By PHILIP OCHIENG
Posted Friday, June 14 2013 at 18:20
I read The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, a fictional title by the Ghanaian novelist Ayi Kweyi Arma, decades ago. But a small fact remains in my head about that title. The adjective “beautyful” is spelt with a “y”, not with an “i”.
I cannot remember why. But I know this: It is not for nothing that a creative writer may make such a remarkable break with customary use. The bet, then, is that, through it, Arma is trying to make a point.
Another memorable example is found in the work of another West African novelist. The noun “drinkard” in Amos Tutuola’s title Palm Wine Drinkard does not exist in ordinary English. But Palm Wine Drinkard is not written in ordinary English.
Tutuola often coins his own words, and with the ease of Lewis Carroll in the poem “Jabberwocky” (in Alice Through The Looking-glass).
Nigerian mother tongue
And Tutuola breaks English grammar with the joyful abandon and scornful laughter of Okot p’Bitek in full flight in the telling of an Acholi oral tale. But, in this way, Tutuola brings his whole literary scheme into line with his Nigerian mother tongue and culture.
What would have happened if a know-it-all editor had changed drinkard to “drunkard” or simply “drinker” (the former being one of the ordinary English words for a sot, a habitually drunken person)?
In particular, if — in his self-righteous ignorance — the editor had “corrected” the narration from the continuous to the simple past tense, he would have ruined Tutuola’s whole ethico-intellectual project.
To be sure, the ilk of Tutuola’s hero daily consume a great deal of palm wine. On occasion, we even see them staggering. Yet the image that emerges from Tutuola’s drinkards — and it is never anything else but palm wine — is not that of alcoholics.
What Jennifer Kimani of Kenya’s Nacada condemns as “drug and substance abuse” is not the target of Tutuola’s literary salvo. Palm wine drinkards are what you might call “cultural drinkers”.
For their drinking is always deeply intertwined with the ethnic community’s daily work rhythm. It is the ritual unction and magic with which collective work is inspirited and collective living is cemented and celebrated.
It is certain — I reiterate — that, by coining the adjective “beautyful” for his title, Armah is sending across a certain social or moral or intellectual message. That is why it was disgusting that, in an article in last Saturday’s Standard, the writer — or was it perhaps the sub-editor? — “corrected” beautyful to beautiful in all his mentions of Armah’s title.
But, if “beauty” — from the French adjective beau and noun beaute — refers to a combination of qualities that delight the senses and the mind, what combination would say is full of beauty about any African state since independence?
Perhaps the answer to Armah is that, in UhuRuto, the beautyful ones have just been born in Kenya. But, despite brilliant signs, that remains to be seen.