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“They were eyes that stung you to tears…”: Dambudzo Marechera’s ‘The House of Hunger’

In the prefatory essay to The House of Hunger – a collection including the eponymous novella and eleven other aphoristic, semi-autobiographical sketches – the Zimbabwean writer Dambudzo Marechera sets out his relationship with the English language. “I took to the English language as a duck takes to water,” he writes:

I was therefore a keen accomplice and student in my own mental colonization. At the same time of course there was the unease, the shock of being suddenly struck by stuttering, of being deserted by the very medium I was to use in all my art. This perhaps is in the undergrowth of my experimental use of English, standing it on its head, brutalizing it into a more malleable shape for my own purposes. For a black writer the language is very racist; you have to have harrowing fights and hair-raising panga duels with the language before you can make it do all that you want it to do. It is so for the feminists. English is very male. Hence feminist writers also adopt the same tactics. This may mean discarding grammar, throwing syntax out, subverting images from within, beating the drum and cymbals of rhythm, developing torture chambers of irony and sarcasm , gas ovens of limitless black resonance.” (p. 7)

This is an interesting paragraph, because it calls to mind an old debate over whether there can be – in the words of Colm Toibin – a “language that is free and untouched by occupation.” Toibin certainly believed so when, in Love in a Dark Time, he wrote of “independent writer[s] whose true home, as I have said, is the language.” Seamus Heaney believed so, when in The Redress of Poetry he wrote of “language pure as air or water, a language which carries the reader (as the truest poetry always does) into the sensation of walking on air or swimming free.” Marechera clearly doesn’t. And his indictment of English as both racist and misogynist recalls the feminist critic Marina Warner, who wrote that “the speaking woman, her tongue freed by the ability to write as well as read, found that the emblem books were still filled with the iconology of female wantonness and frailty and their contradictory companions, fatality and power… women often had to work with the grain of misogyny, and then found the timber broke their tools.” The tools of language – image, metaphor, even words – are deeply political; and therefore, for Marechera, the choice of using a language – and then, how you use it – are political choices.

In fact, the sentence “a keen accomplice and student in my own mental colonisation” brings to mind Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s memorable indictment of “European tongues”. In Secure the Base, wa Thiong’o wrote that “within the African nations, European tongues continue to be what they were during the colonial period: the languages of power, conception and articulation of the worlds of science, technology, politics, law, commerce, administration, and even culture… every educated African who remains doggedly locked within the linguistic walls of European languages, irrespective of his avowed social vision… is part of the problem and not the solution.” However, while Thiong’o’s response to this was to stop writing in English altogether, and write in his indigenous Gikuyu language (he would then translate it himself into English), Marechera, instead, sought to engage in “discarding grammar, throwing syntax out, subverting images from within, beating the drum and cymbals of rhythm, developing torture chambers of irony and sarcasm, gas ovens of limitless black resonance…”

This shows in The House of Hunger, Marechera’s haunting, broken, almost-surrealistic narrative about growing up in pre-Independence Zimbabwe, where English becomes an instrument of distilled violence. If Robert Bridges once wrote that English civilisation “is in great measure founded upon wreckingMarechera employs metaphor, image, and word to show how the English language might be founded upon violence. For instance, in simultaneously describing the death of the narrator’s father in a railway accident, and his mother’s verbal violence upon him, Marechera writes:

“Drinking always made her smash up her words at one particular rail-crossing which – as had really happened with the old man – effectively crunched all meaning or significance which might be lying in ambush… the expletives of her train of invective smashed my body in the same way as that twentieth-century train crunched the old man into a stain.” (p. 20)

Smashed-up words, where “meaning” and “significance” are crunched: this is The House of Hunger, where “the tinfoil of my soul crinkled” (p. 28), where “the pain was the sound of slivers of glass being methodically crushed in a steel vice by a fiend whose face was like that of my old carpentry master who is now in a madhouse” (p. 37), and where “the flood of political rhetoric escaped like a cloud of steam out of my crater of a mouth, leaving me dry and without words” (p. 38).

