising my language.

ESCAPING MY ‘PIDGIN-HOLE’

Writing, for me, has always been an exercise in exhibiting bravery and obeying instinct. When I write, I follow the voice in my head. Many writing workshops I have attended emphasize the importance of ‘finding one’s voice’, and while I don’t think I have found mine yet, I know that when I write, I am obeying the words being whispered in my subconscious. The factors that influence my voice—language, environment, culture—are what make me different from other writers. When these are missing in my writing, I am betraying something in me, or I am not being original.

I believe language forms the majority of what is considered a writer’s ‘voice’. When something does not exist in any language, it does not exist in real life. When I write in English, I write to reflect my culturally diverse background. I write with Nigerian English; an adaptation of standard English spoken by Nigerians. Writing in Nigerian English means sometimes my expressions might be mixed with morphemes like ‘o’ to express the nuance of an emotion. For instance, ‘I am not there o,’ to express the extent of my non-involvement in a particular situation. Code mixing, code switching and transfer are the features that contribute to the originality of Nigerian English. So, when I write in a different tone to fit into a Western publication, I am not following my voice, and when I am not following my voice, I am simply not writing.

I have never thought I could write using Nigerian pidgin—a combination of English, indigenous languages and broken English. Pidgin is the fusion of disparate languages. Nigerian Pidgin dates back to the 1400s when Portuguese merchants came to Nigeria for trade. The Portuguese were among the first Europeans Nigerians encountered, though 1553 is said to be the actual contact of Nigerians with English. There, a mixture of languages happened for communication to occur, and that mixture gave root to the Nigerian Pidgin Nigerians speak today. My fear of writing in pidgin stemmed majorly from an anxiety that foreign readers might not understand it. Though I sometimes used pidgin expressions in the first drafts of my work, I would edit them out before I submitted them to publications. And then, I read Vagabonds!

Vagabonds! is Eloghosa Osunde’s debut novel that narrates the stories of Èkó, Lagos and those living in it, though the megacity pretends they don’t exist. In short stories like Gold and There Is Love at Home, Osunde has previously used pidgin as a narrative device. In Vagabonds!, however, she amplifies the medium. The New York Times reviewed the book using one of the pidgin expressions in the book: ‘Because if you dey wait for us to turn our own back and start to go, then my dear, na the weight of our eye go surely kill you’. There is no better way that could be said. That expression would not have carried the same weight if it had been written in standard English. The reviewer, Chelsea Leu, is not Nigerian, and if a foreign national can express freely in pidgin for an international publication, why not me? This taught me that denying myself from infusing pidgin in my writing is simply denying myself the freedom of writing.

Asian authors like Yiyun Li, Jhumpa Lahiri and Chen Chen are unique because their distinct cultural backgrounds are evident in their works, despite the fact that they write in English. Chinua Achebe said in 1957 that ‘the price a world language (English) must be prepared to pay is submission to many different kinds of use.’ English has become a ‘promiscuous’ language whose ownership can no longer be claimed by one people. Journalist Dylan Lyons notes: ‘out of the world’s approximately 7.8 billion inhabitants, 1.35 billion speak English. The majority aren’t native English speakers.’

Contemporary Nigerian authors and poets such as Nome Emeka Patrick and Adedayo Agarau have published poems in international magazines and journals with pidgin-infused lines. This assures me that being as authentic as possible is the best way to amplify my identity and culture. It is only just and fair and reasonable for every writer and editor in the literary world to respect every writer’s language. Publications should allow for linguistic inclusiveness because it advances cultural values and encourages diversity. So, if I end this essay with pidgin, no dey surprised, I fit run am like that

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