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Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún: Renaissance is Badly Needed in African Language Literature

Kola Tubosun

Image: Courtesy Kola Tubosun

36-year-old Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún is a poet, blogger, linguist and teacher. In 2009, he received a Fulbright scholarship to teach Yoruba at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville, through the Foreign Language Teaching Assistantship (FLTA). He holds BA and MA degrees in Linguistics from the University of Ibadan and SIU, Edwardsville, respectively. He is the creator of Yorubaname.com, a multimedia dictionary which now contains over six thousand names. In 2016, he became the first African to receive a Premio Ostana Special Prize for Mother Tongue Literature – “a prize given to any individual who has done writing and notable advocacy for the defence of an indigenous language”. In 2015, he was shortlisted for CNN African Journalist Award, the first blogger to be so recognized. His entry was a story entitled “Abeokuta’s Living History” published in KTravula.com.

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NAZA AMAEZE OKOLI: Your chapbook Attempted Speech and Other Fatherhood Poems ​is dedicated to your son. I think it’s priceless – the fact that he’ll grow knowing he inspired a whole volume of literature. Is he old enough now to read poetry?

KOLA TUBOSUN: Thank you. Most of the poems in that collection were inspired by my son, the process of making and meeting him, and other contemplations on the idea of parenthood. He will be four years old this February, so there’s still a long way ahead before he can understand what poetry is, or what that particular chapbook was about. I remember being given a couple of books my father had written, when I wasn’t old enough to appreciate them, so I’m going to try and be more patient with my own children. In this case, it will be up to my son whether he will care enough about it to read. But I wrote them for myself. He just happened to have been the inspiration. Like I said in an interview about the chapbook, I hope he asks lots of questions.

NAZA AMAEZE OKOLI: One of my professors at the University of Lagos would tell us how a former student of his inspired one of his works; he would end the story by expressing his disappointment that nobody in my own class had inspired him to write even a line. Is writing about something or someone the same as being inspired by them? How does it all work for you?

KOLA TUBOSUN: I have noticed that I write poems a lot when I’m going through intense emotional periods. It could be positive or negative, but it’s usually so overwhelming that writing is a way of escape. I once completed a manuscript of poems over a couple of days because the memories of what I wanted to document had suddenly became intensely present. My wife had travelled for a couple of weeks so I had not just the motivation but also the mental space to put them down. I have been inspired​ by people to write, but they haven’t been as satisfactory as being inspired by feelings, thoughts, memories, perspectives, questions, and a compelling imperative to relieve myself of some recurring mental or emotional burden.

NAZA AMAEZE OKOLI: Especially last year – but also before – you interviewed a good number of Nigerian writers. What’s your general impression about Nigerian writing today?

KOLA TUBOSUN: I have been delighted by the number of Nigerian, African, and international writers I have had the privilege of speaking with over the last couple of years. Each is full of different stories, and I’ve enjoyed each one. I’ve even begun thinking about putting a book together containing those interviews, organized by theme, genre, or artistic direction. Maybe I’ll get a publisher soon.

Nigerian writing (but especially publishing) seems to have come into its own, with Kachifo, Cassava, Ouida, Paréssia, Narrative Landscape, etc stepping in to help provide visibility. It bears saying that this is only relevant because a downturn happened from the eighties to the early 2000s, when no new or fresh work was being created, and Nigerian literature was defined only by the Soyinkas and the Achebes. But then the likes of Adichie, Abani, Atta, Habila, etc came in with disparate sparks which have now blossomed into a thriving forest fire.

My general impression of contemporary work is that they are breaking new grounds. This generation is no longer limited by certain preoccupations that the earlier generations were defined by. I mentioned to an audience in Korea earlier in January, using the quote by Toni Morrison that “the big purpose of racism is distraction”, that I believe that there was something in the work of the earlier generation of African writers that seemed distracted by its perception as inferior by outside powers, so it had to create work to speak back to that perception. Achebe had to defend his use of English.

