new zealand electronic poetry centre

ka mate ka ora  

a new zealand journal of poetry and poetics
issue 14,  july 2016

Writing back (to the centre): practising my theory

Vaughan Rapatahana


king’s english

the conqueror never
even as we chop off his fingers

even as we sliver & shiver
             as we sliver
skeins of his
tight white skin

as counterpoint to
our taonga kua tāhae;
seared mokomokai -

surrey or some such

the conquistador    never

even as
        we write
              with his tongue.
 [taonga kua tāhae – Māori – already stolen treasures; mokomokai – Māori – shrunken heads]

[First published Catalyst, Aotearoa-New Zealand, 2015]

In their seminal book The Empire Writes Back (1989, second edition, 2002: 7) the editors write of determined efforts by many colonized-by-Britain writers to write back against the standardized English the colonizer had imposed on them as a means to control and subjugate them and their own respective indigenous cultures. Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin nominate such anti-colonialist, postcolonial efforts as writing in english – a deliberate lower case oppositional ploy to English - 

One of the main features of imperial oppression is control over language. The  
imperial education system installs a ‘standard’ version of the metropolitan
language as the norm, and marginalizes all ‘variants’ as impurities…Language
becomes the medium through which a hierarchical structure of power is
perpetuated, and the medium through which conceptions of ‘truth’, ‘order’, and
‘reality’ become established. Such power is rejected in the emergence of an
effective post-colonial voice.

I have written elsewhere about the domineering and deleterious impacts of English language agencies worldwide, most especially on indigenous cultures and their tongues and most manifestly through this dominant language, the so-called ‘standardized’ (Anglo-American) English language: see English language as Hydra, 2012. In this book, my co-editor, Pauline Bunce, and I, posited a plethora of burgeoning, stubborn, regenerative Englishes globally, prompted initially and fueled always by the BIG hydra head – ‘standardized’ English, agents of which were also wont to eat away and suppress even some of these local cousins, such as Hong Kong English. These (Western) prime agencies include the British Council; the conglomerate custodians of TOEFL and IELTS; The World Bank; many established universities/’public’ schools and their flourishing overseas branches; as well as an array of English-trope publishers; and several others – all economically and ideologically determined to never relinquish and in fact to exponentially extend their hegemonic regnant domain, to the inevitable detriment of their so called ‘Other’.

In their important 2000 papers in Educational Philosophy and Theory, both Cheryl Waerea-i-te-rangi Smith and Takirirangi Smith describe the divergent epistemological and thus, ontological nuances contained in English language as Western philosophies; succumbing to the demand to speak and write in only English language, devitalizes, enfeebles, vitiates – ultimately annihilates – Māori Weltanshauung completely:  “English does seem disconnected when examining it alongside Māori” (CW Smith, 2000: 49). I would also refer readers to the seminal work of Anna Wierzbicka in which she draws out these cultural nuances as contained within English words, phrases and syntax.

For Ashcroft et al, then, one of perhaps three ways to counter this dominant English language hydra head of ‘standardized’ English is to write back to the empire (the centre as made up of the gatekeepers and power-brokers in situ in, for example, London and Cambridge, New York and Washington); to write against it via non-standard english; to in effect ultimately quell it, abnegate it, disintegrate it, disempower it and the concomitant economic, social and political potencies all wrapped up in its very words and their usage.

The other two ways are (1) to write so well in English so that readers really have to take note, although as Dasgupta (1993: 2003) is quoted in the Introduction to our Hydra follow-up, Why English? Confronting the Hydra (forthcoming, 2015), that even then these guardians of standardized English would tend never to admit entry into their echelons anyway, or would, more worryingly, ultimately merely incorporate such efforts as theirs’. He notes, “Hence the striving by Indians to attain near-native command, to count as individuals who may be co-opted into the metropolitan Herrenvolk.”

Or (2), more decidedly, to write primarily in one’s own indigenous tongue (thus abrogation), which both Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Md. Hj. Salleh decided to do as their own responses to the burden of writing in English and as so well codified in their bookend contributions to English language as Hydra. Indeed, I find myself writing more and more in my first language, as I poke my own tongue out at these pale agents of English language and the English mores and English ‘traditions’ inherent in their language, which hold absolutely no significance for me and indeed, never have.

