The possibilities and pitfalls of ethnographic readings: narrative complexity in Things Fall Apart.
These famous closing lines of Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart (1958, hereafter TFA) represent a dramatic shift of perspective, whereby the protagonist's life story, which has been the subject of the previous twenty four chapters, is unceremoniously condensed into a brief anecdote in a foreign text: we are thrust from what is figured as an intimate, insider's view of Igbo life to a jarringly alien one. The outsider's proposed ethnography of the region's purportedly primitive tribes exemplifies a tradition of colonial discourse that Achebe powerfully counters in TFA. (1) Okonkwo's tragic death--prefiguring for the reader the demise of the clan's traditional ways--serves the government anthropologist merely as raw material to appropriate and possibly turn to a profit. (2) Not only is the prominent Okonkwo stripped of his individual identity as he is transformed into a nameless African in a Western text, but the particularities of the sophisticated Igbo culture, which the novel has taken pains to elaborate, are also erased as they are lumped together in the essentialist category of primitive tribes. Moreover, though the Commissioner has shown himself to be a poor reader of native customs and beliefs, lacking both the intellectual curiosity and the humility that are requisite to understanding another culture, he nonetheless passes as an African authority in the West. Achebe's narrative works to redress the reductive and distorted representation of traditional African cultures emblematized by the Commissioner's text.
The reference to the colonial text within the novel may be taken as an embedded reference to the extra-textual politics of representation in which the novel participates. Achebe reports that it was his anger at what he took to be the caricatures of Nigerians in Joyce Cary's novel Mr. Johnson that initially inspired him to write a counter-narrative, sympathetic to the indigenous perspective (Flowers 1989, 4). By the author's account, the novel is meant at once to "write back" to the Western canon, (3) correcting erroneous representations of Africa and Africans, and to restore to his people an awareness of the dignity and humanity of precolonial Africa--reminding them "what they lost" through colonization (Achebe 1973, 8). Published two years before Nigeria gained independence from Great Britain, TFA aims to wrest from the colonial metropole control over the representation of African lives, staking a claim to the right to self-representation.
While raising issues of authority and authorship, at the same time, the District Commissioner's indisputably alien perspective at the novel's end functions to reinforce the impression of the foregoing narrative's ostensible authenticity: as Neil ten Kortenaar perceptively argues, Achebe's "appeal to an obviously false authority deploys irony to establish Achebe's own credentials as a historian of Igboland" (2003, 124). Against the egregiously misinformed interpretation of an outsider, the rest of the novel is fashioned as a view "from the inside," as the author himself has described it (Flowers 1989, 4). With such remarks, Achebe has contributed to the aura of authenticity that surrounds his book, positioning himself as a kind of native anthropologist, who represents from within the life of the fictionalized Eastern Nigerian village, Umuofia (based on the author's native Ogidi).
Selling millions of copies and taught not only in literature classrooms, but in anthropology, comparative religion, and African Studies courses as well, TFA is widely appreciated for its richly detailed, "inside-perspective" of a traditional West African culture. (4) Indeed, the novel has frequently been deemed "ethnographic" for its vivid representation of the customs, ceremonies, and beliefs of the Igbo people. An early review captures this sense of confidence in the author's credentials as an ethnographic reporter: "No European ethnologist could so intimately present this medley of mores of the Ibo tribe, so detail the intricate formalities of the clan." (5) In 1980, critic David Carroll presents what by then is a received view, when he writes, "With great skill Achebe ... combines the role of novelist and anthropologist, synthesizing a new kind of fiction. This is where his essential genius lies" (1980, 183). In 1991, the MLA's Approaches to Teaching Achebe's Things Fall Apart, based on a survey of several hundred teachers of African literature in the U.S., Africa, and Europe, lists among the principal reasons for teaching this novel the perception that it offers "an unusual opportunity to discover the foreign from within": "Readers everywhere may enter Achebe's Igbo worldview and see past and present African experiences from an indigenous perspective" (Lindfors 1991, 15,2). (6) Finally, in another pedagogical volume, Understanding Things Fall Apart, Kalu Ogbaa informs teachers and students that Achebe's novel may be regarded as "an authentic information source on the nineteenth-century Igbo and their neighbors" (1999, xvii).
As a literary critic (in the American academy) and not an anthropologist, I have no intention of questioning the accuracy of Achebe's cultural portrait of the Igbo, which seems deserving of its reputation as authoritative.7 What I do want to question is this persistent rhetoric of authenticity, intimacy, and (to coin a clumsy word) insiderness which pervades discussions of Achebe's text. Further, I want to challenge the pervasive ethnographic or anthropological mode of reading Achebe's novel, which I take as paradigmatic of a common approach to African literature, and to ethnic literatures more generally, at least in the West. (8)
As Keith Booker points out, "anthropological readings ... have sometimes prevented African novels from receiving serious critical attention as literature rather than simply as documentation of cultural practices." (9) The naive ethnographic or anthropological reading treats a novel like TFA as though it transparently represents the world of another culture, ignoring the aesthetic dimensions of the representation. Ato Quayson suggests that the tendency to read Achebe's novels as though they unproblematically represent historic and cultural reality is not limited to critics unfamiliar with the African context: West African critic Emmanuel Obiechina "duplicates this tendency from an insider's perspective," reading TFA "as reflective or mimetic of traditional beliefs and practices in an almost unmediated way" (Quayson 2003, 225). (10) (While I agree with the thrust of Quayson's critique, I will quarrel with his reification of the categories of insider and outsider shortly.) It is not merely that such readings give short shrift to the literary dimensions of this fiction, but in reading fiction like ethnography, some critics operate from the false assumption that ethnographic texts themselves are transparent. (11) In another context, Elizabeth Fernea defines the "ethnographic novel" as one "written by an artist from within the culture," which presents an "authentic" representation of that culture (1989, 154, 153). Leaving aside the objection that "auto-ethnographic" might be a more fitting term here, Fernea's definition highlights a common assumption of such readings: the writer's "insider" status rather circularly verifies the "authenticity" of the representation.
