How can one create an authentic literary language for one’s nation? How much more complicated might such an endeavour become if that nation’s identity has been forged through forced displacement from other nations and a necessary cultural hybridity?
In ‘The Social Function of Poetry’ (1945), T. S. Eliot asserted that ‘Poetry is much more local than prose…poetry has primarily to do with the expression of feeling and emotion.’ Kamau Brathwaite might have some sympathy for this idea, as his notion of a Caribbean ‘nation language’ draws upon the musical traditions of Africa to confront the postcolonial need for a literary language that expresses the emotions, feelings, culture and spirit of the Caribbean nations. ‘We haven’t got the syllables, the syllabic intelligence, to describe the hurricane, which is our own experience, whereas we can describe the imported alien experience of the snowfall. It is that kind of situation that we are in.’ In contrast, the ‘astonishing hybridity’ of Walcott’s characters, such as Philoctete, both Caribbean fisherman and Classical Greek hero, ‘contravenes the widespread assumption that postcolonial literature develops by sloughing off Eurocentrism for indigeneity,’ in Jahan Ramazani’s words. In this essay I will trace the ways in which Brathwaite and Walcott draw upon the same or distinct traditions in order to create their verse, each approach informed by sympathies with ‘nation language’ on the one hand and, on the other, an awareness and desire to celebrate the crash of many languages.
The oral tradition is a key component in Brathwaite’s definition of nation language. ‘It is based as much on sound as it is on song. That is to say, the noise that it makes is part of the meaning,’ so part of the meaning is lost when written down. For example, audiences who have heard Brathwaite perform his poem ‘Calypso’ know that it begins and ends with the poet singing. The first effect of this is that it reinforces the sense of the poem being not a text but an organic, ongoing, unending song, highlighted also in the ellipses ending each section. There is no fixed linear structure or pattern informing the poem; rather it comes into life and exits again (but perhaps, as the ellipses suggest, only temporarily) in music, a score that follows no clear instructions, but is rather a spontaneous outpouring of expression. The line ‘who goin’ stop this bacchanalling?’ is possibly self-referential, embodying the celebratory spirit behind this unstoppable growth that has no fixed beginning or end.
The second effect is irony. At the end of the poem, two contrasting passages are both sung:
The fake song of the ‘island dance’ that the tourists identify through artificial appearance (‘white beaches / where if we wear breeches / it becomes an island dance’) is shown up by the actual authentic experience of island life of (possibly discriminatory) unemployment and immigration. Through the use of what Brathwaite would consider an authentic nation language, with authentic Antillean musicality, he reinforces a message against the masks obscuring authentic Antillean identity, and against imposed identity.
Brathwaite frequently employs the dactylic African calypso form over English pentameter, as well as heavily stressed beats contrapuntal to unstressed beats. The dactyls in ‘Calypso’ highlight verbs of becoming, connections between parts: ‘bloomed into’, ‘hissed into’, ‘fanged into’, ‘flashed into’, ‘roared into’. All of these dactyls are the hinge that highlight one thing turning into another: ‘the stone…bloomed into islands’, ‘stone hissed into reef’, ‘teeth fanged into clay’, ‘splash flashed into spray’, ‘islands roared into green plantations’. The dactyls both describe and act as agents of life being born, in the imagery and the meter of the verse. Thus ‘Calypso’ is a genesis song, and the fact that it is titled ‘Calypso’ perhaps hints at the centrality of an African tradition being central to the genesis of an Antillean identity.
Elsewhere the dactyls emphasise key information in a similarly double-layered fashion:
The sugar cane is both the repeated, undefeated centre of the verse and the central resource of the Antilles, pushing the islands into capitalist existence as it pushes the stanza into musical existence. Brathwaite’s use of the calypso tradition reveals language as something that can represent images and ideas more tangibly than through mere denotation: through its syntax, this verse enacts what it is describing. It is a layered sensory experience, heard as well as seen.
Much of this is lost, or half-lost, when experienced silently by a reader looking at words on a page. In contrast, Derek Walcott’s epic poem Omeros demonstrates an interplay between oral and written traditions, as well as an interplay between African and European traditions, in the creation of a distinct language that he offers as perhaps a truer example of Caribbean ‘nation language’.
Walcott also incorporates dactyls into the verse of Omeros, but rather than highlight them as particularly significant, they, like all the other languages and traditions he employs, work more subtly, behind the scenes of the linguistic machinery. A passage (aptly) concerned with Philoctete’s slave ancestors is full of West African dactyls pushing the lines forward:
He believed the swelling came from the chained ankles
of his grandfathers. Or else why was there no cure?
That the cross he carried was not only the / anchor’s
but / that of his / race, for a village black and poor
as the pigs that rooted in its burning garbage,
then were hooked on the / anchors of the abbatoir.
Unlike Brathwaite’s poem, here the dacytls and balance between stressed and unstressed beats (which I have not highlighted) are not a palpably central force pushing the verse into being. Instead, the pulls and pushes are built into the rhythm of the lines without asserting themselves, so that the tone is still somewhat conversational, negotiating between the highly lyrical (‘hooked on the anchors of the abbatoir’) and a language closer to Philoctete’s thoughts (‘Or else why was there no cure?’). Walcott’s music is of a different kind, one that often hinges, not upon repeated stress of certain sounds and words, but on a dislocation and transformation of certain sounds and words into new contexts and meanings. This is a key device for his negotiation between traditions: rather than alternate between them, he tries to create something new through displacing and translating traditions as well as words.
In the above passage, rather than a series of rhymes, a series of transformations of words at the end of every other line creates the subtle music driving Walcott’s verse: ‘war’, in the line before the quoted passage, changes to ‘cure’, then to ‘poor’, then to ‘abattoir’. Consonance remains, but the shape of both the word and of the mouth saying the word shifts ever so slightly. In this sense, a part of Walcott’s overarching meaning can only be felt through the oral tradition of reading the verse aloud, as indeed the Iliad, the epic that Walcott writes in response to, would have been performed.
