In things you should read

  • Jan. 15th, 2012 at 5:48 PM
la_vie_noire: Anthy painting a portrait (Anthy painting)
Here, in Colonialist Criticism & Culture, [personal profile] thatlitgirl quoted a segment of Chinua Achebe's essay, Colonialist Criticism:

Does it ever occur to these universities to try out their game of changing names of characters and places in an American novel, say, a Philip Roth or an Updike, and slotting in African names just to see how it works? But of course it would not occur to them. It would never occur to them to doubt the universality of their own literature. In the nature of things the work of a Western writer is automatically informed by universality. It is only others who must strain to achieve it. So-and-so’s work is universal; he has truly arrived! As though universality were some distant bend in the road which you may take if you travel out far enough in the direction of Europe or America, if you put adequate distance between yourself and your home. I should like to see the word ‘universal’ banned altogether from discussions of African literature until such a time as people cease to use it as a synonym for the narrow, self-serving parochialism of Europe, until their horizon extends to include all the world. If colonialist criticism were merely irritating one might doubt the justification of devoting a whole essay to it. But strange though it may sound some of its ideas and precepts do exert an influence on our writers, for it is a fact of our contemporary world that Europe’s powers of persuasion can be far in excess of the merit and value of her case. Take for instance the black writer who seizes on the theme that Africa’s past is a sadly inglorious one as though it were something new that had not already been ‘proved’ adequately for him. Colonialist critics will, of course, fall all over him in ecstatic and salivating admiration – which is neither unexpected nor particularly interesting. What is fascinating, however, is the tortuous logic and sophistry they will sometimes weave around a perfectly straightforward and natural enthusiasm. […]

The colonialist critic, unwilling to accept the validity of sensibilities other than is own, has made a particular point of dismissing the African novel. He has written lengthy articles to prove its non-existence largely on the grounds that the novel is a peculiarly Western genre, a fact which would interest us if our ambition was to write ‘Western’ novels. But, in any case, did not the black people in America, deprived of their own musical instruments, take the trumpet and the trombone and blow them as they had never been blown before, as indeed they were not designed to be blown? And the result, was it not jazz? Is any one going to say that this was a loss to the world or that those first Negro slaves who began to play around with the discarded instruments of their masters should have played waltzes and foxtrots? No! Let every people bring their gifts to the great festival of the world’s cultural harvest and mankind will be all the richer for the variety and distinctiveness of the offerings.

My people speak disapprovingly of an outsider whose wailing drowned the grief of the owners of the corpse. One last word to the owners. It is because our own critics have been somewhat hesitant in taking control of our own literary criticism (sometimes – let’s face it – for the good reason that we will not do the hard work that should equip us) that the task has fallen to others, some of whom (again we must admit) have been excellent and sensitive. And yet most of what remains to be done can best be tackled by ourselves, the owners. If we fall back, can we complain that others are rushing forward? A man who does not lick his lips, can he blame the harmattan for drying them?
la_vie_noire: (KuroFay by seresunokokoro)
Hey, [ profile] usomitai? Remember that post you made about an author that said a character was more interesting when they were only based on grammar and not... on humans, or something like that?

I was reading this essay by Joanna Russ that I found on Feminist SF, I think you would like to read it. It made me think about that discussion, how language is a non-subject and how it could be mystified. It's a pretty interesting essay anyway.

This part is very relevant to that discussion:
Artists, like other people, respond to the day-to-day, moment-to-moment specificities of life which they, like everyone else, must live out. Nor is it possible to talk about such topics as "sensibility" (long a favorite in literature classes) and be anything but trivial without reference to the social and economic system that surrounds us and is inside us, as the fish is in the sea and the sea is in the fish. Nobody responds to an abstract view of the universe, whether in physics or theology, unless that abstract view metaphorically embodies a social reality with which the responder is intimately familiar. But avoiding social and political realities by the appeal to false universals is an old habit of the humanities.

(Keep in mind this essay was written in 1978.)


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