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Dean’s Lecture Series: Language, Love and A Nação by Dr. Robert Simon

In conjunction with the Year of the Portuguese Speaking World series, Dr. Robert Simon, a professor in the Department of Foreign Languages, presented his research regarding the use of language as a tool for building national identity. His study examines the language used in Angolan poetry. The symbolism that poets use reflects how they self-identify as well as the history shaping the nation. Such a combination has the potential for translating into the building blocks of national identity. Simon’s theoretical approach explores two distinct phases of national identity building: the use of utopian discourse, “Unity Through Diversity” and the deconstruction of utopian discourse.

Before delving into the analysis of the poetry, Simon accentuated that one first needs a historical background of the Angolan independence struggle. From 1955-1975, Angola fought against Portugal to gain its independence. Upon gaining independence in 1975, the nation slid back into turmoil due to a civil war that lasted until 2002. When the civil war ended, the nation began a period of reconstruction and national consolidation that is still occurring in the present.

With this brief understanding of Angolan history, Simon then shifted the focus to Angolan literature. There are two pillars of Angolan literature that authors and poets use to develop their pieces. The first is anchored in oral traditions, where Portuguese is the main language but other languages such as Kimbundu and Ovimbundu exist and are used. The second is based on the Angolanidade movement of the 1950s. Both of these pillars are historically founded. Concomitant to this is a parallel theory regarding the “epic” versus “constructive” poetics of the period, a subtle but measurable difference in individual / communitarian foci. These may be taken outside of a diachronic reading. Turning specifically to Angolan poetry, and in utilizing the notion of “différance” as a basis for building moments of communication between the two theories, history has influenced poetry to the extent that it too follows two distinct phases: utopian, the pre-independence and independence phase, and criticism of dystopic context, the post-independence phase.

Simon’s study analyzes the work of three poets from the two different phases to compare the difference in the language choices as a result of the historical context. Angolan poet, Agostinho Neto’s, work falls into the pre-independence and independence phase. Analysis of his poetry finds aspects of living in the slums of Luanda, instances of the Salazarist myth of the enlightened and content Portuguese colonial subject, and references the utopic notion of unity in diversity. The poetry of Ana Paula Ribeiro Tavares and Luís Kandjimbo falls into the post-independence phase. Analysis of Tavares poetry yields discussions of a utopian space being simultaneously ruined by that same utopia, a tempting yet false side of the country, and the loss of the traditional lifestyle, loss of Vatwa. Simarly, Kandjimbo’s poetry holds many of the same themes: struggle to find significance in a contradictory social, political, and linguistic framework, linguistic unity leads to cultural suppression and Angola as a tortured state.

Simon’s study reveals that the impact of a nation’s history is reflected in the language choices used in literature. National identity is shaped by history, and the way language portrays historical developments provides insight to the internal feelings of the citizens residing in nations that experience upheaval and transition. Language is a powerful indicator not only about the past but also about the progression of the present and the hope for the future.

Posted: January 25, 2016