stories and songs across cultures: perspectives from africa and the americas

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  • Stories and Songs across Cultures: Perspectives from Africa and the AmericasAuthor(s): J. Edward Chamberlin and Levi NamasebSource: Profession, (2001), pp. 24-38Published by: Modern Language AssociationStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25607180 .Accessed: 14/06/2014 05:05

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  • Stories and Songs across Cultures:

    Perspectives from Africa and the Americas

    J. EDWARD CHAMBERLIN and LEVI NAMASEB

    So. Ts? i ge koma ge h?he Khoe-?reb xa.

    S, o i ge n?sisa khoeb xa hais !g?b ai m?he ts? ge s?he h? i. Ts?b lln?ti s?m? h?ab ge n?sisa khoe-oreba ne khoeba ge m?, IGarudanab ti g?re ^gai heba. So, ts? go n?sisa khoebab go m?, o a Ikhuri. Ts? go Ikhuri, Ikhuri ts? Ig?b go o . . . !?b Ikha a Inami. Ts? go Inamib ta h?ab ge n?sisa khoeba

    ?gam?g? ts? ge xoasen. So, ob ge !?ba .'kharu ts? khoeb m??gao hais Marnai h? "Ham" ti go ma. Ob ge n?sisa khoeba k?b go o ra m?: "Nee, khoe-?reb !?b ge n?ba!" O go n?sisa hais Iguisa naba ts? a llhai.

    "IIGapi, llgapi, Hgapi, llgapi, llgapi, llgapi" ti llhai ts? go khoe-?reba s?b

    go ?khaisab go m?o, naba ts? khoeba go sauru. Ts? go saurub go ?khaisab

    ge m?heo ai!? a llhai ts? go n?sisa ?homma oa ?homma llg?a, ?homma ^oa Ihomma llg?a, ?homma oa ?homma llg?a ti a h?. Ob ge khoe-?reba n?sisa ?khoed?heb geo ma ts? ra k?. Ts?b ge ma ts? k? ts? "Ae, IGaru danatse! Ti Ikhomtse ?khoe ti! ?Homma oa Ihomma llg?a, ?homma oa ?homma llg?a. Tae-i lgui-e si khoena n? m?bahe, lhuru-? bis Iguisa ta

    goro h? ?khais xa?" ti i ge llnapa khoe-?reb xa m?he ts? lln?pa go toa.

    That was Levi Namaseb speaking in Khoekhoe, and I am Ted Chamberlin.

    First a parable. There was a meeting between an Indian community in

    the northwest of British Columbia and a group of government foresters

    about jurisdiction over the woodlands. The foresters claimed the land for

    J. Edward Chamberlin is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University

    of Toronto. Levi Namaseb is Lecturer in Linguistics and African Literature at the Univer

    sity of Namibia. A version of this paper was presented at the 2000 MLA convention in

    Washington, DC.

    Profession 2001 24

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  • J. EDWARD CHAMBERLIN and LEVI NAMASEB ||| 25

    the government. The Indians were astonished by the claim; they couldn't

    understand what these relative newcomers were talking about. Finally one

    of the elders put what was bothering them in the form of a question. "If

    this is your land," he asked, "where are your stories?" He spoke in English; but then he moved into Gitksan?the Tsimshian language of his people? and told a story himself.

    All of a sudden, in a classic contradiction, everyone understood?even

    though the government foresters couldn't understand a word, and neither

    could some of his Gitksan colleagues. They understood not what he was

    talking about?though they had a pretty good idea?but something ulti

    mately more important and more sophisticated: how stories give shape and

    substance to the world and how they give it meaning and value; how they

    bring us close to the real world by keeping us at a distance from it; how

    they hold people together and at the same time keep them apart; how they are both true and not true.

    And they all understood the importance of the Gitksan language, even?or especially?those who did not speak it. Language is the stuff of

    stories and songs, and a language makes them incomprehensible to those

    who do not speak it. It is these moments of incomprehensibility?defa miliarization is a less unnerving but also less accurate term?that tell us

    something about literature. Language is the signature of individual and

    collective identity, and it makes those who do not speak it?who do not

    speak Gitksan, say, or /Nu, the language of the Khomani people of the

    southern Kalahari that you will hear in a moment?less certain of their

    identity than those who do.

    Like most of us, I have always worked with others, most obviously with librarians and editors who helped me with the process of discovery and in

    vention that is at the heart of literary studies. I have written books with others?two of them, in fact, with Sander Gilman, the distinguished for mer president of the MLA?and coedited journals with scholars such as our current president, Linda Hutcheon. But my collaboration with Levi

    Namaseb of the University of Namibia and (as of this year) the University of Toronto has been different in many ways. It has given me new insight into the nature of our profession and the elements of our craft and into the

    importance of those moments of incomprehensibility and uncertainty that, I believe, are at the center of our experience of all literatures. The story you have just heard was in Khoekhoe, his mother tongue.

    Levi Namaseb and I first met four years ago in Durban, where he was

    working with Edgard Sienaert at the Centre for Oral Studies at the Uni

    versity of Natal. I had come to speak about an international project I was

    directing on oral and written traditions. I stayed to listen.

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  • 26 III STORIES AND SONGS ACROSS CULTURES

    I have worked for over three decades with aboriginal communities in the Americas and Australia on interrelations among language, land, and liveli hood that converge in territorial claims and in challenges to the political sovereignty of so-called settler societies. I thought I knew a lot about lan

    guage and literature, oral as well as written. But Sienaert (see Jousse) is one

    of the very few contemporary scholars who has seriously challenged the

    deeply misinformed typologies of orality and literacy promoted by Walter

    Ong and accepted by a lot of contemporary literary theorists. His work of

    fered a new way of approaching everything from the entangled issues of au

    thority regarding Indian treaties?whether, when, and how the oral or the written version has precedence?and the equally vexed problems of au

    thenticity surrounding local and literary language in poetic texts. Levi Na

    maseb, for his part, is one of the most gifted linguists of southern Africa; a

    dedicated scholar of narrative, lyric, and dramatic traditions of perfor mance; and a traditional storyteller of his Khoekhoe people So I was among

    colleagues who knew much about language and literature and about those

    connections to land and livelihood that the Gitksan elder had highlighted. I had heard about a land claim by the Khomani, a group of San (Bush

    men) in the southern Kalahari. They were once a relatively large group?

    large for a hunter-gatherer society, at least?living in the surprisingly rich

    desert and semiarid lands that make up the west central highlands of what is now South Africa, north of Cape Town. Over the last couple of centuries

    they almost disappeared, in a holocaust whose numbers may not match

    those of the Nazi regime or the slave trade, or the murderous campaigns

    against aboriginal people in Australia and the Americas, but whose horrors

    rival them all. A few were left, scattered around the Northern Cape; and with the encouragement of the new postapartheid government of South

    Africa, the African National Congress, they were putting forward a claim to their original homeland in the desert. Their language was said to be ex

    tinct; but Levi spoke a close cousin to it, Khoekhoe, and he also spoke Afrikaans, in which I knew they told some of their stories.

    So Levi and I went there, on a hunch?a hunch that their situation

    would take us closer to fundamental questions about who tells tales, to

    whom, in what places, on what occasions, in what language, and what (if

    any) difference it all makes. Though we give these questions much more

    complicated names, they are the same ones we pose in literary studies.

    I am a great believer in hunches and, of course, in someone to back

    them, which the University of Toronto kindly did with substantial re

    sources and an understanding that this enterprise was high-risk, for in an

    old-fashioned sense I had no idea what we were doing, though from thirty

    years' experience I had a pretty good idea how to do it. That sounds both

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