Linguistic and Intentional Hybridity, or the African Aesthetics of Proverbial Quoting in Selected Novels by Ayi Kwei Armah
Two creative thrusts straddle the poetic imagination of the modern African writer, with regard to the literary heritage of the West. Ashcroft et al. (2004: 37) call them appropriation and abrogation. Abrogation, on the one hand, is a disjunctive process which involves the rejection of the Western language and its culture, because it perceives them as remnants of the colonial past. Appropriation, on the other hand, is not as clear cut. It looks for accommodation rather than rejection. It involves two languages, two cultures in a negotiation process that attempts to create local meaning, a particular worldview, with foreign words. Postcolonial literature, therefore, grows out of a tension, an agon, in the poetic imagination of the writer, torn as he is by these two creative impulses, these two ideological postures. Translated into the discursive categories of hybridity, appropriation and amalgamation correspond to Bakhtin’s typology of hybrid discourses (1992): the organic, "unintentional, unconscious" hybrid, and the deliberate “intentional” hybrid. The former is the discourse in which the mixture of languages is fused into a new system, which elicits the historical evolution of all languages, whereas the latter is the "internally dialogic" form, in which languages and ideologies are consciously set against each other. Bakhtin sees the first kind of hybrid structure as characteristic of any living, evolving language, while he assimilates the second to the immanently dialogised nature of the language in the novel. In other words, organic hybrid discourses involve mixing and fusion. They are part and parcel of a natural process in language and cultural contact. Bakhtin explains that they are always mute and opaque. Nevertheless, they remain historically “productive [… with] potential for new world views, with new ‘internal forms’ for perceiving the world” (ibid. 360). Contrary to this kind, the intentional hybrid comes as a result of an artistic intention to dialogize hybridity; an artistic intention that produces disjunction rather than fusion. The aim of this disjunctive type is separation, because it is essentially a contestatory site of more than one discourse, with one of them trying to unsettle, disarticulate the other discourses representing authority. For Bakhtin, therefore, hybridization, best concretized in the novel, is closely linked to subversion of authority. Applied to the modern development in creative writings in Africa, organic hybrid discourse finds its most conspicuous expression in the productions of the popular writers. According to Stephanie Newell (2000), organic hybridity, even if she does not use the Bakhtinian terms, was born among African popular writers as a result of a generational conflict between the elderly and the young. At the level of linguistic performance, including literature, the young popular writers affirmed their social status vis-à-vis the elderly, who manipulated the traditional proverbs, by drawing authority from “a shared pool of [foreign] literary languages, crossing different genres and language registers and, in the process, creating narrative whirlpools that are self-consciously textual” (18). In the traditional society, proverbs were, to paraphrase one of Chinua Achebe’s famous proverbs, the palm wine with which words are eaten. But in the acculturated context of the colonized society, the quotation replaced the proverb in its function of putting across and articulating arguments related to social issues such as money, corruption, gender relations etc. Unlike market popular writers, Africa’s international novelists seem to have resorted to intentional hybrid forms in their novels. Moved by deep nationalist convictions, these fiction writers assimilated their creative task to the nationalist struggle for political liberation and cultural revival. As a consequence, they meant their fictions as contestatory sites, in which they grappled with all the symbols of Western hegemony. Polemics, parody and anxiety of influence are all hallmarks of the discourse of these literary productions. Our aim in this study is to show that organic and hybrid discourses within the African novel may also exist side by side. In our view, the Ghanaian writer Ayi Kwei Armah is a novelist whose poetic imagination accords equal importance to the intentional and organic hybrid discourses. It is true that in his extra-literary writings he has encouraged critics to see the hybridization process of his novels as essentially contestatory vis-à-vis Western writers. For instance, in his response to Charles Larson (1971), who has drawn many parallels between his two first novels and many novels belonging to European writers, mainly the fictions of James Joyce, he took him to task by calling his criticism “larsony” (1976). However, Armah’s corpus of novels to date clearly shows that he is also the heir of the popular novelists, whose imagination was lit up by the poetic fire of their Western counterparts. Our interest in Armah’s novels is also sustained by the recent orientation in cultural studies towards the issue of hybridity. This aspect of his work has been overlooked by the critics of his early novels, written in the 1960’s and 1970’s, long before the translation of Mikhail Bakhtin’s works on the discourse of the novel and the publication of Homi Bhabha’s ground-breaking study The Location of Culture (1994). Subjected to literary and ideological categories which borrowed mostly from the existential ideology of Jean Paul Sartre, these novels were rejected on the basis that they lacked authenticity and commitment. In other words, The Beautyful Ones Are not Yet Born, Fragments and Why Are We So Blest? were misread because they were not timely; timely in the sense that they demanded critical categories that were not yet fully fledged at their time of publication. Today, with the recent publications on hybridity, Armah’s novels can be said to have become, in Nietzsche’s term, timely.