Yewande Omotoso: do writers need to speak the same language as their characters?

Born in Barbados, raised in Nigeria and now living in South Africa, the English-speaking author discusses the limits of the imagination when it comes to authentically depicting characters of different cultural backgrounds

Author Yewande Omotoso copyright: Victor Dlamini
Author Yewande Omotoso copyright: Victor Dlamini

Writer and Professor Njabulo Ndebele came to speak to us. I was a student at the University of Cape Town at the time, completing a Masters in Creative Writing. Amongst many insightful things he shared an anecdote about writing a novel concerning an Afrikaans-speaking South African man conscripted into the South African Defence Force in the late sixties. He goes off to defend one of South Africa’s borders, fighting against some liberation movement or other and the story develops from there. Ndebele said he could write as far as the soldier’s return home. He stopped there because he found he could not imagine how this man, of a different culture and language to him, would greet his mother.

I never forgot this, struck by the honesty of a writer who knows what to attempt to imagine and what, at least for that moment, to leave alone. I completed my thesis and my work was eventually published as a novel but it wouldn’t be until I wrote a second novel and then a third that I recognised the limitations I was coming up against.

Yewande Omotoso

He stopped there because he found he could not imagine how this man, of a different culture and language to him, would greet his mother

English is my first and last language. I might speak bits of Afrikaans and Yoruba but not enough, currently, to be relied upon to make continuous sense. I am mono-lingual and yet the two countries I grew up in, Nigeria and South Africa, have hundreds if not thousands of languages between them. I don’t think any writing rule ought to be followed without prejudice including the sensible ubiquitous suggestion that one should ‘write what you know’. However ‘writing what you know’ is, in a way, what Professor Ndebele was bumping up against. And when I sit to imagine my characters, that’s what I’m bumping against too.

Unless I find a way to go beyond this limit, the main characters of all the books I could possibly write for however long I live will be first-language English speakers. They could be male, they could be from a social class or race distinct from my own, they could be decades younger or older, their physical abilities might be different, they could be killers equipped with shape-shifting superpowers. I feel I could do the necessary work to imagine almost anything but, in the same way that the professor could not imagine how an Afrikaans soldier would greet his mother after a long parting, I cannot breathe authentic life into a character whose first language I do not speak. If I lived in a land (and came from a culture) that was as mono-lingual as I am, this might be less of a concern. But in South Africa 9% of the population speak English as a first-language, 22% speak Zulu. My limitation has cut off so many stories, especially ones – in a land whose history includes Apartheid – that are marginal; significant stories often forgotten, left on the peripheries, magical stories often dismissed.

It’s possible that for another writer this issue of language is not a concern. Perhaps the limits to our imaginations are as personal as fingerprints. The kind of intimate relationship I seek with my characters doesn’t seem to abide a language barrier; to imagine their thoughts, their dreams, to render their psyches I must be fluent in their language.

I wonder though, if limits are like the monsters from our darkened childhood bedrooms. The ones where, once an adult switched on the light, the tokoloshe turned into a careless jumble of clothes on the floor, the serpent into a belt. Maybe all someone  (possibly me) has to do is flip a switch. Once, in an interview, renowned writer Nuruddin Farah suggested that we think in pictures not languages. Perhaps my hallowed attitude towards language is too hallowed.

With no evidence that I will ever conquer the dilemma, I remain hopeful. I think that’s how we ought to interact with limitations. When Professor Ndebele said he stopped writing that character, I didn’t get the sense he meant he was running away never again to attempt to breach it. Instead I got the sense that he was going off somewhere quiet to consider and meditate, to return another time, perhaps, and try again.

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