Power and Resistance in Conflict and Self-Reflection

The ideal female is meant to be quiet, unassuming, but pretty to look at. The ideal female does not ask questions, will not demand attention, and most importantly succumbs to the will of men. In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half a Yellow Sun, the idea of the content, unquestioning female is demonstrated to be a completely unreal concept through the character of Olanna who initially embodies the entire notion of the 1960’s ideal female. Indeed, to characters of a lesser social status like Ugwu, Olanna is powerful through status, beauty, and articulate eloquence. However, to characters of equal or higher status, even despite her extensive education, Olanna is simply just “illogically pretty” (Adichie 65). This is particularly evident in her relationship with Odenigbo—an outspoken professor who often talks of the necessity for revolution and change in Nigeria. Their relationship appears to be one of the stereotypical dominant male and complacently dependent female, but this dynamic changes in circumstances of conflict, which allow Olanna to find her voice and question power dynamics within their relationship.

Whereas we never really get Odenigbo’s perspective, the dependence Olanna has on Odenigbo and the control he has over her is plain. It is not until another woman, however, enters into their ‘bliss’ that Olanna gains a little independence and sees the reality of her situation. When Odenigbo’s mother enters the couple’s home and proceeds to taunt Olanna by calling her a ‘witch’, this prompts Olanna to take action and leave. Yet, it is the betrayal caused by Odenigbo because he chooses to go home instead of searching for Olanna, that ignites Olanna’s self-assertion that was otherwise lacking. In this conflict, Olanna admits to her inferiority by thinking to herself that Odenigbo made her “feel small and absurdly petulant … She wished … she could love him without needing him. Need gave him power without his trying; need was the choicelessness she often felt around him” (Adichie 128). Thus, it is only through conflict that Olanna is able to admit that despite Odenigbo’s unquestioningly formidable character, she gives him more power by succumbing to him and his every wish.

Her interior voice grows stronger and more demanding, however, as the conflict between the couple continues. She gains confidence through her anger in the betrayal until she is finally able to exert power both over herself, and over Odenigbo. For when she very flatly rejects Odenigbo’s attempts to gloss over their problems, Odenigbo is shocked. Olanna continues though, and thinks to herself that

“she would not let him make her feel that something was wrong with her. It was her right to be upset, her right to choose not to brush her humiliation aside in the name of an overexulted intellectualism, and she would claim that right. ‘Go.’ She gestured toward the door. ‘Go and play your tennis and don’t come back here’” (Adichie 129).

In this moment, Olanna is suddenly no longer just “illogically pretty” but has evolved into a self-assertive, and demanding character—she is no longer the ideal female. The very end—her demand “go”—which comes from her intense, interior thought—destroys Odenigbo’s authority over her, while simultaneously giving power to Olanna.

Through intense self-reflection that come about from conflict, Adichie destroys notions of gender and power dynamics. Through the conflict between Odenigbo and Olanna, the inferior—Olanna—becomes the superior as she reflects on the relationship. This is reiterated in the way we do not see the perspective of Odenigbo, for it gives the entirety of the authority of the conflict to Olanna. The focus on Olanna allows for Adiche to demonstrate how the complacent female is not and cannot be complacent for very long—that complacency is not realistic. This theme of questioning and ultimately resisting power dynamics is thus relatable to the undercurrent of political and social unrest in Nigeria being discussed throughout the novel. Ultimately in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half a Yellow Sun, conflict amongst seemingly inferior and superior characters allows for social constructions to be both revealed and questioned, and for power amongst character to change and balance.

 

Blog Post #4

Works Cited

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. Half a Yellow Sun. New York: Anchor Books, 2006.

Olanna, Miss Adeyebo, and Projected Insecurities

The relationship between Olanna and Miss Adeyebo illuminates Olanna’s trouble balancing different aspects of her own identity. Throughout the novel, descriptions of Olanna indicate her concerns about fitting into Igbo society; she fears seeming uncomfortable, or unnatural around her family in Nigeria. At the same time, she does not feel natural in the University environment among Odenigbo’s friends either. Her insecurities are highlighted specifically in her descriptions of Miss Adebayo, and therefore their relationship is stunted, at least in part by Olanna’s private issues.

