Post Seminar Post…

Thank you dear students for your participation in this course, I hope you enjoyed it!

The first exam will be on Friday 31 January 2014 from 15h00 – 17h00 in Seminar Room 1.

The second exam will be Friday 7 March 2014 from 13h00 – 15hoo in Seminar Room 1.

The third exam will be in October, date to be announced on the blog, if there is any interest. If so, write me an email.

All the best,



Postcolonialism and Postmodernism – Ato Quayson


The Nigerian literary academic Ato Quayson in  his book Postcolonialism – Theory, Practice or Process? (Polity Press, Cambridge, 2000) has the following to say in his chapter titled “Postcolonialism and Postmodernism” (for complete text see Ato Quayson ):

The terms postcolonialism and postmodernism are both extremely elusive to classify, and the attempt to bring them together might be thought only to further compound the difficulties. In fact, for some commentators such as Nigerian Denis Ekpo, postmodernism is nothing but another stage in the West’s crisis of consciousness:

The crisis of the subject and its radical and violent deflation – the focal point of postmodern critique – are logical consequences of the absurd self-inflation that the European subjectivity had undergone in its modernist ambition to be the salt of the earth, the measure and master of all things. For cultures (such as ours) that neither absolutized, i.e. deified, human reason in the past nor saw the necessity for it in the present, the postmodern project of de-deification, de-absolutization of reason, of man, of history, etc., on the one hand, and of a return to, or a rehabilitation of, obscurity, the unknown, the non-transparent, the paralogical on the other hand, cannot at all be felt like the cultural and epistemological earthquake that it appears to be for the European man. In fact, it cannot even be seen as a problem at all. . . . [W]hen such a being settles for the indeterminate, the paradoxical, the strange and absurd, it is probably because he bears no more resemblance to the man as we know him, especially here in Africa; he is a post-man whose society, having overfed him and spoilt him, has delivered him over to irremedable boredom. Nothing therefore, stops the African from viewing the celebrated postmodern condition a little sarcastically as nothing but the hypocritical self-flattering cry of the bored and spoilt children of hypercapitalism. (Ekpo, 1995)

For Ekpo postmodernism has to be seen as the hubristic consequence of a desire to dominate the world, one that, linked to the universalizing rationality of science and anthropology, has to face its own unraveling when confronted by the loss of empire. 

I would like to suggest that postmodernism can never fully explain the state of the contemporary world without first becoming postcolonial and vice versa. The first thing to note is the need to simultaneously factor images, tropes, and texts into specific sociocultural domains while at the same time attempting to alienate them from themselves by reading them against other images, tropes, and texts that do not seem to share historical similarities. The purpose of this would in my view be not only to “read awry,” as Slavoj Zizek (1991) puts it, but to force the phenomenon under analysis into a mode of alienation or estrangement from itself by means of which it would be made to deliver a truth-value that ramifies far beyond its own domain of circulation.

Following the insights about the proliferation of perspectives that postmodernism offers, it is useful to try and fill out as many dimensions of context as possible, even when these might seem to contradict each other at various points.

The reading postcolonialism and postmodernism together is of course to try and grasp the social life of ideas, whether these inhere in images of fashion, as was the case in the Sekyi and Morrison texts, or in popular cultural images of otherness, as was observed in the example from The X-Files.

Thus the images of otherness in The X-Files were related in our account to general problems of the surveilling of immigrants and racial others in the West. The key thing would be to read such images alongside other socially relevant configurations.

The fear of being thought prescriptive and hegemonic is one that most people no longer think worth risking in a world of pluralism. I happen to think otherwise. Recognizing that there is much destitution, poverty, and sheer despair in the world, it seems to me increasingly imperative that the risk of appearing prescriptive is one worth taking if one is not to surrender completely to a debilitating anomie brought on by the comprehension of persistent social tragedies.

Those who lose their limbs to landmines, are displaced due to refugee crises, or merely subsist in the intermittent but regularly frustrated hope that the world can become a better place, cannot wait for complete moral certitude before they take action to improve their existence. It is partly in the implicit (and often real) alliance with those who, to appropriate a phrase from Julian Murphet, “keep running all the time simply to keep pace with events,” that we ought to take courage to make ethical judgments even in the full knowledge that we may be proved wrong. To this larger picture, and in the service of this larger affirmation we ought to commit our critical enterprises. Both postmodernism and postcolonialism have a part to play in this.

