"I have spoken": fictional "orality" in indigenous fiction.
The relationship between the "oral" and the "literary" is of particular importance in the production and reception of texts written about non-English cultural communities, and even more so if the text was written by a member of this community. Literary texts written in English (or other colonial languages) by authors with an indigenous ancestral background and drawing on and technically exposing their non-English cultural experience have always run the risk of being conceived of as representing either a continuation or, depending on the critics's point of view, a replacement of traditional forms of oral cultural life which themselves are vanishing rapidly or have vanished already. The impression that a continuation of traditional orality is desired seems to be conveyed by a number of texts (e.g., Ceremony by the Laguna pueblo writer Leslie Marmon Silko,(1) or the Nigerian Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart (1958) which I will use for reference in the following) that employ scenes and passages which expressly refer to or make use of allegedly oral material in a way that makes the "orality" of that material recognizable to readers with no intimate knowledge of the culture depicted in the text. Most of the problem addressed in this paper is contained in this aspect of recognition. It usually means that an allegedly oral form (like "I have spoken"), a traditional oral content, or a combination of both is visible and recognizable in the text. By means of literary technique, these textual elements are inscribed as "oral" and separated from their "written" surroundings. In the following, I will try to point out some of the pitfalls and possibilities ensuing from the use of such "oral-ness" as a literary technique, and, more so, from the attempts to interpret it as continuation or replacement of the oral cultural expressions it purportedly represents.
One obstacle encountered right away is a problem of terminology. The term "oral literature" is by nature oxymoronic. "Orature" as a way to get around the oxymoron may look useful, but does not help to tell apart the different ways in which the oral and the written interface. To be sure, orality (without quotation marks) may enter the written text in a number of different forms. However, in most of these cases the oral original has about as much to do with the resulting written text as the live bear in the woods with his two-dimensional variant in front of the chimneypiece. This holds particularly true for most early recordings and transliterations of oral folk texts. Focussing mostly on content, transcribers and collectors like the Grimm brothers in Germany not only neglected the intricacies of oral performance and audience orientation, they also made the recorded text conform to pre-fabricated genteel models. Whatever was considered crude, scatological, sexually loaded, or simply redundant was deleted, and suppressed. In colonial environments, recordings were usually made in the local language but the published versions appeared in English translation (Boas).
Another way in which oral and literary form have interfaced is oral residues in a literary text. To call this with Walter Ong "cultural substrata" constitutes a limitation: The tractable occurrence of "oral" formulae (e.g., in European Baroque literature) may indeed have been due to a lack of skills on the part of the author (considering the normative ideology of literariness at the time); in earlier periods it may well have been an earnest attempt at reproducing oral formulaic poetry. The discussion about this phenomenon, particularly with reference to Old and Middle English Literature, continues (from Larry Benson's article disclaiming the importance of oral backgrounds for OE literature [Benson], to the very interesting work on "vocality" by Ursula Schaefer [Schaefer]).
On a more contemporary note, literacy programs (e.g., the Zimbabwean Women Writer's Workshops) demonstrate the possibility for a continuous existence of "oral" cognitive concepts in an otherwise "literary" context (Finnegan; Pentolfe-Aegerter). To call a specific form of cultural cognition "oral" and another one "literary," however, tends to place too much stress on a merely medial aspect. The interrelation between oral and written is not necessarily that of historical succession, but one of modes: medially written texts may well have been constructed following an oral concept (as in political rhetoric) and vice versa: oral performance may follow conceptually "written" rules, as in religious services with a requirement of verbatim repetition (Chafe). In fact, the construction of orality and literacy as signifiers for different and historically successive epistemata constructs a discourse of power (Foucault) which postcolonial criticism would want to transcend. In a sensible turn, German scholars Peter Koch and Wulf Oesterreicher took these relationships into account when they formulated their concept of the "languages of proximity" vs. the "languages of distance," covering conceptual as well as medial literacy/orality in a scaled model (Koch and Oesterreicher).
