“This is Ma Trooth”
By Dohra Ahmad
Excerpted from Rotten English: A Literary Anthology, edited by Dohra Ahmad. Copyright (c) 2007 by Dohra Ahmad.
With permission from the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
One day as I was compiling material for this anthology, I sat in a train station in Jamaica, Queens reading Paul Keens-Douglas’s poem “Wukhand” when an older man sitting next to me began to chuckle. “That’s just how we talk back home,” he said, pointing at the page. “I never saw it written down before.” This collection consists of two and a half centuries of writing that had never been written down before, of authors codifying previously untranscribed speech patterns. Keens-Douglas’s poem opens boldly in the voice of a Trinidadian day-laborer addressing a potential employer with the plea “Sah, gimme a wuk nah. Ah lookin ole but ah strong.” Other selections capture the speech of convicts and child-soldiers, bluesmen and housemaids from Mississippi to Scotland to India. But more than that, Rotten English consists of literary works of extraordinary originality, power and beauty. The poem that amused my train-platform neighbor employs a spectacular range of literary techniques, weaving among direct address, personification, Biblical reference, and a good deal of humor. Like Keens-Douglas, all of the other authors contained here forge vernacular language into poems, short stories and novels that captivate readers with their artistry.
What would once have been pejoratively termed “dialect literature” has recently and decisively come into its own. Half of the novels that won the Man Booker prize over the past twelve years are in a non-standard English: the British Commonwealth’s most prestigious award honors passages like “It ain’t like your regular sort of day” (the opening line of Graham Swift’s Last Orders) and “What kind of fucken life is this?” (the persistent refrain of DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little). The reading public has been just as approving, eagerly devouring works like Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and Junot Díaz’s Drown. Many vernacular novels, Walker’s own as well as Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments, Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting and Alan Duff’s Once Were Warriors, have become acclaimed movies. This success is by no means limited to fiction; vernacular poetry has flourished in venues like the Nuyorican Poets Café and HBO’s Def Poetry Jam. The aim of this collection is to represent that literary florescence, along with the earlier works that anticipated and enabled it. Rotten English celebrates the stunningly unanticipated ways in which English has changed as it grew into a global language.
Before outlining its history, I should explain what I mean by “vernacular literature” in the first place. What the writers included here have in common is their choice of composing in linguistic codes that are primarily spoken rather than written, and also ones that have generally been perceived as having a lower status than Standard English. Those primarily spoken languages have as many labels as variants: among others, non-standard, dialect, demotic, slang, pidgin, creole, and patois. Such designations are slippery and politically loaded: “vernacular,” for example, originally referred to the language of a house-slave, but sounds to the modern ear more neutral than the often derogatory “dialect.” I prefer “vernacular” not only because of that neutrality, but even more so for the wonderful way in which it exemplifies the duality of the phenomenon it describes: from an openly debased slave language, to a mode associated with avant-garde experimentation and literary prowess. Other writers use different terms. Edward Kamau Brathwaite, the West Indian poet represented here in both the poetry and essay sections, coined “nation language” for the explicit purpose of replacing “dialect.” If dialect is the language spoken by caricatures, Brathwaite writes, nation language on the contrary is “an English which is like a howl, or a shout or a machine-gun or the wind or a wave.” It is organic, dynamic, confrontational. As far as what to call it, my own favorite formulation comes from the martyred Nigerian writer and environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, whose compelling and heartbreaking Sozaboy: A Novel in Rotten English provides the title of this collection. In his introductory note, Saro-Wiwa tells us of his goal to create a hybrid language that “throbs vibrantly enough and communicates effectively”; Sozaboy, along with vernacular literature more generally, far surpasses those criteria.
All of the writers in this volume compose in languages that throb vibrantly and communicate more than effectively. They each challenge the hierarchy implied by “dialect” vs. “language” or “standard” vs. “non-standard,” insisting that the codes they practice be recognized for their strength, coherence and communicative capacity. What we term Standard English, their work reminds us, is after all only one dialect among many – the one that happened to be spoken by the groups of people responsible for compiling dictionaries and assembling grammar manuals. As James Baldwin points out in the essay included here, language functions as “a political instrument, means, and proof of power,” and only politics separates a language from a dialect. But whatever the label used, vernacular literature is something that we immediately recognize when we see it. It may be easier to define by what it is not: it is not what we learned in school and, as my neighbor in the train station perceived, not something that generally appears in writing. In fact, the term “vernacular literature” is something of an oxymoron, for the very definition of “vernacular” is a native or local language, in specific contrast to a literary one. The works included here derive much of their power – as well as their complexity – from this inherent, and inherently exciting, paradox.