This article seeks to complicate the construction of postcolonial writers like Achebe as cultural insiders. My analysis demonstrates that neither the author nor the narrative voice of TFA can be aligned simply with a monological African (or even West African, Nigerian, or nineteenth-century Igbo) perspective, despite the persistent critical tendency to do so. Raised by Christian evangelists in a small village in Eastern Nigeria, Achebe has written eloquently about his childhood alienation from his family's ancestral traditions. I show that Achebe's perspective at the "cultural crossroads" (his phrase) is manifest in the narrative voice of TFA, which moves along a continuum of proximity and distance in relation to the culture it sympathetically describes. In this way, Achebe's position vis-a-vis the Igbo does exemplify many of the dilemmas of ethnographic observation--if we understand the relationship between the observer and the observed to be more complicated, and sometimes fraught, than most anthropological readings of the novel assume. To uncover the complexities in the narrative voice, I argue, we need to read the novel not naively as providing a clear window onto an alien culture--in contrast with the presumably distorted vision of colonial writers like Joyce Cary--but meta-ethnographically, in a way that attends to the complexity inherent in any ethnographic situation. (12) Such a reading restores Achebe's text to the realm of the literary, by encouraging subtle attention to the narrative's achievements as fiction, rather than as cultural documentation.
A Voice from the Inside
Lauding Achebe's judicious and multifaceted representation of the Igbo in TFA, David Carroll writes, "It was an achievement of detachment, irony and fairness, demonstrating in the writing those qualities he admires in his own people" (1980, 29). But in what sense are the turn-of-the-century Igbo represented in the novel the author's "own people"? The formulation simplifies the writer's subject position, while ignoring the heterogeneity of the Igbo, as of all cultures. Achebe's divided identity as a colonial subject is emblematized by his christened name, Albert Chinualumogu, a tribute on the one hand to Queen Victoria's consort, Prince Albert, and on the other, to the writer's African heritage; at University, he dropped the former and cropped the latter name, refashioning his identity in a way that could be read as simultaneously indigenizing (by effacing the colonial marker) and modernizing (in his words, making the name "more businesslike") (Achebe 1975, 118). Achebe explains that he was born at the "crossroads of cultures": "On one arm of the cross, we sang hymns and read the Bible night and day. On the other, my father's brother and his family, blinded by heathenism, offered food to idols" (1975, 120). He attended a missionary school, not surprisingly, since his father was one of the first converts in the area (Ezenwa-Ohaeto 1997, 3), and, as a Christian, learned to look down on "heathens" and their pagan customs: Christians were regarded as "the people of the church," while heathens were "the people of nothing" (Achebe 1975, 115). Achebe has suggested that writing TFA was "an act of atonement" for this early repudiation of ancestral traditions, offered up by a "prodigal son" (120). At the same time, he recalls being fascinated by the traditional customs and rituals taking place in the village, and even "partaking of heathen festival meals" unbeknownst to his parents. Thus Achebe's relationship to traditional Igbo ways is rooted in ambivalence.
Like many African writers of his generation, Achebe received a colonial education--meaning one calibrated to an English frame of reference--at both the prestigious secondary school he attended at Umahia and at the University of Ibadan, where he became well acquainted with the English literary canon. In an oft-quoted passage, Achebe reflects on the psychological ramifications of studying colonial fiction, for a young, black African man:
When I had been younger, I had read these adventure books about the good white man, you know, wandering into the jungle or into danger, and the savages were after him. And I would instinctively be on the side of the white man. You see what fiction can do, it can put you on the wrong side if you are not developed enough. In the university I suddenly saw that these books had to be read in a different light. Reading Heart of Darkness, for instance,... I realized that I was one of those savages jumping up and down on the beach. Once that kind of enlightenment comes to you, you realize that someone has to write a different story. (Qtd. in Flowers 1989, 343)
This sudden shift in readerly identification is a kind of parable of the fracturing of identity under colonization: Achebe is split between identifying with the white adventurer and with the savage, and though he consciously decides to take up the "savage's" cause, to tell "a different story," his experience suggests that ultimately it is not as simple as choosing sides. Achebe remains a divided subject: "living between two worlds," he affirms, "is one of the central themes of my life and work" (Qtd. in Flowers 1989, 333).
