Language as Beautiful as Magic

Sometimes meeting a new person is so unexpected that you don’t know how to react. You may be at a loss of words or find it extremely difficult to stop staring at your new acquaintance due to surprise, infatuation, or some other intense emotion. It’s as if your body is temporarily unable to function properly. Ugwu’s first meeting with Olanna in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun is one that yields such a result: he is spellbound by her manner of speaking because he has never heard such beautiful English before.

Prior to moving in with Odenigbo, an eccentric university professor, Ugwu has limited experiences with the English language as he had to drop out of school to work on his family’s farm in a small rural village. But once he moves to the town of Nsukka as a houseboy, Ugwu rapidly improves his English, observing Odenigbo and his frequent party guests, who all converse in English. This habit of making mental notes about a person’s skill in speaking English becomes a prominent trait of Ugwu’s character, so it is no surprise that this action is exhibited when he meets Olanna, Odenigbo’s lover. And when Ugwu hears her voice for the first time, his view of the English language is changed forever: “He stood still. He had always thought that Master’s English could not be compared to anybody’s…Master’s English was music, but what Ugwu was hearing now, from this woman, was magic. Here was a superior tongue, a luminous language…it reminded him of slicing a yam with a newly sharpened knife, the easy perfection in every slice” (Adichie 27 – 28).

This first interaction between these two characters is the beginning of a friendship full of affection, learning, and trust. Ugwu’s initial impression of Olanna is one of admiration and fascination, as he finds her voice and command of language to be so lovely that he calls it “magic.” This is an example of metaphor since Ugwu compares Olanna’s style of speaking to magic, a concept that is not related to English, but shares the characteristic of being captivating. By labeling her voice as “magic,” Ugwu is emphasizing how charmed he is by Olanna’s voice and speaking abilities. Furthermore, there is the comparison of Olanna to Odenigbo: while Odenigbo’s voice is “music,” it cannot be compared to something as fantastical, otherworldly, and intriguing as “magic.” Ugwu even states that she has “a superior tongue” and speaks “a luminous language,” highlighting the amount of distance there is between the qualities of their voices.

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The other literary device that is present in this passage is analogy. This is shown when Ugwu compares the smooth flow of Olanna’s voice to the ease of slicing a yam with a new knife. Instead of simply stating how pleasant Olanna’s voice is, Ugwu goes into great detail by transforming the experience of listening to something completely different: food preparation. However, this is a familiar activity to Ugwu, which is why he made such a comparison. By doing so, it is easier for us readers to fully understand the level of satisfaction Ugwu feels when he hears Olanna speak English. Thus, these two literary devices work well together because of their similarities. Metaphor is closely related to analogy since both devices create comparisons to highlight a concept, such as Olanna’s English being compared to magic and easy yam slicing to show how enticing and pleasant her voice is.

These descriptions of Olanna by Ugwu are significant because they provide insight on the relationship between the two characters. The metaphoric and analogical language used to describe Olanna’s English shows how much Ugwu respects and admires her because his observations are full of praise. As the story progresses, we see Olanna noticing his affection and the shyness that he feels when around her. She also realizes how much he wants to speak English to her: “He always responded in English to her Igbo, as if he saw speaking Igbo to him as an insult that he had to defend himself against by insistently speaking English” (Adichie 59). Though it seems as if Ugwu is jealous of Olanna, this is just proof of how highly he regards her English abilities and how much he wants to improve and sound like her, demonstrating the power of language as a way for these two characters to learn how to appreciate and respect one another.

B4

Works Cited

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. Half of a Yellow Sun. Anchor Books, 2007.

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.

Starring in a Movie for an Audience of One

Never have the words “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players” been more true than in the mind of Kweku Sai from Ghana Must Go. Kweku lives his life constantly imagining a cameraman recording his every move. The use of this metaphor appears throughout Kweku’s story, showing how he wishes himself to be viewed. Kweku envisions a “bridge between two worlds,” believing that by returning to his home in Ghana with his American-born son, he would be building that bridge: “He imagined this moment every day in Pennsylvania, how his cameraman would film it, panning up to [his mother’s] face. Cue strings. Tears in mother’s eyes. Wonder, joy, amazement. The awe of the siblings. The jubilation. Cue drums” (Selasi 52-53). Kweku’s cameraman metaphor reveals how his familial relationships are negatively affected because his actions are of a self-centered nature, even when he believes them to be otherwise.

Through the metaphor of Kweku’s inner cameraman, the novel critiques the character’s desire to control his family relationships, and therefore to control his own story with himself as a hero. He has entire scenes envisioned in his mind, complete with “strings” and “drums” (52-3). The cameraman is not just a cameraman, but “his” cameraman. Although many of Kweku’s actions would appear to be out of love, for example his tiptoeing to avoid waking Ama (who is actually very difficult to wake) much of his choices are made because he believes them to be a good story. This self-occupied view affects familial relationships, because his attempts to care for his family are actually based in an idea of living up to an imagined standard. The metaphor shows that he is not reacting to the needs of others, but to what an imagined audience would think of his actions.