Vernacular authors of our own time are not the first to revolt against an established literary language. Though we experience their works as innovative and fresh, they follow a literary lineage that dates back centuries. When Chaucer wrote his Canterbury Tales in Middle English instead of French, when Dante composed in Italian instead of Latin, they too offended prevailing literary sensibilities by using a primarily oral language. These literary revolts then became consolidated into standard forms, so much so that we now take their language completely for granted. Linguists and literary scholars may disagree over how much credit to bestow upon individuals like Chaucer, or Shakespeare after him; but what is clear is that the combination of gifted and popular vernacular writers with print technology promoted the local lingo of one city – London – to an early version of what we now recognize as Standard English. (The Jamaican poet Louise Bennett makes this point brilliantly in her poem “Bans O’Killing,” reminding an apocryphal Standard-English-enamored listener that “Dah language we yuh proud o’/ We yuh honor and respeck,/ Po’ Mass Charlie! Yuh noh sey/ Dat it spring from dialect!”)
It is that particular local dialect that British imperialism then exported around the world over the next three hundred years. This volume owes its wide reach to the span of England’s empire – and more specifically to the empire’s policy of imposing English on its subjects as a language of commerce, education and governance. In his notorious 1835 “Minute on Indian Education,” Thomas Macaulay deemed all Indian languages unfit to convey Western science, and recommended that an intermediary class, “Indian in blood and color, but English in taste,” be trained to disperse Western knowledge to its benighted countryfolk. That policy was at once a smashing success in reaching its goals – by some estimates a billion people around the world now speak English – and an utter failure in realizing its ultimate objective. For even as the sun never set on the British empire, it shone as well on increasingly multiplying varieties of the Queen’s tongue. Never could Macaulay have anticipated the diversity and richness of what he would undoubtedly have considered “corrupt” versions of English. Over time the formerly colonized people of Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and the Pacific permanently transformed what Chinua Achebe identifies as “the world language which history has forced down our throats.”
The empire dispersed mutating Englishes around the world in three overlapping ways. In settler colonies like the United States, Canada, South Africa and Australia, the settlers’ languages naturally developed in their own directions, as languages always will. In trading colonies like India and Nigeria, pidgins (hybrid jargons that nobody used as a native language) evolved into creoles (naturalized offsprings of pidgins). And across the Caribbean and southern United States, a new West African English emerged as captives arrived on slave plantations, their native languages banned. This was a new mode of communication, born in servitude, and incorporating centuries of oral tradition. As Marlene Nourbese Philip writes in her innovative poem “Discourse on the Logic of Language,” English is the enforced “father tongue” that replaces a lost mother tongue. “I must therefore be tongue dumb,” Nourbese Philip continues, though the beauty of her own writing belies that verdict. It is due to this long and deep legacy of linguistic oppression – and the linguistic subversion that it in turn engendered – that writers of the African diasporas appear here more than any other group.
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, two diametrically opposed forces affected the language of English literature. On the one hand, Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster poured their energy into regularizing the fluid and hybrid English language. On the other hand, a whole variety of other Englishes – all that escaped the regularizing impulse – found expression in regional and dialect literatures. Robert Burns wrote in what many saw as a dying variant, Scottish English, thus preserving it in its most euphonious incarnation. In the United States, Mark Twain, Finley Peter Dunne, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Charles Chesnutt, and Joel Chandler Harris recorded the Southern, Irish-American and African-American varieties of the American language. George Bernard Shaw (in Pygmalion) and Rudyard Kipling (in his Barrack-Room Ballads and other Cockney poetry) explored the ways in which speech marked difference in not only race and region, but also class.