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One section of the novel begins with a description of Olanna’s first evening drinking wine and discussing politics with Odenigbo’s friends. Miss Adebayo greets Olanna with the exclamation, “He did not tell us that you were illogically pretty,” then adds “and what a proper English accent” (61). The narrator then explains that (according to Olanna) Miss Adebayo made these statements “with a pitying smile, before turning back to the radiogram” (61). After this specific scene, in which the characters debate philosophy and WWII and the Eichmann trial, Olanna’s narrative shifts into an overview of her developing relationships with Odenigbo’s friends. While she has short comments to make about Dr. Patel and Okeoma, a majority of her thoughts have turned to Miss Adebayo. Olanna explains, “It would have been easier if Miss Adebayo showed jealousy, but it was as if Miss Adebayo thought her to be unworthy of competition, with her unintellectual ways and her too-pretty face and her mimicking-the-oppressor English accent” (64). Olanna believes that Miss Adebayo does not respect her opinions, which makes her doubt the validity of her own opinions: “[Olanna] suspected that there was a glaze of unoriginality to all her ideas” (64). Near the end of the scene, Olanna’s mind races with assumptions: “Perhaps Miss Adebayo could tell, from her face, that she was afraid of things, that she was unsure, that she was not one of those people with no patience for self-doubt” (65). A passage that begins as an explanation of Olanna’s specific relationships with others delves into her own insecurities about herself.

This scene uses an omniscient third-person narrator which gives the readers access solely to Olanna’s thoughts. Olanna’s relationship to Miss Adebayo is defined solely through Olanna’s own perceptions, which hints that their relationship will be strained by Olanna’s insecurities. This illuminates Olanna’s insecurities both through her own direct descriptions of them, and through subtleties in her opinions about Miss Adebayo. For example, the sentence that starts with “It would have been easier if Miss Adebayo showed jealousy” does not explain what exactly would have been easier, but reveals that Olanna does not perceive Miss Adebayo to be jealous. The passage then reveals that “it was as if Miss Adebayo thought her to be unworthy of competition,” then lists three of Olanna’s own insecurities. The “as if” shows that this is Olanna’s assumption about Miss Adebayo, not an actual confirmed opinion.

This section also contains a lot of repetition, which gives a better idea of Olanna’s strained emotional state. For example, the line “her unintellectual ways and her too-pretty face and her mimicking-the-oppressor English accent” is written in a list form, beginning with “her” each time (64). She then repeats “she” when listing “she was afraid of things,” “she was unsure,” and “she was not one of those people” (65). The repetition of “she” and “her” gives a feeling that Olanna’s mind is wandering. She’s flipping through Miss Adebayo’s possible assumptions. This feature works closely with the narrator’s access to Olanna’s mind. The end effect is that Olanna projects her own insecurities onto other people. Although she is speaking about others, the repetition and the third person omniscient narrator (which focuses on Olanna) does not

These characters can therefore not have a real relationship, because Olanna’s opinion of Miss Adebayo is hindered by her own insecurities. Although it could very well be possible that Olanna’s views are correct (Miss Adebayo in all likelihood does leave the room or ignore Olanna’s comments), Olanna’s mind (as revealed through the repetition and the narrator) is concentrated mostly on her own issues, and not on the actual actions of Miss Adebayo. By solely using Olanna’s mindset to illustrate a strained relationship between Miss Adebayo and Olanna, the passage shows how difficult it is to separate another person’s actions from one’s own insecurities.

Works Cited:

Adichie, Chimamanda. Half of a Yellow Sun. Anchor Books, 2006.

Sexual Displeasure and the Strength of the Female

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, published in 2006, is a story that emulates a historic African moment. Adichie creates five characters to demonstrate the intensity of independence and allow the reader to connect with the text. Each character contributes to the many conflicts and tensions within the novel thus far. An overarching tension that Adichie continuously references is the sexual dynamic between man and woman. The relationship between Richard and Kainene specifically illustrates a sexual tension that ultimately challenges traditional definitions of femininity and masculinity.

After meeting at a party, Richard is immediately intrigued by Kainene’s “androgynous” body (Adichie 75). The two characters quickly form a relationship and, subsequently, a sexual one. However, sex does not go so smoothly for Richard and Kainene. Through several reoccurring sexual images, the reader can define the sexual displeasure that causes tension between the characters. Richard is unable to perform properly in bed and becomes ashamed of his body. This embarrassment holds strength over Richard and ultimately gives power to Kainene in the relationship.