Back to writing back. This process can be potentialized via several methods, such as appropriation, which is itself a compote of code-switching/mixing and an incorporation of indigenous words and phrases; and also by what Zabus (1991) nominated as ‘relexification’ – the deliberate hybridization of English, which involves using English vocabulary but retaining one’s indigenous structures and rhythms.

If one took my poem as above, one could quite easily sight examples of these processes, from sporadic code-mixing and the incorporation of te reo Māori words and phrases through – inevitably – to a rather relexified overall ambience, whereby I have indeed replaced much of the indigenous lexicon with an english, but have also consciously retained my own indigenous perspectives, rhythms and repetitions. Overall, I have appropriated the conqueror’s language, whereby English has become an English; another hydra head to flail against its big brother English. At the same time I am demanding through this written-back lingo, that our mokomokai be returned to their tūrangawaewae, Aotearoa, by the very Pākehā (Caucasian) conquistadores who wrenched them away in the first place, at that time and for a long time subsequently, insisting that our own language be expunged, annihilated. King Hydra Head then, quite literally stole the heads of allegedly alien others, to wit, ngā tangata Māori.

Therefore Māori are willing and able to have feet in both hot pools (their own language and English/english) – if and when they choose to. Rika-Heke (1996:155) wrote -

Māori writers writing in the dominant language English use literary strategies    
which ensure that our texts are transmitted in the way we want them to be.
Many Māori poets…writing in English, incorporate aspects of oral literature into
our texts or use the various genre of oral literature as a foundation for
contemporary texts.

Rika-Heke also notes the deliberate use of Māori words and phrases, “often without translations for monolingual Anglophones” (ibid.) as Māori deliberately utilize te reo Māori (Māori language) as a confrontational mechanism versus ngā Pākehā, who had then to learn Māori in an effort to comprehend what was being written – often about them, eh! The english language can therefore also become an identity marker for those indigenous people who make it their own.

Parakrama (2012:107) further suggested writing back (from the so-called periphery in Sri Lanka) to the Empire and wrote accordingly in English language as Hydra; deliberately writing in english, when he chose to, as a ploy to insurrect, make uncomfortable his supposed (post-)colonialist ‘masters’–

This piece is written partly in non-standard language-register-discourse to dramatise
the fact that the use of broader (uptonow unacceptable) standards affects neither
intelligibility nor clarity, except in the usual substantive ways by which all language-         
use is governed. The rule-breaking may be arbitrary and inconsistent, but so are the
rules they break. In fact, I have succeeded if you are unsure whether the errors are
deliberate or not. In this context, both “authenticity” and “appropriateness” need to
be re-examined as functions of arbitrary-but-not-innocent categories which mask
their ideological underpinnings through representation as (an impossible) neutrality. I
will not gloss “Lankan” terms: if you need to know what they mean, please take the
trouble to find out, just as we have to with “British” or “US” usage. We all need to
earn the right to eavesdrop on other contexts and cultures – an always (productively)
difficult and fraught process – any shortcut that seems to make understanding easy
does serious disservice because it oversimplifies, trivialises and distorts…

Significantly, Pennycook (1994: 265, 267) also stresses the idea of ‘worldliness’ as vital in this entire process – any writing back goes well beyond altering and reinterpreting lexis and grammar and syntax, and must also attain new ‘meanings’, convey ontologically different worldviews necessarily contained in the redressing of the tongue –

 Language is not merely a means to engage in struggle but it is also a principal site of struggle, and thus to take up a cultural political project must require a battle over the meanings of English… Writing back, therefore, produces realities as well as reflects them…This is not, of course, to say that changes of syntax, lexicon, phonology and so on are not important, but rather to argue that we need to highlight meaning above structure and to see meaning as struggled over within a larger question of cultural politics rather than as a representation of reality or a shift within a system.

The English language hydra is, then, all rather ironically and paradoxically, capable of turning back on itself. One swollen head can bite the others in its attempts to keep the beast in shape. Yet this head-biting behaviour also holds true for these englishes, as they snarl back at exonormative Anglo-American English. Wrote Mazrui (1975: 191), “What are often overlooked are some of the anti-Commonwealth tendencies which are also part of the English language.” I am preaching from my pulpit the manifest point that one can indict the English language, more specifically its agencies, ‘merely’ by utilising it in subterfuge ways: this glorious contradiction as duly noted and savoured like a garrulous gobstopper.

