The Theme of Language in Recent African Novels

Jennifer Ellingson

If the postcolonial African literature read in class has attempted to pose any desirable solutions to the problem of language, it is significant that they may contradict each other. Chinua Achebe resolves Anthills of the Savannah, a tale of corruption and tragic violence with an almost utopian depiction of a community, newly solidified with the communal baptism of a baby girl with a boy's name, translated, "May-the-path-never-close." She is referred to as "Everybody's life!" with a unified "Isé," (or "Amen") signifying the shared future responsibility. This baptism is both in keeping with, and a break from tradition:

"This baby has already received its name. She is called Amaechina."

The old people were visibly stunned. The man recovered first and asked: "Who gave her the name?"

"All of us here," said Beatrice.

"All of you here," repeated the old man. "All of you are her father?"

"Yes, and mother." (209)

Ken Saro-Wiwa's harsh depiction of Dukana and the worst-case dangers of a primarily communal life stand in graphic contrast to such a euphoric resolution. Suspicion and persecution of individuals who do not conform, such as the young farmer who aspired to a life outside Dukana and was burned alive in his home in "The Bonfire," and the burial of the live insane man by his family in "A Family Affair," both portray an insidious contrast to the blissful charms of community.

Defining postcolonial as a term in relating to the aftermath of colonialism is much less problematic than defining its literary significance. Should postcolonial literature be defined as a era following independence? As literature from certain geographical regions? A protest genre? It has been remarked upon that women play (directly or indirectly) powerful roles in most, if not all the novels we have read in class. Is all postcolonial literature feminist, or vice versa? If postcolonialism deals with a reclamation of voice, then it may express ideology as well, but it is certainly not an ideology in itself, nor does it necessarily endorse any. Feminism is not postcolonialism, though a postcolonial work such as The Slave Girl, by Buchi Emecheta, may be a feminist work, and should take its place among such. Whatever the literary significance of postcolonialism, the integrity of its literature can only be preserved if its ideology, or other significant aspects are given recognition distinct from its postcolonial origin.

Who does postcolonialism belong to anyway? It is not clear that Wole Soyinka, a relatively elite professor of Igbo descent, and Ken Saro-Wiwa, an activist Ogoni ethnic minority who was executed by the state, necessarily share common interests or solidarity, though both Nigerian writers. It is even less convincing that Chinua Achebe, Nigerian author of the realistic Anthills of the Savannah, and Yvonne Vera, Zimbabwean author of the lyric and surreal Nehanda, should be summarily cast into the same category or genre, though both are authors of African postcolonial fiction.

It is dangerous and unjust then, to conceptualize postcolonialism as somehow a united movement, or an expression of the (often illiterate) masses of a nation, continent or a (non-existent) universalized postcolonial people of the world. Attempts to define, categorize, or by other western-rational means of "understanding," essentialize postcolonial literature, in effect render postcolonial a neocolonial term for the containment of that expression which could no longer be completely stifled. The strength of postcolonial literature lies in its diversity of voices; its limitation is in the futility attempting to contrive a cohesion of these voices.

Postcolonial Web Yvonne Vera Overview Saro Wiwa OV Anthills OV

Last modified: 29 April, 2002