Marechera’s themes are themes of violence – the violence of a broken, colonial society in the process of violently struggling to free itself (“I found a seed, a little seed, the smallest in the world. And its name was Hate. I buried it in my mind and watered it with tears. No seed ever had a better gardener. As it swelled and cracked into green life I felt my nation tremble, tremble in the throes of birth – and burst out bloom and branch…” (p. 29)), violence both political and personal; this, in itself, is not unusual. Violence has been depicted to great effect in books as diverse as Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathiser. However, what is unusual about The House of Hunger is violence is not merely extra-linguistic, in the content of the description, but linguistic. Even the brief moments of joy are described in metaphors of violence: “And now here he was already gripping my arm with a tongue-scalding coffee joy…” (p. 21); “I smiled, crumpling up the tinfoil of my delight” (p. 40); “the rain came down in little liquid rocks which broke on their heads with a gentleness too rapid to be anything other than overpowering. She laughed a laugh that had little sharp teeth in it and it warmed them, this biting intimacy with the rain…” (p. 118); and: “My dreams still clung defiantly to the steel wire of old memories which I no longer had the power to arrange clearly in my mind.” (p. 124)

One should not think, however, that The House of Hunger is limited to stylistic virtuosity (although, as exhibited above, Marechera’s use of language is brilliant). The underlying theme – the critique of the broken colonial society, and the broken individuals it rears – risks being submerged by Marechera’s linguistic fireworks, but there are times when it emerges forcefully, reminding us that what is at stake, beyond violence, is an indictment of an entire political, economic, and social system of oppression. For instance, at the beginning of the novella, the narrator describes the process of growing up, which can be taken to be purely an instance of existentialist doubt, but in the broader context, is clearly a comment on the manner in which the colonial regime systematically denied fulfilment to its “children of a lesser God”:

“There was however an excitement of the spirit which made us all wander about in search of that unattainable elixir which our restlessness presaged. But the search was doomed from the start because the elixir seemed to be right under our noses and yet not really there. The freedom that we craved for – as one craves for dagga or beer or cigarettes or the after-life – this was so alive in our breath and in our fingers that one became intoxicated even before one had actually found it. It was like the way a man licks his lips in his dream of a feast; the way a woman dances in her dream of a carnival; the way the old man ran like a gazelle in his yearning for the funeral games of his youth. Yet the feast, the carnival and the games were not there at all. This was the paradox whose discovery left us uneasy, sly and at best with the ache of knowing that one would never feel that way again. There were no conscious farewells to adolescence for the emptiness was deep-seated in the gut. We knew that before us lay another vast emptiness whose appetite for things living was at best wolfish.” (p. 13)

The “House of Hunger“, therefore, refers not simply to the literal hunger that colonial poverty brought with it (the narrator mentions staying in the “house of hunger”a few times in the novella, making it clear that its use is both literal and metaphorical), but a different kind of hunger, and a different kind of thirst, that social structures were designed to leave un-sated:

“All the black youth was thirsty. There was not an oasis of thought which we did not lick dry; apart from those which had been banned, whose drinking led to arrests and suchlike flea-scratchings.” (p. 12)

The distilled intensity of The House of Hunger might speak for Marechera’s short life: an education at Oxford University was cut short when, on being offered a choice between a psychiatric examination and being sent down for trying to burn down the college, he chose the latter; The House of Hunger was composed while sleeping penniless, rough and rootless in different parts of England and Wales; when it won the Guardian First Book Award, Marechera celebrated by throwing plates at the chandeliers during the award ceremony; on his return to (independent) Zimbabwe, he lived homeless and died of AIDS-related complications at the age of 35. This life of restless – and often violence – discontent – is summed up by Marechera himself, in Thought Tracks in the Snow, one of the autobiographical essays that comes at the end of The House of Hunger:

“As the plane burred into the night, leaving the Angolan coast and heading out into the void above the Atlantic, I suddenly remembered that I had, in the rude hurry of it all, left my spectacles behind. I was coming to England literally blind. The blurred shape of the other passengers was grimly glued to the screen where Clint Eastwood was once again shooting the shit out of his troubles. I was on my own, sipping a whisky, and my head was roaring with a strange emptiness. What was it really that I had left behind me? My youth was a headache burring with the engines of a great hunger that was eating up the huge chunks of empty air. I think I knew then that before me were years of desperate loneliness, and the whisky would be followed by other whiskies, other self-destructive poisons; I had nothing but books inside my head, and they were burning me, burring with the engines of hope and illusion into the endless expanse of air. Who was I leaving behind? My own prematurely grey had still sat stubbornly upon my shoulders; my family did not know where I was or whether I was alive or dead. I do not think they would have cared one way or the other had they known at that moment I was thousands of feet above the earth, hanging as it were in the emptiness which my dabbling with politics had created for me. I felt sick with everything, sick with the self-pity, sick with the Rhodesian crisis, sick! – and the whisky was followed by other whiskies and my old young man’s face stared back at me from the little window. Would Oxford University be any different – was I so sure of myself then? Dawn broke as we flew over the Bay of Biscay; and the fresh white dove’s down of breast-clouds looked from above like another revelation that would turn out, when eaten, to be stone rather than bread.” (p. 140)

Even here, at the very end, in the throes of seriousness, Marechera cannot avoid just that little dose of linguistic pyrotechnics!

Other reviews of The House of HungerThe GuardianThe Rumpus.

On Marechera more generally: The Life and Times of an African Writer (VQR).

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Filed under African Writing, Dambudzo Marechera, Uncategorized, Zimbabwe

The Tempest and A Tempest

I’ve always been drawn to Caliban. From an early reading of The Tempest, I came away with the impression that he was wronged and misunderstood, more sinned against than singing. The impression was reinforced last year, when I watched a fabulous performance of the play at Shakespeare’s Globe. Caliban stole the show. “… that when I waked/ I cried to dream again…” was delivered with all the captive longing and pathos that I had always imagined. Caliban’s outrage at his treatment by Prospero seemed both genuine and justified, and his desire for revenge founded on good cause (if a trifle disproportionate). I began to wonder if it was possible to interpret the play (within the constraints of its text and structure) as an indictment of colonialism, even though Shakespeare himself might not have intended it to be so.

Recently, however, I read Aime Cesaire’s postcolonial retelling, titled A Tempest, before going back and re-reading the original. It is only when you read Cesaire’s version that the colonial tropes and prejudices in Shakespeare’s play actually begin to stand out. Cesaire takes almost every scene that is steeped in stereotypes about the colonial native, and then “writes back” to Shakespeare. The juxtaposition makes for some fascinating reading.

In The Tempest, Caliban features prominently in four scenes. He is first mentioned in the middle of Act I, Scene II, when Prospero refers to him (off-stage) to Ariel as “a freckled whelp hag-born–not honour’d with/ A human shape.” Prospero next speaks of him to Miranda, observing that  “we cannot miss him: he does make our fire,/ Fetch in our wood and serves in offices/ That profit us.” When Caliban does enter – unwillingly – and insults Prospero for calling him out, Prospero’s response is that of a petty and vindictive slave-master: For this, be sure, to-night thou shalt have cramps,/ Side-stitches that shall pen thy breath up; urchins/ Shall, for that vast of night that they may work,/ All exercise on thee; thou shalt be pinch’d/ As thick as honeycomb, each pinch more stinging/ Than bees that made ’em.” Caliban’s response is defiance. He insists that the island belonged to him, and that Prospero took it from him by deceit, before shutting him up in a rock, to be let out only to serve his masters.

At this point – in the mind of the reader – Prospero seems to be having the worse of the exchange, at least in moral terms. The prejudice seems to be in his mind, and he has more or less admitted to practicing extractive colonialism – exploiting the resources of the colonised land by making the native work it. Caliban himself has used the vocabulary of the coloniser to lay claim to the land by virtue of being its original inhabitant.

The moral tables are then turned very abruptly, through two exchanges. In response to Caliban, Prospero insists that he treated him well, until Caliban tried to rape Miranda. Caliban’s answer is a proud acknowledgment – “O ho, O ho! would’t had been done!/ Thou didst prevent me; I had peopled else/ This isle with Calibans.” A disgusted Prospero then points to his attempts to teach Caliban language, to which the latter replies: “You taught me language; and my profit on’t/ Is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you/ For learning me your language!