The pervasive rhetoric of insiderness associated with this writer obscures the more apt trope of the artist situated at cultural crossroads. Achebe has referred to his position straddling cultures as one of the "major advantages" he has enjoyed as a writer (Okpewho 2003, 72): as Simon Gikandi notes, the Nigerian novelist learned to regard "the chasm between himself and the Igbo traditions" as a generative artistic space (1996, 15). Gikandi's word "chasm" denotes Achebe's alienation from indigenous customs. Yet I would stress that it is distance (a "chasm") in tension with proximity to traditional ways that is the enabling condition for Achebe's art. In this way, he resembles the figure of the modern fieldworker in the tradition of Bronislaw Malinowski, whose methodology of participant-observation involves shuttling back and forth between perspectives--adopting the native's point of view as a participant, and then pulling back, as an observer, to place customs and beliefs in context (Clifford 1988, 34). Exploring these affinities in greater detail will shed light on the intricacies of Achebe's narrative technique.
Mindful of the tendency to read Achebe's works in an ethnographic mode, one interviewer asked the author whether he regarded his novels as "a competent source of cultural information ... about Igbo society"; Achebe concurred, explaining that he aimed to present "a total world and a total life as it is lived in that world," and adding, "If somebody else thinks, as some do, that this is sociology or anthropology, that's their own lookout" (Flowers 1989, 64). That Achebe is far from discouraging ethnographic readings of his fiction follows from his pedagogical view of art: to Achebe, the novelist is a teacher, and educating Africans and foreigners about a heritage that has been demeaned and eroded through colonization is a viable way of fulfilling an important social mission. (13)
The phrase Achebe uses to describe the purview of his novels ("a total world and a total life") resonates with the language of cultural holism employed by anthropologists like Malinowski to describe their object of study--typically, a tribal village prior to extensive contact with foreigners. (14) In another interview, Achebe states that while some African writers may object that Africans are "not tribal anymore," "My world--the one that interests me more than any other--is the world of the village" (Flowers 1989,77). In its scope and orientation, TFA resembles the traditional village study of an anthropologist, except Achebe's "field" is both home and strange (or, rather, estranged). In aiming to capture what he perceives as a vanishing way of life (he speaks of observing "the remains" of village traditions in his youth [1975, 18]), Achebe also resembles the figure of the modern fieldworker, bent on what James Clifford has called a project of "ethnographic salvage." (15) In Achebe's case, the travel that is also a condition of conventional fieldwork is figurative: the village he "visits" and recreates in his historical fiction is one of the past, from which he is separated by time, education, and experience.
The fieldwork methods associated with British Social Anthropology and pioneered in the first decades of the twentieth century required the fieldworker to develop a close rapport with the natives and to take part in native customs and rituals, as well as to observe them. Referring to the fieldworker's oscillation between empathic identification and objective analysis, Clifford writes that participant-observation entails "a delicate management of distance and proximity" (1997, 72). The narrative voice of Achebe's first novels has been described in terms that resonate with these: Okpewho asserts that the "most striking quality" of TFA is "its empathic account of the Igbo society," a perspective inexplicably mitigated, in his characterization, by the "objective distance" of the narrative voice (25). Similarly Carroll lauds the opening of the sequel to TFA, Arrow of God, as "an extraordinary achievement of sympathy and detachment" (1980, 183). These critics fail to recognize--or at least to explore the ramifications of--the near paradox of this description, which makes the narrative voice of TFA more interesting than many acknowledge. Like the traditional anthropologist, this African novelist navigates between poles of empathy and objectivity, attitudes that are potentially at odds with one another. Achebe's account of his relationship to Igbo traditions illustrates this tension:
I was brought up in a village where the old ways were still active and alive, so I could see the remains of our tradition actually operating. At the same time I brought a certain amount of detachment to it too, because my father was a Christian missionary, and we were not fully part of the "heathen" life of the village. (Achebe 1973, 18)
Achebe is at once the insider, speaking of "our tradition," and the outside observer, regarding village ways with a certain "detachment."
Rather than compromising his authority as a representative of Igbo culture, though, distance emerges in Achebe's account as the necessary condition for representation:
I think it was easier for me to observe. Many of my contemporaries who went to school with me and came from heathen families ask me today: "How did you manage to know all these things?" You see, for them these old ways were just part of life. I could look at them from a certain distance, and I was struck by them. (Achebe 1973, 18)
Achebe implies that his "heathen contemporaries" can't see the cultural forest for the trees: too close to their own customs, they fail to see them clearly. Malinowski also insinuates that cultural insiders suffer a kind of conceptual myopia in relation to their own culture: in his words, "The natives obey the forces and commands of the tribal code, but they do not comprehend them" (1984, 11). Whereas Malinowski infantilizes the natives in this statement, implying they are incapable of comprehending abstraction, Achebe expresses a similar sentiment without condescension: his unique perspective, he implies, is a factor of an inherited position. In Achebe's assessment, the distance imposed between him and the old ways "by the accident" of his birth is an asset: "The distance becomes not a separation but a bringing together like the necessary backward step which a judicious viewer may take in order to see a canvas steadily and fully" (1975, 120). (16) The aesthetic analogy transforms Achebe into that "judicious viewer," able to comprehend the canvas of Igbo culture more fully than the participants whose proximity prevents them from making sense of the details. Achebe may overstate the fortuitousness of his position: the simile also reminds us that Achebe is an artist, as well as an intellectual, and, as such, is by (self-)training and inclination a self-conscious observer.
