New Dialogue on Valerie Tagwira’s novel

I just received my copy of the Weaver Press-published novel, The Uncertainty of Hope. The first two chapters I have read present a promising plot. What I have begun to notice is the uncertainty of language in the novel. The characters use the Shona language once in a while, then each Shona sentence is usually followed by its English equivalent. That’s a bit disturbing because it raises the issue of audience and how writing in English conflicts with the messages we are trying to convey. The writing becomes a bit journalistic, or anthropological, but then I say this because I spent those early UZ years arguing about African literature and the issue of language, and I am into revisionary Ngugism. I see what Tagwira is trying to do; I am just uncomfortable as I try to imagine what goes on in a writer’s mind when he or she faces the challenge of satisfying a foreign audience while attempting to serve a local readership, which rarely reads, cannot afford to read. I see myself writing a long paper on the double-consciousness of the writer and the production of linguistic uncertainty, possibly reacting to the syntactical dualities of character dialogue as possible forms of some type of literary double-speak (this word will grain a new shed of meaning) or apologia. The first review of Valerie Tagwira’s The Uncertainty of Hope will be featured at Mototi Litscapes.
Those who have read Yvonne Vera and Tsitsi Dangarembga should add Valerie Tagwira to their shelves. These Zimbabwean ladies make us proud just as Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie has made many readers proud. See Tagwira’s website.

Below is the dialogue that Ambrose and I have begun:
Ambrose Musiyiwa said…
I have read your comments on The Uncertainty of Hope and I look forward to reading your review.

Although your post is very short, you make allusions to concepts that are as engaging as they are diverse.

I also get the impression here that some of your comments are more about you as a reader, a blogger and a writer than they are about Valerie Tagwira’s novel. Which is as it should be.

The thing I found particularly challenging about your brief comment is that you refer to a lot of concepts but do not really define them or adequately relate any of them to The Uncertainty of Hope. You also sound self-contradictory in places.

For example, although you’ve only read the first two chapters of the novel, you describe the language used in the novel as indicating “uncertainty”. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Does this uncertainty of language add to or take away from the story which the novel tells? Why do you say so?

You suggest that the manner in which language is used in the novel is “disturbing” and that it raises “the issue of audience”. You suggest that the fact that Tagwira uses Shona words and phrases in parts of her novel, this suggests that writing in English causes conflict between the writer and the message he/she is trying to convey. But aren’t all messages, regardless of the channel or medium that is used, aren’t they all like that? At work, at home, at school, when you are with others or when you are on your own,how many times have you asked yourself questions like: “Should I say this? Is this the right time? How best can I put this across? What’s the best word for this?”

You suggest that this conflict between the language used and the message, leads to writing that is “a bit journalistic or anthropological.” This is another fascinating but undefined concept. When a novel is “a bit journalistic” or “anthropological” what does it do? What does it not do? In what way is The Uncertainty of Hope “journalistic” or “anthropological”. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Why do you say so?

You reveal that at the UZ you spent some years arguing about “African literature and the issue of language.” How do those arguments relate to The Uncertainty of Hope? Also, what is Ngugism? What is a revisionary Ngugist? And what would be the revisionary Ngugist’s take on the novel?

You say Tagwira is trying to satisfy a foreign audience as well as a local audience. While you tell us that the local audience “rarely reads, cannot afford to read”, you do not really define either the local audience or the foreign audience. Is the local audience the author’s family and relatives, school mates, colleagues, circle of friends, acquaintances, village/town folk or country men? What makes these the local audience? Bear in mind that the author was born in Zimbabwe, grew up there and went to school there but now lives and works in London. Which is the foreign audience? The one that doesn’t speak Shona? The one that doesn’t speak English? The one that lives outside Zimbabwe or outside Africa? The one that lives outside London and Europe? Why do you say so?

Also, how successfully or unsuccessfully does Tagwira manage to create a world that both the foreign and the local reader can relate to? Why do you say so?

