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Countering the Colonizers Narrative: A Study of the Poems of Chinua Achebe

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Countering the Colonizers Narrative: A Study of the Poems of Chinua Achebe

Samrat Banerjee

Albert Chinualumogu Achebe never thought of becoming a writer. “I didn't think of becoming a writer for a long time because I didn't grow up in a society in which there were writers” says Achebe in an interview with Bradford Morrow (Morrow,web). But the society in which Achebe lived was full of folklore and stories. Young Achebe grew up listening to the stories told by his elders and the influence of their telling is evident throughout his novels and even in his poetry. Achebe himself once admitted that all his poems came with stories. And it is basically this drive to tell a story of his ‘own’ that made Achebe start writing. Born at the “crossroads of culture”, Achebe started reading European fiction with stories of the white man among the ‘Savages’ (Achebe, a, p68). Initially it wasn’t clear to him that he was one of those ‘Savages’ but once he realized this, he set out to correct the image of Africa and the Africans. Thus he decided to counter the masternarrative of the white man and to tell his ‘own’ colourful story. Precisely the entire oeuvre of post colonial African writing is fore grounded upon this premise, where the literary artist’s task is to decolonize the mind of his people. Thus writing was more of a moral obligation than an aesthetic pursuit to Achebe the author. “…Serious and good art has always existed to help, to serve, humanity. Not to indict. I don’t see how art can be called art if its purpose is to frustrate humanity” (Morrow, web).The poet (especially in the African context), according to Achebe is thus no longer a secluded individual oblivious and indifferent to the monumental injustices that his people suffer, but a man of heightened sensibilities aware of the injustice inflicted upon his people. Describing the role of the poet in the African context, Achebe elucidates:

        He was always against

        Blindness, you know, our quiet

        Sober blindness, our lazy-he called

        It-blindness.

Almost like a seer, the artist is mounted far above the realm of ordinary men and from this elevated position with a rare artistic objectivity he speaks of his own trampled race. Rejecting mechanical passivity the poet actively participates in the re-making of the nation and contributes to the reemergence of an identity long obliterated by the colonizers. The artist is thus a visionary, missionary and revolutionary fighting for the cause of his clan.

Though emanating out of a tumultuous phase in post independent Nigerian politics, the poems of Achebe transcend topicality and posits a challenge to the European world view guided by the notion of chasing an ultimate ‘Truth’. Harking back to the duality implicit in Igbo cosmology Achebe effectively undertakes an ironic approach throughout his entire volume of poetry and thereby problematizes the notions of “Truth”, “Good” and “Evil” in the Biafran Context. All the poems in the collection Beware Soul Brothers (Poems) are marked by an ambivalence that counter the colonizers metanarrative and celebrate carnivalasque spirit of the Igbo culture that has long been ignored by the rulers.

Achebe’s tryst with poetry began at a time when Nigeria was in the midst of a political crisis. Economic, political and ethnic tensions ravaged Nigeria from 1967 to 1970 resulting in a civil war (Biafran War) that continued for almost four years that ultimately resulted in decimation of more than half the country’s population. Achebe could not write fiction in these intervening years. Appalled by his own experience of genocide he decided to part his way from the world of fiction. Poetry at this moment seemed to be the most apt medium to reflect his gloom, despair and disillusionment. As he was in search for an expressive medium that would be very short, intense and at the same time poignant, Achebe decided to soar high upon the viewless wings of poesy to undertake an objective view of the blood-soaked days. Though gushing forth out of deep psychological wounds, Achebe’s poems are not merely a delineation of the pity of war with photographic precision. Rather, Achebe’s apparently simplistic poems weave a net of complexities and hurl the reader into a world of paradoxes, conflicts and ambiguities. The poems problematize the binaries of right and wrong, guilt and innocence, victor and vanquished. Achebe once said “The Igbo people have a firm belief in the duality of things. Nothing is by itself absolute” (Achebe,b,82) It is this perception and appreciation of  duality that led to Achebe’s unique depiction of the multifaceted nature of reality.

The poem “An if In History” questions the logocentric metanarratives written by the victors. It is the victors who judge the heroes and villains, create the binaries of good and evil and thus play a decisive role in the making of history. In this poem Achebe offers a deconstructive reading of history which actually problematises all the grand narratives of history.

Just think, had Hiitler won

his war the mess our history

books would be today.

(ll.1-3)

It is the power that has triumphed that decides the hero and the villain. And it is the same victorious power that always adjudges:

For even

In lynching a judge of sorts is needed-

a winner.

(ll.15-17)

Rejecting all simplified versions of History as a record of actual events that had taken place in the past, Achebe turns everything topsy-turvy and hypothetically imagines:

Had Hitler won,

Vidkun Quisling would have kept

His job as Prime Minister

Of Norway, simply by

Hitler winning…

 (ll.24-28)

The poem “Vultures” also delineates almost a similar kind of complexity of thoughts. Here brutality and affection are shown to be inextricably bound with one another. Blurring the opposition between these contraries, Achebe in this poem shows how loving tenderness and brutal viciousness reside in the very heart of existence. The Vulture which “had picked/ the eyes of a swollen/corpse in a waterlogged/ trench…” yesterday, now sits comfortably “perching high on broken/bone of a dead tree/nestled close to his/mate…” So is the case with the “Commandant at Belsen/Camp going for/the day with fumes of/human roast clinging/rebelliously to his hairy/ nostrils”. After feasting the whole day upon human flesh the Commandant stops “at the wayside sweetshop/ and pick up a chocolate/ for his tender offspring/ waiting at home for Daddy’s /return…” Demolishing the straightforward binaries of civility and savagery, Achebe intertwines brutality with love and affection and thereby opens up a field where there is an infinite interplay of emotions and feelings. This problemtamization of binaries foregrounds the Igbo dictum –‘Nothing is by itself absolute’ and this vision runs counter to the more unipolar European world view.

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