The highly self-conscious literary project of Modernism placed the vernacular mode into a still more central position. In their quest for immediacy and vibrancy, Modernist writers of the early twentieth century – James Joyce, William Faulkner, Gertrude Stein, Langston Hughes and others – held orality as a high virtue. Gertrude Stein, in her experimental work Three Lives, attempted to channel German immigrant and African-American voices. Langston Hughes incorporated a blues idiom into his highly crafted poems. Zora Neale Hurston put her anthropological training to use as she collected folklore from rural Florida and as she invented the unforgettable characters of Their Eyes Were Watching God. James Joyce’s stream of consciousness broke decisively with conventions of Standard English. For many of these writers the act of molding oral expression into literature had an implicitly political aim, notwithstanding Richard Wright’s view that the product pandered to a condescending white audience. In the case of Hughes, like Twain and Burns before him, the political content was often explicit: tracking his work over several decades we can see a decisive shift from “I’s gwine to quit my frownin’/ And put ma troubles on the shelf” in 1925, to “Lies written down for white folks/ Ain’t for us a-tall:/ Liberty and Justice –/ Huh! – For All?” in 1951.
It was during the anti-colonial struggles of the twentieth century that the latent political potential of vernacular literature fully emerged. The “New Englishes” now began to serve a variety of liberatory purposes. If colonialism and its assorted intellectual paraphernalia used English to enforce a deep-seated racial hierarchy, new versions of that same language now disassembled that hierarchy. As Wole Soyinka writes, anti-colonial nationalists adapted the “enslaving medium” of English into an “insurgent weapon.” Since politics and culture operate symbiotically, vernacular literature was at once a cause and a result of political decolonization. By the end of the process, in the words of the Barbadian writer George Lamming: “English is no longer the exclusive language of the men who live in England. That stopped a long time ago.” Within the United States as well, writers like Ralph Ellison, Amiri Baraka and Piri Thomas used vernacular voices at once to communicate and to bolster the battles for civil rights.
In her poem “Colonization in Reverse,” Louise Bennett characterizes this process as “tunabout.” Just as her own vernacular writing turns classical poetry on its head, enfranchisement by formerly colonized people can “turn history upside dung.” Her diagnosis brings us into the contemporary period, in which non-standard English literature has flourished and proliferated. For even while decolonization resulted in at least nominally independent states, it also brought about the movement of bodies from the global South to the cities of the North. Those many exoduses produced first new vernaculars, and then new vernacular literatures. Bennett, along with Sam Selvon and Linton Kwesi Johnson, writes the lives and language of West Indians in London; Parv Bancil and Gautam Malkani of South Asians in London; Marlene Nourbese Philip of West Indians in Toronto; Rohinton Mistry of South Asians in Toronto; Junot Díaz of Dominicans in New York and New Jersey; Oonya Kempadoo of East Indians in the Caribbean; and Shani Mootoo and Sasanarine Persaud of the Indo-Caribbeans who then went on to Canada. Their fiction and poetry demonstrate how immigration has further reversed the top-down process by which culture was imposed during the colonial period: now – in Bennett’s words again – the former colonial subjects have come to inhabit and alter “de seat a de empire.”
The model of immigration conveyed here is not one-way but far more complex. Junot Díaz reminds us that the homeland is never fully left behind: every summer “Santo Domingo slaps the diaspora engine into reverse, yanks back as many of its expelled children as it can.” We also witness the impact of internal migration. Rohinton Mistry’s depiction of a Goan nanny’s lonely life in Bombay resonates with the same isolation and linguistic domination that we might associate exclusively with international transplantation. Even her name, “Jacqueline,” mutates into “Jaakaylee” until she herself begins to identify herself by the bastardized version. Hughes encapsulates the tragedy of internal migration with the four simple lines “When I was home de/ Sunshine seemed like gold./ Since I come up North de/ Whole damn world’s turned cold.” Gloria Anzaldúa, adding to the complexity, celebrates the borderland regions for which the term “immigration” is meaningless.
If English itself was always a hybrid language, we now have hybrids of hybrids. Sasanarine Persaud elaborates on Brathwaite’s Afro-Caribbean “nation language” to better represent his own Indo-Guyanese experience. Junot Díaz describes two Dominican kids in a Japanese mall in New Jersey as “the only gaijin in the whole joint.” In The Commitments Roddy Doyle has his recurrent hero Jimmy Rabbitte declare, “The Irish are the niggers of Europe, lads…An’ Dubliners are the niggers of Ireland…An’ the northside Dubliners are the niggers o’ Dublin. – Say it loud, I’m black an’ I’m proud.” Here we can perceive a global colored consciousness, at once unified and divided by language. Resistance to standardization, as it should, comes in myriad forms.