While Achebe freely acknowledges his partial disconnection from traditional ways, at the same time, he promotes an image of himself as an intimate observer, who has "largely picked up" his knowledge of indigenous culture through conversation and personal observation--that is, through firsthand experiences (Achebe qtd. by Wren, 16-17). This characterization is somewhat misleading: as Gikandi cautions, "however appealing" the temptation to read Achebe as "an authentic voice" of his people might be, "it must be resisted because it is not possible for the writer to appeal to an original notion of Igbo culture.... Igbo reality, insofar as it is available to Achebe, comes to him (and hence to the reader) mediated by the novelist's sources, both Igbo and colonial" (1991, 31). We know, for example, that Achebe studied West African religion with Geoffrey Parrinder at University (Ezenwa-Ohaeto 1997, 42-44), and that he read the works of P. Amaury Talbot, the administrator-anthropologist, and of G.T. Basden, the missionary-anthropologist on whom the character Mr. Brown is based; Robert Wren suggests that Achebe's fiction is informed by this reading (1980, 17-18). In effacing the textual sources that inform his understanding of native life, Achebe again resembles the self-mythologizing fieldworker of the early twentieth-century, who purportedly comes to know a culture through close identification and empirical observation, not through scholarly research (see Clifford 1997).
Finally, as an African novelist writing in English, Achebe, like the traditional anthropologist, confronts the challenge of rendering indigenous experience in a foreign tongue. The non-native reader of TFA is reminded of the act of translation that lies behind the entire work each time she stumbles over an untranslated Igbo word. In the Preface to Argonauts of the Western Pacific, Malinowski stipulates that ethnographers should incorporate native phrases into their texts as a means of establishing authority, by demonstrating their supposed mastery of the indigenous language (1984, 23). With shifted emphasis, Kortenaar observes of the Igbo words that pepper Achebe's narrative, "These foreign traces in an English text refer metonymically to a whole world that cannot be adequately translated, a world that Achebe implicitly shares with the characters he writes about. The non-Igbo reader, by implication, can only achieve a mediated knowledge of that world" (Kortenaar 2003, 127). I would suggest that, like all cultural knowledge, Achebe's is also mediated in ways I have mentioned, though certainly he possesses what might be called a "fluency" in Igbo culture, and thus--even as his "world" is not identical to theirs--shares a great deal with the characters he represents. In my reading, rather than functioning to reinforce an "us" vs. "you" divide for the non-Igbo reader, the native phrases woven into the largely English text of TFA serve to linguistically render the borderland from which Achebe writes. (17)
In an essay exploring the concept of anthropology as cultural translation, Talal Asad asserts that the skilled translator, whether of languages in a limited sense or of cultures more generally, "seeks to reproduce the structure of an alien discourse within the translator's own language" (1986, 156). For Achebe, the situation approximates the reverse: he has argued that "The African writer ... should aim at fashioning an English which is at once universal and able to carry his peculiar experience" (1975, 100). As several critics have argued, Achebe indigenizes the English language, reproducing attributes of African oral tradition in a written text. (18) Reversing Asad's formula for traditional translation, one could say that Achebe "seeks to reproduce the structure of native discourse within an alien language"; yet for a writer who has described himself as "perfectly bilingual" (119) and who has written eloquently about his alienation from ancestral traditions, the native/alien binary does not quite hold.
Hence, though I have suggested that Achebe's position vis-a-vis the Igbo has much in common with that of a traditional anthropologist--similarities the insider/outsider dichotomy would obscure--important differences mark his position as well. Unlike Malinowski among the Trobriand Islanders, Achebe is not a stranger pitching his tent among natives; he is a native son, albeit a prodigal one. The stakes are also very different for Achebe than for the traditional anthropologist: he attempts to "salvage" a "vanishing" culture not out of disinterested intellectual curiosity or the necessity of establishing professional credentials (via the disciplinary rite-of-passage, fieldwork), but rather, as a cultural nationalist interested in recuperating a culture fragmented and maligned by colonization.
In many ways, then, a more apt analogy for this African novelist at cultural crossroads is the native anthropologist, who complicates the inside/outside binary that governs characterizations of conventional fieldwork. Like the postcolonial writer, the native anthropologist is liable to be read uncritically as offering an "authentic perspective," a reading that has recently met with criticism from within the discipline. Kirin Narayan, a fieldworker and scholar who uncomfortably bears the label in question, rejects the native/non-native binary, suggesting that, instead, we should "view each anthropologist in terms of shifting identifications amid a field of interpenetrating communities and power relations" (1993, 671). Considering such factors as "education, gender, sexual orientation, class, race, or sheer duration of contact," she points out that the "loci along which we are aligned with or set apart from those whom we study are multiple and in flux." In this way, her work urges a rethinking of the relationship between cultural observers and those they observe, casting serious doubt on "the extent to which anyone is an authentic insider" (671). Raised in Bombay by a German-American mother and Indian father, educated in a university in the United States, and conducting fieldwork in diverse regions in India, Narryan's own situation amply demonstrates the multiple and shifting identifications she describes.