Senghor had Negritude. Sóyínká alluded to that in his often quoted quip that a tiger didn’t need to proclaim its tigritude. In some way, I believe that Soyinka’s often dense prose is also a result of this conditioning. But this is 2018. The world has evolved somewhat to not always expect writers to prove anything to be successful. Tẹ́jú Cole can write whole essays or short stories using tweets alone. Chimamanda Adichie can turn a Facebook post into a best-selling book. Yẹ́misí Aríbisálá can write a book that sells out in a few weeks on the subject of Nigerian food with as little care as possible to whether it is ‘international’ enough. And Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀ can tell a familiar Yorùbá story in an extraordinary way without losing her Nigerian authenticity. There is a certain freedom to be yourself, I think, to write about exactly what you want. While I am still unsatisfied that this freedom hasn’t yet extended to language, we have made substantial progress. I’m heartened, for instance, that Adébáyọ̀’s name is properly marked on her book, and that a lot of new writers are now paying attention to the proper formatting of African names in their work.

NAZA AMAEZE OKOLI: Has there been any significant change in the quality and focus of these writings? And what do these say about the future of Nigerian literature?

KOLA TUBOSUN: The focus of course has changed. The Soyinka/Achebe generation focused on politics, colonialism, and social issues. Our generation has tackled more of social, individual cultural/gender/sexual/racial identity, and issues of migration. The sexual and gender revolution seems to have been the most pronounced (Chimamanda Adichie, Olúmidé Pópóọlá, Jude Dibia, Unoma Azuah), but there have also been identity issues (Tẹ́jú Cole, Chris Abani, Sarah Ládípọ̀ Manyika), fantasy (Nnedi Okorafor, Odafe Atógun), and food (Yẹ́misí Aríbisálà) and other memoirs exploring migration and personal identity (Okey Ndibe).

But like I said, I am more interested in writings that either come in Nigerian indigenous languages, or take on the issue of language in some manner of exploration. Our literature has grown, matured, and thrived, but they are still dependent on the vehicle of English (or French, etc) to reach the audience. A new renaissance is badly needed in African language literature, and I can’t wait to see it. We need more translations, both from local languages to English, but also from English into our indigenous languages. There’s surely an audience for it. We just need to impress them enough to bring out their money.

NAZA AMAEZE OKOLI: Much has changed since the beginning of modern African literature. Not many writers today feel that their writing should serve to document aspects of traditional African cultures. Do you consider this a failing on the part of contemporary writers? 

KOLA TUBOSUN: Well, documenting “traditional” culture isn’t really the purpose of the writer, though it is often a welcome by-product. What’s “traditional” anyway? Culture evolves all the time. Plus there are anthropologists, or linguists like me, who work deliberately in that space, though our purposes are different. The writer’s purpose is to express their truth as they see it, through art that is provocative and transformative, using the tools and visuals that the audience can recognize. It turns out in the end that good writing becomes a bearer of culture and a reference point the about the character of a particular culture in a space in time. But if they’re crafted only​ ​with that intention in mind, I imagine that the product will be a bore. Cervantes’ Don Quixote is great because it is a funny, relatable, and transgressive story, but also because the setting provides us with some anthropological value that doesn’t overshadow the literature itself. In short, let writers write. In a generation or two from now, the good products of today will have risen to the top, and the chaff would have frittered away.

NAZA AMAEZE OKOLI: I think it’s fair to say that never before have Nigerian languages been in greater danger of extinction than now. Many children are growing up in Nigerian cities without learning to speak any Nigerian language. What do you see 50 years from now? Hundred years?

KOLA TUBOSUN: There are three major places where we have failed our local languages: politics, literature, and technology. With politics, I also include our decision as parents to not pass on the languages to our children, as well as our policy on education that has resulted in Nigerian languages being taken out of the school syllabus such that the only languages you learn in school today are French and English. In buying into the colonial idea that our languages are inferior to English or to other European languages, we have set them on a course of extinction. It has also affected the other two areas: literature and technology. It’s also a little ironical that local language literature thrived better when British publishers controlled the Nigerian publishing industry. Fágúnwà was published during this time. Now that we have had a resurgence of publishing, manned by educated Nigerians, we have not had a corresponding resurgence in the publication of local language literature. Will a Tutùọlá (who wrote in broken Enlgish) or Òkédìjí (who had a prolific career in Yorùbá language literature) find a publisher today? I doubt it. Publishers will blame the absence of a large audience for these work, but that’s only passing the buck. When we are ready, we will make significant investment in scouting for talents, aggressively pushing their work, and the audience will show up. They are there. As we’ve seen with Nollywood and the Nigerian music industry (Phyno, Adékúnlé Gold, Falz, and Olámìdé are quick examples), people will buy a good product even if it’s in the local language, even if it’s in a language they don’t understand. And when I speak of technology, I speak of the absence of enough language technology tools with which to express ourselves in native languages. Siri doesn’t exist in any African language. Same with Google Home, Microsoft Cortana, or Amazon Echo. When you write on Microsoft Word, you still get African names underlined for being “strange”. It’s not just the fault of these big tech giants for not creating them. It’s also an indictment on our tech community on the continent. And this is what motivates my work at YorubaName.com and TTSYoruba.com, among others. We released a​ free tone-marking software in 2016 as a way to help people better write in Igbo and Yorùbá on the internet. Before now, people had to go pay money to buy special keyboards. In 50 or 100 years from now, I hope that the tide has been turned around. But I’m not just hoping. I’m hoping to be part of that change.

