Pioneers of Non-native English Literature

Students of English literature will instantly recognise classic titles like ‘Heart of Darkness’, ‘Lolita’ and ‘Things Fall Apart’. These and countless other famous works of English literature were written by authors whose first language was not English!

Joseph Conrad was from Poland and only learned English in adulthood, but his books are still studied, a hundred years after they were written. There have been many film adaptations of his books, such as Francis Ford Coppola’s film ‘Apocalypse Now’, based on ‘Heart of Darkness’.

Russian Vladimir Nabakov was always dissatisfied with his most notable (and controversial) novel, ‘Lolita’, because of the “imperfection” of his English, but throughout the English-speaking world, it is celebrated for its delicate mastery of the language: exquisite descriptions, subtle word-play and alliterations.

Chinua Achebe is hailed as the father of African English literature. His first novel, ‘Things Fall Apart’ describes the history and culture of his native country, Nigeria, and inspired other African writers like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to write in English to speak out against English colonialism.

There are now more non-native speakers of English than native speakers, so it should hardly come as a surprise that speakers of other languages are growing in prominence as writers of English. Generations of English children were raised reading the work of best-selling children’s writer, Roald Dahl, who, himself, spoke Norwegian at home as a child. Japanese Haruki Murakami had been intrigued by Western culture since he was a child, and now contributes to it with his writing.

A look at the winners of the Man Booker Prize, awarded annually to the best example of English literature from a Commonwealth country, shows that it is not dominated by British, Canadian or Australian writers. Winners include V.S. Naipaul from Trinidad, (‘In a Free State’), Nigerian Ben Okri (‘The Famished Road’), Japanese Kazuo Ishiguro (‘The Remains of the Day’) and four Indian authors, Kiran Desai (‘The Inheritance of Loss’), Aravind Adiga (‘The White Tiger’), Arundhati Roy (the breathtakingly beautiful ‘The God of Small Things’), and Salman Rushdie’s ‘Midnight’s Children’, which was also given the highest award, The Booker of Bookers.

Non-native writers do not simply borrow English and use it clumsily to tell their tales, nor do they attempt to use it in the same way that native speakers do. In the words of Chinua Achebe, they are “expanding the frontiers of English”; shaping and growing the language to describe other cultures, and making valuable, lasting contributions to its canon of literature. Without these pioneers, English would be far less rich, diverse and colourful.

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