Mutable Semantics: Three Texts and the Term Postcolonial

Gregory Gipson, English 27, Autumn 1997

Having sketched a definition of "postcolonial," I would like to test it by applying it to specific texts -- both to examine the efficacy of the definition and to examine how the self-conscious attention to postcoloniality can affect the impact of a literary work. Wole Soyinka's Aké: The Years of Childhood is a good place to start this inquiry, for reasons which will become clear momentarily.

Soyinka's book is a memoir of his life in the town of Aké until about the age of ten, which means that the events described within all happened in the years during, and leading up to, World War II, when Nigeria, Soyinka's home country, was still a colony. Soyinka was the privileged child of a schoolmaster and a Christian marketwoman, and thus grew up firmly in the grip of colonial British ideology, albeit liberally mixed (in a grab-bag sort of way) with elements of indigenous culture. Throughout the narrative, the young Wole relates a variety of significant events, culminating in a women's revolt against market taxation, led by his mother and her friends. In the course of the book, Wole encounters British soldiers (harmless buffoons), local religious rites (which he tries to interrelate to Christian themes), and Sunday School (which inadvertantly steals away his playplaces by naming them). These sorts of encounters address themes (the clash of possibly incompatible cultures, the construction of meaning by language, and gender roles, traditional and colonial) which are common not just to postcolonial, but to all literature. In order to be truly postcolonial, these themes must be contextualized into the proper framework. The question is, does Soyinka do so? That is to say, is Aké a postcolonial work or simply a well-written piece of autobiography?

The predominant tone of Soyinka's writing is, predictably, one of retrospection. It is the sort of writing in which one finds such statements as "even the Baobab has shrunk with time, yet I had imagined that this bulwark would be eternal" (Soyinka, 65), serving as deliberate reminders that one is reading a lifestory and a history. In young Wole's interactions with the world of adults there is little in the way of direct editorializing on institutions and elders, colonial or otherwise; there is, moreover, a steady stream of reminders that the narrator is writing with a child's mind and a child's logic, that the events he describes are often just as alien to him as to the reader. Thus it is a powerful jolt when bitterness suddenly intrudes and authorial stance flares up, as when Soyinka (and it is definitely not young Wole) explodes into a diatribe like this one:

The smells are all gone. In their place, mostly sounds, and even these are frenzied distortions of the spare, intimate voices of humans and objects alike which filled Aké from dawn to dusk, whose muted versions through the night sometimes provided us with puzzles of recognition as we lay on our mats resisting sleep (Soyinka, 149). . . ]

. . . the sound of sizzling joins the disco sounds, followed by the smell of frying hair as the hot comb heats up the brain of the young consumer without firing her imagination. (Soyinka, 158)

On the one hand, these are the words of a man bitter from nostalgia for a past fondly remembered. On the other, they are injections of overt postcolonial criticism, and incongruous at that. Most of the text is told by young Wole, and is unmarred by any of the sourness of the above passages. Wole trying to understand why the Christian saints are not egúngún, spirits of the dead in Yoruba cosmology, and Wole reporting the curious prelude and conclusion to the womens' climactic revolt are both examples of the ways in which Soyinka manages to skillfully raise postcolonial issues of cultural syncretism and gender roles by the expedient of withholding comment: the attentive reader cannot help but question the causes and ramifications of such incidents, the sheltered life of the colonized Soyinka family, and the confusing role of women caught between two cultural systems. In these sections of the book, Soyinka has written a work which is postcolonial when read by someone familiar with postcolonialism; he leaves the reader to contextualize it, whether in a postcolonial tradition or otherwise. In the sections highlighted above and a few others, he rather clumsily tosses in polemics which are clearly meant at least in part as postcolonial critiques of mass market culture and capalist notions of progess. One has the sense that Soyinka added these parts later in order to deflect some obscure criticism of a perceived lack of anticolonialist sentiments. Unfortunately, the hamhanded nature of these insertions, not to mention their high levels of vitriol, weaken their impact and serve more to distract from than to focus on a postcolonial critique of Nigeria in the 1940s, a critique which is by no means absent from the work as a whole. By diverting the reader to the present tense for such diatribes, Soyinka tarnishes his credibility and disturbs the flow of the story.