Africa is People


In an article published in 1999 by Chinua Achebe called “Africa is People” (see full text: Africa is People ), he tells us about an invitation he received to speak at an anniversary of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. He had no idea why he was invited, and no idea what he would say. Years later, he was invited again, this time to speak at a forum of the  World Bank chaired by Wolfensohn. The following is an extract from this article: 

“They talked in particular about the magic bullet of the 1980s, structural adjustment, specifically designed for those parts of the world where economies had gone completely haywire. The most recurrent prescriptions for this condition were the removal of subsidies on food and fuel and the devaluation of the national currency. The Governor of Kenya asked the experts to consider the case of Zambia, which according to him had accepted, and had been practicing, a structural adjustment regime for something like 10 years, and whose economic condition was now worse than it had been when they began their treatment.

At that point I received something like a stab of insight. It suddenly became clear to me why I had been invited, what I was doing there in that strange assembly. I signaled my desire to speak and was given the floor. I told them what I had just recognized. I said that what was going on before me was a fiction workshop, nor more and no less! “Here  you are, spinning your fine theories to be tried out in your imaginary laboratories. You are developing new drugs and feeding them to a bunch of laboratory guinea pigs and hoping for the best. I have news for you. Africa is not fiction. Africa is people, real people. Have you thought of that? You are brilliant people, world experts. You may even  have the very best intentions. But have you thought, really thought, of Africa as people? I will tell you the experience of my own country, Nigeria, with structural adjustment. After two years of this remedy we saw the country’s minimum wage fall in value from the equivalent of 15 British pounds to 5 pounds a month. This is not a lab report; it is not a mathematical exercise. We are talking about someone whose income which is already miserable enough, is now reduced to one-third of what it was two years ago. And this flesh-and-blood man has a wife and children. You say he should simply go home and tell them to be patient. Now let me ask you this question. Would you recommend a similar remedy to your own government? How do you sell it to an elected president? You are asking him to commit political suicide, or perhaps to get rid of elections altogether until he fixed the economy. Do you realize that’s what you are doing?

The point of all this is to alert policymakers in such institutions as the World Bank to the image burden that Africa bears into the 21st century and make them recognize how that image had molded contemporary attitudes, including perhaps their own, to that continent.

Do I hear in my mind’s ear someone sighing wearily: there we go again; another session of whining and complaining! Let me assure you that I personally abhor and detest whiners. No, I am not an apologist for Africa’s many failings. And I am hard-headed enough to realize that we must not be soft on them, must never go out to justify them. But I am also rational enough to realize that we should strive to understand our failings objectively and not simply swallow the mystifications and mythologies cooked up by those whose goodwill we have every reason to suspect.

My request to the World Bank goes to the very root of the problem: the looting of the wealth of poor nations by corrupt leaders and their cronies. This crime is compounded by the expatriation of these funds into foreign banks where they are put into the service of foreign economies. Consequently the victim country is defrauded twice if my economics is correct: it is defrauded of the wealth that is stolen from its treasury, and also of the development potential of that wealth.

In asking the World Bank to take a lead in the recovery of the stolen resources of poor countries, I am fully aware that such criminal transactions are not made through the World Bank. I am also aware that banks are not set up to act as a police force. But we live in terrible times when an individual tyrant of a small clique of looters in power can destroy the lives and the future of whole countries and whole populations by their greed. The consequences of these actions can be of genocidal proportions.

Let me round this up with a nice little coda. Africa Is People has another dimension. Africa believes in people, in cooperation with people. If the philosophical dictum of Descartes – I think therefore I am – represents a European individualist ideal, the Bantu declaration – umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu (a human is human because of other humans) – represents an African communal aspiration.

Our humanity is contingent on the humanity of our fellows. No person or group can be human alone. We rise above the animal together, or not at all. If we learned that lesson even this late in the day we would have taken a millennial step forward.”

After Empire


Ruth Franklin “After Empire” (for full text see: After Empire ).

