The hungry road

Written by the Nigerian author Ben Okri in 1991, this magical realism story delves into the harsh life conditions in a Nigerian ghetto during the British colonial rule and the world of spirits, which mingles with day-to-day reality.

Azaro is an unborn child who lives with his spirit companions in a world of their own, where they are free from the heartlessness of the human beings, from injustice, unfulfilled longings and the fear of dying. In fact that’s why babies cry when they are born and severed from the world of spirits.

As these unborn children approach their next incarnation, they make pacts with their spirits companions that they will return at the first opportunity. However, if they break these pacts, they will be assailed by hallucinations and haunted by their spirit companions. The unborn children who make these pacts are known as Abiku or spirit children and thay keep coming and going, dying and rebirthing, often to the same mother, causing great suffering in the family.

(Picture: The Abiku children used to be marked with razors)

Contrary to other babies, Azaro is born smiling and, despite his pact with the spirits and the hardships ahead of him, he changes his mind about his pact, decides to make his mother happy by staying and clings to life. His zest for life is greater than any threat or any fear, greater than the spirits’ constant harassment and their repeated murder attempts to have him back in their world. There’s a dichotomy between not wanting to get born at all, knowing for sure that there will be suffering, and wanting to live it all, with innocence and an open mind.

As an Abiku child, Azaro is half-way between both worlds, and sees things that nobody else can see. His world is populated with akward characters, albinos and people with weird deformities who are not really human beings, but spirits who have borrowed bits of human beings to partake of human reality: life, sex, alcohol… He encounters many of these spirits when he is at Madame Koto’s bar, where he is ’employed’ by the tough and imposing woman as a ‘lucky charm’, although in the end he seems to attract spirits and drive the regulars away.

Everyday, Azaro goes back to an extremely humble home populated by rats and mosquitoes and swarming with creditors and to his father’s fits of rage after being exploited all day. His father gets into fights, gets sacked and then work under deplorable conditions, both physical and ethical, since the boss asks the workers who they are going to vote for before letting them carry his loads.

The political arena is equally disappointing, with the politicians only interested in getting votes. The world of politics is satirically polarised into the Party of the Rich and the Party of the Poor. During their campaign, some representatives of the Party of the Rich, together with their thugs and the landlord appear in a van to deliver their speech, but people living in the poors’ quarter don’t fall for their deceiptful rhetoric and ridicule them. After receiving a ‘gift’ of rotten powdered milk to conquer their votes, the bash the politicians and burn their van.

This novel displays several different layers of existence, whether social, political, religious, cultural, colonial or spiritual; all of them woven together but occupaying different spaces at the same time, and which we see from the point of view of this peculiar and endearing child who faces every challenge without drama.

‘Things fall Apart’

early 20th century, Lagos, Nigeria --- A meeting of colonial administrators with tribal messengers from the interior in Lagos, Nigeria. --- Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

Things fall Apart is Achebe’s first novel. Published in 1958, two years before Nigeria gained independence from the British rule, the novel portrays life in an Igbo village, Umuofia, in the 1890s and the dramatic consequences of the changes introduced by colonialism and Christianity.

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The protagonist, Okonkwo, is a great wrestler, renowned warrior and hardworking member of the community. He is not a very likeable character, so one expects a Schadenfreude novel; the rise and fall of such a ruthless man. Okonkwo attempts to achieve prestige and status by accumulating wealth. Also, as a warrior, he is always willing to display the maximum cruelty, which he also does in his own household, to ‘control the womenfolk’. He feels he is destined for greatness and seeks to distance himself from his father, whom he regards as a failure and an ‘effeminate’ man. He reacts against his father’s perceived weakness by being a ‘hyper masculine’ man who rejects his feminine side, upsetting the Earth goddess Ani. He controls his family through anger, beats his wives and despises his son Nwoye, who reminds him of his father. In order not to appear as a weak man, he even kills Ikemefuna, a boy taken from Mbaino as a compensation for the murder of a daughter of Umuofia in order to avoid war. Ikemefuna lives in Okonkwo’s compound, in his first wife’s hut together with Nwoye, for some years and regards Okonkwo as a father. Okonkwo himself grows fond of the boy, who is the kind of son he always wanted and a role model for Nwoye. Ikemefuna’s death, along with certain customs that he could not accept, eventually leads Nwoye to embrace Christianity and to turn his back on his family and traditions.