I am reminded here of Byron’s lines from The Isles of Greece: “You have the letters Cadmus gave/ Think you he meant them for a slave?” Language is ever the first marker of the transition from savagery to civilisation. Sex and language – the two most effective tools possible – have been used to dehumanise Caliban. He is the savage native who has no idea about sexual propriety – going so far as to attempt to rape the white man’s daughter – and nor can he be bothered to educate himself into civilisation, except under duress.

In A Tempest, Prospero makes precisely the same claims. That Caliban (who is a black slave) makes, however, a very different response: “In the first place, that”s not true. You didn’t teach me a thing! Except to jabber in your own language so that I could understand your orders: chop the wood, wash the dishes, fish for food, plant vegetables, all because you’re too lazy to do it yourself.” Here, language is no longer the universal market of civilisation, but an alien imposition upon a local inhabitants, who were fully able to communicate before the arrival of the coloniser – in their own language. The point is driven home by Caliban later in the scene, where he renounces his own name – “Caliban” – as a creation of Prospero’s.

“Call me X. That would be best. Like a man without a name. Or, to be more precise, a man whose name has been stolen. You talk about history… well that’s history, and everyone knows it! Everytime you summon me, it reminds me of a basic fact, the fact that you’ve stolen everything from me, even my identity! Uhuru!”

Only, of course, “everyone” doesn’t know it. The readers of Shakespeare’s The Tempest certainly don’t. Caliban’s lines go beyond simply rejecting Prospero’s claims to language, but are about reclamation: the reclamation of a history that the coloniser is determined to destroy in order to justify his rule, going so far as to assume the God-like prerogatives of (re-)naming his subjects – but which the colonised is equally determined to preserve.

The response to the rape claim is considerably more ambiguous. Caliban does not deny it explicitly. He says, instead:

 “Rape! Rape! Listen, you old goat, you’re the one that put those dirty thoughts in my head. Let me tell you something: I couldn’t care less about your daughter, or about your cave, for that matter. If I gripe, it’s on principle, because I didn’t like living with you at all, as a matter of fact. Your feet stink!”

So, did or did not the Caliban of A Tempest attempt to rape Miranda? I think Cesaire deliberately leaves the question hanging, because he is concerned to address another colonial trope: the European woman as an object of uncontrollable fascination for the native (which is what leads to the attempted rape). Here, Cesaire makes Caliban assert the contrary: “I couldn’t care less about your daughter.” Whether it is false or true is besides the point: the fact that Caliban is able to say it at all is what is significant.

Let us return to Shakespeare’s Caliban. We next meet him in Act II, Scene 2, where he comes upon the clowns Trinculo and Stepano, and persuades them to supplant Prospero by force. He does so by cozening up to Trinculo: “I’ll kiss thy foot; I’ll swear myself thy subject”, while presumable intoxicated. The image of the sly, ingratiating oriental, too weak to fight honourably from the front, is in full display here. When Caliban ends the scene with “‘Ban, ‘Ban, Cacaliban/ Has a new master: get a new man./ Freedom, hey-day! hey-day, freedom! freedom,/ hey-day, freedom!“, it is the pathetic cry of a drunkard, more to be pitied than anything else.

In the same scene in A Tempest, the nakedly colonial ambitions of Trinculo and Stepano are clear from the outset. On first discovering Caliban (asleep), Trinculo says: “Ah, an Indian! Dead or alive? Yóu never know with these tricky races. Yukkk! Anyhow, this will do me fine. If he’s dead, I can use his clothes for shelter, for a coat, a tent, a covering. If he’s alive I’ll make him my prisoner and take him back to Europe and then, by golly, my fortune will be made! I’ll sell him to a carnival.” When Caliban does wake, like his namesake, he recruits Trinculo and Stepano to his cause by promising them the rule of the island after they have dispatched Prospero. This, however, is not a drunk Caliban, but a very sober one, strategising how best to take back his lost land. The difference is illustrated starkly by the song Cesaire’s Caliban sings: it is a song about the beauty of the island – about the quetzal, the hummingbird, the ringdove, and the white blossoms; so when he ends – like his Shakespearean namesake – with “Freedom hi-day! Freedom hi-day!”, it is not the meaningless gibberish of a drunk, but an actual call for reclaiming all the freedom that was sung of and lost.