It is during these most recent decades, roughly from the 1980’s to the present, that the gender politics of vernacular literature has begun to shift. With its often shocking and almost never decorous content, vernacular writing had historically been something of a “bad boy” undertaking; during the anti-colonial period it mirrored decolonization at large in being disproportionately male. However, the more recent selections by Anzaldúa as well as Alice Walker, Sapphire, Marlene Nourbese Philip and others show how effective this type of writing can be for embodying and addressing explicitly feminist concerns. In Walker’s The Color Purple, Celie writes herself out from under an abusive stepfather and domineering husband. Sapphire takes up Walker’s mantle in chronicling how literacy enables Precious Jones to survive incest. And as the excerpted selection from The Snapper demonstrates, a male writer too can delve into a beautifully realized female point of view that explores the many hypocrisies of patriarchy.
I should point out that the vernacular renaissance captured in this volume has by no means been exclusive to English. Hu Shih inaugurated a new literary tradition by breaking with classical Chinese. Latin America has changed the sound of Spanish. Russian writers continue to experiment with “mat,” a filthy slang that some legislators have attempted to ban. Faiza Guene, with Kiffe Kiffe Demain, is only the most recent of the many writers of North African and Caribbean descent who have offered analogous challenges to academy French. None of these parallel movements in other languages appear in this volume because of my emphasis on the artistic contributions of the writers who have transformed English in particular.
Indeed, my main objective in compiling these works together is to show how they function in terms of artistic technique. None of these are manifestoes, which argue for acceptance without offering solid examples of their artistry. Nor are they mere transcriptions of existing speech codes, as reviewers too often describe them. On the contrary, their apparent directness and accessibility is deceptive. The label of “authentic,” usually intended as highest praise for a piece of vernacular writing, is a red herring. It can lead us to confuse an author with her or his characters, and thus to overlook the creative process involved. Among the possible models of artistic creation – from invention (generally perceived as an active process) to channeling (generally perceived as passive) to transcription (even more passive) – critics often mistakenly characterize vernacular writing as either of the latter. There are of course multiple cases to the contrary. Writers like Rohinton Mistry, a Canadian Indian man who writes here as a Goan woman, and Sam Selvon, an Indo-Trinidadian who assembles a whole range of Afro-Caribbean characters, present the most obvious challenges to a demeaning ethnographical reading. Further, every one of these authors is a master of code-switching. Their works negotiate among various modes of communication; many, like Paul Laurence Dunbar and Claude McKay among others, composed other works in more formal registers; and they themselves have had to negotiate the Standard-English-dominated world of publishing and publicity. Each has, to a greater or lesser degree, functioned as part of Macaulay’s intermediary class – though by no means towards the end that Macaulay conceived.
Far more significant than whether “anyone actually speaks that way” – i.e. the false notion of authenticity as the highest literary goal – is what the authors do with the artistic construct that is vernacular language. These pieces offer much more than a simple recording; they are works of art, not of reportage. It is for this reason that I have grouped the selections by genre, in order to give readers a sense of the special concerns and techniques particular to writers of vernacular poetry, short fiction and novels. (Playwrights like Wole Soyinka, Suzan-Lori Parks, Parv Bancil, and Earl Lovelace have also crafted excellent vernacular drama; I have omitted their work for fear that too little of their plays’ spirit would survive in printed and excerpted form, but have listed specific plays in the suggestions for further reading.) As I explain in the brief introductions to each section, many of the poets are concerned with music, short story writers with the tall tale, and novelists with autobiography and historical revisionism. However, there are also several overarching themes and techniques common to nearly all of the writers included here. Despite the extraordinary diversity of geography, chronology, and biography, they all exhibit an anti-institutional stance, a wicked sense of humor, a deep engagement with history, and a constant preoccupation with language.
Perhaps more than any single other characteristic, this literature is anti-institutional by nature. These authors write in direct opposition to all socially accepted institutions, whether school, church, various forms of the welfare state, or Standard English itself, on its own and as the arm of these other often repressive institutions. The voices of their characters emerge against and despite those institutions. For Peter Carey’s Ned Kelly, confrontation with the Australian police contours his reality for as long as he can remember: “My 1st memory is of Mother breaking eggs into a bowl and crying that Jimmy Quinn my 15 yr. old uncle were arrested by the traps…I were 3 yr. old.” Similarly, it is the sudden appearance of “somebody in brown uniform with cap like pilot, and wearing boots like dimdim and black belt” that jars John Kasaipwalova’s short story “Betel Nut is Bad Magic for Airplanes” into action. It makes sense that vernacular literature, hounded by authority figures, would inherently mistrust anyone in a uniform. Thus when the scathing eye of these narrators falls upon them, army and convent suffer the same fate as police. As the wide-eyed ingénue Ann puts it in Frances Molloy’s No Mate for the Magpie, all she learns during an ill-fated convent stint is that “if ye didn’t turn yer back on iverybody in the worl’, ye didn’t stan’ a snowball’s chance in hell of iver getting’ inte heaven.” Vernacular undermines doctrine as nothing else could.