Achebe's relationship to the Igbo parallels the complex positioning of the native anthropologist vis-a-vis her native informants, which scholars such as Narayan and Clifford suggest overlaps in significant ways with that of a traditional anthropologist. As if with Achebe in mind, Clifford writes, "Going 'out' to the field now sometimes means going 'back,' the ethnography becoming a 'notebook of a return to the native land'" (1997, 80). Like Narayan, Clifford stresses that "'native' researchers are complexly and multiply located vis-a-vis their worksites and interlocutors," experiencing "different degrees of affiliation and distance" (77). He also challenges the inside/outside binary, pointing toward a continuum model, where cultural observers move fluidly between poles of sympathetic identification and critical explication in relation to those they study: for "even when the ethnographer is positioned as an insider, a 'native' in her or his community, some taking of distance and translating differences will be part of the research, analysis, and writing" (86). Clifford suggests that for the "native researcher" as well as the traditional anthropologist, distance and translation are preconditions of ethnographic representation. As the next section argues, the narrative voice of TFA manifests the varying "degrees of affiliation and distance," which typify the dynamic relationship of all cultural observers to the field, but which is intensified in the case of the native anthropologist.
Things Fall Apart: A Dialectic of Proximity and Distance
Part I of Achebe's first novel plunges the non-native reader into the world of the Igbo, with detailed descriptions of the people's customs, beliefs, and ceremonies. Seamlessly woven into the narrative fabric are accounts of the Feast of the New Yam, the negotiation of bride price, the ceremony of the egwugwu (ancestral spirits), the nso-ani (sacrilege) of committing violence during the Week of Peace, and so on; these details, together with the numerous proverbs embodying clan wisdom that punctuate the narrative, (19) function collectively to create a rich, vivid portrait of a traditional Nigerian culture. The narrator's intimate acquaintance with Igbo culture is signaled by the ability to closely document such beliefs and practices, to use the native tongue, and to omnisciently enter into Igbo characters' minds.
Not surprisingly, then, critics have interpreted the narrative voice as emanating "from the inside." In Carroll's estimation, "The voice is that of a wise and sympathetic elder of the tribe" (1980, 31). Innes also stresses the speaker's identification with the natives' point of view: "the narrative voice is primarily a recreation of the persona which is heard in tales, history, proverbs and poetry belonging to an oral tradition; it represents a collective voice through which the artist speaks for his society, not as an individual apart from it--he is the chorus rather than the hero" (1990,32). Recently, Angela F. Miri has echoed these readings, asserting that TFA's "storyteller undoubtedly represents the Igbo voice or the vox populi" (2004, 102). Whether the voice is individuated (a tribal elder) or collective (a communal chorus), critics persist in casting Achebe and the narrator in the role of native informant for the Western reader.
Yet assertions like Innes's that the narrator "speaks for his society, not as an individual apart from it" will not withstand close reading: the narrator frequently stands apart, becoming (in my terms) an observer, rather than an implied participant. We are told, for example, that "Darkness held a vague terror for these people, even the bravest among them. Children were warned not to whistle at night for fear of evil spirits" (Achebe 1996, 7; my emphasis). These remarks clearly install distance between the narrator--who presumably is not afraid of the dark, and likely does not believe in evil spirits--and "these people," who are cowed by their fear of the night. Here the narrator is aligned more closely with non-native readers than with the Igbo perspective, and, in this mediating role, is more ethnographic observer than native informant. The move is akin to what James Buzard has called the "self-interrupting style" of ethnographic narratives, whereby the ethnographer insists that however closely s/he may identify with the natives, s/he is not really one of them (2005, 34).
For the most part, pinning down the narrative perspective is not a case of discerning whether the narrator is inside or outside native culture, but, rather, of detecting the fluid movement between these vantage points. The slipperiness of the narrative voice is evident in a passage that begins, "Umuofia was feared by all its neighbours. It was powerful in war and in magic, and its priests and medicine-men were feared in all the surrounding country" (Achebe 1996, 8). That Umuofia is "powerful in magic" is presented in a declarative sentence that renders without question or judgment the native point of view. The narrator continues, "on one point there was general agreement--the active principle in that medicine had been an old woman with one leg. In fact, the medicine itself was called agadi-nwayi, or old woman" (8-9). This story of the origin of native belief is flagged as consistent with the clan world view: they agree that the old woman with one leg is the source of their reputation in magic. At the same time, the anecdote is consonant with anthropological accounts of primitive cultures that regard disability as a source of metaphysical power. Thus the narrator subtly provides an alternate frame of reference--a way of understanding Umuofia's reputation that accords with Western disbelief in magic. Rather than operating from a fixed viewpoint, the narrator moves freely between divergent perspectives.
