Reading Chinua Achebe’s novels from a linguistics perspective

Foreword
I am a reader. Being a reader, especially an avid and a passionate one, influences your life experience and your approach to things in general. I have created this blog primarily to collect personal reflections, thoughts and notes on my readings. From my point of view, a blog is a resourceful platform which may be used to open up a dialogue with the others and create a cyber-place for interesting literary exchanges. It is like a little window with a tiny view to the world outside; you can learn more by sharing information and talking to other people that occupy a different place, from where they get a different view.
The content of this post is a revised version of some notes that I wrote some years ago on reading Chinua Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart, from a linguistics perspective. It is just an excerpt but it was originally part of a more extended essay that I composed during the first part of my past university experience. However, this sort of ‘spirit of researching’ has not abandoned me ever since, although so far there have been a few hick-ups and interruptions now and again.
The selected paragraphs below were dedicated to Chinua Achebe, the much acclaimed Nigerian writer and the Father of African Literature, who was still alive at the time I put those words together. His writings, aside from being inspirational for his contemporaries as well as the following generations of writers, have been an important learning source for readers throughout the world. This doesn’t mean that there is only one African literature inspired by Chinua Achebe, but he has somehow guided the literary spirit of a continent whose concept of freedom has long been mined under the influence of imperialism and domination.
Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart was one of the first books that I read which can be labelled under the category of Postcolonial Literatures, a term which I have come to dislike and that I prefer replacing with Literatures Beyond Borders or Literatures of Resistance. Postcolonialism is a branch of theoretical studies, whereas literature is art and doesn’t necessarily need to be defined in terms of categories.
Reading Chinua Achebe, among others, has opened up a new literary world to me and has taugh me to look beyond my cultural borders with keen curiosity and respect for the other.
Reading Literatures from the World, somehow breaking the borders of cultural/political barriers, doesn’t make you wiser of more intelligent than others, it just gives you the chance to see things from a different perspective, it allows you to open up a dialogue with other cultures (including the far-flung ones), it keeps you away from “the danger of the single story” (here I am borrowing Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s words) and resist against the contemporary process of globalisation. There are different people and different stories. Difference does exist in nature and must be preserved as such.

***

chinua-achebeAlbert Chinualumogu  Achebe was born on 16th November 1930, in the country of Ogidi, in Nigeria, within an Igbo community. Like other major Nigerian writers, he was educated at the University College of Ibadan, were he studied English, history and theology and it was during his studies that he rejected his English name, Albert, and took up his indigenous one, Chinua (which is the abbreviation for Chinualumogu). Both Igbo and English languages coexisted since the  early stage of his life, although the latter mastered his education throughout the years. Soon after graduating in 1953, he begun traveling through Africa and America. The encounter with Western cultures gave him much material to work on and develop his literary theory. His first novel, Things Falls Apart, is probably the most authentic and audacious narrative ever written about Nigeria and its culture. The title of the novel, first published in 1958 (i.e. two years before Nigeria achieved Independence), recall the verses of the poem The Second Coming by the Irish poet W. B. Years, describing the hideous scenario of the post World War I and the apocalyptic vision of a World collapsed into anarchy because of a flaw in humanity:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

things fallThere are similarities in the way in his novel Achebe portraits an initially lively traditional Nigeria village, Umofian, which ‘falls apart’ shortly after the arrival of the European whites and the introduction of the colonial system. The novel is set during the 1890s, when the British  missionaries and the colonial government made their strong and devastating intrusion into the Igbo society. The novel tells the story of the beginning colonial Nigeria from a local perspective and the reader is guided through the events by the eyes of the indigenous people.
Okonkwo, the main character of the novel, is a big self-made man, one of those unwilling to accept their community to be taken over under the process of colonisation. However, in the role of the big hero fighting to protect his country and his community against the newly established corrupted government, he is bound to self-destruction.
By recreating a realistic and genuine portrait of the Igbo culture in his fiction, including  its complexities and depths, its goods and its bads, Achebe challenges the readers to examine themselves in this evolving world, in primis addressing his words to the colonised people.
On the one hand, Achebe accused non-African writers – that is, the indisputable protagonists of traditional literature, who had dominated the literary stage for the past centuries- for misunderstanding and misinterpreting the so called Dark Continent and spreading around very misfiguring representations of it. Noticibly, he deliberately accused J. Conrad for presenting a false and racist portrait of Africa, merely observed ‘under his western eyes’, as a land inhabited by people with impenetrable and primitive minds. In a 1964 statement, which also appeared in the Morning Yet on Creation, Achebe affirmed:

«African people did not hear of culture for the first time from Europeans, […] their societies were no mindless but frequently had a philosophy of great depth and value of beauty, […] they had poetry and, above all, they had dignity. It is this dignity that African people had but lost during the colonial period and it is this that they must now regain».

On the other hand, he sent a whipping response to some western writers (among whom G. Orwell, H. Melville, G. Greene and the aforementioned Conrad), who contributed to spread a distorted idea of the Africans (and the colonised culture, to an extended degree) depicted as ‘noble savage’, primitive and animal-like, yet uncorrupted and innocent. As a matter of fact, the Igbo culture never was an idyllic haven, nor had it been before the arrival of the colonialists. In the novel, positive elements are carefully taken into accounts and described, as well as negative ones.