You suggest that because Tagwira has the foreign and local reader to think about, it creates in her a ‘double-consciousness.’You’ll need to talk about this a little bit more. What is it? How does it come out in The Uncertainty of Hope? Does it add to or take away from the novel? In what way? Is it a good thing or a bad thing? Why?

You go on to suggest that because the author has this ‘double-consciousness’, The Uncertainty of Hope is ‘literary double-speak’. What do you mean?

While we are still on the issue of language and audiences, how would you compare The Uncertainty of Hope to a novel like Chenjerai Hove’s Bones?

You conclude your post by saying that those who have read Yvonne Vera, Tsitsi Dangarembga and Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie “should add Valerie Tagwira to their shelves” because these ladies “make us proud.” This sounds like a contradiction? And, who is us? How and why do these ladies make us proud? And, are there similarities and/or differences between Vera, Dangarembga, Adichie and Tagwira? Why do you say so?

October 8, 2007 7:30 PM
Emmanuel Sigauke said…
Revised & Updated Response to Ambrose.

Thanks, Ambrose, for the comments and your questions. So far I have posted only initial reactions to this book, but the review will be posted soon at Mototi Litscape. Let me, however, address your last set of questions, the ones regarding, the “ladies making us proud”. Adichie, Dangarembga, Tagwira have helped put the literature of Africa on the world map (and that’s a good thing, and good means good). All African writing that meets the kind of attention theirs has gotten (lately Adichie has become the African-writer celebrity), makes readers interested in African literature proud because of the exposure the writers give to the literary landscape of Africa (to be developed later).

A bit about the language issue and the double-consciousness: Often double consciousness, in its Dubois origins, is a state in which the writer or the elite feels at one with his/her people but cannot fully relate with their experiences and in talking about their concerns ends up mainly becoming what Gayatri Chaktravorty Spivak has called the “native informant” – in which case the audience becomes primarily foreign, consumers of the information about the people back home (or the people here). The author is located somewhere between the home and foreign consumer of his/her literature and so on. In The Uncertainty of Hope, the uncertainty of language is in the way sentences spoken by the characters are presented in two languages, as if the narrator is obligated to translate concepts as she goes. This is a common trend of literatures in the borderlands (the between-location voices that do not feel content with use of one language at a time to convey a message). What I have seen so far in The Uncertainty of Hope is the conveyance of a message using two languages, one coming to the aid of the other as if the Other (deliberately capitalized here) alone is unable to stand on its own. Shona in this context would be the medium that the writer chose not to use, but returns to for the untranslatable, which is then translated; thus we end up reading two sentences from two separate languages conveying the same messages. This transposition of the two languages is just one example of the uncertainty of language (the reading I have done so far allows me to react this way, but I cannot judge whether or not that adds anything to the novel). I can, however, infer that the narrator is aware of a linguistic void that this pairing of sentences from different languages serves. Again, this is an early reaction, paving the way for the long review. Let me not even get into Ngugism (a word I have coined for a purpose I will reveal later), at least for now, since I still have to finish reading the book.

October 8, 2007 9:52 PM
Ambrose Musiyiwa said…
I am also hoping that when you get around to writing the review, you will factor in the fact that almost all Zimbabweans speak more than one language and that most of them constantly switching between languages in any given conversation.

October 9, 2007 11:33 AM
Emmanuel Sigauke said…
My language concern goes beyond the habitual switch from one language to another in dialogue; it’s common in a lot of languages, and used well, it makes writing beautiful. Chicano writers have done a great job showing code-switching (from Spanish to English, vice-versa) in their characters’ speech.

The Shona-English issue in The Uncertainty of Hope brings another dimension: something is said in Shona (italicized), then the sentence, on the page, is followed by an English translation, what you would see in some type of bilingual prose. Am I saying this is a bad thing? At this point I don’t know, but I suspect this is done to sovle an issue to do with audience.