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After an accidental death caused by Okonkwo’s gun during the Yam Festival, he is barred from Umuofia for seven years, during which Christian missionaries arrive and establish themselves in Umuofia. Christians are granted ‘all the land they wish’, but within the Evil Forest; the place where Umuofians get rid of unwanted sets of twins (whom they regards as an abomination), lepers, outcasts and the mutilated bodies of the ogbanje (children who die during infancy only to be reborn from the same mother over and over). They expect the Christians to die there, but they build their church and start gaining support from the osu (outcasts), the mothers of twins and unsuccessful men who are looked down on in Umuofia.

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He returns from exile only to witness how Christianity has divided Umuofia and how a colonial government is taking root, debunking the ancient customs and laws. Some of the Christian converts, raised in the belligerent Igbo culture, wish for a religious war but they are prevented to act out by the priest. However, some of them challenge their former religion actively. The Christian convert Enoch unmasks an egwugwu, a masquerader representing an ancestral spirit, killing the spirit. The egwugwu then retaliate and destroy Enoch’s compound as well as the church, and the leaders of the community –Okonkwo among them- are jailed and whipped. They are released after paying a fine. When the traditionalist Igbo gather to mourn the abominations suffered by the ancient gods, some colonial officers arrive to disperse the crowd. Okonkwo draws his machete and decapitates the court messenger. But the divided community fails to rise in defense of traditional life, so Okonkwo retreats and hangs himself, committing the ultimate offence against the Earth goddess.

Originality in literature

Nowadays, originality is seen as the greatest and most central of literary virtues. However, it only arose as a literary virtue during the Romantic period, comprising inventio (practical skill of an artisan) and creatio (associated with artistry and the exaltation of the individual author and his/her original input). Before that era, getting ‘inspiration’ from previous texts was very common, and also we can find the same plots over and over throughout literary history. In fact, according to Roland Barthes, ‘all texts are made from traces of already existing texts. They are but a fabric woven with allusions and references’. But that won´t make non-connoisseurs feel less cheated when they find out that worldwide celebrated authors ‘borrowed’ from previous writers or the extent to which Shakespeare himself drew from prior works by chroniclers and other playwrights. However, why do we know about Shakespeare then, but most people have never heard of Saxo Grammaticus or Belleforest to list but a few of those whose plots and characters (some in turn previously ‘inspired’ in prior works) he copied? Does that imply that if a writer takes from a previous text and improves it he/she makes it his/her own?

SHAKES

Despite the compulsion for novelty that rules the market nowadays, there is nothing really new under the sun. The consumer of culture tends to look for something new and different rather than something better, but forgets that the ultimate aim of literature is mostly the portrayal of the old and unchanging human nature in all its manifestations: love, hatred, jealousy, infidelity, loyalty, violence…

And well, quoting John Erskine: ‘Is it the originality of genius in art to say something no one has ever thought of before, or to say something we all recognise as important and true? As for the question of priority, even stupid things has been said for a first time; do we wear a laurel for being the first to say them?’

 

Sources:

JSTOR

THE NORTON ANTHOLOGY OF THEORY AND CRITICISM

 

Graham Greene

Born in 1904 in what Virginia Woolf called “the leaning tower generation”, Graham Greene came from a world of inherited privilege which made him feel uneasy in the face of poverty and injustice, and lead him to flirt with the left in his youth only to become disillusioned with all forms of government and suspicious of any state intervention later. He felt that the old liberal myths had been debunked by reality in a politically unstable and hostile world. This aspects of his background inform his novels, in which romantic and paradoxical protagonists -reflecting the author’s nature- are usually faced with moral dilemmas or depart from convention to a certain extent. This situation leads them to an uncertain moral quicksand they strive to make sense of. This atmosphere as well as his protagonists’ character traits gave rise to the term ‘Greenland’ to refer to this peculiar yet familiar world.

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Called by some a ‘Catholic writer’, he rejected this label saying that he just was ‘a writer who happened to be a Catholic’. He converted to Catholicism just before marrying a Catholic and used to hold theological discussions with the priest in charge of conducting his instruction, during which he defended atheism and agnosticism. He later said that he considered himself to be a ‘Catholic agnostic’. Four of his novels stem to a certain extent from Catholicism and are even called by some ‘his Catholic novels’; Brighton Rock, The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter and The End of the Affair. Both in The Heart of the Matter and The End of the Affair, the protagonist faces the moral implications of infidelity and in The Heart of the Matter those of suicide.

