Saturday, May 31, 2008

Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe

Ruth Franklin's appraisal of Achebe in The New Yorker inspired me finally to read Things Fall Apart. Like most books I read, I had meant to read it for some time but kept getting distracted by other books—and unfortunately more often, by life itself.

I turned to Achebe's book partially because I was frustrated by a few comments Franklin made, and felt the need to check them against the source. Franklin asks, "Is it too utopian to imagine that the African novel could exist simply as a novel, absolved of its social and pedagogical mission? Achebe has been fiercely critical of those who search for 'universality' in African fiction, arguing that such a standard is never applied to Western fiction. But there is something reductive about Achebe’s insistence on defining writers by their ethnicity. To say that a work of literature transcends national boundaries is not to deny its moral or political value."

I'm not certain this is what Achebe is saying, but even if he is, I feel that the questions Franklin poses speak to a very different anxiety about the place of postcolonial works in our cultural landscape.

What Franklin seems to be concerned with is not Achebe's (putative) insistence that the imaginative geography of African literature be strictly bounded and concrete. Rather, she is nearly explicit about a peculiar exasperation that is usually more tactfully or more subtly expressed/repressed: just who is Achebe to tell white/Western audiences how we can read a subaltern literature?

I have riffed on this idea a bit in previous posts about Jhumpa Lahiri and Junot Díaz—the idea of a new genteel tradition in American culture comprising mostly immigrant narratives and some postcolonial works which have sold fairly well, garnered prizes fairly regularly, and are often prescribed as a form of racial nutrition—the idea being that white audiences have certain literary deficiencies which can be filled by frequent doses of Latin American magical realism or novels written by a Real African Writer.

While I agree that white audiences are indeed severely deficient in terms of their awareness of world literature, novels are not vitamins, and neither are writers. Jhumpa Lahiri is not a form of literary arugula to be read to make up for our guilty binging on Dan Brown and Janet Evanovich, to fortify ourselves with a few minerals our typical diet lacks.

I suppose this nutrition-themed form of consumption is a small step up from what it was previously—prurient tourism—but not by much.

Reading Achebe's novel, I mostly was caught up by the influence of an idea presented in the paperback's back-cover promotional copy. It stated that Achebe's novel has often been compared to ancient Greek tragedy. I suppose this is an interesting and somewhat apt comparison—it at least provides a fruitful background for consideration of how we exoticize certain writers (like Achebe) while others (like Sophocles or Euripides) we have somehow gotten used to, shocking though they may be, and even find in their narratives the roots of many modern phenomena.

Let me be more specific. I would wager that most people reading Things Fall Apart are disturbed in a different way by Okonkwo killing his adopted son than they are disturbed by Oedipus's marriage to his mother, or by Medea's murdering her children. We find the former disturbing in a way that distances us from the action—we feel that it is part of a culture that is very different from our own—and read the latter in a way that dissociates its explicit action from a greater artistic truth—i.e. we allegorize it. The meaning of Oedipus's marriage to his mother goes beyond some form of sociological truth or proposition about ancient Theban society and renders an insight into human nature which some(/many) argue is still valid today. We feel that Sophocles articulates something about human nature or the human mind; does someone reading about a pre-colonial Igbo man hacking his son in two with a machete feel the same thing?

Because this is a question of feelings—we find ourselves reacting on an emotional level in different ways when we read something we are told is part of another culture. When we read Sophocles in school, the focus is not on the Greeks as a wholly other culture, but on their contributions to our culture, to Western culture.

This emotional differentiation is, I think, primary, and must be considered before the explicitly ideological questions which Franklin raises. I am not sure how to address it, though—pedagogically or personally.

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