A question of audience

questionNever fear [the audience] or despise it. Coax it, charm it, interest it, stimulate it, shock it now and then if you must, make it laugh, make it cry, but above all . . . never, never, never bore the hell out of it.

NOEL COWARD
Welcome back, dear reader. I found that, contrary to what I expected, members of my family did read my first article. They have promised to buy every edition of The Guardian newspaper that features my articles. So please, please, let’s help my hustle. Read this.

I have always thought about this issue of audience. Who do I write for? How much do I explain to my readers when I tell them a story? This matter worried me most during the writing of my second novel which was a bildungsroman set is Warri. In this coming-of-age story, the main characters spoke a variant of English that almost every Nigerian understands: we all watch the DVD’s featuring Opa Williams’ Night of a Thousand Laughs. Every Nigerian comedian has a Warri joke, in which they launch—with widely varying degrees of success—into the lilting accent of my hometown. So it would suppose that if I was writing for and to Nigerians that I would not need to have explain what each word meant, what each sentence was trying to say. I would not have to explain what “na” and “sabi” meant. I would not have to italicise our words.

This has always been an issue for the writer from the empire, from the colonies, from Africa, India, the Caribbean. In the first novels by us, when we fought a battle to be heard, we knew that while we proclaimed that we wrote for our people, we were actually writing to be understood by another. We had editors who italicised our words. We had to insert that most irritating set of words, the explanatory phrase. To illustrate what I am trying to say, take this especially egregious instance from a book I thoroughly enjoyed, Sefi Atta’s Everything Good Will Come:

Sheri had prepared food I hardly saw in my father’s house: jollof rice; egusi stew with crushed melon seeds, and eba, a meal made from ground cassava.1
Why would anyone need to italicise jollof, egusi and eba for a Nigerian audience? If your English teacher in school tells you to do this, they are wrong and it is a tragedy. Have you ever seen “escargot” or “menage” italicised in any English novel from Europe? So why would you italicise your words. These are our words; they exist within our English. Even more exhausting is why, as in the example above, a writer was required to explain what egusi (crushed melon seeds) and eba (meal made from ground cassava) are. Apart from the fact that it reads awkwardly, it does take away from a beautiful scene. Even if you, dear reader, have never paid attention to this, I may have a done a disservice to your enjoyment of our literature as you will now begin to see many instances of this explaining to another in all of our fiction.

Every writer has had to navigate this space carefully. Some have gone all the way like in the example above. Others have made a point of not bothering to explain themselves. I took inspiration from a book I read, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. In this beautiful novel, I came across entire passages written in a Dominican pidgin of Spanish and English. There was no explanation, there were no footnotes. Nothing. And I understood all of it. It was done with consummate skill, this bit of communication by Mr. Diaz. There was no need to italicise his English. He told a story of humanity and in each context, you understood what the characters were saying. Where I had a problem, I used Google to search for word definitions. I knew I was being given a privilege of sharing in the lives of Junot Diaz’s characters. And I helped myself as much as I could to enjoy the experience.

So that is what I tried to do with my own story. I wrote it for a Nigerian audience. It made it easier to tell. I could focus on the meat of the story, of what the characters felt, and how they loved, what they fought for, and how they survived. I promised I would never define eba. And if anyone had a problem with this, I screamed at them, Google it!

I think the battle is being won. More writers are thinking this way and are insisting that their editors do the same. Critics such as Ikhide Ikheloa have raised consciousness on this italicising of our words matter. And pidgin is going global. Nowadays my web browser is set to Pidgin English. And while its efforts are extremely funny at times, it is pleasing to have Google stumped by a search item I have entered and say to me: “Wetin you find, no match any documents.”

Let’s talk about more writing stuff next time. How do writers plot? How do we decide who goes where and when? What do we do when we are stuck?1 Page 103, Everything Good Will Come, 1st paperback edition, 2008, Interlink Books

In this article:
Eghosa Imasuen


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