Still, neither Koch and Oesterreicher nor the numerous scholars of oral poetry in the wake of Parry and Lord have extensively addressed the question of fabricated orality ("fingierte Muendlichkeit" following Paul Goetsch; i.e. the type of hybrid construction that is most frequently mistaken for a continuation or extension of oral traditions). As a general rule, texts employing fabricated orality are fictional prose or poetry in which the distance/difference between the "oral" and the "written" is thematized and part of the story. In texts written by authors with an indigenous ancestral background, but using non-indigenous languages like English, French, or Spanish, the "oral" parts of the text are usually meant to represent a language and/or culture different from the one whose literary tongue is being used in the text. Particularly if the product is meant for a wider out-group literary market, the formal clues denoting "orality" of necessity have to be made visible, which, ironically, point out the allegedly "oral" nature of the text as well as its own nature as a fabrication of orality. I use "fabrication" here for want of a better term, and not in a derogatory sense, to point out the constructional aspect of the undertaking: it is neither residual nor cultural substratum, nor is it an attempted transliteration in that it conforms to literary modes and tastes of the literary market (which always allows for a degree of exoticism). And even if the "oral" parts and aspects of such texts are attempted transliterations of originally oral texts, their environment renders them hybrid transmogrifications, whose relation to written literary discourse as well as to oral forms is likewise and of necessity ironic - it portends an "as if" form (Goetsch 27f.; Ziegler 110).
The professed aim of literary texts using fabricated orality may be to invoke a sense of an oral tradition, but granting that already anticipates a reader-response adequate to the author's intentions. What it does on the page is generate an impression of textual otherness. On this formal level it does not matter whether the material is used in an attempt at reconstruction or if it is entirely fictional, or even both: if it is an invention of tradition (Hobsbawm). However, it is important to notice that regardless of its connection with traditional culture, the fabrication of forms of "orality" always serves to spatialize on the page a form of identity that is perceived of as different (Goetsch "Die Rolle"), and as constituting a language of proximity - not necessarily for the respective reader but for the "speaking" characters and within the cultural framework of the text. In this sense, the fabrication of a special and different "language of proximity" is not even limited to allegedly oral traditions but can (and usually does) extend to the fabrication of a general "culture of proximity" which is set off against the "culture of distance" (Winkgens 165). A "culture of proximity" including oral traditions is usually that of the focal protagonists. It is set off against an implied or explicitly present "culture of distance" which usually in North American texts includes the cultural condition of the respective reader, but of course also, in an ironic twist usually neglected by critics, that of the author.
Given these conditions, it becomes obvious how indigenous writers using "oral" traditions and topoi in their texts are working under a special predicament. Not only do they use languages (English, Spanish, or French) not native to their groups of origin, but also, the idea that their literary productions constitute part of a "culture of resistance" is mostly romantic myth, as long as the texts are written for distribution in the dominant culture's marketplace. Their process of writing takes place within a system that is directly related to the colonial discourse which helped to threaten and/or displace indigenous oral traditions and languages (and on many occasions also with their bearers/speakers). But what has been more significant until the very recent past (to which I shall return in closing) is the fact that current perceptions of orality and oral tradition as both generating and transporting a set of positive values are basically a romantic irony. The modern (following with this definition of the "modern" period Ziegler 11) concept of orality as different from and even opposed to the written comes to full bloom first during the Romantic age and in the novels of Sir Walter Scott, whose "Scottishness" found its expression among other things in vernacularized dialogues, songs, and instances of traditional behaviour and ceremony, all of which were, formally speaking, instances of fabricated orality and a constructed "culture of proximity."
Not only the ideological concepts of orality date back to the 18th century. Most of the techniques employed by authors, indigenous or not, to authenticate orality in their texts likewise use well-trodden paths. Attempts to oralize literary language so that it will signify spoken language in general, a spoken dialect, or another language usually take on a limited number of forms, the most important of which is the distribution of authenticity markers in the text (Hochbruck 247f., Ashcroft, Griffiths, Tiffin): names of places, occasions, and characters are given in the "other" languages; individual language phrases or expressions appear together with their English translation, or the translation stands alone but its form signifies its different origin - as in the old and notorious "firewater," originally a literal translation of an Anishinaabemowin compound noun (Hochbruck 119). Another mode of encoding orality in the text is the inclusion of narrative material considered indigenous according to the cultural morphologies developed by structuralists such as Vladimir Propp, Antti Aarne, or Stith Thompson (Aarne/Thompson).
