An Image of Africa- Chinua Achebe

Today, I ask you to read this: Achebe: An Image of Africa

You know how they- the teachers placed in the classroom to help you learn something- don’t tell you until high school that Shakespeare may not be Shakespeare at all? Not someone born at Stratford-upon-Avon? And that you’ve been fan-girling over someone who may be someone else, or multiple people at once?

Well, why didn’t they teach me something useful (after all, if you believe in Barthes, the author doesn’t matter), like that the author of Heart of Darkness “depersonalizes a portion of the human race?” I’ve been idolizing Conrad as an exophonic writer for years by writing and rewriting essays trying to understand his black/white imagery, explorations of morality and the “duality of man.” But in reality, I was completely overlooking Conrad’s blatant racism. Does this mean that I have “bought” into the Western psychological need to “set up Africa as a foil to Europe? (for you: the argument for Achebe’s essay). Why has Joseph Conrad remained so esteemed in Anglophone literature and other authors, like Rudyard Kipling have not? Both produce articulate “acceptable” descriptions of the “other” that denies them their humanity. Though, actually, I think Kipling in Kim gives his Indian characters more humanity than Conrad gives to the Congolese… But I think the point is that literature, while pleasing, can teach us the wrong things sometimes.

I think ultimately, I am shocked that I had to wait until I was 23 to read this essay, and that I only stumbled on it by accident. No one ever told me to read it, and I wish someone had.

Perhaps you will too, after reading “An Image of Africa.”

Not that I am innocent of bigotry, so I’m sure there’s a few things I still have to learn. Just look at how I talk about Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko to see that I am still very bad at articulating how I feel in response to racism, and I am very wary about talking about it. I don’t know if we should, but at the same time, I gained something by being exposed to this essay, even if I’ve lost how I feel about Conrad now.

Confessions of a Literature Major- Never Liked Poetry

I never used to like poetry. I mean, I’m sure many students have gone home from their first English lit. classes with an assignment of five poems or less, and thought “hey, this is going to be so easy to knock-out!” Next class session, however, they slink into their seats and avoid direct eye contact with the teacher. It’s not from lack of trying that they feel incredibly stupid. It’s more from lack of experience with the density of thoughts.

Despite the exposure to short, powerful statements on social media platforms like Twitter, students are usually not ready to handle the manipulation of form in poetry (rhyme, meter, structure) that is supposed to affect the content, usually expressed in precise diction that interacts with the other words in the poems to create a specific mood and get across a specific idea. It is the unique condensation of thought into verbal expression that makes the poetry that takes up so little space on paper cause such a flow of images and ideas in the mind.

Of course, many people struggle with poetry. If they’re science, math, music or history majors, the body of work is like a foreign collection of wires on the ground that need to be untangled. However, what if I told you that literature students feel this way too? The only difference is that lit. students are given some tools to untangle those wires, usually have more patience to do so (it’s their primary occupation), and feel that the rewards of untangling that knot- or rather, evaporating the dew of poetry to see all the chemical compounds it’s made of- outweigh any other rewards from any other work.

I struggled with poetry since high school. I liked the idea of playing with sounds and meter schemes, but I could never understand what the poet was saying without help from my teacher.

I remember also, when entering college, that I didn’t get much better. In a British Romanticism course, we were asked to read John Keat’s narrative poem Lamia. I came into class that day so happy that I understood it was about impossible love (which it kind of was), but imagine my shock when the class started talking about a child-eating serpent/vampire creature.

Lamia (first version) by John William Waterhouse 1905

But something has shifted in the past summer. Perhaps it has to do with the extreme influx of words I’ve been consuming for the past months, but having poetry to read has become something like a relief… and I understand it! I’ll read sets of poems and later go back to look at the anthology introductions to find that most of my observations were correct. I can even locate precise lines that reflect the main theme of the poem, and I usually see something deeper than the superficial anthology summary describes. I can actually name favorites poets now: John Keats, W.H. Auden, Derek Walcott…

Of course these are more modern poets, and perhaps I like them more because I understand the language better, but I can also appreciate the emotions and events that brought forth the words better. And I don’t like all the modern poets, so that’s something. And I’ll admit that I like Pope and the Victorian poets too.

It seems stupid to just say “I like these poets” without giving any examples for why I like them, but I don’t have the time right now to outline all my propensities. I just wanted to express one of the reasons I am grateful to have to prepare for this MA exam.