 In Act III, Scene 2, we meet Caliban again, leading on Stepano and Trinculo, playing one against the other in his sly way. This scene, though, shows Caliban at his most human: his discomfiture when Ariel arrives to play tricks upon the party cannot but evoke sympathy; here too, are his most memorable lines of the play:
“Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again…”
In a way, this reminded me of “Hath not a Jew eyes…?“, from The Merchant of Venice. Shakespeare is never willing to dehumanise his characters entirely. Just like he allows Shylock a sliver of humanity by giving him that memorable speech, forged in white-hot anger, here he makes Caliban a poet. But ultimately, much like Shylock’s speech, this plays a scant role in the overall scheme of things. In Act IV, Caliban’s murderous plan is foiled by Ariel, and he, Trinculo and Stepano are discomfited. We see him for the last time in the final Act, in a position of abject surrender (another trope: the native, dangerous until defeated, and then begging for mercy). Prospero has a last crack at him, saying: “He is as disproportion’d in his manners/ As in his shape. Go, sirrah, to my cell;/ Take with you your companions; as you look/ To have my pardon, trim it handsomely.” Caliban’s response reflects his defeat, but goes beyond that: also an understanding that Prospero is his superior in every respect, and his resistance was futile to start with: “Ay, that I will; and I’ll be wise hereafter/ And seek for grace.”

In A Tempest, the confrontation takes an entirely different form. When Caliban comes to attack Prospero, the latter walks out unarmed, and dares him to strike. “Go on! You don’t dare! See, you’re nothing but an animal…you don’t know how to kill.” When Caliban refuses to do so, Prospero has him taken prisoner. Here, we have a fascinating reversal: it is precisely because Caliban is not “civilised” in the sense Prospero is (and there are references throughout the play to Caliban’s closeness with nature), he is unable to act like a “man” would, and kill an unarmed person – even if it means losing his one chance at freedom. There is almost a whiff of the “noble savage” here, and it’s something I’m not quite sure how to interpret. Is it an actual portrayal of the colonised as incapable of dissimulation? But surely, Cesaire is too sophisticated a writer to fall into that trap! Or is it a wry, ironical take on the concept of the noble savage itself – in tune with himself and with nature, and too gullible to resort to deceit or trickery? I think so.

The play ends with a dialectical exchange between Prospero and Caliban, Prospero insisting that he has civilised the island, while Caliban responds with the words of the dispossessed: “you ended up by imposing on me/ an image of myself:/ underdeveloped, in your words, undercompetent/ that’s how You made me see myself!/ And I hate that image…and it’s false! But now I know you, you old cancer/ And I also know myself!” What happens between them at the end is left unsaid.

There are many other scenes and references in Cesaire’s play (including a fascinating discussion between Caliban and Ariel – who appears as a mulatto slave – on the uses of violence), but in sum: the Caliban of The Tempest can at best be an object of sympathy and pity, mingled with shock and disgust at his fallen state. The Caliban of A Tempest commands our respect, and makes a claim upon our conscience as an equal human being. That is Cesaire’s enduring contribution in this retelling.



Filed under Aime Cesaire, Postcolonial Writing

“The mirage shimmered before me in the wilderness of longing”: Tayeb Salih, Season of Migration to the North

“Are these the people who are called peasants in books? Had I told my grandfather that revolutions are made in his name, that governments are set up and brought down for his sake, he would have laughed.”