The cameraman scene in chapter 9 emphasises the point made by the rest of the chapter: Kweku chooses what he wants to believe about himself, but those ideas are often untrue. His relationships with others are affected by his denial of his true emotions. He thinks he loves Ama for one reason, when in reality he loves her for other reasons. He prefers to be the director of his own story, and therefore denies realities. The cameraman metaphor is presented as if it were real; the novel does not refer to the cameraman as imaginary, but instead purely as “his cameraman” (52). The metaphor is then crushed at the end of the chapter, with the line “This is how he planned it. But this isn’t how it happened” (53). By setting up an elongated scene, then quickly destroying the possibility for scene to actually occur, this small passage shows how Kweku is often disappointed (and disappointing to others) because his cameraman imagery does not line up with reality.

The “cameraman” metaphor shows how people will see what they want to see. Family dynamics are built upon communication, and responding to the thoughts and feelings of others. Through Kweku’s metaphor, it reveals that even when he is helping his family members, it is often to satisfy the need to perform for an audience. This builds a wall (to use another metaphor from the novel) between himself and his family members, not only with the ones who have estranged him, but also between himself and Ama. He defines his behavior by how he would like to be seen, which makes it difficult for the rest of his family to truly get to know him.

 

Works Cited

Selasi, Taiye. Ghana Must Go. Penguin Books, 2014.

Shakespeare, William, and David M. Bevington. The Complete Works of Shakespeare. Pearson, 2014.

Image courtesy of: https://www.joe.ie/uncategorized/video-nba-cameraman-tries-to-keep-it-together-after-foot-falls-asleep-378760

Gender Roles and Roaring Flames

Many people are guilty of experiencing the cliché late-night gaze into a fire, and Okonkwo is no exception. In Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo’s midnight reflection revolves around frustrations with gender, specifically in relation to his son Nwoye. In his piece entitled “Narrative Techniques in Things Fall Apart,” Solomon Iyasere defines Okonkwo’s rigid ideas about gender, explaining that “for Okonkwo, one is either a man or a woman; there can be no compromise, no composite” (Iyasere 380). Furthermore, Iyasere believes that Okonkwo never questions this dichotomy, sticking to his rigid code of gendered behavior without ever doubting his own actions: “Okonkwo becomes inflexible and his action allows no room for reflection” (Iyasere 380). However, I believe Okonkwo’s thought processes are slightly more nuanced. Although few and far between, several moments in the novel hint at Okonkwo’s self-doubt, specifically in regards to how he treats his children. Although Okonkwo frequently enforces strict beliefs based on assumptions about gender, moments of self-reflection (albeit brief) are illuminated in Achebe’s novel.

One such example occurs on the evening that Okonkwo hears of Nwoye’s involvement with the new Christian church. This passage uses metaphors and similes to subtly illustrate Okonkwo’s conflicting feelings surrounding his son’s perceived femininity. His first reaction to his son’s behavior is rage: “Now that he had time to think of it, his son’s crime stood out in its stark enormity. To abandon the gods of one’s father and go about with a lot of effeminate men clucking like old hens was the very depth of abomination” (Achebe 88). Clearly, this reaction is based on gender norms of the society, from the use of the word “effeminate” to the image of “clucking like old hens” (88). Old hens are not only female, but mindless. Okonkwo questions the intelligence of feminine men by comparing them to female animals. He goes on to imagine a posthumous embarrassment: a possible future where he and his forefathers receive no sacrifices because his sons are all “praying to the white man’s god” (88). Okonkwo therefore uses gender as an explanation for his son’s behavior. By failing to act like Okonkwo’s definition of a man, Nwoye has not only failed himself, but all of his ancestors. This passage would support Iyasere’s claim, if it were not for the short paragraph that follows.

Okonkwo’s initial rage is then contrasted with a small segment of self-reflection which also uses a metaphor. As he looks into the fire, Okonkwo reflects on his own nickname: “Roaring Flame” (88). In the last paragraph of the chapter, Okonkwo makes a realization: “He sighed heavily, and as if in sympathy the smouldering log also sighed. And immediately Okonkwo’s eyes were opened and he saw the whole matter clearly. Living fire begets cold, impotent ash. He sighed again, deeply” (Achebe 89). Okonkwo takes pride in his nickname. However, it is through the metaphor of his nickname that he is able to see how his own actions have possibly caused his son’s behavior. By admitting that “fire begets cold, impotent ash,” Okonkwo suddenly doubts his strict adherence to traditional masculinity. He calls his son impotent, but recognizes himself as the cause. This moment is brief, and the narrator does not delve deeply into Okonkwo’s thoughts after this discovery. This could signify Okonkwo’s mental change of subject. Although the moment is brief, in the symbol of a fire Okonkwo sees himself as a possible cause for his son’s “weaknesses” (Achebe 88). The passage signifies how Okonkwo cannot be defined as a one-sided character. Even though he values masculinity, the actions of those around him cause crises within him.

B2

Works Cited

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

“Camp Fire at Bramble Bield.” Alasdar, Flickr, 31 Oct. 2014.