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Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible and the essentializing of Africa: a critical double standard?

There are at least two practices and beliefs that Barbara Kingsolver inscribes in her novel, The Poisonwood Bible (NY: HarperFlamingo, 1998), onto the cultures of the Congo region, which in fact are probably borrowed from other parts of the African continent. Specifically, these are references to the practice of killing twins at birth, usually by abandoning them in the forest (210-211), and to the belief in an evil child-spirit that torments its mother by engaging in an extended cycle of premature death and subsequent return to the mother's womb (128-129). Both of these details, I suspect, Kingsolver drew from Chinua Achebe's contemporary classic novel, Things Fall Apart, which is set among the Igbo people of Nigeria, far removed from Congo.

In the "Author's Note" to her novel Kingsolver acknowledges that since she was unable to enter Congo while doing research for her project she instead relied on "memory, travel in other parts of Africa, and many people's accounts of the natural, cultural, and social history of Congo/Zaire" to conjure up her representation of a particular Congolese society (IX). Prominent in the works she singles out for mention are Achebe's novel, and also Janheinz Jahn's classic anthropological text, Muntu, a work embraced by African-American scholars yet, according to Achebe, largely dismissed by African writers because of the essentializing nature of its project ("An Interview with Chinua Achebe," Interview with J. O. S. Nwachukwu-Agbada, Conversations with Chinua Achebe, ed. Bernth Lindfors, Jackson: U of Mississippi Press, 1997, 133).

The prominence of Achebe's novel in the "Author's Note" is particularly significant because his text specifically highlights among the Igbo the two cultural practices and beliefs that Kingsolver attributes to the cultures of Congo. Both are also well-documented in missionary and anthropological writings about the Igbo. However, to date I have been unable to document the existence of either among any of the peoples of the Congo region. To the contrary, missionary and anthropological writing suggests that, in this region, twins, even when feared, are and were for the most part treated with respect and deference. For instance, in Fertility Rituals in Congolese Traditions (CD-ROM. Moedling: Antenne d'Autriche, 2006. [CEEBA Publications, 2nd Ser. Vol. 158]) anthropologist Hermann Hochegger catalogues a number of rituals among various ethnic groups, all connected with blessing, purifying, and naming twins, and in at least one case petitioning for their rebirth after a premature death. John Janzen, as well, notes that among many of the Kongo subgroups women with twin pregnancies often were treated in healing rituals involving ngoma drum therapy in order to enhance successful birthing and the survival of healthy children (Ngoma: Discourses of Healing in Central and Southern Africa, Berkley: U. of California P., 1992, 161-162). Elsewhere, Wyatt MacGaffey says that among other Bakongo groups twins were treated with deference because it was believed they, along with other persons of 'abnormal birth' such as albinos, could use their supposed supernatural powers to somehow afflict persons who incur their displeasure (Religion and Society in Central Africa: The Ba Konga of Lower Zaire, Chicago: U of Chicago P., 1986, 73). What the existence of these rituals and practices indicates is twins, rather than being killed or cast away, were permitted to live, and in some cases even desired. Similarly, Hochegger also catalogues rituals in several Congolese cultures for beseeching deceased children to return to the mother's womb, which would suggest that they are not considered the sort of evil spirit-children that torment mothers as recorded in Achebe's novel.

This is not to say such practices or beliefs categorically did or do not exist in the region, since (obviously) finding documentary evidence of the non-existence of a practice is highly improbable. However, given the testimony of these abundant counter-examples, I think it is more likely that Kingsolver has borrowed these cultural details, and perhaps others, from Achebe's novel and other works included in her bibliography that are related to other parts of Africa, and reinscribed them onto the cultures of Congo. If so, these, as well as other instances of stereotyping and essentializing in the text, are indicative of a tendency on the part of the author to view Africa, like many other Western writers before her, not as a continent that is home to hundreds, or even thousands, of diverse cultures but rather as an undifferentiated cultural monolith.

Western writers who use Africa and Africans as settings or subjects in their fiction are usually subjected to rather severe criticism. Whether they have minimal experience of the continent and its peoples, such as Joseph Conrad (Heart of Darkness, etc.) and Rider Haggard (King Solomon's Mine, etc.), or extensive personal experience and are writing about the peoples and places with which they are familiar, such as Joyce Cary (Mister Johnson, etc.), Elspeth Huxley (Red Strangers, etc), or Karen Blixen (Out of Africa), all have been accused of stereotyping and essentializing the continent, its peoples, and their cultures. Kingsolver's novel, which she calls a "political allegory" (Barbara Kingsolver: Frequently Asked Questions, NY: HarperCollins. 2003, April 27, 2004, http:// and in which a fundamentalist American Baptist missionary is the primary metaphor for an inept, arrogant, and patronizing American foreign policy in Africa, seems to be an exception. Critics have consistently failed to call her to similar task. Rather, some in their glowing reviews have even noted Kingsolver's brief childhood experience in Congo, as an eight-year-old with her health-careworker parents, as if to suggest that the experience somehow lends authority to her representations (e.g. Robin Antepara, rev. of The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver. Commonweal, 17 Jun. 2005: 25; Judith Bromberg, "A Complex Novel about Faith, Family and Dysfunction," National Catholic Reporter, 19 Mar. 1999: 13; John Leonard, "Kingsolver in the Jungle, Catullus & Wolf at the Door." rev. of The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver, Nation 11/18 Jan. 1999: 28.). This failure to hold Kingsolver to a similar critical standard, I believe, has much to do with the appeal for these critics of the anti-colonial, anti-imperial, anti-capitalist, and anti-globalization political positions the author stakes out in the novel. And this, it seems to me, is indicative of a critical and academic double standard.

William F. Purcell, Nanzan University, Nagoya, Japan
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Author:Purcell, William F.
Publication:Notes on Contemporary Literature
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:9JAPA
Date:Nov 1, 2007
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