Molloy, along with others in the collection, turns an equally satirical gaze upon schools. These writers approach education with intense skepticism, dramatizing both its overt failures and also the potential loss of culture and identity that it entails. In Sapphire’s punchy summary, Precious Jones tells us that “I always did like school, jus’ seem school never did like me.” But even succeeding in school has its shortcomings. “I often wish now that I’d fayled,” confesses Patricia Grace’s narrator Whetu, a Maori scholarship student. “It seems we get put through this machine so that we can come out well-educated and so we can get interesting jobs. I think it’s supposed to make us better than some other people – like our mothers and fathers for example, and some of our friends. And somehow it’s supposed to make us happier and more FULFILLED. Well I dunno.” Here Whetu unknowingly reflects on the legacy of Macaulay: to be educated, in a colonial context, necessitates distance from one’s own culture and community. For the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o, that legacy provides enough of a reason not to use English. Illustrating his point that “language was the most important vehicle through which [colonial] power fascinated and held the soul prisoner,” Ngugi tells of the humiliation and physical abuse that would face any Kenyan schoolchild in the 1950’s who made the mistake of speaking Gikuyu at school. For Ngugi, the colonial legacy thoroughly taints English. Many others in this collection share his experience, transposed to Jamaica, Ireland or Harlem; yet the ways in which their own writing changes English provide sufficient redemption.
With their clear anti-institutional stance, these works eschew inclusion in a literary canon. Mutabaruka speaks for many authors when he declares that “dis poem will not be amongst great literary works/ will not be recited by poetry enthusiasts/ will not be quoted by politicians/nor men of religion.” This also means that, despite free use of classical techniques like metaphor, personification, alliteration and many others, there is nearly no overt allusion to previous literary works. Instead of claiming a lineage, each piece of writing appears as created anew. The impulse is to appear direct, unmediated, and unliterary. Where we do find moments of literary allusion, or intertextuality – Sapphire, for example, openly acknowledges her debt to Langston Hughes and Alice Walker – they establish an alternative canon. Ultimately we have a new group of texts that speak directly to one another, constituting a strong literary tradition.
This literary tradition disdains propriety. The harsh realities depicted in some of the pieces – rape, incest, drug abuse, war, genocide – are depicted in frank, unapologetic, often disturbing terms. Sapphire opens Push with the arresting lines, “I was left back when I was twelve because I had a baby for my fahver.” Drugged by his captors, Uzodinma Iweala’s child-combatant narrator proclaims, “I am liking the sound of knife chopping KPWUDA KPWUDA on her head and how the blood is just splashing on my hand and my face and my feets.” It would surprise no regular reader of Irvine Welsh when a hapless character must field from his girlfriend’s lover the question, “Ever fucked it up the erse?” That harsh material is often mediated, and sometimes magnified, by the blackest possible humor. These works are imbued with humor that is sharp, witty, wry: comedy, here, always goes hand-in-hand with tragedy. Even the lightest among these works follow the title of Langston Hughes’s 1952 book, Laughing to Keep from Crying; others both laugh and cry in the same breath.
Much of the ‘difficult’ material in this volume arises from specific historical episodes. With its links to colonialism, slavery, nationalism, decolonization and immigration, vernacular literature brings the historical record to life. Saro-Wiwa’s Sozaboy lives through and narrates Nigeria’s horrific Biafran Civil War of 1967 to 1970; Molloy’s Ann experiences firsthand Northern Ireland’s “Troubles.” Other works take it upon themselves to narrate unsung, unacknowledged histories. Mutabaruka’s “Dis Poem,” for example, opens with the Middle Passage, announcing that “dis poem/ shall speak of the wretched sea/ that washed ships to these shores.” Ironically, the literary works at once rely upon, mourn, and also provide redemption for, the traumatic events that they depict.
