Said and Achebe: Writers at the Crossroads of Culture

Article excerpt

At a crucial point in the history of culture, a new generation of educated "natives" were finally able to use the tools they acquired through their encounter with the West to decode the deepseated images of colonial representation and re-code new images of the self in order to escape stultification. In this context, Achebe's article "An Image of Africa" (1975) became one of the first postcolonial attempts at re-reading canonical English texts (even before the term post-colonial was coined). In 1978, Said published his seminal book Orientalism theorizing many of the points raised by Achebe in his article. This study aims at examining the similarities and differences between these two influential writers who are situated both spatially and temporally at what Achebe calls "the crossroads of culture."

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Between the already encoded eye and reflexive knowledge there is a middle region which liberates order itself. (Foucault xxi)

Many of the most interesting post-colonial writers bear their past within them--as scars of humiliating wounds, as instigation for different practices, as potentially revised visions of the past tending toward a new future, as urgently reinterpretable and redeployable experiences, in which the formerly silent native speaks and acts on territory taken back from empire. (Said, Culture and Imperialism 31)

Following Mikhail Bakhtin's belief that hell is the "absolute lack of being heard" (126), it can be argued that non-European and non-white peoples were living in such a kind of hell during most of the period of colonization. During that period, European texts

   were in most influential instances premised on the silence of
   the native. When it came to what lay beyond metropolitan
   Europe, the arts and the disciplines of representation ...
   depended on the powers of Europe to bring the non-European
   world into representation, the better to be able to
   see it, to master it, and, above all, to hold it. (Said, C&I 99)

This remained the case until a rupture in this structure of the articulate white master versus the silent native took place, resulting in a change of episteme. A new generation of educated natives were finally able to use the tools they acquired through their encounter with the West to combat those representations, opening up new galaxies of ideas and creating new literary spheres. In those spheres new ways of reading and writing paved the way for new perspectives, broke ground for new avenues of thought, decoding the deep-seated images of colonial representation and re-coding new images of the self in order to escape the chain that was/is all too signifying. Thus, from that moment on, there emerged "the process of 're-storying' peoples who had been knocked silent by the trauma of all kinds of dispossession" (Achebe, Home and Exile 79).

This trend has become evident since the fifties and sixties of the twentieth century when children of empire began their revolt against their own hell of silence and decided to be heard by the whole world. Influential theorists and talented writers began their careers at that decisive moment of history: "the nationalist movement in British West Africa after the Second World War brought about a mental revolution which began to reconcile us to ourselves. It suddenly seemed that we too might have a story to tell" (Achebe, Morning Yet on Creation Day 123). Thus if the emergence of post-colonial studies as an independent and highly regarded field of study in Western academia can be dated back to the publication of Edward Said's seminal work Orientalism in 1978, many of the ideas that helped to form Said's work have been in the air for at least two decades. (1) This article examines the relevant works of Said and Achebe that are considered the first post-colonial attempts at challenging the cultural hierarchies imposed by decades of Western political and cultural hegemony through re-reading canonical English texts. …