The Sunday Mail
It’s two weeks since this column was launched and the feedback has been prodigious. The feedback has been two-fold. One section of readers felt that ‘Writing Back’ is a noble project that should never be extinguished while the other was utterly flummoxed by the whole conceptual framework and what it ought to achieve.
The blame lies squarely with this writer for failure to give an inaugural explanatory note about the whole idea behind ‘Writing Back’ as a concept and a guiding post in the post-colonial period.
It is thus important that we dichotomise the essence of ‘Writing Back’ as both a conceptual literary framework and as an adaptive mode of existence for former colonials in reaction to the ‘negative othering’ that continue to inform the narratives from the West.
While ‘Writing Back’ has a long history dating back to Chinua Achebe’s seminal work; “Things Falls Apart” (1958) and later Salman Rushdie’s 1982 article “The Empire Writes Back with a Vengeance”, much of its contemporary conceptual weaponry is derived from “The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literature”, a 1989 non-fiction text on post-colonialism authored by Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin.
Besides being a pun on the film ‘Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back’, the phrase refers to the ways post-colonial voices respond to the literary canon of the colonial centre.
The book by Ashcroft and others is regarded as one of the most significant works published in the field of post-colonial existence.
The writers debate about the relationships within post-colonial works including studying the forces acting on words in the post-colonial text, and establish proof of how these texts constitute a radical critique of Eurocentric notions of language and literature.
Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin reinforce the idea that post-colonial rewritings are not just concerned with merely inverting the hierarchical order but cross-examining and questing truth-seeking statements on which that order is based. It is some kind of post-colonial re-writing of canonical text which can be understood as some form of counter discourse.
Taking from Rushdie’s pun on ‘The Empire Strikes Back’— the famous American TV show, the empire is the sum total of the colonies of the British Empire, which Britain lost when independence came in the 1960s to states in Africa to Sri Lanka and the Caribbean.
“The Centre” is Britain and the idea of “writing back” is thus crucial in understanding the various strategies of decolonisation that Britain’s former colonies have used to set the record straight. The fact that a large number of people in the erstwhile British colonies are now living and even writing in Britain, gives credence to the fact that they are also writing back to the Centre from within the belly of the beast- from the Centre of the Centre.
It must, however, be noted that the notion of the “centre” does not imply the same to everyone. Students of literature acutely remember the Irish writer W.B. Yeats writing in “The Second Coming (1919)” that: “Things Fall Apart”; the centre cannot hold; /Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”. Yeats had in mind, Man losing touch with the Judeo-Christian God but also its consequence; the advent of a strange, savage God and the death of God announced by Nietzsche and since they were in 1919, the end of Tsarism in Russian and the aftermath of the October revolution.
It is from Yeats that Achebe was to appropriate the title of his book, “Things Fall Apart”.
But what was falling apart was the pre-colonial coherence of Eastern Nigeria or the Igbo society and in a wider reference, the African existence due to the impact of Christianity which was the instigator of the disorder.
The notion of the “centre” as applied to Britain goes back to the sixteenth century, an age of colonial expansion but the conjoining of England as the centre goes back to the 19th century, when English began to be studies as an academic subject and became linked to the spread of colonial education for the “natives”.
The teaching of English came with other concepts such as ‘humanity’, ‘civilisation’ which contrariwise established ‘savagery’, ‘native’, ‘primitive’; a dichotomy strengthened by racial theories of “inequality of human races”.
No one doubts the resultant impact of colonialism in three quarters of the world today have had their lives shaped by it. Around the 1960s then Britain stepped into the post-imperial phase as it ceased being an Empire or rather became an Empire in decline.
As laughable as it sounds, Britain is indeed at present the last colony of the British Empire. So why should Africans continue to ‘write back to empire’ when the empire has long ceased to exist? Why should Africans continue to take this initiative as a lifelong commitment when the colonials have long since left the continent?
Writing back is as relevant as it is today as it was when Achebe penned “Things Fall Apart’ in that the misrepresentations about Africa and Zimbabwe in particular— that are informed by colonial stereotypes that continue to be peddled in various discourses on various platforms.
In “Writing Back” to empire, Achebe and other African authors, intellectuals and journalists, are informed by the fact that Europeans who first came into contact with Africa embraced a condescending attitude couched in assumed superiority which fuelled the justification of colonialism and denigration of everything African.
Journalists, writers and African intellectuals are duty bound to respond to the disgraceful fictional narratives of Europeans by reconstructing the image of Africa’s past to the rest of the world away from the “blind truths” contained in Joseph Conrad’s “The Heart of Darkness”.
This is the reason why Achebe writes back to empire in an attempt to discredit the “blind truths” surrounding time, language, and the indigenous societies of Africa and goes so far as to say that Western influence helped to cause the blind perspective on Africa. While “The Heart of Darkness” portrays Africa as underdeveloped and primitive, “Things Fall Apart” depicts Africa as having complex societies by showing us the complex ways of life of the Igbo people in Nigeria.
Writing back offers, therefore, not only possibilities for the former colonised but also the former colonisers, new meanings and counter discourses that come into play in the shared language.
Colonialism was presented as “extension of civilisation”, which ideologically justified the self-ascribed superiority of the European Western world over the non-Western world over the non-Western world.
As journalists, intellectuals, writers and even political players we need to continuously write back to empire to demystify and dispel misrepresentations about us as a people that have continued to inform the Western world in the post-colonial period.
This is the essence of “Writing Back” as a column. In the age of social media and information technology, there is always need to put everything in perspective and dispel falsehoods that shape the opinions of humanity. We must never get fatigued in disseminating an anti-conquest narrative that analyses and transcends the personal and societal experiences of imperial subjugation of having endured the imposed identity of a colonial project.
It is this kind of narrative that replies to the mother country’s misrepresentation of Africa’s humanity peddled by their own writers, journalists and intellectuals including their local proxies.