Indeed, as Eoyang (2003:13) points out, many critics of the English language are writing in English, publishing in English - but unlike other imperial languages, many such critics of the hegemonic English language have a particularly anti-hegemonic thrust to their critiques. He informs us that, “ironies abound: English is at once demonized as the language of the imperialist, yet it is also the preferred language for anti-imperialist, postcolonial theory”. I have here done the same, even given that even to be published I had to follow the strict trivial regimens of APA referencing formalizations and the escalating and emasculating rigmaroles of how many quotation marks are acceptable, how to indent ‘properly’ blah blah blah, te mea te mea te mea.

I write poetry, where there is more chance to escape these standardizing and straitjacketing regimes (given that even in English language poetry there are guardians who espouse and admit only poems written in their proscribed and sanctified ways, most particularly in the all-too-often closed closet of Aotearoa-New Zealand poetics.) Baudrillard (1990) called this possibility ‘seduction’, whereby the dominant discourse, in this case the hydra of standardized English, eventually may be ‘beguiled into submission’, be undermined by crafty subversion in an ongoing process of play. As, perhaps, here -

your poetry ain’t mine

eschewing your ignorant spiel


defibrillate your
into analienother,
v a r o o o o o o m I n g


ngā mōteatea tika

[ngā mōteatea tika – real Māori song-poetry]

[First published REM, Aotearoa-New Zealand, 2012]

However, I also have to point out that Greenblatt (1990:41) makes the particularly valid comment about what he calls “subversive discourses” that dominant discourses “co-opt” and “assimilate” and “neutralize’. Subversive voices are then “produced by and within the affirmations of order, but they do not undermine that order.” The hydra that is standard English is one hell of a voracious beast in that it can also deliberately feign subversion so as to ultimately contain: postcolonial literature is now a staple diet in many university English departments globally. Wikipedia also reifies this gobble-up process as ‘recuperation’, namely

the process by which politically radical ideas and images are twisted, co-opted, absorbed, 
defused, incorporated, annexed and commodified within media culture and bourgeois
society, and thus become interpreted through a neutralized, innocuous or more socially
conventional perspective. More broadly, it may refer to the cultural appropriation of
any subversive works or ideas by mainstream culture.

Such, then, is the malchemical potency of this huge hydra head, that it is going to take a very concentrated and continued assault by several englishes and non-englishes and localized calques and jargons to ever disempower it, to eviscerate it, to resist its ultimate embrace. Writing back to the centre, the Anglo-American Empire pulsating heart, requires guts, gumption and grist, given also that such processes are themselves not unilateral in manner or meaning, because aspects of different location, ethnicity, gender, patois/dialect make for a vastly wide-ranging skirmishing armoury here. As Pennycook (1994: 270) stresses, “there is no easy route to such writing, no way in which it can be simply achieved through a certain writing approach.”

I would add here also that ‘literature’ here encompasses all forms of both writing and speaking english and that the entire locus is complex and cannot be simply reduced to the binaries of empire and colony; centre and periphery, Other and Self; for in such simple elision power remains with English, the glib swift loquacious proselytizer of such yin-yang. As Ghandi (1998:175) points out in ironic postcolonial reaction to The Empire Writes Back, “these critics once again repeat the tired colonialist assumption that it takes the West…to bring the ‘rest’ to the condition of intelligibility.” Even the adherents of english may well be English double agents, potentially systematizing an inevitable contra to their very own interpretation of one, are in effect strengthening the very foe they write so well about…

All the more reason to write back and then through the episteme! Writing back to the Centre is to existentially de-centre so as to abnegate any peripheries whatsoever. Let’s mutiny.

sloop of discourse

so, you whiteman mariners
c o n t i n u e
to skim your sagging seas
of perfidity.

exporting your barmy lexis
for warm flurries of money,
girding your gallivant
in academy rigour,

a logomachic cargo
fishing for finance
with name-dropping élan,

netting the neophytes
who pay for your prattle:

                                 they’re  c  a  s  t
so                                    a   d   r  i   f   t

smug sails/salesmen,

i e l t s rules the waves.