It is unclear if Kainene realizes the power she has over Richard, yet the reader can analyze this power through different point of views including Richard’s. The couple’s first sexual encounter caught Richard off guard leaving him with anxiety and an inability to perform. This anxiety follows Richard in his next interaction as he becomes “so terrified of failing her again that seeing himself erect made him deliriously grateful, so grateful that he was only just inside her before he felt that involuntary tremble that he could not stop (Adichie 80). The “involuntary tremble” illustrates the lack of control Richard has when he connects with Kainene. His fear of “failing her” limits his ability to perform and demonstrates the constant anxiety Richard has to please Kainene. Richard’s perspective allows the reader to understand the pressure he experiences to pleasure Kainene as though it is more important than pleasing himself.

Adichie also uses tone to display the consequences of the sexual tension between Richard and Kainene. After Richard fails Kainene again, she suggests there are other ways to make their sexual relationship work. Kainene is unable to look Richard in the eyes as she looks “away as she exhale[s]” (Adichie 85). Her body language becomes distant by looking away as she is unable to connect with Richard in this moment. This angers Richard and causes a “swift surge of irritation, toward himself for being uselessly limp, toward her for that half-mocking smile and for saying there were other ways, as if he was permanently incapable of doing things the traditional way” (Adichie 85). Richard expresses a tone of frustration for both his actions and acknowledging the building tension it is causing between him and Kainene. His frustration stems from his idea of “traditional”. This relationship challenges tradition and redefines the roles of men and women. The tone in which Richard addresses his failure is both anger and confusion about “other ways”.

Together Richard’s point of view and tone work to illustrate the tension between the two characters. The sexual conflict shows Richard’s desire for tradition and Kainene’s acceptance of alternatives. This expands to show Richard’s place in the text as he examines the “traditional” lives of Nigerian people and hopes Africa will inspire his writing. Kainene, on the other hand, accepts the post-colonial Africa as her mother and father raise her in “other ways” outside of the “traditional” culture. This culture holds a high value on the “traditional” roles of women and Kainene’s sexual interaction is just one way in which she defies the norm. Kainene is raised in “other ways” by also is having an education which is a threat the “traditional” patriarchal society. Richard and Kainene’s relationship blurs the line of traditional definitions of femininity and masculinity within African tribes.

BP #4

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. Half of a Yellow Sun. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.

What’s So Scary About a Female Academic?

Intellectual and empowered women have always been threatening. Or at least threatening to the structures of power that work to keep women in subservient positions and strictly domestic locations. There is no exception to this age old rule in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2006 novel Half of A Yellow Sun. The novel is set during the Biafran War in Nigeria and utilizes an intrusive narrator who provides three distinct perspectives on the unfolding historical event. The first narrative perspective is the young houseboy, Ugwu, then the high society beauty, Olanna, and finally the British expatriate, Richard. The novel opens by focusing on Ugwu’s characters as he makes the transition from village life into the home of a revolutionary college professor, Odenigbo. Odenigbo encourages his new houseboy to strive towards education and fosters a home environment in which intellectualism is central. In the opening chapter, Ugwu evaluates the many guests that Odenigbo invites to his home for intellectual debates. Interestingly, Ugwu’s character admires the male professors and writers but holds particular disdain for the reoccurring female guest, Miss Adebayo.

            Though little attention is paid to the male guests of Odenigbo, Ugwu provides almost two pages of details about Miss Adebayo, focusing particularly on her intellectualism and agency in male dominated spaces. For example, in his lengthy description Ugwu notes:

“She had asked him to wait so that she could give him a ride back to the campus, but he thanked her and said he still had many things left to buy and would take a taxi, although            he had finished shopping. He did not want to ride in her car, did not like how her voice rose above Master’s in the living room, challenging and arguing. He often fought the urge to…tell her to shut up, especially when she called Master a sophist. He did not know what sophist meant…” (24).

The first sentence of this paragraph introduces the idea that the dislike Ugwu feels for Miss Adebayo is deeply spurred by the authority she asserts despite her gender. The first clause in the first sentence gives power and the subjective position to the female pronoun “She” whereas “him” is used passively, as a direct object. However, Ugwu shifts this assertive feminine dynamic in the second clause where “he” becomes the subject and “her” becomes the direct object of the clause. Finally, by the end of the sentence Ugwu has erased the feminine pronoun completely. This technical structure mirrors the actual content of the sentence, wherein Miss Adebayo first attempts to help him, or assert agency, but is then rebuffed as Ugwu does not want to submit to what she “asked” of him.