Similar transformations of words occur throughout Omeros, as in the third section of Chapter 2, Book 1. As well as regular rhyme (‘Greek’ to ‘reek’, ‘right’ to light’), there are sound shifts in ‘nose’ turning to ‘noise’, then later ‘noise’ turning back to ‘nose’: ‘…its broken boxer nose…the shallow’s noise…surf without noise…its broken nose’. Similarly with ‘floor’ to ‘flare’ or ‘marble’ to ‘table’. There are also repetitions of words that transform through being displaced into new contexts:
Omeros was the crunch of dry leaves, and the washes
that echoed from the cave-mouth when the tide had ebbed.
The name stayed in my mouth. I saw how light was webbed…
…the coffled feet
scraping like leaves, and perhaps the inculpable marble
would have turned its white seeds away, to widen
the bow of its mouth at the horror under her table…
Almost all the words in this short chapter, like ‘mouth’ above, appear, disappear, and reappear in new forms and in seemingly new contexts, but the contexts are both changed and made of the same old elements: the third time we see/hear ‘mouth’, it is following closely on the heels of ‘scraping like leaves’, which resurrects the ‘crunch of dry leaves’ that first accompanied the ‘cave-mouth’. Thus the music of the passage, and its key images and meaning, revolve around a process of repetition, retelling and recreating, the key words like multiple choruses in a song that follows its own structure, or like the epithets in Homeric epics that would allow the singers to hook their story on to memorable patterns.
Walcott’s dislocation of words gains particular resonance in the passage where Philoctete complains to Ma Kilman of his wound, as it literally becomes a translation from one language to another that changes the word’s meaning:‘“Moin blessé…I am blest / wif this wound, Ma Kilman, qui pas ka guérir pièce. / Which will never heal.”’ Philoctete is mixing English with Creole, the latter itself a result of forced hybridity: created by West African slaves and based on a confluence of slave-trader languages, it was said by Aimé Cesaire to have a European body but an African soul. The Creole for ‘wounded’, blessé, is translated as ‘blest wif this wound’. Thus Philoctete’s wound, a burden from ancestral times that he must carry, becomes paradoxically both a curse and a kind of blessing when he tries to explain it through negotiating between two languages. The very fact that he is represented in both suggests that one language alone is not enough to adequately express and contain the pain of his symbolic and literal wound. The figure of Philoctete has often been used as a classical Christ-model, a long-suffering innocent, whose ‘unintelligible stammerings – literally the discourse of the barbaric – interrupt his Greek when he suffers spasms of pain’. Is the language of Walcott’s Philoctete corrupted or enriched through its struggle between two worlds?
His wound is unintelligible to him – ‘Or else why was there no cure?’ – and he is a victim of his own hybridity. Like his name, Philoctete’s leg wound is a burden from ancestral times that he must carry. Thus the link between him and the Greek figure is not wholly positive; he and Walcott are both ‘blest’ and burdened with the legacy of Greek literature. But does this mean they are also ‘blest’ as well as burdened by the legacy of colonial history? In ‘The Muse of History’, Walcott rejects using ‘the suffering of the victim’ as the focus point of Caribbean literature. By dislocating a Greek hero to an Antillean setting, Walcott destabilizes the categories of ‘colonizer’ and ‘colonized’; rather than give the voiceless Caribbean a voice (as Jean Rhys does in Wide Sargasso Sea), he rejects the label of ‘voiceless’ altogether – on whose terms, in whose literature? – and denies that the power and literary force of a Greek hero is limited to other white heroes and off-limits to black heroes. The ambivalence in the linguistic patterns and traditions at work in his epic begin to hint at the instability on the other side of fixed categories: if a slave’s descendent is not fixed as a ‘victim’, if Philoctete is ‘blest’ as well as ‘cursed’, is a coloniser’s descendent similarly freed from the label of ‘perpetrator’? But does that reflect the socio-political reality of slavery’s legacy?
In his essay ‘The Epic and Novel’, Mikhail Bakhtin celebrates heteroglossia, the interaction of many voices and languages (which would include literary as well as national languages) that is the site of the creation of meaning. ‘Languages,’ he says, ‘throw light on each other: one language can, after all, see itself only in the light of another language.’ Perhaps, then, the ‘nation language’ can only be found through its interaction with other languages; if indeed the true nation language is not in fact created through an interaction of various languages and traditions, as Walcott might assert.
Walcott is not interested in upholding one kind of music over another, one nation language over another. In fact, he would reject Brathwaite’s notion that Caribbean nation language should be ‘influenced very strongly by the African model, the African aspect of our New World/Caribbean heritage’, and would instead argue for all the other aspects of the New World heritage: the European, the indigenous Caribbean and the Asian as well as the African. This is the project at the heart of Omeros: to discover and create a New World language that comes into being through the conflict and interaction of various languages and traditions, including literary languages and traditions. After all, the dactyl is also crucial to the Homeric epic, which uses dactylic hexameter.
However, there is arguably something lost in Walcott’s more subtle negotiation of traditions, particularly the implications behind the oral tradition that Brathwaite observes, the communication between an individual and the community through performance. His passage on this is worth quoting at length.
The other thing about nation language is that it is part of what may be called total expression… Reading is an isolated, individualistic expression. The oral tradition on the other hand demands not only the griot but the audience to complete the community: the noise and sounds that the maker makes are responded to by the audience and are returned to him. Hence we have the creation of a continuum where meaning truly resides. And this total expression comes about because people be in the open air, because people live in conditions of poverty (‘unhouselled’) because they come from a historical experience where they had to rely on their very breath rather than on paraphernalia like books and museums and machines. They had to depend on immanence, the power within themselves, rather than the technology outside themselves…
From a postcolonialist point of view, this is arguably a more insistent and socio-politically practical approach to discovering and asserting the nation language. Then again, Walcott is responding to the epic form, which is part of an oral tradition that requires a different sort of individualism and interaction with a community, as each singer will inflect their retelling of old material with their own interpretation and idiolect, as well as with the contours and tones of their unique voice. But it is a European tradition he is responding to, a tradition of the colonizers, however unstable the category of ‘colonizer’ seems to be.