5 thoughts on “New Dialogue on Valerie Tagwira’s novel

  1. I have read your comments on The Uncertainty of Hope and I look forward to reading your review.

    Although your post is very short, you make allusions to concepts that are as engaging as they are diverse.

    I also get the impression here that some of your comments are more about you as a reader, a blogger and a writer than they are about Valerie Tagwira’s novel. Which is as it should be.

    The thing I found particularly challenging about your brief comment is that you refer to a lot of concepts but do not really define them or adequately relate any of them to The Uncertainty of Hope. You also sound self-contradictory in places.

    For example, although you’ve only read the first two chapters of the novel, you describe the language used in the novel as indicating “uncertainty”. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Does this uncertainty of language add to or take away from the story which the novel tells? Why do you say so?

    You suggest that the manner in which language is used in the novel is “disturbing” and that it raises “the issue of audience”. You suggest that the fact that Tagwira uses Shona words and phrases in parts of her novel, this suggests that writing in English causes conflict between the writer and the message he/she is trying to convey. But aren’t all messages, regardless of the channel or medium that is used, aren’t they all like that? At work, at home, at school, when you are with others or when you are on your own,how many times have you asked yourself questions like: “Should I say this? Is this the right time? How best can I put this across? What’s the best word for this?”

    You suggest that this conflict between the language used and the message, leads to writing that is “a bit journalistic or anthropological.” This is another fascinating but undefined concept. When a novel is “a bit journalistic” or “anthropological” what does it do? What does it not do? In what way is The Uncertainty of Hope “journalistic” or “anthropological”. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Why do you say so?

    You reveal that at the UZ you spent some years arguing about “African literature and the issue of language.” How do those arguments relate to The Uncertainty of Hope? Also, what is Ngugism? What is a revisionary Ngugist? And what would be the revisionary Ngugist’s take on the novel?

    You say Tagwira is trying to satisfy a foreign audience as well as a local audience. While you tell us that the local audience “rarely reads, cannot afford to read”, you do not really define either the local audience or the foreign audience. Is the local audience the author’s family and relatives, school mates, colleagues, circle of friends, acquaintances, village/town folk or country men? What makes these the local audience? Bear in mind that the author was born in Zimbabwe, grew up there and went to school there but now lives and works in London. Which is the foreign audience? The one that doesn’t speak Shona? The one that doesn’t speak English? The one that lives outside Zimbabwe or outside Africa? The one that lives outside London and Europe? Why do you say so?

    Also, how successfully or unsuccessfully does Tagwira manage to create a world that both the foreign and the local reader can relate to? Why do you say so?

    You suggest that because Tagwira has the foreign and local reader to think about, it creates in her a ‘double-consciousness.’You’ll need to talk about this a little bit more. What is it? How does it come out in The Uncertainty of Hope? Does it add to or take away from the novel? In what way? Is it a good thing or a bad thing? Why?

    You go on to suggest that because the author has this ‘double-consciousness’, The Uncertainty of Hope is ‘literary double-speak’. What do you mean?

    While we are still on the issue of language and audiences, how would you compare The Uncertainty of Hope to a novel like Chenjerai Hove’s Bones?

    You conclude your post by saying that those who have read Yvonne Vera, Tsitsi Dangarembga and Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie “should add Valerie Tagwira to their shelves” because these ladies “make us proud.” This sounds like a contradiction? And, who is us? How and why do these ladies make us proud? And, are there similarities and/or differences between Vera, Dangarembga, Adichie and Tagwira? Why do you say so?

  2. Thanks Ambrose for the comments and the questions your questions. So far I have posted initial reactions to this blog, but the review will be posted soon at the indicated website. Let me, however, address your last set of questions, the ones regarding, the “ladies making us proud”. Adichie, Dangarembga, Tagwira have helped put the literature of Africa on the world map (and that’s a good thing, and good means good). All African writing that meets the kind of attention theirs has gotten(lately Adichie has become the African-writer celebrity), makes readers interested in African literature proud because of the exposure they give to the literary landscape of Africa (to be devloped later).

