Post-Colonialism and the Canon: Aké and Meatless Days
Jason E. Roach '91 (English 34, 1991)
In Ake and Meatless Days, post-colonialism is used, like the English language itself, self-consciously. Post-colonialism and English have become not just historical links to the canon, but tools used by the authors to communicate their unique, non-Western visions of life. Discussion of post-colonialism in these novels illustrates the confrontations of two worlds, Western and colonized, but this is conflict is not bemoaned or decried. In fact, post-colonial rhetoric, metaphors, and imagery have been appropriated in both, as has the very use of English. Aké and Meatless Days each deliver a forceful image of a unique culture that has collided with Western tradition in no uncertain way. Works such as these can illustrate the effect the fermenting residue of colonial power will ultimately have on nations confronting the dual identities of indigenous and imposed culture. An apt analogy lies in the derivative of cricket played by the native populations of some Indonesian islands. Discouraged by British missionaries and early colonial outposts from pursuing their traditional form of mostly theatrical warfare and their pagan rituals, they coopted cricket, which the colonials were eager to disseminate. Transforming it, they play it as a multi-day ceremonial celebration in full traditional garb and with much of the showy feints and retreats characteristic of their original inter-tribal conflicts. In the same way, Soyinka and Suleri have used English and British influence to their own ends, preserving a vital indigenous vision.
World War II and the decolonization process in Africa, the Middle East, and India were troubled times for both colony and colonizer. Moreover, they were irreparably damaging to the psyche of the Western colonial powers, making the utilization of post-colonial imagery somewhat disturbing to Western readers. Soyinka takes advantage of the historical reality to further his narrative, but writes Ake, "from an African-centered world view without nostalgia for an idealized past, and his attitude is sophisticated, cosmopolitan, and international in awareness, reference, and relevance"(Bruce King, "Wole Soyinka and the Nobel Prize for Literature"). Although Meatless Days is non-chronological, a significant amount of the text address the partition of the Indian subcontinent and the resulting confusion: "When in 1947 Mountbatten's scissors clipped at the map of India and handed over what Jinnah fastidiously called a moth-eaten Pakistan...those very people must have worked with speedy fidelity all through the crazy winter of 1946, realigning their spatial perspective with something of the maniacal neatness of a Mughal miniaturist" (74). The religious/ethnic conflict on the subcontinent has become a prototype irredentist dispute of the kind now manifesting itself in many ex-colonies: Ireland, the Middle East, India and Pakistan, etc. Neither of these novels is about post-colonialism. Theses authors do not stake claim to canonization by appealing to current historical and political sensibilities, but by presenting a unique synthesis of their literary predecessors and native cultures.
Meatless Days, colored by the effects of colonialism, provides a unique vision that is not explicitly post-colonial in nature. Meatless Days treats multiple themes (gender and sibling relations, political strife, religion, expatriatism, etc.), but above all it is a personal novel, a celebration and remembrance of her English mother. In communicating her personal vision, Suleri necessarily writes about colonialism, for she is a Pakistani. However, as a celebration of her mother, post-colonialism is conceptualized as a communicating tool and metaphor. She asks, "How can I bring them together in a room, that most reticent woman and that most demanding man?... Papa's powerful discourse would surround her night and day" (p. 57). Like Soyinka, Suleri uses notions of colonial power relations to tell a tale. For Suleri, colonial debris of absurd geography, her father's imprisonment, and the changing regimes, are several of many perplexing realities that she confronted while growing up. Post-colonial rhetoric aids her in discussing her mother's relation to Pakistan and herself, but as in Soyinka, it does not itself dominate the novel. Instead, it is appropriated, used freely and consciously as a tool.
Like Meatless Days, Ake is autobiographical. Like Suleri, Soyinka has a personal vision that includes and considers colonial power relations, and that masters post-colonial realities rather than being mastered by them as are, in his opinion, the proponents of Negritude. "Soyinka takes into account the imperfections of the past, which he accepts as inherent to the human condition and which he takes as an invitation to question the present" (Heather Carlberg, "Negritude"). In essence, Soyinka decided that to endow Ake with the Yoruba vision he wished for it, retrospection and colonial themes would be useful. Soyinka Yorubaizes English and Western names with impunity. Western intrusions in the shape of World War II, technology, and English customs are met by Yoruba sensibilities on an equal footing, and young Wole provides the perspective and makes the assessments of differences. He becomes aware of the political facts inherent in colonialism, commenting of the indigenous royalty, "I concluded somehow that he was perhaps as much the slave of the District Officer--if not the present one, at least of the earlier, insolent one--as he was a prisoner of the women" (220). He notes the determined triumph of the women's tax revolt and witnesses the clash of traditional and modern in Paa Adatan's vanquishing. He also notes that upon receiving the traditional Yoruba markings on wrists and ankles, certain problems were resolved for him that Wild Christian could not. "There is more to the world than the world of Christians, or books" (143). Soyinka successfully communicates his Yoruba vision. Soyinka, like Suleri, has coopted the West in English and colonial concepts.
Certainly Aké and Meatless Days succeed as vessels for communicating a unique vision. It is evident that both Suleri and Soyinka have become adept at utilizing their cultures' encounters with the West to their own ends. This cooptation of things Western, including English itself, provides an ironically effective method of forcing Westerners to reevaluate their beliefs in regard to the canon among other things. These are precisely the contemporary writers who can force open the canon. In an era where post-colonialism, the third world, and ethnicity are central concerns, the sensibilities that shape the canon may be ready to accept both Aké and Meatless Days. Certainly their vision, quality, resourcefulness, and groundbreaking topicality recommend them.
Last modified 18 May 2001