Research in African Literatures 30.2 (1999) 148-164
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Chinua Achebe Writing Culture:
Representations of Gender and Tradition in Things Fall Apart
Wherever something stands,
there something else will stand.
While Achebe's early novels have been popularly received for their representation of an early African nationalist tradition that repudiates imperialist and colonialist ideology, his counter-narratives have only been narrowly discussed for their theoretical speculation on cultural and ideological production as a mode of resistance within the nationalist tradition that the texts so evidently celebrate. My epigraph not only recognizes that the definition of "tradition" in Achebe's work hinges upon ideological conflict, it comments also on the varying forms of consciousness that arise within discourses of self-definition within Igbo traditional culture. Moreover, it communicates the idea of complex rather than simple relationships between individuals and groups in the world of Achebe's "fictional" Igbo communities.
This essay intends an appropriation of Bakhtin's notion of "heteroglossia" and dialogism in its exploration of some concerns relevant to the question of the representation of ideology in Things Fall Apart. Bakhtin's notion of dialogism views narrative discourses as forms of social exchange that locate "the very basis" of individual and social "behaviour" within conflicting worldviews and "determine the very bases" of "ideological interrelations" in a manner similar to that found in Achebe's narrative. Novelistic discourse thus performs "no longer as [mere] information, directions, rules, models," but enables us to locate dialogue in its more immediate ideological and political context (342). Hayden White implies something of this immediacy of context when he suggests distinguishing between "a discourse that openly adopts a perspective that looks out on the world and reports it" and one that "make[s] the world speak itself and speak itself as a story" (2).
Writing stories that speak for themselves is central to Achebe's novelistic agenda. In a famous early essay, he wrote: "I would be quite satisfied if my novels . . . did no more than teach my readers that their past . . . was not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God's behalf delivered them" ("Morning Yet" 45). Representing an African worldview through narratives that speak for themselves meant that Achebe would draw upon Igbo oral traditions to narrate the stories of his communities, while bearing in mind Richard Bauman's exhortations that in utilizing oral traditions to engage the "canons of elite" Western literary "traditions and texts," oral narrative must not be taken merely to be "the reflection of [End Page 148] culture" or "the cognitive arena for sorting out the logic of cultural codes" in historical writing: instead, oral narratives must be utilized "contextually and ethnographically, in order to discover the individual, social and cultural factors that give it shape and meaning" (2).
Challenging and displacing the narratives of colonialist writers like Joyce Cary and Joseph Conrad meant for Achebe the appropriation of ethnographic modes of representation to prove that the communities of his African past were neither "primitive" nor "without history" (Clifford 10). James Clifford, borrowing from Bakhtin, argues that since culture is not "a unified corpus of symbols and meanings that can be definitively interpreted," ethnographic representation must incorporate a narratological dialogism that reveals culture's "contested, temporal, and emergent" nature (19). As George Marcus also contends, this dialogical approach to ethnographic representation must be borne in mind by both "outsiders" like Conrad and Cary writing about the Other and "insiders" like Achebe writing about themselves and their own cultures. 1 Henrietta Moore, among anthropologists welcoming the new dialogical ethnography of Clifford and others, agrees with them on the use of "new forms of writing such as those predicated on dialogue, intertextuality and heteroglossia to unmask and displace the unitary authority" of the "author" (107).
Things Fall Apart's famous ending describes the District Commissioner's yearning to write the story of his colonized natives as a challenging ethnographic project in a moment of the colonial encounter in Africa. Having just witnessed the death...