Walcott is representing a dialogue of voices and traditions and negotiating different forms. His audience and community are perhaps wider than Brathwaite’s, but in the process his characters’ individualism (and the individual expression of their nation) is perhaps more submerged, as characters of ‘astonishing hybridity’ become sites of historical and literary traditions crashing in on each other. And yet, perhaps true nation language only arises out of this crash: although he at first says that it is ‘not English’ in its ‘contours, its rhythm and its timbre’, or it is ‘an English which is like a howl, or a shout or a machine-gun or the wind or a wave…the blues’, Brathwaite also allows that ‘sometimes it is English and African at the same time’. The language is malleable and changeable, sometimes a shout, sometimes a wave, sometimes English, sometimes African, sometimes Homeric, sometimes Antillean, sometimes iambic, sometimes dactylic.
Caliban is a controversial figure in postcolonial studies, sometimes taken as a postcolonial hero and sometimes as a postcolonial stereotype; but Walcott rejects the implications behind Caliban’s line in The Tempest, ‘You taught me language: and my profit on’t is, / I know how to curse’. Instead Walcott asserts that the profit on it is, he knows how to verse. For him, the teachings of various languages to each other, of various traditions listening to, copying, changing and dislocating each other, are what create New World languages, rather than the attempt to rediscover and pull out one African root of its complicated, intermixed legacy.
Brathwaite, E. K., ‘Islands and Exiles’, The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy, Oxford: Oxford Universtiy Press, 1967.
Brathwaite, E. K., ‘Nation Language’, The Postcolonial Studies Reader, eds. B. Ashcroft, G. Griffiths and H. Tiffin, London: Routledge, 2006.
Ramazani, Jahan, The Hybrid Muse: Postcolonial Poetry in English, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2001.
Walcott, Derek, Omeros, London: Faber and Faber, 1990.
A study of Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea and Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman
In his article ‘Cultural Identity and Diaspora’, Stuart Hall pinpoints the precarious, misleading and very often oppressive human tendency to grasp individual identity through rediscovering cultural identity, one which is in turn founded upon assumptions of a common history that has emerged from a single, fixed and certain origin. These provide us with ‘stable, unchanging and continuous frames of reference and meaning.’ This is especially true in a postcolonial context, where the recovery of a fixed past is a strategy for both colonizer and colonized, the former justifying their positions of power by defining themselves in contrast to the Other, the latter striving to protect their own version of themselves and history against the colonial attack.
However, Hall rejects such an essentialist approach to cultural identity. Instead, he suggests that the ‘actual history’ informing identity is determined by difference, ‘“what we really are”; or rather – since history has intervened – “what we have become”…Cultural identity…is a matter of becoming as well as of “being”. It belongs to the future as much as to the past…[and undergoes] constant transformation.’ The way we define this history that has intervened must, equally, not be bound by traditional, fixed, stable points of reference. In her novella Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys challenges precisely this approach to defining history and people, and seeks instead to assert the voice of a woman who is adrift from stable points of reference: England, Jamaica, slavers, slaves, Jane Eyre, the past, the future. This voice disrupts any attempt to tie her story down to a linear history. In contrast, Wole Soyinka’s tragedy Death and the King’s Horseman seems to assert one version of identity and truth – the Yoruba version – over another that challenges it – the British colonial version. However, like his predecessors from distinct cultural origins, Sophocles and Shakespeare, Soyinka’s tragedy contains at its tragic core a sharp point of uncertainty and doubt in facing the question Hall implies: even if history continues on a fixed, ritualised course, as it has done for our ancestors before us – is it right that it do so?
Rhys’ novella is not a project in recovering the past, but of constantly weaving the past (Antoinette’s childhood, the Emancipation Act) and the future (Jane Eyre) into an uncertain, multi-voiced narrative, the temporal structure of which is riddled with gaps. Antoinette’s identity, like her narrative history, is ‘far from being grounded in mere “recovery” of the past, which is waiting to be found, and which when found, will secure our sense of ourselves into eternity’. Instead, as ‘identities are the names we give to different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves within, the narratives of the past,’ we see Antoinette being repositioned into her narrative not only by Rochester, the colonial stand-in figure, but also by the black Jamaicans who call her a ‘white cockroach’, ‘white nigger’, one of the ‘old time white people’. As a result she is disconnected from her sense of self as she has her control over it stolen, or never handed to her in the first place. She is positioned in her narrative as the mad daughter of a mad mother, as a doll, as a demon, as white, as wild, as a ‘zombi’. Judie Newman observes that the reoccurring motif of the zombie is an apt symbolic role for Antoinette as it is an entity between states (living and dead, conscious and unconscious). It also representative of the imaginative means by which cultures are chained to a past they constantly try to recover through retellings: the anthropologist Frances Huxley reported that the folklore of zombies, who traditionally are held in the total control of another, had developed in the West Indies as ‘partly a reminiscence of plantation days when the Negroes learned to endure forced labour’.
As a poor, white Creole woman, benefitting neither from the horror of slavery that her ancestors benefitted from, nor from a shared history of suffering that the black Jamaicans can draw upon for solidarity, Antoinette is, ironically, a perfect representative of the post-colonial Caribbean who belongs to no single community but is created and torn apart by several. The cultural history of the black Jamaicans has suffered a massive disruption in its linear course through the slave trade, a forced displacement from Africa, making that African point of origin far removed from their current reality; the indigenous Caribs and Arawaks are no more, so they are unavailable as a point of fixed origin; and the white Creoles are also far removed from an alien point of origin in Europe. Antoinette is both haunted and empowered by her identity as one that can never be chained to a single past:
‘…why did you tell me that [your mother] died when you were a child?’