In a myth told by the Igbo people of Nigeria, men once decided to send a messenger to ask Chuku, the supreme god, if the dead could be permitted to come back to life. As their messenger, they chose a dog. But the dog delayed, and a toad, which had been eavesdropping, reached Chuku first. Wanting to punish man, the toad reversed the request, and told Chuku that after death men did not want to return to the world. The god said that he would do as they wished, and when the dog arrived with the true message he refused to change his mind. Thus, men may be born again, but only in a different form.

The Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe recounts this myth, which exists in hundreds of versions throughout Africa, in one of his essays. Sometimes, Achebe writes, the messenger is a chameleon, a lizard, or another animal; sometimes the message is altered accidentally rather than maliciously. But the structure remains the same: men ask for immortality and the god is willing to grant it, but something goes wrong and the gift is lost forever. “It is as though the ancestors who made language and knew from what bestiality its use rescued them are saying to us: Beware of interfering with its purpose!” Achebe writes. “For when language is seriously interfered with, when it is disjoined from truth . . . horrors can descend again on mankind.”

The myth holds another lesson as well–one that has been fundamental to the career of Achebe, who has been called “the patriarch of the African novel.” There is danger in relying on someone else to speak for you: you can trust that your message will be communicated accurately only if you speak with your own voice. With his masterpiece, “Things Fall Apart,” one of the first works of fiction to present African village life from an African perspective, Achebe began the literary reclamation of his country’s history from generations of colonial writers. Published fifty years ago–a new edition has just appeared, from Anchor ($10.95)–it has been translated into fifty languages and has sold more than ten million copies.

In the course of a writing life that has included five novels, collections of short stories and poetry, and numerous essays and lectures, Achebe has consistently argued for the right of Africans to tell their own story in their own way, and has attacked the representations of European writers. But he also did not reject European influence entirely, choosing to write not in his native Igbo but in English, a language that, as he once said, “history has forced down our throat.” In a country with several major languages and more than five hundred smaller ones, establishing a lingua franca was a practical and political necessity. For Achebe, it was also an artistic necessity–a way to give expression to the clash of civilizations that is his enduring theme.

“Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond.” From the first line of “Things Fall Apart”–Achebe’s first novel–we are in unfamiliar territory. Who is this Okonkwo whom everybody knows? Where are these nine villages? Achebe began to write “Things Fall Apart” during the mid-fifties, when he moved to Lagos to join the Nigerian Broadcasting Service. In 1958, when he submitted the manuscript to the publisher William Heinemann, no one knew what to make of it. Alan Hill, a director of the firm, recalled the initial reaction: “Would anyone possibly buy a novel by an African? There are no precedents.” That was not entirely accurate–the Nigerian writers Amos Tutuola and Cyprian Ekwensi had published novels earlier in the decade. But the novel as an African form was still very young, and “Things Fall Apart” represented a new approach, showing the collision of old and new ways of life to devastating effect.

Set in a fictional group of Igbo villages called Umuofia sometime around the beginning of the twentieth century, “Things Fall Apart” begins with an episodic, almost dreamlike chronicle of village life through the family of Okonkwo. A boy named Ikemefuna has just come from outside Umuofia to live with them, and soon becomes like a brother to Okonkwo’s son Nwoye. (Ikemefuna’s father had killed a woman from Umuofia, and the villagers agreed to accept a virgin and a young man as compensation.) Over the next three years, the story follows Okonkwo’s family through harvest seasons, religious festivals, and domestic disputes. The language is rich with metaphors drawn from the villagers’ experience: Ikemefuna “grew rapidly like a yam tendril in the rainy season, and was full of the sap of life.” The dialogue, too, is aphoristic and allusive. “Among the Ibo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten,” the narrator explains. (As the reader has already seen, palm oil is used to flavor yams, the villagers’ staple food.)

Western reviewers praised Achebe’s detailed portrayal of Igbo life, but they said little about the book’s literary qualities. The New York Times repeatedly misspelled Okonkwo’s name and lamented the disappearance of “primitive society.” The Listener complimented Achebe’s “clear and meaty style free of the dandyism often affected by Negro authors.” Others were openly hostile. “How would novelist Achebe like to go back to the mindless times of his grandfather instead of holding the modern job he has in broadcasting in Lagos?” the British journalist Honor Tracy asked. Reviewing Achebe’s third novel, “Arrow of God” (1964), which forms a thematic trilogy with “Things Fall Apart” and its successor, “No Longer at Ease” (1960), another critic disparaged the book’s language as “folk-patter.”