Greene experienced both during his life and that makes the novels very realistic, authentic and heartfelt. Suffering from depression, Greene used to say that he had ‘a character profoundly antagonistic with domestic life’. In the first volume of his autobiography, A Sort of Life, he mentions that his grandfather was bipolar and that he would have diagnosed as such at the time he was writing it. He attempted suicide on several occasions before coming of age, one of them by playing Russian roulette and resorted to psychoanalysis for some months when he was 17.

His experience in the Secret Service during World War II provided him with material for several of his espionage novels or ‘entertainments’, as he somewhat derogatorily called them –The Ministry of Fear, The Confidential Agent, The Human Factor, The Quiet American-. However, we can also find a certain philosophical taste to them.

Greenland is a very special environment where anyone who has experienced failure, moral dilemmas, has felt the burden of boredom, has faced injustice or is aware of what underlies the façade of convention -which really equals saying anybody who is human and has a brain- will feel at home.

Nationalism

In order to figure out what nationalism is all about, we must firstly ask ourselves what does nation mean. Nation is an elusive concept, as all abstractions are, that defines a unified imaginary community in which an elite is chosen to speak on behalf of the people but don´t recognise the role of the less privileged or opposing views in order to convey that image of unity it is based upon.

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The sense of national belonging is forged by the exclusion or denigration of others and the nationalist discourse uses several mechanisms to try and create that delusional sense of belonging. The nation, as a myth, needs to create that feeling of belonging to something greater than oneself and does it by resorting to symbols, to a common culture, to language and traditions, as well. Also, race and ethnicity are typically used to set the limits of the nation by discriminating individuals on the ground of physical features, positing boundaries that establish who can or cannot belong to the nation according to certain parameters. Racial difference is socially and discursively constructed and used for particular porpuses within nationalism. According to Etiènne Balibar there are two main forms of racism; external racism, which involves the discrimination of those who live outside the border on the grounds of race and internal racism which discriminates those within the nation not deemed to belong to an imagined community by keeping them in a subservient position in society or, in some cases, by their extermination.

There are several well known examples of the use of race and ethnicity for privileging one racial group as the nation’s true people as a strategy to build the myth of the nation.

  • We can all recall the genocide in Rwanda, grounded on ethnicity, in 1994: the mass slaughter in Rwanda of the ethnic Tutsi and politically moderate Hutu peoples. Some estimates claim that anywhere between 500,000-1,000,000 were murdered, along with thousands of Tutsi sympathizers, with another 2 million refugees in neighbouring countries. These kinds of conflicts based on ethnicity are not rare in those countries who inherited their borders from the colonising countries, given that withing those borders many different ethnic groups, different cultures and religions can be found.

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  • In the Basque Country, Sabino Arana and others based their nationalist discourse on some theories which established the Basque physical and genetic features, such as the fact that the Basques possessed the highest global apportion of the Rh- blood types, or that they had certain craneal and physical features. These theories were also supported by authors such as the geneticist L. Luca Cavalli Sforza, who stated that the Basques were the descendants of the Cro-Magnons, and served to build a sense of exclusive national identity which was used by Basque politician Xabier Arzalluz in 1993, not that long ago.
  • Hitler intended to foster an Aryan Germany by the extermination of other ethnic groups and those he considered defective and undertook the Lebensborn project,  a state supported association in Nazi Germany with the goal of raising children of persons classified as “racially pure and healthy” as based on Nazi ideal ethnicity.

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Sources:

Beginning Postcolonialism – McLeod

http://www.worldwithoutgenocide.org

Shithole countries II: migration policies throughout American history

The United States of America is a country whose foundations were built upon migration. The first settlers didn´t arrive to a terra nullius, but to a populated country where they were the foreigners. Supported by their manifest destiny theory, they appropriated the land and everything it offered until the 13 colonies declared their independence in 1876 and a new country was born. One of the first waves of immigration was constituted by slaves, brought by the colonies to work in plantations. Slavery was legal in all 13 colonies at the time of the Declaration of Independence. Europeans arrived looking for profitable ventures, but workers except indentured labourers, including convicted criminals, were hard to find due to the harsh conditions, so the colonies resorted on slavery. Massachussets was the first colony to authorise slavery through an enacted law. The most common countries of origin of the slaves were Senegal, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Angola, Congo, Gabon, Ghana (called the Gold Coast or the Slave Coast), the Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Cameroon.