Another passage that illustrates the narrative's liminal perspective--jockeying between inside and outside perspectives in ethnographic fashion--is the description of the Oracle, Agbala, in Chapter Three:
No one had ever beheld Agbala, except his priestess.... It was said that when such a spirit appeared, the man saw it vaguely in the darkness, but never heard its voice. Some people even said that they had heard the spirits flying and flapping their wings against the roof of the cave. (Achebe 1996, 12)
The passage is respectful of the Oracle's sacredness to the Igbo: the narrator does not overtly proclaim disbelief. Yet the existence of Agbala is left in question: no one has seen it, except in dubious conditions ("vaguely in the darkness") and no one has "heard its voice." Indeed, what can be heard in the cave--the "flapping of wings"--above all conjures the image of bats, the probable denizens of a dark, dank place. Hence, again, the narrator subtly provides an alternative frame of reference, accommodating skepticism alongside Igbo belief.
The very few critics who avoid the reductive insider reading of TFA tend to equate the intermittent distance of the narrative to which I have been alluding with an anthropological perspective. For instance, Gikandi observes that the narrator at times "adopts distance and represents the Igbo as if they were an anthropological 'other'" (1996, 46). Similarly, Koretenaar notes that Achebe occasionally "lapses into the knowing tone of the anthropologist" (2003, 132), as in the glossary, when he defines several Igbo terms with "thoroughgoing disbelief." (20) While usefully complicating naive ethnographic readings that fail to problematize the narrator's insiderness, these critics operate from an equally fallacious assumption that an anthropological perspective is inherently alienated. In doing so, they fail to realize that the anthropological perspective itself mediates between near and far, inside and outside, distance and proximity. They conflate distance and disbelief with the alien perspective of an anthropologist, rather than recognizing that the anthropological voice mediates between ostensible native and foreign perspectives--alternately suspending disbelief, to closely identify with a native perspective, and explicating belief, from an external vantage point.
This is more than a question of semantics. By reading the narration's often overlooked complexity as ethnographic, I hope not only to underscore the novel's artistry, but also to usefully complicate our understanding of ethnographic relationships themselves. When Achebe's best critics reverse the more common "naive ethnographic reading" that I've been discussing by equating the novel's anthropological perspective with "a view from outside," they unwittingly replicate the kind of dichotomous thinking Achebe himself so assiduously avoids in his nuanced narrative. On a stylistic level, the slippery narrative voice manifests the ongoing process of positioning and repositioning oneself at cultural crossroads.
Acknowledging inconsistencies in perspective that most Achebe critics ignore, Gikandi argues that the ambivalent narrative voice signals contradictions inherent within Igbo culture, contradictions highlighted by the character of Nwoye, who functions as an internal critic of such practices as the disposing of twins and the killing of Ikemefuna. For Gikandi, it is erroneous to read the narrator as either a representative insider or a unified, collective voice because a stable field of social values doesn't exist in the novel: pre-colonial Umuofia is represented as "a society with various voices and conflicting interests" (1996, 45). While taking Gikandi's point, I would stress that the fluctuations of the narrative voice also express the shifting affiliations of the author, who, like the native anthropologist, is pulled between the values and traditions of sometimes conflicting cultural frameworks.
Another notable exception to the reductive insider reading is that of Abdul JanMohamed, who interprets the novel's balancing act between sympathy and objective distance--or, in his terms, between "sacred" and "secular" perspectives--as narrative "double consciousness." JanMohamed conceives of this dualism as the author's creative solution to a dilemma he describes in this way:Achebe is "challenged with the unenviable task of ensuring that his characters do not seem foolish because they believe in the absence of [the] border [between the sacred and the secular], while he is obliged to acknowledge it for the same reason"; "double consciousness," then, is the simultaneous "awareness of the border and its deep repression" (1984, 32-33). Rather than serving to pander to a Western audience who will regard native belief with possible disdain (by regarding the characters as "foolish"), I have argued that the narrative tension between belief and skepticism registers the author's own shifting frame of reference, one akin to that of an ethnographic observer, continually navigating between indigenous and foreign viewpoints. Moreover, in its maneuverings among different Igbo as well as Western perspectives, the narrative consciousness that emerges is more than double; it has multiple, shifting permutations, as a final example will show.
Illustrating the narrative's ever-shifting vantage point is Chapter Ten's description of the trial, presided over by nine egwugwu (masked ancestral spirits) and their leader, the "Evil Forest." (21) To begin with, conjuring the momentousness of the ceremony, the egwugwu are deemed "the most powerful and the most secret cult in the clan" (Achebe 1996, 63); their voices are represented as "guttural and awesome" (62). The description continues, throwing the reader into the center of the action: "The egwugwu house was now a pandemonium of quavering voices: Aru oyim de de de de dei! Filled the air as the spirits of the ancestors, just emerged from the earth, greeted themselves in their esoteric language" (62-63). From the vantage point of the believer, the voices are presented as those of the ancestral spirits. The Igbo greeting remains untranslated, such that the narrator serves as the custodian of knowledge unshared with the reader. Yet the word "esoteric" signals that members of the clan also remain in the dark as to the significance of the utterance: "No woman ever asked questions" about the exclusively male cult (63). From a position of privileged omniscience, then, the narrator moves not only between an inside and an outside perspective, but also between the semi-opaque boundaries that divide the male and female spheres. This narrative flexibility resembles the shifting field relationships of the native anthropologist, as described by Narayan, with points of affiliation and disaffiliation that are "multiple and in flux" (Narayan 671).
