"Françoise Lionnet is a professor of comparative literature and director of the African Studies Centre at the University of California in Los Angeles. Originally from Mauritius … a Mellon distinguished visiting scholar at Wits University, where she has delivered a series of lectures summarising her work. * * * Christopher J Lee is a lecturer at the Centre for Indian Studies in Africa and in the department of international relations at the University of the Witwatersrand." * * * Mail & Guardian is an online newspaper in South Africa.
One of your most recent books is entitled The Creolisation of Theory. What draws you to creolisation as a concept?
The concept of creolisation first emerged in the field of linguistics to describe the creation of new contact languages under colonisation and slavery. It was initially limited to the study of "dialects" and "patois", which were believed to be bastardised forms of communication developed by slaves and indentured servants using the European languages of their masters in the New World. Today, linguists agree that creolisation is a universal phenomenon.
All English and Germanic languages began as creolised languages that continue to absorb new idioms. Globalisation is accelerating this process in new and unforeseen ways. In Africa, Afrikaans and Swahili can be considered "creoles". Swahili is the lingua franca of the Indian Ocean coastline, from Somalia to Mozambique and the Seychelles. It is a language of hybrid cultures, has a 100-year-old poetic tradition, and draws its linguistic resources from other languages.
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Being from Mauritius, how has this background informed your scholarship?
The languages, literatures and oral cultures of my native island have always been a major interest of mine. I was trained in comparative literature and in my first book I wrote about the genre of autobiography, starting with St Augustine of Hippo and ending with contemporary Caribbean, African-American and Mauritian writers.
Augustine was North African and raised under Roman rule. His relationship to Latin, in which he wrote, was similar to that of many other native writers who had to become literate in a colonial language, but retained strong links to their mother tongue. Such issues resonate with me as a multilingual Mauritian.
This question is linked to the fundamental linguistic rights of populations whose forms of oral expression are integral to their identities. These local cultures are not passive recipients of global influences. Rather, they are actively reworking influences from Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas, producing their own creolised mixes in the process, just as during the colonial era.
The problem, of course, is that "global" languages such as English, French or Hindi can easily displace smaller ones. So, there has to be a political will to support local languages, to encourage local forms of expression, from music to poetry and the visual arts. Kreol is now taught as a required subject in all the public schools in Mauritius. This is an important step toward the democratisation of education.