Each one of these works is acutely attuned to issues of language and power; each has a clear purpose of reclaiming and valorizing codes that had thus far been presented (even, frequently, by their own speakers) as substandard. These writers salvage painful histories through linguistic invention that is almost aggressive in its spirit of playfulness. They seize and modify what Marlene Nourbese Philip calls “good-english-bad-english english, Queenglish and Kinglish – the anguish that is english in colonial societies.” Puns, neologisms, musicality, orality, all function as weapons against cultural domination; all provide ways of making an imposed language one’s own. If one finds, as Selvon’s West Indian immigrants do, that “It ain’t have no word in the English dictionary” for an important concept, then in response “OUR PEOPLE make it up,” thus at once changing a language and asserting a community. In many instances here, the power of language is such that names and other words can often rob characters of their identities, as when Saro-Wiwa’s Mene becomes “Sozaboy,” or soldierboy. But in just as many other cases, characters use language strategically in order to take control over their circumstances. We frequently see how words that wound can be reclaimed: “faggot,” for example, in the case of R. Zamora Linmark’s Edgar; or “nigger” for Junot Díaz and Roddy Doyle.
Despite its pretense of directness and immediacy, therefore, the medium is never transparent. All these writers choose very carefully and deliberately to write in a non-standard language, and many accordingly insert reflections on that choice. Patricia Grace shows how Whetu causes “a bit of a stir” with his condescending white teacher: “I say ‘yous’ instead of ‘you’ (pl.). It always sends her PURPLE.” In Grace’s portrayal Whetu knows the rules, can recite them by heart, but can also choose to break them. He may have learned them, but he has not internalized them. This is only one of the many self-referential moments throughout this collection that cohere around the themes of colonial domination and the importance of telling one’s story despite and against that domination. Other of the self-referential comments point, in various ways, to the difficulty and the fragility of the vernacular project. As the authors included here demonstrate, vernacular literature is in some ways an impossible undertaking. It can only approximate, and never fully reproduce, the force and flow of the oral expression on which it relies. Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s poem “Malindy” speaks to that critical problem. Dunbar writes that it may appear “easy ‘nough fu’ folks to hollah,’/ Lookin’ at de lines an’ dots” – in other words, to read out written language. On the other hand, however, “when hit comes to raal right singin’,/ ‘T ain’t no easy thing to do.” Dunbar begs the question of whether his own poetry constitutes “raal right singin’” or just hollering. Whether this is a metaphor for the limitations of what he does, or an indirect praise for his own art, is left to the reader to determine.
The authors also exhibit a fear that even if vernacular literature can successfully reproduce the qualities of oral expression, it will ultimately doom itself through publication. Since its power arises in part from its oral and underground qualities, the logic goes, the act of becoming written literature will inevitably sap that power. One of the aspects of vernacular literature that makes its composition such a challenging endeavor is that authors must construct their own sets of rules for how to write it. They thus create new fixed codes as they transcribe, just as Shakespeare, Dante and Hu Shih contributed so heavily to consolidating a written vernacular English, Italian and Chinese, respectively, that had previously been primarily oral forms. This is of course a critical process in the growth and evolution of any language. However, in codifying vernacular codes, authors legitimize them and thus rob them of some of their anti-institutional force. We might call this the irony of arrival. Mutabaruka’s poem, for example, has now irrevocably appeared “amongst great literary works,” and is itself recognized as one. This is a central paradox of vernacular and other avant-garde literatures: their authors do in fact want readers, both to make a living and to ensure the vitality of their work. Further, when they find those readers, they foster new literacies and ultimately generate a new literary canon. But in creating those readerships and those new canons, they fundamentally change their relationship to concepts like authority and the ‘establishment.’ As Mutabaruka himself sums up the problem, “revolutionary poets/ ‘ave become entertainers.”
Without overestimating my own contribution in gathering these works together under a single cover, anthologization can represent a significant step in the often unsavory direction of canonization. After all, for literary works that owe their very existence to their underground positioning, institutional approval is double-edged. By definition vernaculars are no longer vernacular once they are written; their whole identity rests precisely in not being literary. The selections here are quite alive to those deep ironies of the vernacular mode. Each attests to the living and organic nature of language, even to the point of showing how it can escape the control of its own creator. As vernaculars mutate into universal lingos, there will always be new vernacular codes with which to craft more vibrant and dynamic literature.