    A bit about the language issue and the double-consciousness: Often double consciousness, in its Dubois origins, is one where the writer or the elite feels at one with his/her people but cannot fully relate with their experience and in talking about their concerns ends up mainly becoming the what Gayatri Spivak has called the “native informant” – in which case the audience becomes primarily foreign. In The Uncertainty of Hope, the uncertainty of language is in the way sentences spoken by the characters are presented in two languages, as if the narrator is obligated to translate concepts as she goes. This is a common trend of literatures in the borderlands (the between-location voices that do not feel content with use of one language at a time to convey a message). Gloria Anzaldua, writing in English and Spanish, has seen the need, or has ignored the need to use one language to carry the burden or beauty of another language and in Borderlands she deliberately uses either English or Spanish, switching and not explaining or translating).
    What I have seen so far in The Uncertainty of Hope conveyance of a message using two languages, one coming to the aid of the other as if the other alone is unable to stand on its own. This thus invokes questions about audience, and whether or not it is necessary anymore to have to translate concepts of another. Let me not even get into Ngugism, at least for now, since I still have to finish reading the book.

  3. Revised & Updated Response to Ambrose.

    Thanks, Ambrose, for the comments and your questions. So far I have posted only initial reactions to this book, but the review will be posted soon at Mototi Litscape. Let me, however, address your last set of questions, the ones regarding, the “ladies making us proud”. Adichie, Dangarembga, Tagwira have helped put the literature of Africa on the world map (and that’s a good thing, and good means good). All African writing that meets the kind of attention theirs has gotten (lately Adichie has become the African-writer celebrity), makes readers interested in African literature proud because of the exposure the writers give to the literary landscape of Africa (to be developed later).

    A bit about the language issue and the double-consciousness: Often double consciousness, in its Dubois origins, is a state in which the writer or the elite feels at one with his/her people but cannot fully relate with their experiences and in talking about their concerns ends up mainly becoming what Gayatri Chaktravorty Spivak has called the “native informant” – in which case the audience becomes primarily foreign, consumers of the information about the people back home (or the people here). The author is located somewhere between the home and foreign consumer of his/her literature and so on. In The Uncertainty of Hope, the uncertainty of language is in the way sentences spoken by the characters are presented in two languages, as if the narrator is obligated to translate concepts as she goes. This is a common trend of literatures in the borderlands (the between-location voices that do not feel content with use of one language at a time to convey a message). What I have seen so far in The Uncertainty of Hope is the conveyance of a message using two languages, one coming to the aid of the other as if the Other (deliberately capitalized here) alone is unable to stand on its own. Shona in this context would be the medium that the writer chose not to use, but returns to for the untranslatable, which is then translated; thus we end up reading two sentences from two separate languages conveying the same messages. This transposition of the two languages is just one example of the uncertainty of language (the reading I have done so far allows me to react this way, but I cannot judge whether or not that adds anything to the novel). I can, however, infer that the narrator is aware of a linguistic void that this pairing of sentences from different languages serves. Again, this is an early reaction, paving the way for the long review. Let me not even get into Ngugism (a word I have coined for a purpose I will reveal later), at least for now, since I still have to finish reading the book.

  4. I am also hoping that when you get around to writing the review, you will factor in the fact that almost all Zimbabweans speak more than one language and that most of them constantly switching between languages in any given conversation.

  5. My language concern goes beyond the habitual switch from one language to another in dialogue; it’s common in a lot of languages, and used well, it makes writing beautiful. Chicano writers have done a great job showing code-switching (from Spanish to English, vice-versa) in their characters’ speech.

    The Shona-English issue in The Uncertainty of Hope brings another dimension: something is said in Shona (italicized), then the sentence, on the page, is followed by an English translation, what you would see in some type of bilingual prose. Am I saying this is a bad thing? At this point I don’t know, but I suspect this is done to sovle an issue to do with audience.

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