In many aspects, the way indigenous authors like Silko and Achebe employ fabricated orality has more to do with the literary techniques, but also the intentions and aims of a Thomas Hardy or a George Eliot, than readily meets the eye. Orality in this context stands for a societal form that is perceived of as endangered by or already lost to the impersonal forces of progress. In Things Fall Apart even more so than in Ceremony, the perspective is epimetic: things have already fallen apart; the narration takes place post factum, after mere anarchy has been loosed upon the world. Ceremony is likewise epimetic in that the destruction is averted on the story-level, but the incidents described took place shortly after WW II. In both novels, the positive values of the older society are usually transmitted orally and the disruptive new society is somehow aligned with writing. In Things Fall Apart, the utter incomprehension of the incidents which led to the violent outburst and ensuing suicide of the protagonist, Okonkwo, are going to materialize for posterity in a book the District Commissioner is going to write.
Every day brought him some new material. The story of this man who had killed a messenger and hanged himself would make interesting reading. One could almost write a whole chapter on him. Perhaps not a whole chapter but a reasonable paragraph, at any rate. There was so much else to include, and one must be firm in cutting out details. He had already chosen the title of the book, after much thought: The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger. (148)
From this ironic conclusion to the book and other evidence in the novel, an "oralist" interpretation would draw the apparent conclusion that the colonial/written system is to be held responsible for the destruction of a pre-colonial/oral society. The limitations of such an interpretation are obvious to the reader of Things Fall Apart, which is so interesting and controversial because it does not encourage one-dimensional interpretations.
What I have called above an "oralist" approach is usually a mixture of close reading with a focus on the authenticity markers in the text, combined with a thematic viewpoint and positivist elements. Sometimes it believes that it is actually myth criticism. An example: Leslie Marmon Silko has been praised for her use of Laguna oral tradition in her novel Ceremony, and whole articles have been devoted to attempted reconstructions of a Laguna cosmogony from the novel (Swan "Laguna" and "Healing"), or, even worse, have tried to read Ceremony as a Native American healing ritual not only for the protagonist, but for the reader (Sands and Brown Ruoff 63).
This kind of approach for one thing neglects the fact that Silko mixes Keresan (not only Laguna) with Navajo, Mexican, and Angloamerican myths and stories; second it undercuts the essential message in the novel which calls for an adaptive use of traditions, e.g. in the figure of the old healer Betonie and his ceremonial practices; third it may actually jeopardize an author's position with his or her people, if they must suspect the author of revealing traditional secrets,(2) and finally it puts the cart before the horse: as several critics, comparing the novel and Franz Boas's 1928 collection Keresan Tales, have noted, Silko appears to transliterate the Laguna Corn Woman myth. What they failed to notice is that the story Silko interweaves into the plot of the novel actually is almost verbatim identical with the very version of the myth rendered by Boas. Compare the two following passages from the respective texts in which Fly and Hummingbird finally find Corn Woman in the Fourth World:
They found her They gave her blue pollen and yellow pollen they gave her turquoise beads they gave her prayer sticks. "I suppose you want something," she said. "Yes, we want food and storm clouds." "You get old Buzzard to purify your town first and then, maybe, I will send you people food and rain again." (Ceremony 105)
Then they met our mother. Then they conserved [sic!] with her. "Here are pollen and beads and prayer sticks. We brought them here." "I suppose you want something." "Yes, we want food and your body and storm clouds." "Well," she said, "first up above on the east wall Old-Turkey-Buzzard (5) you will meet. First he will purify above towards the south down and above towards the east down and above towards the north down and above towards the west down, he will purify." "All right," they said, "let us go ahead." (Boas 12)
The dialogic form of the passage is already there in Boas's version, but Silko's adaptation on the one hand stresses its formulaic-repetitive character ("they gave her...") at the same time making concessions towards the non-Keresan (not necessarily non-Native!) reader by deleting or altering some formulae which, judging by the frequency of their reoccurrence throughout the text, seem typical to Keresan storytelling but would be out of place in a modern American novel. It would have been interesting to see how modern readers would have reacted if Silko had used the following traditional closing formula at the end of mythical narratives: "That long is my aunt's backbone." (Boas 82). Commenting on her own use of oral traditional material, Silko herself has noticed: "When you have an audience...there's repetition of crucial points. That's something that on the printed page looks really crummy and is redundant and useless, but in the actual telling is necessary." (Barnes 87). Exact repetition or reproduction is obviously not Silko's intention here, and the proximity to Boas points to the strong possibility that Silko's use of the Corn Woman myth is not an "authentic" transliteration, but an adaptation from a written source. Does this in any way diminish the novel? No, absolutely not. In my opinion, Ceremony is in many ways a brilliantly written piece of literature that will stand the trial of time and multiple readings. It is not, however, an authentic source of ethnographic information, and if I understand Silko correctly it was never meant to be.
