Appropriation and Abrogation

The development of Négritude and a writing which clearly establishes the legitimacy and validity of the indigenous culture of a colonised country is demonstrating a rejection of the coloniser’s values and culture; it is an abrogation of the colonising culture. The ideal of abrogation is to cast off the coloniser in order to completely shake off European legitimacy, culture and influence in order to return to the essence of the colonized people, with its own values and organisation.

On the opposite side of this argument are those who appropriate elements of the colonising culture and claim them for their own, adapting them for their own use. This refusal to reject the coloniser outright might be seen as more open-minded; it shows a greater ability to adapt to changing times and conditions. It is perhaps Okonkwo’s inability to appropriate and adapt with the arrival of the whiteman that leads to his downfall in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. On the other hand, Karanja, who appropriates so much of the English view of Kenya that he becomes a homeguard serving the British administration in Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s A Grain of Wheat, is clearly portrayed as a traitor.

These two character examples highlight the opposition of views exemplified by Achebe’s and Ngũgĩ’s approach. Ngũgĩ’s novel is a much more anti-colonial polemic, although his characterisation of both black and white characters is balanced. Achebe’s novel takes a much more open and non-judgemental approach to colonisation, acknowledging the Ibo culture’s difficulty in adapting to the arrival of Europeans. A sign of Ngũgĩ’s abrogation of European expectations and traditions was his refusal in 1977 to write in English, using instead Gikuyu, his own Kenyan language. This was a conscious rejection of the language of the coloniser and a decision to write in the language of ordinary Kenyans, rather than the British-educated elite.

In 1968 he responded to a paper by the Acting Head of English at Nairobi University, which had mapped out a development which continued the close reference to English traditions. Ngũgĩ argued for the abolition of the English Department, saying that there was “a basic assumption that the English tradition and the emergence of the modern west is the central root of our consciousness and cultural heritage. Africa becomes an extension of the west… If there is a need for a study of the historic continuity of a single culture, why can’t it be African? … there is no need to substitute a study of English culture for our own. We reject the primacy of English literature and culture.” (On the Abolition of the English Department)

Chinua Achebe takes quite a different attitude. His argument is that colonialism has happened; it is part of history, and therefore cannot be undone. It is impossible for formerly colonised peoples to return to the state they enjoyed before the experience of colonisation. Like the state of innocence, once lost, it cannot be regained. Achebe argues that since these peoples’ histories include the experience of colonialism, they should accept that, rather than try to eradicate the memory or the effects of that experience. For this reason, he argues strongly for the use of English, accepting that as an international language it gives him the ability to speak to far more people, far more influentially, than he would if he chose to write in Ibo. He said that using another’s language “looks like a dreadful betrayal and produces a guilty feeling,” but at the same time argued “But for me there is no other choice. I have been given the language and I intend to use it.” Issues of language will be more fully explored in Course Section 5.

Other aspects of appropriation can be recognised in The God of Small Things. Though the main events of the novel take place about twenty years after independence, the influence of the British is still very strong. Roy emphasises how the children, Rahel and Estha, are encouraged to speak English, and even Comrade Pillai’s child is made to recite speeches from Shakespeare. There is an aspiration towards Englishness; it grants a higher station or class. The family are proud of Chacko’s Oxford education (and when being pompous, he speaks in his ‘Oxford voice’) and of his white English wife, even though she is an ‘ex-wife, Chacko.’ Ammu’s parents do not believe her story of Horlick’s attempted exploitation of her, because they cannot accept that a white man would do that. Even the family’s adherence to Christianity can be seen as part of this. There is a price for this appropriation; in the section after Rahel’s return, Roy describes the threadbare decline of the indigenous culture with the Kathakali performance while Baby Kochamma watches American television beamed in by satellite.

The same concerns occur for migrants. In Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, Samad is deeply worried by the effects of western culture on his sons as they assimilate the values of society around them: “No respect for tradition. People call it assimilation when it is nothing but corruption. Corruption!” he says (p.190). He, like Ngugi, sees assimilation, appropriation, or hybridity a threat to his own culture. Perhaps Shiva argues, though less eloquently, on Achebe’s side: “Fuck knows I haven’t made anything of this country… Who knows what Shiva Bagwhati would have turned out like back in Calcutta? Prince or pauper? And who… can pull the West out of ’em once it’s in?” (p.145)

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