Kola Tubosun

Image: ktravula.com

NAZA AMAEZE OKOLI: Part of your campaign has bordered on making Nigerian languages (particularly Yoruba) available as tools on computer and social media programs. What has the response been like? I feel like many of us want to see our languages develop, but we’re often unwilling to undertake the task of nurturing them. And isn’t it unfair that we have to bear this burden, whereas some other languages seem to be doing quite well, unaided?

KOLA TUBOSUN: My work with YorubaName.com and language technology in general was driven by the realization that complaining isn’t enough – it never solves much – and the understanding that the little knowledge I have from my training as a linguist can also make a difference, however small. The response of the public has been very positive, which is why in 2018, we’re working to create a non-profit foundation under which we hope to take on these tasks more aggressively. It’s not something I can do alone, so an organization of this nature, set up to pursue advocacy for local language use in literature, technology, government, and in education, set up to create tools for using African languages in these environments, and set up to support projects that advance those aims all around Nigeria and the continent, will be very helpful. No such pressure group exists, so it has been hard to advocate for change in a way that is loud and visible enough. A foundation will also ensure that the work can continue when I’m no longer on the scene.

NAZA AMAEZE OKOLI: I’ll take you right to your most remarkable work so far – YorubaName.com. Frankly, I would never have imagined a dictionary of names as a viable way to begin this great task of preserving our culture. Why did you consider it important, and how did you know it would be this successful? 

KOLA TUBOSUN: I had no idea about whether it would be successful or not. You have to remember that I’d done the project as an undergraduate at the University of Ìbàdàn in 2005, and forgotten about it, though then it was on a CD and had just 1000 names picked out from books. In 2015, all I wanted to do was have the undergraduate project online so that people could add more names to it. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it had more potential as a way to bring together people with knowledge of Yorùbá language and culture. I got volunteers who shared the vision and that motivated me. I was also motivated by watching this​ video of David Oyèlọ́wọ̀ laughing with Jimmy Fallon about the difficulty of Americans to pronounce his name, and that got me really upset. How hard would it have been for Jimmy Fallon to go online or call a Nigerian person to teach him how to pronounce the name? Would this have happened with a Russian name or a Swedish one? I kept debating myself, and coming up with random answers. It would probably be better if a website exists where foreigners can also go and learn the meaning and pronunciation of Yorùbá names, so I said, well, it will be up to me then.

Of course, later, people who speak other languages would keep asking me why I focused on just one language. My response that “if you’re interested, I can help set up one for your language as well” didn’t get me enough volunteers, so we decided to just start creating for as many languages as we can, ourselves, and hope that volunteers will come and sustain it.

NAZA AMAEZE OKOLI: I’m just curious – how many names are there in Yoruba? How many can there be? I see new names springing up every now and then in many Nigerian languages. Is this phenomenon peculiar to Africa – I’m not sure whether other parts of the world bother, at all? And we also do this using the English language – take names like Endurance, Virtue, Favour, and so on.

KOLA TUBOSUN: This question about how many names Yorùbá has is one I’ve stopped asking, or the number will overwhelm me. I have a book at home by the late Professor Adébóyè Babalọlá, and it has about 20,000 Yorùbá names. And still, sometimes when I get a new name added to the dictionary, and I go to the book to compare the meaning to the meaning suggested by the submitter, I realize that Babalọlá’s book doesn’t have it. Along with names that are traditional and common, there are new names being created every day, by new combinations. As you know, modern Yorùbá Christians have also found inventive ways to turn all old names beginning with roots of Yorùbá gods (like Ṣàngó, Ògún, Ọ̀ṣun, etc) into Jésù roots. Thus we will keep having new names for as long as the Yorùbá continue to live. That creativity and facility with language has always been a feature in the culture, so I’m not bothered. But I want to document them all, before we lose all the elders that carry their stories in their memory. Those who want to name their children Endurance​ can continue to do so, but when Endurance​ grows up and wants to give his own child a Yorùbá name, he’d find our website resource.