This was a grotesque misreading. In a 1965 essay titled “The African Writer and the English Language,” Achebe explains that he had no desire to write English in the manner of a native speaker. Rather, an African writer “should aim at fashioning out an English which is at once universal and able to carry his peculiar experience.” To demonstrate, he quotes several lines from “Arrow of God.” Ezeulu, the village’s chief priest, is curious to find out about the activities of the new missionaries in the village:

I want one of my sons to join these people and be my eyes there. If there is nothing in it you will come back. But if there is something there you will bring home my share. The world is like a Mask, dancing. If you want to see it well you do not stand in one place. My spirit tells me that those who do not befriend the white man today will be saying had we known tomorrow.

Achebe then rewrites the passage, preserving its content but stripping its style:

I am sending you as my representative among these people–just to be on the safe side in case the new religion develops. One has to move with the times or else one is left behind. I have a hunch that those who fail to come to terms with the white man may well regret their lack of foresight.

By deploying stock English phrases in unfamiliar ways, Achebe expresses his characters’ estrangement from that language. The phrases that Ezeulu uses–“be my eyes,” “bring home my share”–have no exact equivalents in Achebe’s “translation.” And how great the gap between “my spirit tells me” and “I have a hunch”! In the same essay, Achebe writes that carrying the full weight of African experience requires “a new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit its new African surroundings.” Or, as he later put it, “Let no one be fooled by the fact that we may write in English for we intend to do unheard of things with it.”

In contrast to European modernism, with its embrace of “art for art’s sake” (a concept that Achebe, with characteristic bluntness, once called “just another piece of deodorized dog shit”), Achebe has always advocated a socially and politically motivated literature. Since literature was complicit in colonialism, he says, let it also work to exorcise the ghosts of colonialism. “Literature is not a luxury for us. It is a life and death affair because we are fashioning a new man,” he declared in a 1980 interview.

His most recent novel, “Anthills of the Savannah” (1987), functions clearly in this mold, following a group of friends who serve in the government of the West African country of Kangan, obviously a stand-in for Nigeria. Sam, who took power in a coup, is steering the nation rapidly toward dictatorship. When Chris, the minister of information, refuses to take Sam’s side against Ikem, the editor of the government-controlled newspaper, the full wrath of the government turns against both of them. The book does not match the artistic achievement of “Things Fall Apart” or “Arrow of God,” but it gets to the heart of the corruption and the idealism of African politics.

The “situation in the world,” fifty years after “Things Fall Apart,” is not as altered as one might wish. As Binyavanga Wainaina, the founding editor of the Kenyan literary magazine Kwani?, demonstrated in a satiric piece called “How to Write About Africa,” racist stereotypes are still prevalent: “Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. . . . Make sure you show how Africans have music and rhythm deep in their souls, and eat things no other humans eat.” But the power of Achebe’s legacy cannot be discounted. Adichie has recalled discovering his work at the age of about ten. Until then, she said, “I didn’t think it was possible for people like me to be in books.”

Anthills as Protest?

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In the article “Assessing the Dilemma of a Nation at the Crossroads – Protest as Landscape in Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah” by Niyi Akingbe. (for full article, see: Assessing the Dilemma of a Nation at the Crossroads Protest as Landscape in Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah )

Protest and literature are seen to be closely related in the way in which human beings perceive of their society and the actions that they take as a result of those perceptions. Social protest can be said to refer to those mass movements, private initiatives, demonstrations, and other activities which support or oppose specific developments or situations in a given society, with a view to changing it for the better.

Literature, for its part, refers to that body of written, verbal, or performed work which exercises the imagination and seeks to offer insights into the nature of the world and the place of humans in it.

In considering the nature of protest in Anthills of the Savannah, it is apparent that Achebe considers all protest as essentially the contestation of meanings. The disagreements between His Excellency and people such as Chris, Ikem, Beatrice, and the others over the direction of Kangan stem from their differing perceptions of how the country can best make progress: the former believe in an authoritarian, top-down approach because they feel they have all the answers; the latter argue that such an approach has failed, and must give way to more inclusive approaches that take the ordinary citizen into greater consideration.