It is only after building up a sense of the ceremony's significance from a point of view identified with the initiate that the narrator steps back from the event to give another perspective:
Okonkwo's wives, and perhaps other women as well might have noticed that the second egwugwu had the springy walk of Okonkwo. And they might also have noticed that Okonkwo was not among the titled men and elders who sat behind the row of egwugwu. But if they thought these things they kept them within themselves. The egwugwu with the springy walk was one of the dead fathers of the clan. (Achebe 1996, 64)
The passage begins by subtly casting doubt on the native belief in ancestral spirits--unmasking the egwugwu, as it were--by intimating that one of them has "the springy walk of Okonkwo," and thus is a man, not a spirit. The narrative voice draws the female characters into complicity with its skeptical perspective, by tentatively attributing to them a glimmering awareness of Okonkwo's telltale walk; they "might have noticed" what the narrator knows for certain: there is a human being beneath the ceremonial disguise. If Wren is correct when he asserts that the Igbo perceive the egwugwu not as "mortals masked but [as] transcendent--even transubstantiate--beings, living presences of the dead fathers of the nine villages of Umuofia" (Achebe 1996, 35), then calling attention to Okonkwo's disguise represents a major breach with the insider's view. An episode toward the end of the novel lends support for this reading: when Enoch publicly unmasks an egwugwu, "reduc[ing] its immortal prestige in the eyes of the uninitiated," he is represented as "killing ... an ancestral spirit," thereby throwing Umofia into a state of "confusion," and effectively presaging the "death" of the "soul of the tribe" (131-32). The language literalizes the belief that the egwugwu embody the spirits of the clan, as does the closing sentence of the passage quoted above, which rejoins the perspective of the devout believer, by affirming that the egwugwu in question actually "was one of the dead fathers of the clan." Thus the narrator inhabits shifting and sometimes contradictory perspectives, along a continuum that stretches from the most credulous believer to the skeptic or cultural outsider.
Through these maneuverings, the narrative voice replicates the dynamic positioning of the native anthropologist--at once part of Igbo culture and apart from it, a participant and a judicious observer, at turns closely identifying with various Igbo perspectives and "taking the distance" that is the precondition for ethnographic representation.
It is tempting to read TFA as a voice from the inside for a number of reasons. The novel itself encourages this reading, with its detailed documentation of cultural practices, its fluid incorporation of native words and phrases, and its juxtaposition of the principal narrative perspective with the reductive and distorted view of outsiders like the District Commissioner. By construing his narrative as combating the misinformed representations of colonial writers, Achebe has contributed to the impression of the book's documentary realism.
Additionally, like other postcolonial literature, TFA has entered the Western canon as a kind of sequel to British Modernism, one that is perceived as providing a corrective to the ideological blind-spots of writers from the earlier historical period. Frequently partnered with Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness in introductory level courses and British literature surveys (including my own), TFA appears on the syllabus to show the "other side" of the colonial encounter. Too often this impulse leads critics and teachers to regard postcolonial writers as rendering the experience of colonized and pre-colonial societies in an unproblematic, unmediated way.
Yet this mode of reading oversimplifies the relationship between Achebe and traditional Igbo culture, threatening to fetishize the voice of the former colonial subject, while ignoring the complexity of the narrative voice, which is more dynamic than such readings acknowledge. Dubbing the novel ethnographic or anthropological is equally reductive, when these terms are understood to imply a kind of photographic realism, and when the author's indigenous status is assumed to vouch for an uncomplicated textual authenticity. The opposing, but still misguided, assumption that the novel's anthropological perspective is inherently alienated likewise simplifies the dynamic ethnographic relationship, which the novel subtly reproduces at the level of style.
Notwithstanding these cautions, I believe that literature is one of the most valuable tools we possess for imagining life in other cultures. Thus we should not stop reading ethnographically, but rather, by appreciating the complexity of the ethnographic project, especially when undertaken by a "native son," we can better appreciate the corresponding complexities of narratives that emerge from cultural crossroads.
(1) In Morning Yet on Creation Day, Achebe terms this voice the "sedate prose of the district-officer-government anthropologist" of the early twentieth-century (1975, 5).
(2) In the sequel to TFA, Arrow of God, we learn that the Commissioner has profited from colonial anthropology, since his book has "become a colonial classic, a manual of empire-building," as Nahem Yousaf notes (2003, 39).
(3) The phrase is not Achebe's, but rather an allusion to the well-known and seminal work of postcolonial criticism, The Empire Writes Back (1989).
(4) According to Isidore Okpewho, as of 2003, the novel had been translated into nearly sixty languages and sold close to nine million copies. Charles Larson states that following Nigerian independence, TFA became required reading at the secondary level in Nigeria (Okpewho 2003, 27), but my focus in this essay is primarily the novel's critical reception in the U.S.
(5) Hassoldt Davis, Saturday Review, 1959 (qtd in Larson 15-16).
(6) Other respondents to the survey stated that they wanted to "give students a sense of African history and the effects of colonialism on Africa, as well as to dispel stereotypes about Africa," and many stressed that the novel provides an accessible, evocative introduction to African literature or to post-colonial literature more generally (Lindfors 1991, 15).