‘Because they told me to say so and because it is true. She did die when I was a child. There are always two deaths, the real one and the one people know about.’
Ironically, her acceptance of multiple versions of reality allows her to draw upon her own source of knowledge; as Christophine says, ‘Read and write I don’t know. Other things I know.’ Knowledge, from which arises identity, is not bound to a single point of reference, European or otherwise.
An identity that is adrift from stable points of reference may become destabilised by ambiguity and an inability to trust in our sense of what is truth and what is lies – which origin does one derive from, which story does one adhere to? Which narrator does one trust? It is a problem Rhys embraces, and the novella form is the perfect vehicle for a work that is told through various, opposing voices with distinct ideas of reality. For Rochester, who narrates by far the largest section of the text and yet is less likely to hold our sympathies, Jamaica is a vibrant but disturbing unreality, ‘all very brightly coloured, very strange, but it meant nothing to me’, and for Antoinette the idea of England begins as a ‘dream’, her experience of Thornfield confirming it as a nightmare that makes no sense: ‘They tell me I am in England but I don’t believe them. We lost our way to England. When? Where?’ A novella embraces a narrative with disruptions and gaps (‘When? Where?’) through its short, concentrated form, between a short story (which illuminates a moment surrounded by gaps and silences) and a novel (which traditionally fills out the full trajectory and history of a character or situation, as in bildungsroman). We are constantly trying to grasp a centre and a unifying vision that may lie just beyond our grasp.
Drama, too, presents us with the offer of a concentrated, unified vision that is both held in balance and set off-balance by various, competing voices. Although it may seem that Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman presents the postcolonial opposition between a colonial voice (Pilkings and Jane) and an authentic Yoruba voice (all the Yoruba characters except Amusa and Joseph), the true crux of the tragedy is far more closely aligned with Hall’s and Rhys’s conception of the ambiguity of identity as defined through any given culture. When I first read Soyinka’s ‘Author’s Note’ that dismisses the ‘culture clash’ tag and insists instead that ‘the Colonial Factor is …a catalytic incident merely’, I felt that he was wilfully ignoring a real and more complex source of tragedy in neglecting to develop two psychological dilemmas rather than one – that is, Pilkings’s as well as Elesin’s – in a conflict akin to that of Creon and Antigone. However, Soyinka is not interested in the conflict Pilkings might have had in another play – Pilkings is not facing a problem that challenges his very sense of identity within his community and his cultural history. Elesin is.
Although Soyinka rejects an essentialist, nationalistic, past-recovering approach to rehabilitating and rediscovering Yoruba identity, he is nonetheless trying to make the rediscovery. The ‘self-apprehension of African subjects’ is his goal, but ‘true self-apprehension can be acquired neither through the language of cultural liberation and the assertion of pride in one’s identity nor through contrast to the cultural system of others’, the latter being a colonial strategy, as outlined by theorists such as Edward Said. Instead, Soyinka takes the Yoruba cosmic order for granted, dispelling the possibility of it being Othered – but then within that fixed order, within which Elesin Oba finds his very identity (‘Elesin Oba’ being his title as the King’s Horseman rather than an unaffiliated name), Elesin’s failure to follow his king into death at the right moment as his predecessors have always done shakes up the cosmic order. It is an aberration of one individual from the taken-for-granted path of Yoruba history. The question the tragedy asks is not whether or not Pilkings is right to intervene, because, as Soyinka points out in his Author’s Note, Pilkings only provides Elesin with the opportunity to do what one part of him really desires, the desire to fill ‘an abyss across which my body must be drawn’ and fulfill ‘a weight of longing on my earth-held limbs’ – to go on living. The question the tragedy asks, therefore, is what it means for Elesin to be two people: the one who wishes to fulfill his role within the ritualised history of his culture, and the one who wishes to live, and who wills this choice as an individual rather than one part of a greater, cosmic and communal whole.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. sees Elesin’s individual tragedy as inextricable from a communal one: ‘This is no mere drama of individual vacillation. Communal order and communal will are inextricable,’ and Elesin, whose ‘will [and] character are neither wholly determined nor wholly free,’ exists in a world where ‘ambiguity and vacillation wreak havoc upon the individual’. With the voice of the dead king, the Praise-singer condemns Elesin for having irrevocably disrupted the cosmic order for the entire community:
Elesin, we placed the reins of the world in your hands yet you watched it plunge over the edge of the bitter precipice. You sat with folded arms while evil strangers tilted the world from its course and crashed it beyond the edge of emptiness – you muttered, there is little that one man can do, you left us floundering in the blind future…Our world is tumbling in the void of strangers, Elesin.
The emphasis here is upon the fact that had Elesin fulfilled his role within his community, he would have reaffirmed that community’s sense of reality and identity, protecting it from the attack that ‘evil strangers’ waged upon it. The problem is that there is nothing to replace the Yoruba order once it is rejected, leaving a sense of existing ‘beyond the edge of emptiness’ and into the control and ‘void of strangers’. The same experience is described in a poem written by an indigenous Peruvian soon after the invasion of Spanish conquistadors: ‘Where do I turn to? / To where will I go? / Everything ends!’ To the one conquered by strangers, there is nothing beyond the known order of reality, only the ‘undiscovered country’ spoken of by Hamlet, a state that in its unknowability is akin to death.
Also highlighted in the Praise-singer’s speech above is the importance of an individual’s will – ‘there is little that one man can do’ – in acting for the community’s identity, and yet it is also the particularity of Elesin’s individual mind that unbalances the community’s sense of reality, and from a different approach than that of the colonials. His action does not challenge the Yoruba order in its particularity, as the British do; instead it challenges the very notion of an inevitable, ongoing, ritualised world order.