The novel is replete with disagreements and arguments, to such an extent that the narrative is a virtual war of wills. The book opens with Chris and His Excellency, with their eyes combatively locked in a dangerous outward manifestation of a personality-clash. Ikem engages a taxi-driver in a grim battle for a few inches of space in a traffic jam, and argues with Elewa over the necessity of her going home in the dead of night; Chris and Ikem argue over the latter’s editorial comments. Beatrice engages a female American journalist over her seemingly inappropriate behaviour towards His Excellency, and quarrels with Chris over his seeming lack of concern for her well-being. Ikem has a brush with a traffic policeman over alleged illegal parking. Ikem turns his lecture at the university into a dialogue so that he and his audience can “exchange a few blows” (154).

Part of the contestation of meanings in the novel takes place on the level of social class and occupation. Ikem’s stubborn desire to maintain a low profile in spite of his enviable status as editor of a major newspaper is seen by himself as a rejection of the crass materialism of Kangan society and a demonstration of his determination to remain true to himself, but the taxi-driver he has an encounter with re-interprets it as the unedifying miserliness of a man who is too selfish to give employment to those who desperately need it.

Achebe seems to be making the point that since protest is essentially about the contestation of meanings, the meanings that are open to such contestation should be properly identified so that the resultant contestations are not misdirected or meaningless.

She concludes that in this novel, Achebe attempts to draw together many of the ideas and opinions that were evident in his previous novels. As a result of this, the novel displays a depth of meaning which influences all of its major themes, including protest. Thus, instead of depicting protest in ways that have become conventional in African literature, Achebe chooses to examine it in a much more authentic context. Protest is therefore seen to be much more problematical and complicated in the novel than at first seems to be evident.

Is Niyi correct? What do you think?



Anthills – Style


Here below are reflections on four aspects of style used in the novel (can you think of more?)

Point of View

Anthills of the Savannah provides a complete view of the action of the novel by offering multiple points of view. Achebe allows the reader to see the situation from the points of view of Ikem, Chris, and Beatrice, and also, in some passages, from that of a third−person, omniscient narrator. This technique enables the reader to make judgments for him/ herself rather than relying on a narrator or a single character to supply descriptions of people and events. This also is a way in which Achebe retains the part of his African literary heritage that focuses on the community rather than on the individual.


The novel takes place in the fictitious West African land of Kangan. Its borders were arbitrarily drawn by the British colonialists. Some critics maintain that the country is modeled after Achebe’s native Nigeria, while others see it as a version of Idi Amin’s Uganda. Regardless, Kangan is a contemporary African nation struggling to find stability in postcolonial times. Although the setting is contemporary, there are elements of tradition that reflect consistency in the community and among the people.

Tradition is perhaps the strongest source of security and gives the people a feeling of unity. The setting also takes the reader into the government headquarters—a privilege not afforded to the citizens of Kangan. Whereas the public is forced to rely on hearsay and the press to learn what is happening within the government, the reader can see first−hand how the regime is being run, how it is changing, and how the various forces work together or against each other in the unstable military regime.


Most of the dialogue of the ordinary people of Kangan is written in the dialect of Pidgin English. The unusual grammar and unfamiliar words of this dialect can be difficult for Western readers, but its inclusion gives the novel a strong sense of realism. In addition, it is easy to identify a character’s level of education or social standing based on his or her manner of speech. Chris, Beatrice, and Ikem are sympathetic as characters, as they are able to interact with common people by speaking Pidgin English and with powerful political figures by speaking British English. Rather than distance themselves from the ordinary citizen, as Sam does, Chris, Beatrice, and Ikem routinely abandon their British English in favor of being able to communicate in a meaningful way.

Blending of Old and New

Achebe is often praised for his skillful blending of folklore, myth, proverbs, and customs with modern Western political ideologies and Christian belief systems. By presenting these two approaches, Achebe asserts his belief in the power of the past to ease the excesses and confusion of the present.

In a similar vein, Achebe was the first Nigerian writer to apply the conventions of the novel to African storytelling. Well aware of the strong oral tradition of African literature, Achebe found a way to write honestly about Africa in a way that is accessible for an international audience. Anthills of the Savannah was originally written in English, and by adopting a structure that is familiar to his English−speaking audience, he makes his African storytelling available without compromising the integrity of his heritage. At the same time, Nigerians can benefit from his writing because English is their official language.