[First published Carillon, England, 2012]


Anonymous (2015) Recuperation (Politics) Accessed November 5, 2015.

Ashcroft, Bill; Griffiths, Gareth & Tiffin, Helen (2002) The Empire Writes Back: theory and practice in post-colonial literatures. London: Routledge.

Baudrillard, Jean (1979) Seduction, Singer, B. (trans.). Basingstoke and London: MacMillan.

Bunce, Pauline; Phillipson, Robert; Rapatahana, Vaughan and Tupas, Ruanni (2015,  forthcoming) Why English? Confronting the Hydra. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Dasgupta, Probal (1993) The Otherness of English: India’s Auntie Tongue Syndrome. New Delhi: Sage.

Eoyang, Eugene (2003) English as a post-colonial tool: Anti-hegemonic subversions in a hegemonic language. English Today 19 (4), pp. 23-29.

Greenblatt, Stephen (1990) Shakespearean Negotiations: The circulation of social energy in renaissance England. CA: The University of California Press.

Ghandi, Leela (1998) Postcolonial Theory. New York and Chichester: Colombia University Press

Mazrui, Alamin (1975) The political sociology of the English language. The Hague/Paris: Mouton.

Parakrama, Arjuna (2012) The Malchemy of English in Sri Lanka: reinforcing inequality through imposing extra-linguistic value. In Vaughan Rapatahana and Pauline Bunce (eds.) English language as Hydra. Bristol: Multilingual Matters, pp. 107-133.

Pennycook, Alastair (1994) The Cultural Politics of English as an International Language. Harlow, Essex: Pearson Education.

Rapatahana, Vaughan and Bunce, Pauline (2012) (eds.) English Language as Hydra. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Rika-Heke, Powhiri Wharemarama  (1996) Margin or Center? “Let me tell you! In the land of my ancestors I am the Centre”: Indigenous writing in Aotearoa. In Radhika Mohanram and Gita Rajan (eds.) English Postcoloniality: Literatures from around the World. Westport, CT: Greenwood, pp. 147-165.

Smith, Cheryl Waerea-i-te-Rangi (2000) Straying beyond the boundaries of belief: Māori epistemologies inside the curriculum. Educational Philosophy and Theory Vol. 32 (1) pp.43-51.

Smith, Takirirangi (2000) Ngā Tini Āhuatanga o Whakapapa Kōrero. Educational Philosophy and Theory Vol. 32 (1) pp.53-60.

Wierzbicka, Anna (2010) Experience, Evidence, and Sense: The Hidden Cultural Legacy of English. New York: Oxford University Press

Wierzbicka, Anna (2006) English: Meaning and culture. New York: Oxford University Press.

Zabus, Chantal (1991). The African Palimpsest: indigenization of language in the West- African European novel. Amsterdam and Atlanta: Rodopi.

& let’s build a new waka, re-write the book, lets english-up/down/all around the world by ignoring English completely….c’mon, it’s not that difficult, eh. have a squint below, before you go…

aroha mai, apirana

[Ko to ringa ki nga rākau a te Pākehā, 
In your hands the tools of the Pākehā, 
Hei oranga mo to tinana. 
As means to support and sustain you– Sir Apirana Ngata, 1920s]

aroha mai, apirana,
                 aroha mai taku hoa.

every day, every damned day
I strangulate this tongue,
ram it deep back d
                              its own throat,
bastardize it in any way I can
& french kiss it to death.
my garotte hands flex
any nearest extempore–
                                     schwa; tmesis; zeugma; umlaut –
                                    [??? what are these???, I gag]

to asphyxiate its squawky whimpers,
exsiccate its spongy velar
supplicate its fancy frissons
into brute submission

let’s murder this motherfucker once and for all
                     ko mate, mate, mate me kāore he ora mo tēnei arero

ko Hirini te kingi 
today   I   maybe

[So long as Māori can only assert the values and attitudes of their culture in English, they necessarily remain victims of the colonial legacy. Only when Māori writers can rely upon there being a sizeable body of readers in the Māori language will Māori culture truly be able to assert its independence – Hirini Melbourne, 1991].

[ko mate, mate, mate me kāore he ora mo tēnei arero – Māori it’s death, death, death and not life for this tongue.]

Last updated 19 August, 2016