(7) I employ "authoritative" as a relative, not an absolute, term, by which I mean "well informed.". The authority I would ascribe to TFA--as to any well-founded historical and/or ethnographic representation--is that of what James Clifford calls a "partial construction" and what Donna Harraway calls "situated knowledge."
(8) See, for example Eleni Coundouriotis, who has demonstrated that African novels frequently have been read (by Africans as well as Europeans and North Americans) as bearing ethnographic witness to their authors' cultures, such that their historical specificity is muted or erased (1999, 4-5). Elizabeth Jane Harrison identifies a similar tendency in scholarship on the fiction of Zora Neale Hurston and Mary Hunter Austin whose "literary strategies" have been neglected "in favor of an analysis of the cultural context of their narratives" (1997, 44). Likewise, Henry Louis Gates complains that European and American critics too often appropriate African and African-American literature as "anthropological evidence" about these cultures (1984, 4).
(9) Booker, The African Novel in English (1998, 65). As early as 1969, G. D. Killam makes an almost equivalent statement: "So much has been written about the anthropological and sociological significance of Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God--their evocation of traditional nineteenth- and earlier twentieth-century Ibo village life-- ... that the overall excellence of these books as pieces of fiction, as works of art, has been obscured" (Booker 1998, 1).
(10) Pointing out that Achebe's fellow Nigerian writer, Wole Soyinka, has labeled Achebe a "chronicler" of the past, Nahem Yousaf similarly objects that Achebe's fiction has been assessed in too limiting terms, "according to its verisimilitude, its facility for reflecting external reality" (2003, 4).
(11) Since the publication of James Clifford and George Marcus's Writing Culture (1986), there has been general acknowledgement within the field of anthropology that the classic genre associated with fieldwork, the ethnography, is a text--that the experience of fieldwork is mediated by language which shapes/constructs that experience.
(12) I am using meta in the sense connoted by the term metafiction, meaning fiction that self-consciously alludes to its own artificiality or literariness, announcing, in effect, "I am fiction." To read meta-ethnographically, by extension, means to read in a way that is self-reflexive of ethnographic practice, attentive to the dynamism inherent in the ethnographic voice.
(13) See "The Novelist as Teacher" (Achebe 1975, 67-73).
(14) Cultural holism in British Social Anthropology has its roots in the discipline's first text book, E. B. Tylor's 1871 Primitive Culture, which defined culture as a "complex whole." Primitive villages, believed to be isolated from outside contact, organically integrated, and relatively simple in their organization, were regarded as ideal "laboratories" for studying culture (see for example Mead 2001, 6). However, the idea of the pristine native village has been critiqued in recent years as a romantic construct: for example, Arjun Appadurai writes, "Natives, people confined to and by the places to which they belong, groups unsullied by contact with a larger world, have probably never existed" (1988, 39). See also Clifford (1997).
(15) Cf. Coundouriotos, who argues that "unlike the 'salvage ethnography' of European ethnographers who sought, as Clifford has explained, to preserve what was already lost, Achebe's authoethnography aims at affirming the contemporaneity of native cultures with those of the West" (1999, 38).
(16) Ruth Benedict also employs an aesthetic metaphor in discussing the anthropologist's unique perspective: for Benedict, a kind of "gestalt" vision enables the cultural observer to make sense of a foreign culture, such that "hundreds of details fall into over-all patterns" (1946, 12). "Pattern" becomes an operative trope for Benedict, evident in the title of her 1934 anthropological classic, Patterns of Culture. For an analysis of the relationship between Benedict's concept of culture and the approach to art of literary studies' New Critics (both seeking organic unity and a complex whole in their objects of study), see Manganaro (2002, 151-74).
(17) The allusion is to Gloria Andzaldua's innovative and powerful textualization of bi-lingual, bi-cultural experience in Borderland/La Frontiera, which poetically theorizes the experience of literally and symbolically inhabiting the borderland between Mexico and Texas, from a Chicana perspective.
(18) See JanMohammed (1984), Kortenaar (2003), Booker (1998).
(19) By conjuring the effect of language in translation, the novel's proverbs evoke the semblance of cultural authenticity, yet ironically, it has been well established that these proverbs at best loosely approximate Igbo sayings, and in some cases are Achebe's pure invention. See Shelton (1969, 86-87).
(20) See footnote 21.
(21) Even the definition of egwugwu in the book's glossary reveals a shifting relationship to Igbo culture: prior to the 1996 edition, the term was glossed as "a masquerader who impersonates one of the ancestral spirits of the village" (Achebe 1996, 149)--a definition that reflects "thoroughgoing disbelief," as Kortenaar notes (2003, 130). The most recent edition of the text revises this definition to "the masked spirit, representing the ancestral spirits of the village" (liii)--wording that presumably more closely aligns with the Igbo perspective.
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Carey Snyder is associate professor of English at Ohio University. She is the author of British Fiction and Cross-Cultural Encounters: Ethnographic Modernism from Wells to Woolf (2008), and has published articles in Modern Fiction Studies and Woolf Studies Annual.
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|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2008|
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