Next, Ugwu shifts between talking about a personal experience to talking about Miss Adebayo’s relationship with his master with the words, “He did not want to ride in her car, did not like how her voice rose above Master’s”. Here, the only thing separating Ugwu from Odenigbo is a comma, showing the way in which Ugwu deeply associates his own identity with his master’s. Further, the way in which Ugwu desires to privilege Odenigbo’s “voice” over Miss Adebayo demonstrates the way in which Ugwu ascribes more value to male thought and intellectualism. Finally, Ugwu ends with the assertion that what he hates most is when Miss Adebayo calls Odenigbo a “sophist”, though “he does not know what a sophist meant”. Later on Ugwu is not bothered by other words he does not understand, such as “decolonize” and “pan-African”. However, he is bothered when Miss Adebayo uses a word he doesn’t understand and ascribes it to his master. Ugwu does not accept her use of academic words because of his privileging of masculine intellectualism. Further, he finds discomfort in the assertive way in which Miss Adebayo applies her intellectualism as an insult to Odenigbo, or Ugwu’s idealized picture of masculinity.

Though this may seem to be a minor detail in the text, Ugwu’s reaction to Miss Adebayo’s character highlights a current and persistent issue for women in Academia.  Where a feminist reading may assert western cultural values into this non-western setting, the specificity of this moment’s academic landscape lends itself more easily to a feminist lens. Ugwu’s fear of Miss Adebayo affirms his position in a patriarchal bounds of academia, wherein women are not meant to over power male thinkers.

BP 4

Works Cited

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. Half of a Yellow Sun. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.

 

Blog Prompt #4: Half of a Yellow Sun (pp. 1-183)

Blog Post #4 Due: Tues 10/30, 12noon // Comments #7-8 Due: Tues 10/30, 11:59pm

Cover of Half of a Yellow SunAfter reading the first 183 pages of Half of a Yellow Sun, describe a specific tension, conflict, resonance, or affinity between any two characters in the novel.

Then, provide a summary of a specific scene, with relevant quotes, to illuminate the dynamics between these characters.

Follow this summary with a detailed close reading of 2 literary devices from the quotes you’ve cited to showcase the dynamics between these characters. In your close reading, you need to illustrate how these literary devices work in conjunction with one another:

  • Explicitly name / identify the literary devices you analyze
  • Describe what effects they produce
  • Explain how these effects are produced
  • Detail how these effects build on / interact with one another
  • Showcase why these effects are significant to understanding these characters’ relationship.

Reminder: Please carefully re-read the assignment sheet & rubric for both blog posts & comments. Make sure that each section of your post & each of your comments are meeting the specific requirements of these assignments.

Reading List: Abbie

Key Words

  1. Gender Representation and Disfigured Bodies
  2. Psychoanalytic Film Theory
  3. Horror Film Studies

Clover, Carol. Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Princeton University Press, 1993.

Clover, Carol. “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film.” Representations, no. 20, 1987, pp. 187-228.

Hutchings, Peter. The Horror Film. Pearson Longman, 2004.

Jones, Steve. “The Pure Moment of Murder: The Symbolic Function of Bodily Interactions in Horror Films.” Projections: The Journal for Movies and Mind, vol. 5, no. 2, 2011, pp. 96–114.

Rodowick, D.N. The Difficulty of Difference: Psychoanalysis, Sexual Difference and Film Theory. Routledge, 1991.

Welsh, Andrew. “On the Perils of Living Dangerously in the Slasher Horror Film: Gender Differences in the Association Between Sexual Activity and Survival.” Springer/Plenum, vol. 62, no. 11–12, pp. 762–773.

I put this list together based off a class I took a few semesters ago. The course was titled The Horror Film and focused on analyzing movies including, but not limited to, slasher films. I was inspired by this course so I framed my thesis around my passion for horror films and included some themes from the course including gender. I want to open up my topic and use this inspiration to further analyze horror films. I also researched some more articles surrounding my topic and added them as well. I had some difficulty finding a journal right away, however with more detailed searches regarding the film I came across a few that will enhance my understanding of horror film including the “Horror Studies Journal” and “Journal of Popular Film & Television”.