"Oralist" readings tend to take a "four-legs-good-two-legs-bad" approach to texts: if it can be traced to oral sources, it must be good. Again, a closer look at the manuscripts of Silko's Ceremony reveals the very literary plot idea and ensuing formation of structure, and it also reveals that most of the apparently genuinely oral parts of the text, the interspersed mythical stories, did not form the core and kernel of the novel but were added later. In fact, the manuscripts of the novel allow for the conclusion that the Corn Woman myth as well as most of the other material arranged in poetic form throughout the novel was fitted in during the penultimate revision of the manuscript, and after Silko herself had written the ironic centerpiece of the novel, the mock myth in which an indigenous witch invents white people (according to an interview, this part of the text was actually meant to be read as funny [Hudak and Fitzgerald 34]). This ironic subversion again links Silko and literary predecessors in the 19th c. like e.g. Thomas Hardy, whose literary regionalism was never uncritical of the societal form he depicted (Goetsch, "Muendlichkeit" 72; "Fingiertes").
As stated above, oral "sources" and oral traditions can also be completely invented and still conform to the conventional and popular models of fabricated orality. There have been several such cases from the allegedly old Celtic Ossian to Charles (Hyemeyohsts) Storm's Seven Arrows. The problem behind this sort of appropriation is that what was in fact not only fabricated but invented orality was passed off as genuine transliteration from another language and culture context. The existence of such fraudulent appropriations of textual material and/or tribal identities usually evokes angry responses. By itself, however, it reflects mostly a market situation which calls for indigenous authors and products. The products at best maintain the precautious equilibrium between differing cultural conventions, tastes, and demands; at worst they abandon all restraint in favour of an exploitative market success. One of the common denominators making it so difficult for the "outsider" reader to distinguish which is which, is again the commonly used matrix of literary techniques which serve to "authenticate" the text. And because of their legibility in terms of language and employed conventions, texts written in the literary mode of fabricated orality suggest to their readers an accessibility of cultures which before were inaccessible to them (and would remain inaccessible otherwise).
Unfortunately, in a reversal of this scheme, "oralist" approaches have in the past taken the textual suggestion of being included in an extended readership for an invitation to invade the cultural sphere of the respective indigenous authors' groups. It is truly amazing to have critics talk about the authenticity of texts by indigenous authors, or support claims to the authenticity of such texts, when their knowledge of the specific group is limited to the authors' or other critics' claims, or books about the people by anthropologists which, as I have shown above, may well be the very sources the authors worked from. It gets worse when claims are made pertaining to indigenous languages the critics and in some cases the authors themselves cannot speak or understand. This readiness to laud, applaud, and guess at which paragraphs, motifs, figures, etc., are rooted in the assumed oral tradition harkens back to colonial discourse on the one hand, and to the abovementioned structuralists of the Propp and Aarne-Thompson school on the other: if it has got a coyote figure in it, it belongs to the oral tradition, ubi trickster, ibi orality. It is heartening to see how some authors, notably Gerald Vizenor, have in recent years taken to poking fun at oralism: his compassionate tribal tricksters write, encode, inscribe in all sorts of different and ironic ways: they carry written birch bark scrolls in a holster (Griever de Hocus in Griever), operate laser light shows (Almost Browne in Heirs of Columbus) and construct maps (Bagese in Dead Voices).
Their modes of interacting with and between different cultural forms comically subvert the oral vs. written approach including the inherent contradicting evaluations that come with it. The essentially romantic concept of an ideological supremacy of the natural and immediate spoken word over the written is countered by a Euroamerican philosophical crosscurrent running from the Classics through the Age of Reason into the here and now: "Verba volant, scripta manent," peoples without written history do not have a history at all, to be illiterate still spells (so to speak) failure. Against this background, which Western educational systems still rest on, the romantic praise for the natural oral state can be identified as a typical form of bourgeois theorizing while the hard facts of bourgeois practice take the form of written treaties and documents, and of book-learning (including scholarly articles). Accordingly, a deconstructivist reading of scholarly articles praising the oral traditional contents of indigenous fictions may well uncover behind the praise the nail-biting suspicion that because of their oral sources, indigenous texts might be inferior literature after all. Even though this last point may be difficult to prove, it is somewhat underscored by the fact that during the past quarter century, criticism of indigenous literatures was for the longest time limited to specialized circles and their academic publications, whereas the major scholarly newsletters tended to ignore texts and criticism alike. Only in recent years and with the attempts at reconstructions of the literary canon has this situation been alleviated. Also, critics are searching for new and more appropriate methodological ways to deal with the increasing number of post-colonial texts.