But is it truly ignoble of Elesin to make this challenge, and to suffer from doubt and ambivalence? In his ‘Director’s note’ to the Playbill of the 1979 performance of the play in Chicago, Soyinka comments that,
At the heart of the lyric and the dance of transition in Yoruba tragic art, [a] core of ambivalence is always implanted. This is how society, even on its own, reveals and demonstrates its capacity for change.
The final line of the Praise-singer’s speech above points towards a future, rather than an endlessly repeated past, albeit in dark and despairing tones. So too does Iyaloja’s lines that conclude the play: ‘Now forget the dead, forget even the living. Turn your mind only to the unborn.’ Gates compares Elesin to Hamlet, whose introspection and self-consciousness are what colour ‘the native hue of resolution…with the pale cast of thought’. For Elesin, ‘the awful treachery of relief’ is unforgivable, ‘the unspeakable blasphemy of seeing the hand of the gods in this alien rupture of his world’ an absolute error. It denies him his identity, and Iyaloja addresses him as ‘you who were once Elesin Oba’. And yet he gains a new identity, even if it remains unrecognized by the characters within the play: it is his hand that causes the alien rupture, although colonial interference is the catalyst. It is his act that causes him to be the protagonist of a tragedy called Death and the King’s Horseman, because it is his act which provokes us to think and interrogate these conflicting orders of reality. Hamlet may ultimately fulfill his role as an avenger, but it is with great discomfort that we see him celebrated by Fortinbras as a soldier, because this is simply not who he is. Elesin Oba despairs in his failure to fulfill his role as the king’s horseman, but without this failure, who would he be to us? Someone without human character, flaws and identity; nothing more than a function. His failure makes him a tragic hero.
You could also compare his act to a rupture in Yoruba linguistic understanding. Gates observes that the Yoruba culture sees the metaphor as the ‘horse’ that ensures a word is not lost on its way towards meaning: ‘Owe l’esin oro, bi oro ba sonu owe ni a fi n wa a’, or ‘If a word is lost, a metaphor or proverb is used to find it’. Soyinka, Gates argues, uses metaphors to find the ‘lost or hidden meanings of words and events’, akin to looking for fixed origins, but for idea rather than people. Having failed to ride with his horse and his king into death, Elesin’s known identity is lost; for the Yoruba characters, the stakes are just as high for the wrong metaphor to be used as for the wrong action to be executed at the wrong moment of a ritual, hence the incredibly rich and precise figurative language of the Yoruba characters. This is in contrast to the dated banalities of the British (‘Must your people forever speak in riddles?’, Pilkings exclaims). And yet what Elesin does is find new words for a new experience unprecedented by the Yoruba sense of order, history and identity, and so he ceases to be Elesin Oba in his articulation of his dilemma: ‘What were warnings beside the renewal of famished embers lodged eternally in the heart of man…when a stranger force of violence shatters the mind’s calm resolution, this is when a man is made to commit the awful treachery of relief…I know it was this thought that killed me…all because I had committed this blasphemy of thought’. To desire to live, or fulfill one’s sense of self, even when it goes against one’s entire concept of reality, is no simple tragic flaw, and it is with danger that it is dismissed by either Iyaloja, Pilkings, or us.
Like Elesin, Antoinette’s identity revolves around a conflict between the conflicting voices and versions of reality that rage all around her. An early passage from her childhood reveals the instability of the boundary between herself and others (she is Other to every other) in the contrast between her own tagged dialogue and Tia’s untagged dialogue:
‘Keep [the coins] then, you cheating nigger,’ I said…’I can get more if I want to.’
That’s not what she hear, she said. She hear we all poor like beggar…Plenty white people in Jamaica. Real white people, they got gold money. They didn’t look at us, nobody see them come near us. Old time white people nothing but white nigger now, and black nigger better than white nigger.
Unlike Antoinette’s speech, Tia’s speech is untagged by quotation marks, producing a troubling and confusing sense of ambivalence towards the speaker. Her languages is not quite akin to Antoinette’s, presented in a way we might expect to see Antoinette’s own thoughts, as a free indirect discourse. As well as pulling at the sense of a fixed reality in the episode – did Tia really say that? – it reinforces a sense of Antoinette’s thoughts not really existing independently of others’ voices. Everything that Tia says could be what Antoinette really believes, or is taught to believe.
Antoinette exists on the one hand as someone whose voice is overwhelmed by others’ voices; but on the other hand as an individual beyond the pages of the text, whose formative young womanhood we never see. Skipping from childhood to adulthood, the narrative does not allow us to witness the character growth that forms her into an assertive woman who speaks in her own language, not the flowery formalities of Victorian English, not patois, but short, direct sentences that cut to the heart of her meaning rather than dance around in proverbial nothings: ‘Time has no meaning. But something you can touch and hold like my dress, that has a meaning’; ‘Bertha is not my name. You are trying to make me into someone else, calling me by another name. I know, that’s obeah too.’ It is fitting that Rhys, who was turned away from an acting career because of her non-standard, Creole English, creates a heroine whose only way of asserting her identity is through a particular, individual language, one that rejects essentialising visions of history.
Her only other avenue of assertion is to jump from a flaming Thornfield, in language that Newman argues evokes Arawak myths of a flaming genesis tree from which the Arawaks ascend into heaven: ‘I saw the orchids and the stephanotis and the jasmine and the tree of life in flames…The wind caught my hair and it streamed out like wings. It might bear me up, I thought’. She rejects her life in Thornfield as an unreality, and instead her act of suicide, only enacted in dreams in Rhys’s text, marks an awakening: ‘I jumped and woke’. Thus she gains her freedom. Elesin does not fulfill his suicide at the required moment to reaffirm his culture’s ritual history, and so he gains his freedom, to his regret, from a pre-ordained role within a cultural narrative.