NAZA AMAEZE OKOLI: Your pinned tweet contains a list of your plans for the year. The broad picture is to create multimedia dictionaries in Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa. Isn’t Yorubaname.com already a multimedia dictionary (it’s got audio, for example)? And don’t you think venturing into Igbo and Hausa might hurt your progress in the Yoruba project? 

KOLA TUBOSUN: The idea I itemized on the tweet has to do with multimedia lexical​ dictionaries. The YorubaName work is a Names​ ​Dictionary. It only provides definitions and support for names in Yorùbá. The IgboNames project will also provide support for Igbo Names. But these lexical dictionaries are designed to be the primary source of definitions for lexical items in the said languages; i.e. words and ideas. So, for instance, you hear a word like “asọ̀” or “àróbọ̀” in a song or on a signboard or in a book, the only thing you can do at this moment is to either ask someone who speaks the language to tell you, or go find a print dictionary. Or ask on twitter/facebook. I want it such that you can look at an app on your phone and find all you’re looking for. It will also have audio, like YorubaName has. But I want to do more. I want it to have each definition in the language in question. So the definition of a Yorùbá word comes first in Yorùbá. Then you can find out its part of speech, its etymology and morphology, etc. And then, later in the page, you can have its English translation. All the dictionaries you’ll see today, whether print or electronically, are usually just translation dictionaries. Like Google Translate. You see the word, then you see its English equivalent. We all know that the meaning of African language words are not always that linear. My ambition is to create a place, a community, and a tool to position these languages to better empower the next generation that might want to use them. Oxford or Webster’s or Cambridge, or any of these dictionaries we use today in English were created by dedicated people who cared about the standardization, and survival, of their languages. The African Languages Foundation hopes to become the catalyst for these kinds of development for our own languages.

NAZA AMAEZE OKOLI: Finally, I got this line from your preface to Attempted Speech​: “…the English language is limiting enough”. Is it your opinion that we can never learn the English language as well as our native ones?

KOLA TUBOSUN: Well, I’ve lived in the US so I am familiar with both the reality, limitation, and politics of my English language competence. The term “native speaker” is reserved only for those who were born, grow up, or live, in places where English language is considered spoken in a “native” environment. That word “native” is one of the most politicized. If you have American citizenship, a couple of workplaces will employ you as a “native speaker” even if you have limited vocabulary, even if you got the citizenship just a few months earlier. If you’re a permanent resident who was born and raised in Abẹ́òkuta, Nigeria, you’re not considered a native speaker, even if you’ve spoken English all your life or have a Nobel Prize in Literature.

So, my point there was to recognize the limitation first in my ability to ever speak​ like a native speaker – even though I’ve spoken English and Yorùbá as first languages from birth, because the quality of Yorùbá reinforcement I get is way better than that I get from English. And second, in my ability to be considered​ a native speaker for the purpose of public or employment or assessment. I did have to write the Test of English as a Foreign​ Language before I was admitted into the MA program, after all. And third, in my ability to ever be more competent in English (nor should want to be) than I am in Yorùbá, since for Yorùbá, there is only local reinforcement that seems to be disappearing by the day, by every dying grandparent. English, Nigerian English nevertheless, is everywhere I look: on television, in schools, on billboards, on the internet, on my phones, in newspapers. The only language that I stand the chance of really missing out on is Yorùbá, which is no longer taught in schools, no longer used in newspapers or on signboards, or in education, and even more rarely in public life, unless one wants to be called “tribalist” or worse. So, looked at that way, efforts to improve communication competence in these foreign languages alone​ (which a number of modern middle-class parents seem to prefer) than keeping our indigenous languages from going extinct, and making them more dynamic and more capable of serving modern needs, seem like a misguided waste of time – like ignoring the spread of leprosy to pursue the cure to a pimple. Probably a more provocative analogy than required, but you get the idea.

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