I have compiled a longer list of primary sources including Halloween, Psycho, The Shining, The Orphan, Saw, The Silence of the Lambs, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Friday the 13th. As I continue to read and narrow my interest and topic I will have a better idea which films I want to use in my thesis. These are all films I have watched several times and I believe have a great influence on horror film studies and would be useful in my analysis. I am very passionate about determining the significance of the ways in which gender and bodies are displayed in horror films. I want to also incorporate the mind and the ways in which they are disfigured in horror films. I am specifically interested in the slasher film and psychological horror.

For my research, I will begin by defining the different theories useful to my topic including psychoanalytical theory and feminist film theory, specifically the idea of the Final. An author that I am specifically interested in is Carol Clover. Her renowned work, Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, highlights many important aspects of the Final Girl and the important role women play in horror films. She also uses concepts of the Final Girl to determine roles of masculinity throughout movies. Clover analyzes a few films in particular and I am curious if her points uphold throughout other major horror films. Peter Hutchings is another author I am interested in studying. His work, The Horror Film, addresses the danger of Clover’s approach to defining the Final Girl in such a feminine and fragile manner. I want to read more in order to dictate the overlap and examine the critic between Clover and Hutchings.

Rejection of Change: Okonkwo’s Tragedy

Each time after reading Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart the complexities and depths within the novel become more apparent. This is a text that uses storytelling to educate readers about the Umuofia tribe of the Ibo village found in Nigeria. Achebe creates a story that ignites a conversation about his characters, and more largely, the results of western influence on African societies. The first part of the novel primarily focuses on developing Okonkwo as a character and establishing his space within Umuofia. Okonkwo is a character who initially appears to be a man of success, yet throughout the novel, Achebe continuously undresses Okonkwo in order to reveal his core. It is Okonkwo’s layers that give the text its depth and spark discussions of societal expectations found within the Ibo village. Achebe uses Okonkwo’s character to raise awareness of stress inflicted on men to uphold a manly status. Specifically, Okonkwo is depicted as a tragic hero in order to create a character the reader can have compassion for while simultaneously drawing on flaws of societal expectations.

To Okonkwo, being a man means being everything opposite of his father. The father/son relationship within Things Fall Apart builds Okonkwo’s tragedy and highlights his inability to change. The reader can immediately find compassion for Okonkwo within the first few chapters of the book by the way Achebe describes Okonkwo’s relationship with his father, Unoka. The reader knows Okonkwo is embarrassed by his deceased father, but he will do anything in his power to continue to remind his tribe that he is nothing like Unoka. Specifically, the relationship between Okonkwo and his son, Nwoye, illustrates Okonkwo’s desire to overcome his father’s past and prove his manliness. Nwoye is much quieter and does not satisfy his father with his work. It is not until Ikemefuna comes into the story that Nwoye and Okonkwo are able to mend their relationship.

Ikemefuna is another character that uses father/son relationship to emphasize Okonkwo’s overwhelming desire to prove he is a man and thus contributes to the tragic hero he becomes. Ikemefuna was sent to live with Okonkwo and he soon becomes one of family. He acts as an older brother to Nwoye and together they work to please Okonkwo. A new fire has been placed in Nwoye and Okonkwo is pleased, so pleased he invites the young boys to listen to “stories of violence and bloodshed” (Achebe 33). At this point in the text, it is clear that Okonkwo places a strong value on being a man and the reader can now see these values being passed on to Nwoye and Ikemefuna. Nwoye quickly learned that “it was right to be masculine and to be violent” (Achebe 33). So when his father is asked to kill Ikemefuna, Nwoye can only imagine his father’s role in the execution.

Okonkwo was given advice regarding the tragedy of Ikemefuna, yet he neglects it. Okonkwo is unable to change his loyalty to being a man and refuses to show any emotional attachment to Ikemefuna. That is the true tragedy. Okonkwo is so stubborn he walks his new son his deathbed. His inability to change causes further stress on Okonkwo’s relationship with Nwoye who now feels betrayed and hurt. When Okonkwo chooses to disregard the advice he receives of Ikemefuna’s death he not only loses one son but two. The divide between Okonkwo and Nwoye becomes larger as his son is able to adapt and challenge societal values of “violence” (Achebe 33). Okonkwo remains the same and finds himself exiled due to a violent act. A tragedy of a father losing his son is one that draws on the flaws of Okonkwo’s manliness and his powerlessness to change.

Achebe, Chinua. “The Text of Things Fall Apart.” Things Fall Apart: Authoritative Text, Contexts and Criticism, edited by Francis Abiola Irele, W.W. Norton & Company Inc, 2009, pp. 3-117.