In neither case is such an act of freedom unambiguously positive or right. Death and the King’s Horseman is a tragedy – but like Greek and Shakespearean tragedies it hinges not on the tragic events that happen, but on the tragic uncertainty in the protagonist’s mind as to whether in fact he has or has not done the right thing. Although the Yoruba cosmic order is more cyclical than the post-epic Western linear history, both could be called ritual histories as they develop along pre-ordained patterns from origin to present. New voices disrupt the cycle or the line and introduce gaps and uncertainty in the question of where the story began and where the story should end. Should it really continue as it has always done? And this unknown translates into the greater despair of not knowing how to go on living, given that the fixed points of certainty in ritual existence are thrown out of balance or impossible to grasp; thus tragedy is so bound to death. And yet, in both texts there is the hint of a future, no matter how uncertain and terrifying in being unknown. It is not necessarily, in both texts, unknowable: another essay could trace the countless evocations in Wide Sargasso Sea and Soyinka’s play of listening and understanding in such multi-voiced texts, albeit more so in Rhys’s work, which rejects the security of knowing one’s self and one’s place in a community: that which Elesin so regrets having destabilized. Both works confront the instability of cultural identity that Stuart Hall identifies, and both confront the deeply unsettling implications this instability implies, but leave it with no fixed answer.
Gates, Henry Louis, ‘Being, the Will, and the Semantics of Death’, in Death and the King’s Horseman, ed. Simon Gikandi, New York and London: W. W. Norton, 2003.
Hall, Stuart, ‘Cultural Identity and Diaspora, in Colonial Discourse and Post-colonial Theory: A Reader, ed. Williams and Chrisman, pp. 394-403.
Huxley, Frances, Quoted in Gene Wright, Horror-Shows: The A- to Z- of Horror in Film, TV, Radio and Theatre, London: David and Charles, 1986.
Newman, Judie, The Ballistic Bard: Postcolonial Fictions, London: Arnold, 1995.
 ‘Imaginative geography and history’ helps ‘the mind to intensify its own sense of itself by dramatising the difference between what is close to it and what is far away’. Said, Orientalism, 1978, p. 55.
The howling moon glisten-dropped sweat
And his wolf-snout sniffs behind my ear.
My feast, my feast is here.
Grey day breaks and shifts
Upon the chest that loosens his mountain breath;
I eat him with eyes and let him rest.
I am hungry only
When his lips, soft as feathers’ light,
Ope my desire and prise my lips.
His tongue dips into thick honey
And drops the gift of thirst into my mouth;
The ache lifts me and gives my body weight, my form shape.
I am heavy with hunger now, before I was like shifting light.
Clutch his face with violets in your hands.
My skin demands I curl about your love and crush
Myself into a star –
Against your ear, between your legs,
Beside you, outlines heavy. Centre of gravity.
Lowing moan I make you,
And the light of all corners makes my arms strong.
I hold everything and I am consumed,
But like Tantalus, my feast glimmers still, unfinished, unfinishable.
His pelt stays soft and grey. His eyes pour themselves
Into my freckled hazel green, and curled we stay.
No challenge did I relish more during my assistantship than teaching The Big One: Shakespeare. To mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, the British Council sent me an email with a huge pack of materials in French and English, just in case anyone might want to try out a little Barding with their students. As a writer and English major whose first academic breakthrough was an essay arguing that As You Like It is a queer tragedy where lesbian love is thwarted in order to uphold heteronormative marriage conventions, I jumped at the opportunity.
If you’d like to throw in some Shakespeare in your classes but find the task daunting (‘Teaching texts in Elizabethan English to adolescents? When it’s their second language and I’m not even sure I understand it all?!’), here are some tips to guide you along the way.
1. Introduce: Why Are We Talking About Shakespeare?
Every time I began teaching Shakespeare to a new class, I’d start by letting them know how much I loved him and why. That way, he wasn’t just another arbitrarily-chosen topic that school was throwing at them as a means to an end, a name on a paper – he meant something to me, and maybe he could mean something to them.
‘I love Shakespeare,’ my spiel went, ‘Because I think he’s written about almost every human experience. When I’m feeling sad or confused, I can walk into a bookstore, pick up a Complete Works of Shakespeare and find there something that speaks to what I’m feeling. If you’ve ever felt like an outsider; if you’ve ever fallen in love with someone who doesn’t love you back; if you’ve ever felt pressured by your parents into doing something you didn’t want to do; if you’ve ever felt betrayed by your best friend – Shakespeare’s written about it.’ Note that these are all things teenagers can relate to, and I remember a quiet girl giving a wise, knowing nod.
2. Start Broad: How Does This Text Relate To Us?
I never start with plot detail. I would normally only have one or two classes to cover ‘Shakespeare’ with a group of students, which means only one or two texts, which means that you pretty much have to explain the plot, since French schools don’t typically cover more than the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet. Plot is the boring bit. Don’t start with the boring bit. You have to show them the relevance of this text in order to get them really thinking about it.
Handy tool: brain-storming. Let’s say we were discussing Julius Caesar: I’d write LEADER in the middle of the board with some arrows shooting off of it. ‘What do you think of when you think of a leader?’ I’d ask.
Very quickly, we’d have a map of key ideas, and they’ve also just practiced their vocabulary.
Sometimes these maps would give us anchors with which to ask ourselves the tricky questions that, in fact, the text itself (which we haven’t even introduced yet!) is asking. For example, The Merchant of Venice: I wrote OUTSIDER in the middle of the board.
‘Doesn’t follow the rules.’
‘Martin Luther King!’
‘So is it a good thing or a bad thing to be an outsider? How are people made outsiders? How does society treat outsiders?’ I might ask, and then we’ve got a discussion going. Discussion is key, because students have plenty of ideas to offer, and if they want to get their ideas across they have to start thinking, what word do I need for that? Brilliant language practice. What’s more, they’re seeing the bigger picture of a text before tackling the (more complex) specifics.