Things Fall Apart can be read from a linguistics perspective, thus offering a number of topics for further discussion. One of the interesting aspects is analyzing the language of the novel, English, used to write an authentic Nigerian novel about Igbo people.
If the primary big effort of post-colonial societies is to “re-create” their own identity, by dismantling the imperial centralism and metropolitan power, in other words, decolonising the culture. If we look at language in terms of human behaviour, which expresses, embodies and symbolised cultural realities, we can realise that it is one of the most important elements which must be used as a weapon throught the process of decolonisation. Cultural decolonisation doesn’t happen at the same time as national political independence; it takes time to achieve it, and today many national identities are still in the process of self-definition.
For instance, Maxuell’s approach on post-colonial literature focused on disjunction between place VS language and place VS displacement as a major concern for colonised people. Among others, he questioned  the appropriateness of an imported language to describe the experience of place in post-colonial societies.
In fact, English was a complete stranger for Nigeria before the arrival of the colonists, consequently, it cannot fully speak about its people and places.
Eventually, Maxuell affirmed that:
«[…] the intolerable wrestle with words and meanings has as its aim to subdue the experience to the language, the exotic to the imported life».
However, in the present day the return to the indigenous languages and the pre-colonial culture is not likely to happen because it would not fit into a post-colonial environment that has been through the experience of colonialism which, among many aspects, encompasses imperialism, the violence of enslavament, social brutality and (cultural and physical) denigration.
Additionally, the presence of indigenous text in literature has the great disadvantage of not reaching a huge readership, hence the ongoing challenge between centrality and marginality.
In this context, English (and, similarly, this also applies to the other European colonial languages) becomes the tool with which a world can be recostructed, but only after a process of abrogation and appropriation. This means capturing and remoulding the imposed language into a brand new one and making a using it in a new way. Thus English becomes englishes, which incorporate a number of different and distinct forms of languages.

English, specifically, has been a continuum of intersections in which the speaking habits in various communities have intervened to reconstruct a language. In the Swan and the Eagle, the Indian writer C. D. Narasimhaia thus commented the versatility of english in regards to his complex native Indian culture:

«[…] that it is not the language of any religion is precisely its strength, and its extraordinary  cosmopolitan character – its Celtic imaginativeness, the Scottish vigour, the Saxon concreteness, the Welsh music and the American brazenness – suits the intellectual temper of modern India  and a composite culture like ours. English is not a pure language but a fascinating combination of tongues welded into a fresh unity».

Clearly, when Narasimhaia speaks about the English language, he is referring to post-colonial hybrid englishes and not standard English. Similarly, Chinua Achebe made use of Nigerian english to speak out about Nigeria and its people.

il crollo.jpgBy choosing English (or the Nigerian variety english) over Igbo, Achebe managed to reach an incomparable number of readers world-wide and marked a relevant impact in literature. Remarkably, Things Fall Apart has been translated in at least 50 languages, adapted for production on stages, radios and TV and it is used as a text book in many high schools, colleges and universities.
Achebe skillfully solved the problem of terminology by incorporating elements of the Igbo  language in his novel. In certain cases, foreign words are very well merged into the text in a way that readers can easily catch up the meaning of Igbo word without the help of a glossary:

«Okoye was also a musician. He played on the ogene».

«[…] and the bird eneke-nti-oba who challenged the whole world».

«Go-di-di-go-go. Di-go-go-di-go. It was the ekwe talking to the clan», the onomatopoeic  sound of the musical instrument.

In other cases, the use of  a full explanatory clause or phrase, immediately after or before the term in Igbo, makes the reading go smoothly and with no misunderstanding:

«At the most one could say that his chi, or personal god, was good».

«Ikemefuna told him that the proper name for a corn-cob with only a few scattered grains was eze-agadi-nwayi, or the teeth of an old woman».

«On the arms were red and yellow bangles, and on the waist four or five rows of jigida, or waist-beads».

«Now and again, an ancestral spirit or egwugwu appeared from the underworld».

However, most editions of Things Fall Apart printed abroad came out equipped with a glossary to ease out the non-Igbo audience (in fact, the majority of the readers).

The books is replete with regional names that are, for obvious reasons, left as they are, many of those taken from local vegetation and plant (raffia palm, cassava, yam, udala tree, iroko tree, etc.), from local food or dishes (egusi soup, foo-foo, palm wine, etc.).
The narration is embellished by traditional proverbs, local stories and references to myths and tribal rituals, which link to frequent analogies with western fables.

For instance, “if a child washed his hands he could eat with kings” is a proverb referred to Okonkwo, who washed his hands of his bad reputation, a consequence of his father’s lifestyle.
The readers of Things Fall Apart easily come to appreciate the importance of symbols, words and sounds. The importance of the rhythm is occasionally stressed to reproduce moments of high emotion and tension: the repeated call of the village criers becomes a reoccurring ritual in the novel “Umofia kwenu…!”, and the reply “Yaaa…”; the agonizing call of the priestess seeking Okonkwo’s daughter Ezima  “Agbala d-o-o-o! Adbala ekeneo-o-o-o!”.

Some verses of popular songs are also reported on a few occasions, either translated into English or left in Igbo, depending on the function they play within the text. For instance, if the meaning is less important than the sound, it is not worth translating songs into standard English.

In the novel Achebe fully shows his ability of remolding English for his own writing purposes, spicing it up with a pure taste of his Igbo culture.

He once said that language is a weapon and we use it, and there’s no point in fighting it”.
He lived by these words, gradually spreading those through his peculiar art of writing and, without being aware of it, he ended up changing the course of literature.

 

«Art is, and always was, at the service on Man. Our ancestors created their myths and told their stories for human purpose. Any good story, any good novel, should have a message, should have a purpose».

Chinua Achebe

 

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