My first suggestion at this point is to disband altogether the hypo-critical categorization of "oral" vs. "written." As mentioned above, the research of Koch and Oesterreicher has shown that, apart from the medium, there are virtually no clear and distinct borderlines between oral and written texts as such, at least not in terms of the structural principles governing them. There are other aspects of the problem to be accounted for. The application of the romantic oral/written dichotomy presupposes an ideology which draws a dividing line between a pre-literary, rural, homogeneous society and a literary, technologized, heterogeneous society in historic sequence. Read closely, the exemplary texts considered here, Silko's Ceremony and Achebe's Things Fall Apart, reveal a different opposition. Rather than drawing the dividing line between orality and literacy, they focus on differences between cultural systems, but the protagonists of these differences are individuals. In terms of the orality/literacy paradigma, the problems described in these two novels do not arise from an intrusion of literacy, but of a different sort of oral texts: the stories told by the missionaries in Things Fall Apart and the evil stories of the war veterans which threaten to displace the traditional myths in Ceremony relate to another dichotomy. What is being topicalized here is the difficulty in traditional societies of reconciling the distance between the tales of the home-steading peasant and the wild and woolly rantings of somebody the sailor. Within an agrarian, horticultural or semi-nomadic society, stories tend to be cyclical, reiterative and reassuring, providing a centripetal power that keeps things in place, whereas the stories of adventure brought to these cultures by the wanderer, the travelling merchant, and the migrant tradesperson provide an element of centrifugal instability, and the excitement of novelty no culture can do without. Things start to fall apart only when these two oralities become irreconciliable, or when the centrifugal powers, reinforced by societal changes brought about by outside influences, supersede the centripetal. Seen from this point of view the cultural importance, or rather the different cultural importances for the respective interpretive communities, becomes more graspable. Neither Ceremony nor Things Fall Apart celebrate orality as such, but they celebrate the ability of individuals and communities to help themselves and each other to overcome the destructive forces that challenge the stability of these societies. To limit the range of critical investigation to a search for the "oral" means to negate the polyphonous principle inherent in these texts. It means to deprive them of possible meanings, to fence them in on a critical reservation not unlike its geographical equivalents.
My second suggestion is not to discard the study of "orality" as a fabricated literary device, but to extend investigations to studies of the constructions and functions of "culture(s) of proximity." The mediating position of indigenous literatures between cultures (Ruppert) is necessarily, again, ironic: as the narrativic evocation of an "other" culture points to the distance between the narrated and the reader, the fabrication of orality in literature always adds an ironic touch to the relationship between the producer/author and the recipient/reader in that the signification of orality always also draws attention to its absence as a medium. In post-colonial texts for example, it is one aspect of intratextual "othering," an attempt to provide alternatives to established forms of discourse without refusing them completely. In post-modern texts, the irony is squared in that authors tend to voice their demands on the reader as co-producer, ironizing orality, literacy, and fabricated orality all at the same time.
Modern writers like Achebe and Silko use orality and storytelling as tropes, as one of many literary techniques in the construction of fictional texts. It is a speciality of those texts that hold a mediating position between several cultures that they deal differently with aspects of orality and the oral tradition than monocultural authors like John Barth, who has also (notably in Lost in the Funhouse) toyed with modes of oral discourse. Incorporating aspects from several cultures, they are in turn operative in more than one culture. The processes and methods of this literary interaction again are consequential for the development of an aesthetics of multicultural exchange. This aesthetics, as well as the development of an apparatus of critical methods for the post-colonial literatures, is a challenge for the future.
1 I am very grateful to Leslie Marmon Silko for letting me have a look at the Ceremony manuscripts when I was in Tucson in 1988. Tamara Braunstein and Dallas Miller read and made helpful comments on drafts of this paper. An earlier version of it was read at the MLA conference in New York, 1992.
2 Fortunately, the Laguna people seem not to take literary scholars overly seriously: Many thanks to Lee Marmon for his hospitality, and to all who gave information and advice to me when I appeared in Laguna in the cold winter of 1988.
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Hochbruck is an assistant professor of American and Canadian Studies at the University of Stuttgart, Germany. He is the author of a book and many articles on American, Canadian, German, and Zimbabwean literatures.
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