3. Read Out A Key Passage Together (Maybe In Their Mother Tongue First!)
We would always tackle a passage in French first, to ease them into it and make sure they understood the ideas and emotions behind the words; reading comprehension with Shakespeare at a beginner or intermediate level is too hard. Line by line, we’d go around the class just reading out the words, which is also a nice way to make sure every student is included, even the quiet ones. I would give them print-outs of the speech in English, too, because handouts always help.
If we finished the French and there were students who hadn’t spoken, I’d give the remaining students the challenge of tackling the English version, which often ended in me delivering the final lines. If I got to the end of the class and there had been no opportunity to deliver the passage in English, I’d do it myself right at the end, ‘Because,’ I told them, ‘Even if you don’t understand all the words, it’s good to just listen to the natural rhythms of the language, which are all carefully constructed, and very beautiful.’ It’s both useful and engaging for your students to hear a native speaker deliver Shakespeare with passion – they can get a sense of how these lines are meant to be performed and how they make sense emotionally. It doesn’t have to be you, there are plenty of YouTube videos of famous actors performing Shakespeare. This was particularly useful with my weaker students as video clips and audio-visual guides bring the texts alive, making it easier for them to see connections and start discussions.
But remember, it’s all about them, so the important thing is to get them reading – and get them on their feet! The most moving moment of my teaching career so far was when I saw three of my advanced students read the famous speeches from Julius Caesar in front of the class. Océane read Brutus’s speech, then Tanguy read Marc Antony’s, and then, as a comparison of political rhetoric, Joëlle read Obama’s inauguration speech of 2008 (‘Yes we can!’), which was particularly relevant to my Caribbean students, mainly black, and from a country that lived through slavery and colonialism. They were brilliant, passionate and charismatic, and they instinctively understood the mechanisms and power of the rhetorical devices. Suddenly, this Shakespeare guy was turning them into actors, leaders, Caesars!
4. Get Creative: Extend the Readings into Games, Activities and Discussions
Before the three students stood us and delivered their political speeches, I told the rest of the class, ‘Right, you are the Roman rabble. The leader of your country has just been killed. Everything’s in chaos and you don’t know what’s happening; then these two comes up and start talking to you, each trying to convince you to support them. Who’s going to win you over?’
After the speeches had been delivered, I drew two columns on the board, MARC ANTONY and BRUTUS. ‘Raise your hand if you’re voting Marc Antony! 7. Okay, who’s voting for Brutus? 18. Wow. And who isn’t sure? 5. So you’re voting for the guy who stabbed his best friend in the back multiple times?’
‘Yes, but Caesar was a tyrant! Freedom is more important.’
‘No,’ another one said, ‘You can’t betray your best friend, no matter what.’
And before you know it, ladies and gentlemen, we have a seriousdebate on our hands.
‘Okay, okay,’ I say, ‘So what if Caesar was Donald Trump? What if you’re in the United States and Trump becomes a dictator, and you are his best friend. What are you going to do?’
‘I’d kill him,’ one says immediately.
‘No!’ another protests. ‘You’re his best friend!’
‘Yeah, but it’s Trump.’
‘We don’t need to kill people anymore,’ a sage at the back offers. (They’re all politely raising their hands to answer, by the way, but if things get out of hand, just calmly remind them of the hand-raising thing, and take it as a compliment that your class is getting them excited.) ‘This play happens in Ancient times, but now we have legal processes, so we don’t need to kill dictators, we can put them in jail.’
‘You think?’ I say. ‘But look at what’s been happening in the States, look at the way Trump is changing the rules to suit himself. Can we really rely on institutional justice? What do you think?’ Etc. etc. Relevant, exciting, and we were all having fun.
The above examples look at Julius Caesar, but you can easily adapt these techniques to pretty much any text. The key is to think of simple exercises that can allow your students to be creative. With The Merchant of Venice, for example, we examined Shylock’s ‘Hath not a Jew eyes?’ speech and asked ourselves how one could fight against discrimination when the whole world and its institutions are against you. ‘Write one or two lines of your own that echo Shylock’s speech,’ I instructed, ‘It doesn’t have to be fancy or complicated, it just has to speak from the point of view of someone facing injustice.’ We had made a map of possible sources of discrimination – race, religion, gender, wealth, class, physical appearance – so they had ideas to draw upon. At first, they were daunted by the task, so make sure to always give an example of your own, both to ensure they understand exactly what they have to do and to inspire them to do it. ‘If I were to do this,’ I said, ‘I’d say, I’m a woman, why should I be treated differently to a man? Don’t I have ambitions, desires and dreams, like a man does?’
They worked in groups of two or three, and some really incredible pieces came out of it. One group made a speech in the voice of Aimé Cesaire, Martinican national hero and champion of black identity; one girl spoke as someone who had been rejected from a university because of her race; many spoke on behalf of the poor – ‘Why should rich people get all the power? Why should they decide everything?’ These guys were knocking out rhetorical questions like no man’s business.
And So, To Conclude
So you see, Shakespeare really is timeless. Teenagers always have a lot to say, you just need to inspire them and give them the space to think their own thoughts and connect to the material in ways that make sense to them. I couldn’t believe my luck: to be able to teach a subject I adore, to students who began the year insisting they were no good at English and then have the pleasure of standing back and watching them read out Shakespeare, and lines of their own inspired by Shakespeare, lines of their own that meant something important to them. Teaching Shakespeare to them was a privilege.
Mariella Hudson is a writer who loves working with young people. You can read more about her experiences in Martinique as a teacher, woman and poetic human in her 10-part blog series, Dispatches From Martinique, here.
