None are named “All of You”

Note: I apologize to my classmates for missing last week’s discussion. My time management skills apparently had not yet returned from break. I have since forcibly extracted them from the void and, battered as they are, am working diligently to get them ship-shape. Considering the time-stamp on this post, they are still a little…disgruntled.

The turtleLanguage is like clay. The one you are born into benefits from years of kneading, handling, molding, and is soft and pliable. If you are lucky, you spend your life creating different shapes with the clay, using examples of sculptures that came before you, refining your process. Then one day, another language beckons you, and you answer the call. A new, hard lump of clay is placed before you and the slow, arduous kneading process begins. It is frustrating, tiring, and, all the while you are kneading this new language you realize that you may never achieve the same malleability of your own language, but, at the same time, that even an approximation of that malleability will be ultimately rewarding. The two essays I chose to abstract for this week discuss the sculpture that Achebe creates with language and his ability to form a recognizable story with foreign–and often diminished–clay.

James Snead opens “European Pedigrees/African Contagions: Nationality, Narrative, and Communality in Tutuola, Achebe, and Reed” with a quote from Samuel Johnson: “Languages are the pedigrees of nations” (264). He spends a great deal of time deconstructing that statement and as well as our definition of nation. He questions our notion that nations are naturally formed geological separations between people, created independently and having a shared culture and history. But this definition neglects the naturally porous nature of all societies, the unnatural creation of borders by colonization, and the diverse populations that entertain ideas of national “purity.” He also argues that the larger an empire spreads its control, the more diverse it becomes and, therefore, the more insistent its “original” members become when it comes to a “pure” race. Rethinking the concept of “nation” and, by extension, the idea of a “national language” and a “people” also forces us to see nations as populations living within an imaginary boundary and consenting–or being forced–to exist under a single law. After the nation is created, the language established, then, Snead argues, literature takes hold as the signifying voice of that nation. We continue to see remnants of that process in our own course listings today. Snead also argues that as certain texts and literatures are elevated, they become synonymous with a sense of “universality” and as other texts are produced outside that national culture, the critic’s first instinct is to search for the universality of the piece. Yet, that instinct is entirely Eurocentric, and therefore, has difficulty recognizing the universality of a story without the common features of the national literature that came before. In a sense, this is where Achebe, as well as others, have succeeded–and in some cases, confounded–to the critics demands. By molding the English language into approximating the oral tradition of the Ibo, Achebe forms the language into an African sculpture–though the notion that any author can speak for all of Africa is an Eurocentric view as well. Snead suggests that, for Achebe’s novels, “their most interesting aspect is the almost casual manner in which they present African norms to primarily non-African readers” (278). Achebe uses the language most accessible to the European audience to render a story initially unrecognizable to them, yet one that slowly reveals its universal theme throughout the rhythm of the narrative.

That rhythm is discussed in detail in the next essay, “Rhythm and Narrative Method in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart,” by B. Eugene McCarthy. At times McCarthy delves into the analytical of scanning lines and marking repetitions, but they are all pointers to a larger pattern in Achebe’s book. He quotes Walter Ong’s definition of the oral tradition, citing that “thought must come into being in heavily rhythmic, balances patterns, in repetitions and antithesis, in alliterations and assonance, in epithetic and other formulary expressions” (428). The repetition, or “backlooping” is an integral part of the oral narrative–folklore, fairy tales, myths are replete with these patterns–but not necessarily a staple of the Eurocentric novel tradition. There may be cycles in theme or symbols, but, McCarthy argues, Achebe creates these cycles with the language itself, allowing the larger theme to be not only symbolically cyclical, but literally. As he progresses through his close reading, McCarthy shows how Okonkwo is bound by the cycles of the village and of nature, but ultimately rejects them. He is so absorbed into projecting his own masculinity, he rejects the natural cycles embodied in the feminine. While the masculine moves forward unrelentingly, the feminine recognizes seasonality. Ultimately Okonkwa’s inflexible push forward meets head on with another inflexible force, the white man, resulting in his committing the arguably unmasculine act of suicide. Achebe, in his use of the English language, showcases not only the cyclical nature of oral storytelling, but the cyclical nature of the life in which Okonkwa is bound. There is a danger of dismissal when likening written prose with oral narrative, as the Western tradition elevates the former over the latter, but McCarthy’s essay shows the beauty of this rhythmic storytelling in Achebe’s novel and the effectiveness of this long-diminished strategy.

