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  • The Tongue-Tied Imagination: Decolonizing Literary Modernity in Senegal by Tobias Warner
  • Brian Valente-Quinn
Tobias Warner. The Tongue-Tied Imagination: Decolonizing Literary Modernity in Senegal. New York: Fordham University Press, 2019, 320 pp.

Tobias Warner's book, The Tongue-Tied Imagination: Decolonizing Literary Modernity in Senegal, begins by proposing a new approach to a familiar topic in the study of post-colonial literatures that is also one of its thorniest. The author addresses the so-called "language question," or the frequently heated debates that once ignited regarding the language in which post-colonial authors chose to write. In his introduction, Warner revisits two major events in the early framing of such discussions: the 1962 conference of African Writers of English Expression at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, and a similar event held in the following year in Dakar for African writers of French expression. Through the archival traces of discussions held at the Dakar event, Warner recounts how the Senegalese author Birago Diop pointedly asked his compatriot Ousmane Sembène if he could repeat in his native Wolof, rather than in French, a spoken intervention in which Sembène had voiced a biting criticism of the privileging of colonial languages in African literary institutions. Sembène conceded that he could not, and their exchange appears, in retrospect, to highlight the endless contradictions and entanglements that have since caused the language question to fall from prominence in contemporary critical discussions. It is as though, Warner points out, the debate has since come to a close but with no clear winner, or as though its terms and assumptions might easily be relegated to a bygone era of predominantly nationalistic sentiments.

Warner's brilliant and timely intervention serves to point out how such discussions aimed not only to interrogate the institutionalization of African literature, but also to explore the terms of literary modernity. The language question, he points out, has always been of an untimely nature due to its implicit "refusal to inhabit the given conditions of a literary present" (4). [End Page 365] Rather than attempt to revive or resolve the tensions raised by the language question, Warner meticulously examines the myriad entanglements that have come to constitute such a literary present. The image of the knot serves as a fitting metaphor throughout the book. The language question may present itself as a hopelessly entangled knot, given that colonial European languages and institutions are difficult to dislodge from post-colonial literary practices. However, attempts at disentanglement can also produce "unexpected attachments that bind together elements in new configurations" (6). The knot metaphor is made all the more fitting by Warner's recourse in his theorizing of the act of translation to the Wolof term tekki, which can mean "to translate," but implies a process of unwinding rather than a simple transmission from one language to another. This conceptual framework allows Warner to explore translation through its internal complexities, or, as Warner states, through the processes of "knotting and unknotting by which literary institutions are held together and by which they can be pulled apart" (8).

In its exploration of major works of Senegalese literature in both Wolof and French, The Tongue-Tied Imagination engages extensively with the field of world literature studies, whose models, Warner argues, tend to privilege spatiality by focusing on the distances (material, geographic) that separate authors from their potential readers. To complement such a spatially rooted framework, Warner foregrounds the temporal aspect by considering how "vernacular writers" might address an imagined reader cast in futures near or far, doing so in ways that serve to constitute textuality and/or literarily. Indeed, one of this book's many strengths stems from its close attention to the means by which different forms of writing are made into "texts" or "literature." This approach is used to explore, in the first chapter, the writings of the nineteenth-century Franco-Senegalese abbot and scholar David Boilat. Warner frames Boilat's studies and text-collecting practices as a form of "entextualization," which he then considers in relation to the "literarization" carried out much later by Léopold Sédar Senghor through a little-known anthology titled Les Plus beaux écrits de...


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pp. 365-367
Launched on MUSE
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