The new play adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s classic 1982 TV series (later cut down to feature film length) Fanny and Alexander gives a tantalizing glimpse of what Chekhov could have been if he had had a sense of humour. Bergman’s writing is a gift to any playwright, combining masterful comedic awareness – here enhanced through the playful, back-and-forth riffing of Beresford’s screenplay – with a profound awareness of the inescapable horror of the world; the darkness that lingers nonchalantly alongside its humanity, hope and light. Unlike Chekhov, Bergman’s portraits of family drama manage to be both painfully true to life and simultaneously cast a light (or shadow) upon the wider world, not through clumsy, sociopolitical metaphor but through its central poetic arguments – in Fanny and Alexander, the power and necessity of art and storytelling, as powerful as the bonds of family; the griefs of childhood, love and death; the fatality of moral righteousness and moral authoritarianism. Religion, art, love, death, grief, anger, childhood, ageing – it’s all there, all seamlessly falling into one another like a graceful, violent dance.
Webster has done an impressive job of adapting the most novelistic of Bergman’s cinematic works to the stage, remaining faithful to the spirit and atmosphere of the original while embracing the imaginative flexibility offered by the stage form. This is greatly helped by Tom Pye’s set design, which foregoes drowning the mise en scène with detail (a trap common to staged period dramas) for minimal but evocative brushstrokes of detail. For example, Isak Jacobi’s puppet-filled house is revealed to us slowly, in tandem with the actors’ verbal description, the puppets descending from the ceiling one by one, allowing the audience to slip into their own imaginative work and fill the rest of the room with more magical paraphernalia. It provides a wonderfully elusive, transgressive space for Isak (Michael Pennington) to deliver his beautiful monologue on the ceaseless, deeply human need to tell stories.
Elsewhere the same effect is achieved through having ensemble members describe to the audience the sumptuous dishes endlessly offered up at the Ekdahl table, immersing all the senses and reaching across the fourth wall to draw the audience into its world. (This is again in stark contrast to the average, incredibly staid period drama, which, for all its knowing looks towards the audience, remains primly squashed between its red velvet curtains.) Such simple tricks reinforce the play’s championing of the imaginative world, rich with colour and texture, over the austerity of the Bishop’s castle, an upside-down world where storytelling is called ‘lying’ and violence is ‘done with love’.
While the director has largely remained almost reverently true to Bergman’s original vision, there are a few notable interpretations of character that distinguish this production from its predecessor. The most intriguing is also the most difficult: Emilie Ekdahl, actress, mother of Alexander, wife of actor Oskar Ekdahl, and finally, after Oskar’s early death, wife of the above-mentioned Bishop Vergérus. With the help of Bergman’s super close-ups, Ewa Fröling’s Emilie needed very little dialogue to give a mesmerizing performance, radiant with sharpness and energy before her husband’s death, and after it, quietly tormented, sunken beneath a film of ice, but still razor-sharp in every feeling and movement. In the original, she is at first somewhat obscure to the audience, and, like Alexander, we want to cry out in disbelief and terror when she falls in love, inexplicably, with the Bishop – and this distance between her and us is powerful, reflecting the emotional distance that opens up between her and her children, and perhaps her and herself, in her grief.
On stage, an actor has no super close-up to aid her self-expression, relying instead upon dialogue and movement within a given space. Catherine Walker radiates a restless energy as Emilie, and grows into the role – more commanding – in the second half of the play. Beresford’s screenplay alters the story so that Emilie is troubled and unhappy before her husband’s death, giving her a more obvious arc of character development that follows a clear logical pattern, but too neatly explains away her choice of the Bishop and his ‘truth’ that stands in contempt of her profession as a storytelling and a champion of the plurality of voices and truths. I appreciate that this change gives Emilie greater autonomy as a female character whose development does not depend upon her husband’s death, but it takes away from the earth-shattering blow that Oskar’s death is meant to be, as the central event that kicks the story into action and changes the life of Alexander and all his family.
Sadly, the earth-shattering blow is already significantly dimmed in this production by the fact that the actor playing Oskar (Sargon Yelda) greatly lets down the rest of the cast with a highly inauthentic performance. With every line and gesture delivered, I winced. This may be in part to a directorial decision to make Oskar – in contrast to Allan Edwall’s world-weary old artificer of the original – a childlike character, more boy and teenager than father figure; but the effect doesn’t come off well, and when the family matriarch Helena (superbly played by the masterful Penelope Wilton) says that Oskar’s death threw the world off-balance, it just doesn’t ring true.
Lest you think I am biased by my love for the original, there is one new interpretation of character that works incredibly well, and that is Kevin Doyle’s Bishop Vergérus. A cold character of inscrutable violence in Bergman’s original, the Bishop is here rendered no less damnable but greatly more human, another tortured soul that mirrors Emilie and in fact outdoes her in grief (another point of contention for me – where is Emilie’s grief, such a powerful element to the story, in this production?). He is wholly convincing as a man convinced of his own moral righteousness and the truth and authenticity of his own, grown-up moral path, the path towards a single God and away from artifice and the superficial idols of the theatre, of fantasy, of magic and dreams, those deities so brilliantly invented by the storyteller of history and worshipped by the theatre-goer, the TV-watcher, the book-reader, the cinema-sitter…and of course, children.
Which leads me to my final note of praise, for the young actors playing Alexander and Fanny the night I saw the production, particularly Alexander, who was stunningly alive with the story he was telling, electric with emotion, invincible on stage. Sat beside Penelope Wilton, the pair leave us with a portrait of the old and young generations coming together, undistracted – like the other, self-absorbed grown-ups of the family – from the simple awareness that family and love are most vital to the fullness of life. They know that not claiming to understand the tumultuous twists and turns of life – ‘I don’t know [why things change]’ – is a more genuine venture than any attempt to claim a single moral vision of the world. Long live the joyous artificers.
The online portfolio of Mariella Hudson, Irish-Peruvian writer and podcaster. @mariella_hudson