As a classic of postcolonial literature, Tayib Salih’s Season of Migration to the North has been extensively critiqued and reviewed (see here, here and here for samples). What I found particularly compelling – and unsettling – about this book was the shifting, ambiguous place that it occupies somewhere between realism and allegory (taking, for a moment, these categories as given). If Chinua Achebe is an exemplar of the first, and Emile Habibi of the second, then Season… is both, and yet neither. Written in the immediate aftermath of Sudan’s independence (1966), the narrative itself spans the last years of colonial rule, and then the beginnings of self-government. The political is never far away (as the excerpted paragraph above demonstrates), but it is also never in the foreground. Through the lives of the two protagonists, we are shown glimpses of the destruction that colonialism has wrought – both on the individual, and on society – but always in a subtle, indirect – almost, questioning way.

The story’s narrator returns to his Sudanese village after three years in England, writing his doctorate on an “obscure English poet” (we are never told which poet). The book begins with an atmosphere of utter tranquility, the narrator imagining that he has finally come back “home”, where everything is as it should be. This tranquility is disturbed when he meets the enigmatic Mustafa. One night, seemingly in a drunken stupor, Mustafa breaks into perfectly-accented English poetry, revealing – to the narrator’s astonishment – that he too spent years in England. On being pressed, Mustafa recounts a harrowing – and tantalisingly incomplete tale of his time in the metropolis, his destructive liaisons with European women – ending with his killing his wife – and his eventual return to his country via stops in half the capitals of the world, to lose himself in an unknown village. The next day, Mustafa disappears – presumably drowned – and the narrator is left to pick through the aftermath, and try to stave off another – inevitable – tragedy.

The life of Mustafa in England – in particular, his use of all the classic Oriental tropes as tools of seduction (he repeats “my hackneyed phrases” many times in his story), and the life of the narrator in Sudan – in particular, the dissonance between himself and his fellow-villagers, that only comes to the fore as the novel progresses – can be understood as a synecdoche for the mutual – yet always unequal – interrogation between the metropolis and the colony. When Mustafa says, for instance, about one of the women he seduced, that “I was the symbol of all her hankerings”, and then proceeds to describe his bedroom straight out of a Francis Burton work – we think immediately of Aida, of Burton himself, of Disraeli, and of the multitude of examples that we find in Said’s Culture and Imperialism.

It is not surprising, then, that Salih often resorts to the language of illusion. “One mirage kept raising us up, another casting us down, and from deserts we were spewed into yet more deserts.”  Ultimately, the book is about mirages – England, as imagined and experienced by the colonial immigrants, and the immigrants themselves, who come to occupy some nameless, shadowy, liminal space between cultures, belonging to both and to none. Perhaps nowhere is this expressed more vividly, more forcefully and more evocatively, than here:

“It was as though I were a slave Shahrayar you buy in the market for a dinar encountering a Scheherazade begging amidst the rubble of a city destroyed by plague.”

This moment of self-realisation comes in the middle of yet another series of Orientalist tropes, and with the clarity and precision of a knife, lays bare – literally – the poverty of that discourse. There are many things that the “city” could stand for here: the crumbling of the edifice of Orientalism itself, built as it is around structures such as The Arabian Nights – or the cities of the metropolis and colony, intellectually and morally crumbling from the result of their destructive interaction. Perhaps it stands for both, or neither, or many more things – but if there is one line in all of literature that, for me, simply sums up colonialism, this is it.

A central theme of the book is interrogating questions of choice and agency, individual against structure. Mustafa’s trial becomes, in the end, not about his action, but his inability to act otherwise, caught in the space between two cultures, one alien and incomprehensible, the other distant and abandoned. And similarly, the narrator’s own life back home is marked not so much by his irrelevance, but by the paralysis of thought and action that follows upon it. It is this Hamlet-like attitude of delay and deferral that ultimately leads to the second tragedy that marks the book; and leads him to cry out, in the end:

“I had lost the war because I did not know and did not choose. Outside, my world was a wide one; now it had contracted, had withdrawn upon itself, until I myself had become the world, no world existing outside of me…”

And again, although colonialism is vaguely implicated in all this, there is no crude determinism at work here, but something much more subtle, complex and ambiguous. Marx once famously said:

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”

Season of Migration to the North, then, is a beautiful story about men and women, history and circumstances.


Filed under African Writing, Sudan, Tayeb Salih