What does that mean for our definition of "postcolonial?" By its standards, Aké, while serving modestly as a postcolonial critique, holds more power when considered primarily as the autobiography of a notable writer, and secondarily as a work of postcolonial critique. Fundamentally, Soyinka has tried too hard to wedge his book into a postcolonial context for it to fully succeed there. Is the our definition of "postcolonial" too limiting? Let us examine two novels on the opposite end of the context spectrum, Buchi Emecheta's The Slave Girl, and Yvonne Vera's Nehanda.

Finally, let us consider Nehanda. The novel is very different in style from the previous two texts: poetic and mysterious, it is infused with strong currents of metaphysics and dense imagery. It is also firmly postcolonial, in every way the proof of our definition. Nehanda is the story of Nehanda, a spirit medium among her people who, at the end of the nineteenth century, leads a revolt against the still-new British colonial rule. The novel is completely centered in the context of its time; all details are contained within the story. However, if one knows a bit of the history of Zimbabwe, it becomes quickly apparent that something more is happening than merely a chronicle of failed revolt. If, for instance, one knows that Nehanda (and Kaguvi, the other leader of the book) was a real figure who was executed by the British after the end of the first Chimurenga, and if one knows that there was in fact a second Chimurenga, which succeeded in ending colonial rule, and that the identical names are not coincidence, and finally that Nehanda does not adhere strictly to historical fact, than not only is this one very learned, but he or she is also aware of some of the deeper levels of Vera's writing. Vera is creating a myth, a national myth, and thus addressing the issues of tribalism and nationhood so critical to Africa's decolonized peoples. She is creating a story behind which to unify, a culture hero for several cultures. She is trying, at least, to be the "wind" that "covers the earth with joyful celebration" (Vera, 118). She does all this by using poetic language and diction, by deliberately not naming Nehanda's people, by inventing details of ritual for verisimilitude and symbolic resonance, but most fundamentally by fully integrating the story into its world. The story will stand alone as such, but becomes a postcolonial novel when read in the context of its genesis, that is, with knowledge of Zimbabwe's history and colonial experience.

Nehanda is, if not the most potently, at least the most consistently postcolonial text yet examined: its firm roots in Zimbabwean and colonial history, its depiction of the clash of cultures of irreconcilable difference (within the novel's own context), and its powerful prose make it like the "large cloud of fire" which "leaps up in the midst of death" (Vera, 117). Taking a story of no little tragedy, Vera uses language and story to reorder perspectives on colonialism into new myths -- she contributes to the creation of a new culture from a plethora of old reactions -- among them anticolonialism, that long ago first glimpse into the meaning of "postcolonial."

The term postcolonial is as complicated as any attempt to contain an idea by letters must be. And how well have we succeeded in containing it? The answer is, truthfully, as well as we want ourselves to succeed. We have examined three texts, each of which was clearly informed by, if not created within, the knowledge of postcolonial theory. And only one of those (ironically enough that dealt with most cursorily) completely fits into the frame erected under the title "Postcolonial writing." The other two suffer from problems of contextualization, being too willing to leap between timeframes to fit with the quality of contextual integration ascribed to postcolonialism in our definition. So as to the usefulness and limitations of the term, the answer is equivocation. On the one hand, our definition has helped to establish questions of intent and theme, as well as a context for evaluation of the works; on the other it has at least partially excluded the texts from the very context in which it seeks to integrate them. The utility of the word ultimately rests in an understanding of its vagueness -- postcolonial is a word possessed of as many meanings as there are theorists to define it, and the concerns it addresses would surely exist whether the word did or not. Finally, then, postcolonial is, like any other theoretical category, a useful tool for evaluation, a tool made the more useful when used in conjunction with, and opposition to, the multitude of other contextual frameworks available for the understanding of culture -- one of many, and all of value.


Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, eds. The Post-colonial Studies Reader. Routledge, New York NY, 1995.

Emecheta, Buchi. The Slave Girl. George Braziller, Inc., New York NY, 1977.

Soyinka, Wole. Aké: The Years of Childhood. Vintage International, New York NY, 1989.

Vera, Yvonne. Nehanda. TSAR Publications, Toronto Canada, 1994.

Postcolonial Web discourseov Zimbabwe OV Yvonne Vera Overview

Last Modified: 18 March, 2002