The Subaltern wants to Speak: The Stand Point Theory in Novels

Richard Giblett Recent work : 2006-2009 Represented by Galerie Dusseldorf 21. Mycelium Rhizome, 2009 Pencil on paper 120 x 240 cm Collection of the artist Represented by Galerie Dusseldorf

Richard Giblett
Recent work : 2006-2009
Represented by Galerie Dusseldorf
Mycelium Rhizome, 2009
Pencil on paper
120 x 240 cm
Collection of the artist
Represented by Galerie Dusseldorf

The best novels are those that can guide us through complex connections and tackle diverse themes. They allow us to draw the connections between people, ideas, and objects that we might have only speculated about beforehand. Look at Times’ list of all-time “greatest” novels; in the top 20, we find 1984 by Orwell, Catch-22 by Heller, and Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck. By itself 1984 has 19 characters and 8 main themes; Totalitarianism, Propaganda, Love/sexuality, Independence/Identity, Music, Loyalty, Power vs. Wealth, Technology, and language. Grapes of wrath has 26 characters and tackles 7 themes including; commonality of experience, corporate greed, industrialization, man’s connection to land, organized labor, hope vs hopelessness, death, and suffering. The two novels talk about the societies they find themselves within and are trying to understand through writing. Orwell’s dystopian society contains complex and constantly developing characters and themes that were tackled in 267 pages. In the end, the reader is left feeling that Orwell’s dystopian society “[does] not seem foreign to contemporary readers [us]” – Times review. Grapes of wrath achieves our emersion trough a much longer text but ultimately pulls us into the American agricultural society during the dust bowl and great depression. As a New Yorker book critic put it, “It is a long and thoughtful novel as one thinks about it. It is also a short and vivid scene as one feels it.” These stories are those of societies and cultures… at least how the author perceives them to be.
The length at which an author can write complex connections is limited to their own ability to perceive events of the world around them. No person perceives an event the exact same way that someone else does, in this way no perception is a subjective one. When we observe an event, we are impacted by our own experience of class, race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, our senses and many, many more categorize that intersect and give us the ways in which we understand the world around us. The challenge of the novelist is acknowledging the ways in which their experiences impact their position of the world. Of course, acknowledging all the ways our experiences impact our understanding of the world would be nearly impossible but to negate it would be the false representation full of our own biased perspective. We can see issues of representation displayed in early European novels about African people and their society. Because the novelist was not fully immersing themselves in the society they were writing about, the novels reflected only an outsider’s gaze onto the picture that was drawn from Africa. Orwell displays a dystopian world was intriguing for the reader because in the fictional novel we saw realities of a world that depicted a reality not so far from our own. Published in 1949, 1984 explored the connections and themes in a society of growing surveillance, as tensions between global superpowers rose. Orwell experienced some of the extreme measures that Stalinism and Nazism were taking to ensure the compliance of their citizen, genocide, forced labor, and executions were something not too far-fetched from his reality. Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath was published in 1939, in it, the story of a migrant farmworker family is told. Steinbeck created the realities of this society because he traveled with migrant workers and listened to their stories of hope, despair, and drama. It was through the workers sharing of experiences, perceptions of the world, and Steinbeck’s personal experience with corporate farming that made writing the society in Grapes of Wrath possible. Without taking a step back and ingesting the world, the author would not be able to make these complicated connections in this way we allow others and the world to have control over us. In this sense, the one who is forced to listen the most might become the best novelist.
If the novel is a form of listening to the world and drawing connections from what is learned, then the subaltern once given the platform to write (speak) must be the best candidate for the job. The subaltern is, by definition, the marginalized, and by practice the oppressed. They are forced to listen to the stories of others because they do not have representation. They can also be studied by others in an attempt by the majority or oppressive group to try and include their representation. But because the novel cannot be written by an outsider and be exposed to more differentiation in positionalities, the subaltern will never be able to speak in their voice until they are given the means of producing their own narrative. Chinua Achebe is a subaltern who spoke.