Combining the Private and Public Self

In Solomon Iyasere’s piece, “Narrative Techniques in Things Fall Apart”, femininity plays a key role in identifying Okonkwo’s character. Okonkwo is a complex character that involves a lot of detailed attention when establishing his role in the novel. Early on in the text, it becomes obvious Okonkwo is concerned with upholding a masculine title, yet Iyasere suggests “many of the qualities which to Okonkwo were marks of femininity and weakness are the same qualities in which were respected by the society Okonkwo wished to champion” (377). Therefore, Iyasere is suggesting rather than accepting Okonkwo’s personal war to maintain maleness, the reader should analyze the importance of femininity and its effect on Okonkwo. Further, Iyasere states, “for Okonkwo, the conflict between private self and public man is the conflict between the feminine and masculine principle” (380). Throughout the novel, Okonkwo continues to struggle with upholding his title.

While masculinity is respected by Okonkwo’s society, it is important to consider all aspects of that make someone a man. In this case, Iyasere is suggesting Okonkwo needed to allow femininity into his life in order to succeed in his society. Specifically, looking at how motherly figures play a key role in the society and how their participation is one that Okonkwo should respect and strive towards. Okonkwo faces so much discomfort from the inability to connect his “private self” with the “public man”. His inability to accept change forces a barrier between his own personal desire for masculinity and the actual societal desire. It creates a character that is incomplete and confused.

The idea of the Mother Supreme in this novel illustrates this separation and highlights the significance of Iyasere’s argument. When Okonkwo is exiled he must learn the importance of the feminine role and is told “when a father beats his child, it seeks sympathy in its mother’s hut. A man belongs to his fatherland when things are good and life is sweet. But when there is sorrow and bitterness he finds refuge in his motherland. Your mother is there to protect you. (Achebe 78). This scene shows the important role femininity has on its society. Masculinity is still valued in the sense that when things are succeeding, it is associated with the fatherland. Yet, more importantly, when things are not going well comfort and support can be found from the mothering figures.

Okonkwo is at a point in his life where he is no longer succeeding, he is not the man he once was. When he returns to his clan they do not give him the arrival party he is expecting (Achebe 97). Yet, Okonkwo still will not accept the power of the motherland and what it can offer for him. In a time of need, Okonkwo rather continues to focus his energy on proving manliness through violence. Okonkwo does not allow protection as he believes he is the one doing the protecting. However, in the time that he has gone the society has changed and Okonkwo’s inability to accept the feminine role within his culture hinders his ability to be fully masculine. Okonkwo needs to connect his “private self” and the “public man” by accepting the power of femininity. By continuing to deny protection the reader finds Okonkwo dead at the end of the novel. Iyasere’s argument could change the outcome of Okonkwo’s story from a tragic hero to simply a hero. 

B2

Achebe,Chinua. “Things Fall Apart.” Things Fall Apart: A Norton Critical Edition, edited by Francis Abiole Irele, W.W. Norton & Co., 2009. pg 3-117.

Iyasere, Soloman O. “Narrative Techniques in Things Fall Apart.” Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. Ed. Francis Abiola Irele. New York City: W. W. Norton & Company Inc, 2009. 370-385.

Being a Butterfly

Selasi’s Ghana Must Go is a brilliant and heartbreaking novel that follows the lives of an immigrant family. The death of Kweku Sai sparks a family reunion that brings the Sais together and unfolds the truths, transformations, and heartbreak. Selasi’s poetic style enhances the emotions the reader experiences throughout the text. Her use of repetition causes the story to slow down and allows the reader to connect with each character and story in this journey. Specifically, the visual repetition of a buttery fly becomes seemingly significant in the first part of the novel. The symbolic butterfly draws attention to important scenes in the story and provides significance to other aspects of Ghana Must Go. I am intrigued by this literary device Selasi uses in order to draw on the importance of death.

A butterfly in many contexts represents the power of transformation and life. In my personal understanding, a butterfly is associated with the soul, life, and transformation. The cycle a butterfly goes through demonstrates different stages of life that may not always be beautiful. This theme is illustrated throughout Ghana Must Go in several forms. One could argue the butterfly primarily represents transformation and change, however, I want to focus on this idea that the butterfly is a visual image Selasi uses to signify death.