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From 1849 to 1882 the country received a large flow of Chinese attracted by the gold rush after which they stayed in the country working on the railway construction and farms for lower wages than the locals. Voices were raised against Oriental immigration and there were riots, like the LA riot in 1871, which resulted in 15 Chinese citizens being lynched. As a result of the riots a clause was inserted and accepted in the new Constitution in California (1879) which forbade employment of any Chinese labourers. Later on, in 1882, the Congress enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act, that excluded Chinese labourers for 10 years and finished Chinese immigration for almost a century. In the same year certain restrictive policies were adopted banning paupers, convicts and the insane.

indenture

The country received wave after wave of immigrants. As a result the population tripled due to the arrival of immigrants between 1860 and 1920, when most of them came from western Europe and were mainly protestant; they arrived from Germany, Ireland and England. Immigrants from these countries started decreasing in number after 1890 and Scandinavians decreased after 1910. In 1920, 38% of the foreign born population was made up of Poles, Serbs, Italians, Hungarians, Austrians and Russians who were Catholics, Greek Orthodox or Jewish and hostility to immigrants surfaced in the Sacco & Vanzetti case. There was another wave of migration of Southern and Eastern Europeans in 1923 and the number of nordic Europeans and those of Anglo-Saxon stock decreased. Madison Grant expressed his fear that they would be overwhelmed by lesser breeds who were considered as intellectually inferior to whites from northern Europe. Racists, xenophobes, anti-Catholic and anti-semites supported this quotas system to preserve the WASP proportion of the population. As a result, the Congress adopted the National Origins Quota Act, establishing a greater quota of western and northern Europeans, of whom there was a limit of 150,000 per year, mostly from Ireland, Great Britain, Scandinavia and Germany, barring Asians entirely. This quota survived until de 1960s. Simultaneously, a large number of Mexicans, exempt of the quota regulation went northward across the Río Grande.

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Sacco and Vanzetti
All this comes to mind when one is faced with Trump’s project to build a wall between Mexico and the USA in order to prevent South Americans from crossing the borders seeking for a better future. Not to mention the slavery issue; Africans were forced out of their homeland for centuries to be exploited in the States and now African immigrants are blatantly shunned by the president. As Ebba Kalondo, spokesperson of the African Union responded to Trump’s unfortunate comment on January 9th: ‘given the historical reality of how many Africans arrived in the US as slaves, this statement flies in the face of all accepted behaviour and practice’.

Sources:

A Concise History of the American Republic – Morison, Commanger, Leuchtenburg

Associated Press

Shithole countries

Most of us can still clearly remember Trump’s shithole remark, although his entire tenure has been so dominated by offensive statements that it may be hard to single it out. The shithole remark was uttered in the context of a meeting held on January 9th concerning a bipartisan proposal on the visa lottery, which granted a substantial part of it to misrepresented African countries and Temporary Protective Status nations such as Haiti. It was then, when these countries were mentioned, that Trump asked: ‘why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?’ This remark wasn’t neither denied by the White House spokesperson Raj Shah nor by the Senator Dick Durbin. However, this is not by any means Trump’s only xenophobic remark. Late in 2017, the New York Times reported that he had complained that Haitian immigrants ‘all have AIDS’ and that the Nigerian who went to the US would ‘never go back to their huts’ in Africa.

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Sadly, all these remarks shouldn´t startle us much, since Western history has always been linked -and still is through TNCs- to facts supporting Trump’s statement, given the West’s systematic exploitation of non-Western peoples and their natural resources. What may strike us the most is the way that unfortunately common transhistorical concept is expressed. One would expect the president of the most influential and powerful country to be a bit more articulate. However, it goes to show that Western culture is more of a plutocracy than it is a meritocracy. But there may actually be a purpose behind Trump’s bluntness and poor expression. In Noam Chomsky’s words:

‘Trump’s role is to ensure that the media and the public attention are always concentrated on him. He’s a conman, a showman, and in order to maintain public attention you have to do something crazy. So, everyday there’s one insane thing after another and while this is going on, in the background, the wrecking crew is working (…)’

Let’s not fool ourselves; many other Western presidents, politicians and voters endorse implicitly this statement -as we have witnessed in Europe with the wave of increasingly restrictive migration policies- although they publically reject it for the sake of political correctness.

Sources:

The Guardian, The New York Times, The Times, Huffington Post.