Before becoming a writer, Achebe was raised in a colonized Igbo village with Christian parents. He later gained a scholarship to study at the government university in Nigeria. At the university, he discovered his passion for literature and the humanities, but the only type of literature that was available to him was European classics and literature of Africa written by Europeans. The novels he would later describe as having patronizing and explicitly racist remarks of African society. He read work like Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad and Mister Johnson by Joyce Cary and admitted to siding with the white characters during his youth. But Achebe grew weary of these depictions so he started to work on his most acclaimed novel, Things Fall Apart publishing it in 1959. The story was that of competing cultures, it was the humanization of the Igbo indigenous and the Christian missionaries. For Achebe, the humanization of these cultures meant building them to be human, a representation of the good and the bad not living in a vacuum from one another just as he did not live in a Christian family or and Igbo community he lived in both. Things Fall Apart has multiple historical contexts, the one of the novel and the one of Achebe’s life. In Things Fall Apart the novel depicts pre-colonial Igbo society and colonized Igbo society. During the writing of Things Fall Apart, the decolonization movement was in full swing the state was asking itself what direction is wanted to follow. Things Fall Apart follows Okonkwo, a man who lives their life in fear of becoming like his father, a lazy man who never achieved a title in his clan. This leads him to hate everything that is associated with his father including arts, expressing emotions, and being idle. His repeal of all things like his father made him one of the most successful tribe’s man. But because of his rejection of any emotion, other than anger, his compassion was very limited and he did not think before he acted. Through his rigid action, Okonkwo led himself to commit actions like the beating of his wife during the week of peace, killing his inherited son Ikemefuna, which he took part in only in fear of seeming weak, and the killing of a Christian leader in the community. The acts brought him punishment from the spirits that lead to his exile, and ultimately his suicide. Parallel to Okonkwo’s conflicts run the conflict of colonialism and indigeneity. For Achebe, the was his way of writing a novel that would attempt to depict his society without the blurred line of racist deprivation of humanity or the exoticization of his culture. Before the novel even gets into the conflict of two societies it gives us the story of an Igbo tribe. We learn about the vast Igbo proverbs that people live by and the complex traditions that are held by the tribal council, gods, and spirits of ancestors.
Achebe wrote about his interactions with both cultures as he put it, he “lived in the crossroads of the two”. Because he was born into an Igbo community and raised a Christian, he would spend his afternoons in tribal circles listening to elders tell stories and proverbs and his nights studying the religion of the colonizer which his parents adopted before his birth. Through his constant existence in relation to the two cultures, he was forced to acknowledge their interwoven aspects rather than emphasizing their independence from one another. This is heavily expressed in Things Fall Apart where neither of the cultures is depicted as perfect. The missionaries are not depicted as inherently bad people. The novel has Mr. Brown, who is open to learning about the Igbo culture and incorporating it into his ways of teaching Christianity. Mr. Brown attempts to explore the possibility of their coexistence – A coexistence that Achebe would be raised in. In juxtaposition, his successor Mr. Smith “saw things as black and white. And Black was always evil.” Mr. Smith showed the ills of colonialism, he put the people against each other and imposed his beliefs onto others. For Achebe, the Igbo society is also not intact. Achebe depicts a society in which a man’s worth is valued at their ability to produce. Unoka, Okonkwo’s father, was not valued in the tribe because he could not hold responsibilities. He borrowed money from many people just to sustain his family and spent most of his time drinking or playing the flute. Okonkwo believed that opposing all that his father represented was his only way to become, not only a man but a man with many titles. For many years, this rejection of all things “feminine” worked for him, he married three wives and acquired many titles in the clan through his hard work in farming and his great wrestling skills. Although Okonkwo was a successful member of the tribe, it was obvious that he was not the most favored person. He would mock the men without a title. This extreme rejection of what he deemed “feminine” was what led him to make horrendous acts that cannot be justified. The book was not meant to argue the pureness of the Igbo people nor the horror of the Europeans. It was intended to show the complex interactions between the two cultures.
Achebe was a subaltern that spoke, he developed a novel that humanized the people of Igbo society and the colonizers. He humanized them to complicate their identity and allow for the critical approach to their positions. The two cultures ceased to be either good or evil, weak or strong, then escaped the childish analysis Melanie Klein called the depressive phase. An attempt by an outsider to try and humanize Igbo society would have to take extreme measure to consider how their own positionalities can create biases in their work. Before Achebe, no other subaltern gained such a large platform like he did. The only novels of African societies were published by Europeans and often, resembled the racism and patronizing ideas found in Mister Johnson and Heart of Darkness. If we want to continue to try and understand the world in its complexities, we must stop trying to speak for the subaltern and rather develop systems that no longer deprive the subaltern the access to speak. In the end, Achebe was only one subaltern, the world will only advance is we can escape this depressive phase of analysis. And to do this, we can begin by listening to some advice from the Igbo people, “If you want to see it well, you must not stand in one place.”