The reoccurring image of the butterfly adds depth to the meaning of death in Ghana Must Go. Specifically, the scene in which Kweku sits by his mother in chapter ten displays the visual image and its significance. As Kweku grasps the idea that his mother has passed a butterfly, “black and blue (swordtail), just coming to rest, an almost neon shade of turquoise, black markings, white dots”, appears on her toe (Selasi 59). This scene acknowledges the relationship between the butterfly and death. It is an image that indicates the departure of the soul. The butterfly appears when his mother is gone. The butterfly is a symbol of a life taken. Again in chapter eleven, the image of the butterfly reappears. The beauty of the butterfly distracts Kweku from acknowledging his pain. The image of the butterfly here resembles the escaping of the soul. Kweku is physically feeling shortness of breath and pain in his chest and the butterfly is the image that reminds the reader of death.

In this scene, the butterfly works to also illustrate the difficulty Kweku faces with himself. Kweku desires to be a successful man who is able to provide for his family, however, he feels he cannot always do so. The butterfly thus can represent Kweku and his journey. Kweku is struggling, feeling trapped as to say he is in a cocoon. However, Kweku’s body does not have the strength to spread his metaphorical wings. It is said that a butterfly cannot appreciate its own beauty but brings beauty to those around it and Kweku’s death does that. The beauty of bringing together family and telling stories of migration and transformation through the death of a loved one creates a strong bond.

The butterfly illustrates death and Kweku’s death specifically gives further significance to the repeating image Selasi uses. The butterfly can resemble many underlying ideas within Ghana Must Go including hope, life, change, transformation. I am curious to see the ways in which other readers interpret the butterfly throughout the reading.

The Youngest Child on the Derailed Train

A family that is just as fractured as the narrative written about them, the Sai’s in Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go are each learning how to rebuild the bridges between them following the death of their father, Kweku. In the opening section, flashbacks triggered by sensations during Kweku’s death (sight of his first wife’s statue, the feeling of grass on his feet, etc.) create the portrait of a family striving for success, and the pressures that such a pursuit puts on their relationships.

During the birth of their fourth child, later to be named Folasade, after her mother on accident, Kweku experiences a protectiveness and recognition of beauty that he had not at the birth of his other children (Selasi 17). Folasade (Sadie), was born ten weeks too early, and had been taken to the NICU, where her nurses believed she would not survive (Selasi 12). Born nine years after the twins, Taiwo and Kehinde, Sadie was unplanned and “impatient” to enter the world (Selasi 15). Kweku’s oldest son, Olu, believes that he will be able to save Sadie, because of the  childhood belief in one’s parents and Kweku’s reputation as a genius surgeon (Selasi 15).

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:A_Local_Train_Leaving_Wressle_Station_-_geograph.org.uk_-_201366.jpg

Years later, Immediately following his wrongful termination from Brigham hospital in Boston, Kweku continues to perform the role of Surgeon and Bread-winner amongst his family, by pretending to leave for work every morning at the same time (Selasi 65). He repeats the motions of dressing for work, and calling Goodbye to his wife and children on the way out (Selasi 65). “‘Bye!’ they called back. Three contraltos, one bass, Sadie’s soprano “I love yooou!” just a second delayed, breezing only just barely out the closing front door like a latecomer jumping on an almost-missed train” (Selasi 65). By comparing Sadie’s love to a “latecomer jumping on an almost-missed train,” Selasi foreshadows the the impending departure of Kweku while creating the image of an unasked for connection. The train was already in motion, moving forwards towards its destination, and Sadie’s voice ran to catch it. The action is hers, as the train never intended to slow down. “Almost-missed” implies the urgency of the action, and releases the breath of  near-miss. The term “breezing” indicates a light and airiness to the words themselves. It is love without the weight and gravity of Kweku’s relationships with his other children. Her voice is the soprano, and therefore the higher, lighter, and more innocent of the chorus. This metaphor illustrates Sadie’s relationship with the rest of the family, while indicating her character from a young age.

The fact that Sadie does not say goodbye is also significant. The rest of the family creates a chorus with the word “Bye!” while Sadie states a reminder of her love for Kweku. There is innocence in the assumption that saying goodbye is not necessary. It indicates that she does not believe that her father would not come back. While they do not realize it at the time, the rest of the Sai children have the opportunity to say goodbye to their father, while Sadie never does.

B3

Selasi, Taiye. Ghana Must Go. New York, Penguin Books Inc, 2014.