The drums of the grieving village,
Losing my sense of self,
Ite mu jumaa le ti? (Who are you?)
Almighty Allah, nna ninin kaaroo jaabi
(Answer my question)
N bee mu hadamadiŋo le ti. (We are all human beings)—Zoe Carson
In the poem cited in the epigraph, a student of English language and literature, twenty-one years old, just beginning the second year of her degree in a "red-brick" university in the north of England, attempts to articulate the voice of an African captive on board an eighteenth-century slave vessel, the Lord Ligonier, as it crosses the Atlantic on its way to the port of Annapolis. Zoe produced this poem in response to a task set by us, her teachers. She and the rest of her class were required to read the depiction of the Middle Passage in Alex Haley's novel Roots (1977) and respond to the material by writing a short piece of poetry. This task formed part of a course, the aim of which was to help students understand the various "modes of inquiry" through which knowledge is made within the discipline of English studies. Creative writing can, of course, be an end in itself and is often taught as such in academic institutions, but the idea that it can constitute a mode of inquiry within a traditional literature course is less immediately obvious. This activity was intended to use creative writing as a way of exploring the perennial problem of whether one can ever "voice the other," a central question in contemporary literary scholarship. Zoe's poem demonstrates that the process of responding imaginatively to a text like Haley's can produce a sophisticated understanding of this central problem if it is embedded in appropriate pedagogical practice.
The first thing that strikes the reader after even a casual glance at [End Page 556] the poem is the juxtaposition of English and non-English words. The poem attempts to create an African voice through the use of an African language. Zoe searched hard to find the source of Mandinka words and phrases from which this material comes. At one level, the English glosses help the reader to understand the other language. But by including the two languages within single lines of poetry and simultaneously separating them through both punctuation and rhythmic structure, the poem foregrounds the process of translation. This is important, first, because translation is a central issue in Haley's depiction of the Middle Passage. Although his captives do not all share a language, they manage to communicate and articulate a new identity with the proclamation: "Though we are of different tribes and tongues, remember that we are the same people! We must be as one village, together in this place" (163). Zoe's text draws attention to the fact that, in practice, this new sense of brotherhood is articulated in English. She suggests that this use of English is simultaneously a loss. The phrase "losing my sense of self" does not appear in Mandinka but only appears in English. It is followed by two interrogatives that ask the archetypal question of identity, "Ite mu jumaa le ti? (Who are you?)" The previous allusion to loss suggests that the English gloss is an encroachment on the Mandinka text and not merely a supplement to it. This suggestion has a metatextual function. This is not the voice of a native Mandinka speaker, and the poet cannot represent such a voice in an "authentic" way. The poem plays upon the suspect status of the Mandinka phrases incorporated within it by alluding within its form to the dictionary from which they were cut and pasted. The very fact that the terms appear in the Roman script demonstrates that the words have already passed through a process of Western transcription. And the appearance of the phonetic character hangma (ŋ) in the final line highlights the fact that the source of the Mandinka material is a technical linguistic text. Any reader critical of the poet for presuming to speak for the...