The English language is being reclaimed and transformed in places that were once British colonies in South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean, according to speakers at an international conference at Cornell, April 27-28.
Held at the A.D. White House and the Africana Studies and Research Center, "Going Global, Going Vernacular: Appropriation and Disowning of English in Postcolonial Contexts" brought together scholars from India, Nigeria, South Africa, Swaziland and the United States. Organized by Ithaca City of Asylum (ICOA), whose mission is to help writers who have been persecuted in their native countries, the conference was sponsored by the Society for the Humanities and the Africana Studies and Research Center, among other organizations.
"The literary reworkings of a language and the space of literary writing -- neither local nor global -- prevents the English of writers from ever being simply colonial, national or global," said ICOA board member and conference coordinator Anne Berger, professor of French at Cornell, who introduced the proceedings. "But what happens to our understanding of place and dear-held notions of a mother tongue" when new forms of English emerge that are not bound to place or nation?
Srinivas Aravamudan, professor of English and director of the Franklin Humanities Institute at Duke University, cautioned against "the pipe dream of a universal language," adding, "We should be careful not to fall prey to the zero-sum view that the increased use of English necessarily means the death of other languages."
African women must seize the opportunity to make their voices heard publicly, said Sarah Mkhonza, ICOA writer-in-residence and a visiting fellow in Cornell's Africana Studies and Research Center and the English department. Mkhonza was persecuted in her native Swaziland for speaking out on women's issues before gaining asylum in the United States.
And Nigerian Chinyere Okafor, associate professor in Wichita State University's women's studies department, warned that English as the lingua franca of globalization obscures globalization's destructive impact on life quality in places as far-flung as rural India, where time-honored cultures have been disrupted, and southern Maine, where communities have suffered along with the region's economy.
"My personal definition of globalization is that it is a renaming of colonialism and imperialism," she said.
Other Cornell presenters included Natalie Melas, associate professor of comparative literature, and Dagmawi Woubshet, assistant professor of English, who is from Ethiopia.
A supporter of ICOA since its inception, Cornell arranges for the organization's writers-in-residence to affiliate with university departments and teach courses. ICOA is affiliated with Cornell's CRESP Center for Transformative Action. For more information, see http://www.cresp.cornell.edu.