“Because he’s naked and ashamed”

Your listening for this post:

When I read Dr. Clemens’ post about this week’s reading, I was worried that “the most depressing book they have read” consensus of Nawal El Saadawi’s Woman at Point Zero would unduly influence me. It prepared me, in some ways, to build up a wall against what I might find. Thankfully, Saadawi’s prose tore down any barriers I had to the story and in the end, no, I wasn’t depressed. Depression is a terribly selfish emotion, inward looking and isolated.

I was in awe. I was ashamed. I was angry.

In awe because of something we don’t spend as much time on in this class because of the flood of injustice presented in the texts. I was in awe of the writing. Saadawi has taken the honest and harrowing tale of Firdaus and turned it into a beautiful fairy tale. And a fairy tale not in the unbelievable, happy-ending, Disney sense of the word, because that’s just patriarchal condescension dressed up in technicolor and musical numbers. No, a fairy tale in that it tells truths that are difficult to hear in their pure form; though Saadawi is as close to pure, I’d argue, it is possible to get. The cyclical nature of the storytelling underlined not only the multitude of oppressive waters Firdaus tries to rise above, but the constant rotation of her experiences. How falling in love is akin to falling into someone’s eyes, as if into their soul—and how the other person’s feeling matter little in that moment; how the severing of her clitoris as a young girl is reenacted over and over again as Firdaus is forced to sever herself from her own feelings in order to survive; these moments turn in the wheel of fate that Saadawi’s psychiatrist kneels on a cold floor to hear, entranced and unable to pull away.

And I was ashamed, just like the woman in our story frame, for being able to put the book down upon completion, plug in my iPhone and try to sleep. I was ashamed for having been born privileged in skin, location, money, and ability. I was ashamed that I never had to work so damned hard, not just to establish myself as a success, but to establish myself as a human being, surrounded by a world—worlds upon worlds—whose intent to dehumanize me for their own exploitation had become so profuse that it was hard to recognize. (How does a fish explain when the water is oppressive?) The multiple layers of oppression I talked about in the last post are laid bare in Woman at Point Zero and when even your body is no longer your own—and for women, is it ever?—lashing out and denying another their body in death seems almost righteous.

Then I was angry, because little has changed. Firdaus’s only moments of agency are the times she left the homes of her abusers and wandered the streets. Terrifying and edifying, these repeating scenes when she is poured into the masses of people and becomes anonymous are her only moments of freedom. This freedom is always ripped away when  a man notices her and she follows. She follows because she has no other option and the only path to even a small sense of agency is money. Saadawi’s book feels like the fictionalization of Oyěwùmí’s essay, or better yet, the naturally outgrowth of relabeling an entire portion of the population. Re-categorizing community members as ‘women’ and therefore, subservient, allows a redistribution of power that makes the colonizer more comfortable in dealing with the colonized. We name things in order to control them, and in naming, we bring all the connotations from the colonizer’s language down upon the head of the named. Women are inferior because they have always been so. Women are unable to hold positions of power because in our imperial memory they have not—Her Royal Highness notwithstanding, since that’s ordained by God, who’s a man. The colonizer is so emboldened by his superior strength that he has no cause for reflection upon his own ideology—not even a recognition that he embodies an ideology, because it is the dominant one, and therefore, the right one.

Yet, Saadawi’s Woman at Point Zero eclipses all the other readings for this week. It’s lyrical prose exposed the background drumming of patriarchal oppression in clearer tones than any essay or video. Firdaus’s struggle—no, I won’t patronize her by calling this a struggle—her realization is that life is her true prison is the essence of the story, of so many of these stories. It is not about changing Firdaus’s choices, but about changing the very fabric of the world in which she, and all of us, live. It is reading this and recognizing that this oppression is all around us and we perpetuate by being sad and depressed and feeling grateful. We should be in awe of this book. We should be ashamed that this is not our life. And we should be angry that we are still fish underwater, surrounded by a system determined to force into inferiority.

Perhaps the only way for us to evolve is to leave the water and find a way upon the land.