Academic journal article African American Review

A Critical Divination: Reading Sula as Ogbanje-Abiku

Academic journal article African American Review

A Critical Divination: Reading Sula as Ogbanje-Abiku

Article excerpt

Isn't it just possible that we are all abikus? ... [W]hy should there be some and not others? Why should the universe be distributed that way? (Ben Okri, Interview with Jane Wilkinson)

Egbe here, Ugo here.... May the Hawk perch, [and] may the Eagle perch.... (Preface to an Igbo proverb)

Toni Morrison's second novel Sula depicts in its marked title character one of the most fascinating figures in African American fiction. It portrays, as it were, an eccentric, powerful, and unmanageable heroine, an "unusual" "child" whose ogbanje-abiku attributes have for years eluded the radars of literary criticism. Since its appearance in 1973, Sula has triggered, to use J. Brooks Bouson's apt phrasing, a "kind of critical stampede" (1). John T. West bluntly observes that since Sula was published, scholars have analyzed it from every kind of critical perspective imaginable (74). A major compliment to Morrison's storytelling genius, Sula's unceasing attraction to pedagogy and to numerous critical schools speaks in part to the novel's immense popularity and to criticism's recent fascination with contemporary black women's writings. It intimates, most of all, the text's thematic and technical density and its ability to handle, without blinking or sweating, such polyvocal scholarship, of all which has, undeniably, enriched our appreciation of Morrison's absorbing work. Surprisingly, hardly any of that scholarship, however, attempts to explore Sula and its title enigma in, specifically, the nuanced vocabulary of ogbanje-abiku: Those Nigerian/West African spirit-children whose many identifiers include their repeated births and deaths to the same mother. In other words, virtually none of the available critiques of the novel expressly remarks on or examines in-depth the striking ontological and ideological equivalencies between Sula and the ogbanje-abiku. This is an unfortunate critical oversight, particularly when Sula's ancestry, idiosyncrasies, and literary cousins have been ascribed to all kinds of things, places, and mythologies but not to those ogbanje-abiku with whom she shares "traits" as sell other, and idea, a loaded idiom, one that embeds and mediates the narrative's philosophic concern with duplicitous nascency, immanent suffering, and cyclical mortality.

Although recent literary criticism has yet to evaluate Sula and its (im)mortal heroine through the conceptual prism of ogbanje-abiku, earlier scholars have, nevertheless, called our attention insightfully to the novel's invocations of West African metaphysics and, thus, have indirectly cleared a way for the present discussion and approach. Among those critical ancestors, Vashti Crutcher Lewis's "African Tradition in Toni Morrison's Sula" (1987) and Gay Wilentz's 1997 piece "An African-Based Reading of Sula" deserve special mention here. Lewis and Wilentz illuminate some of the novel's structuring and thematization of aspects of African cultural and religious thoughts, for instance: Its political encryptions of an "alternative reality" grounded in African cosmologies (Wilentz 128-30) and its positioning of Shadrack and Sula as both displaced Africans and mutually constitutive and ontologically connected water divinities (Lewis 92-93). Wilentz reminds us that "an African-based reading [of Sula, in classroom and criticism and] in conjunction with other interpretations of the work not only enhances understanding of the novel but also addresses some of its more problematic aspects" (127). Both critics provide a much-needed intervention for a work that reincarnates African epistemologies retained in the "New" World and sometimes marked and mocked in mainstream exegesis. "Sula," Lewis argues, "is Morrison's most complex work in reference to traditional African culture ... because the African presence and cultural rootedness is woven into Black-American culture without contrivance and with such extraordinary subtlety that neither the characters nor the reader are immediately aware of it; just as most of us are oblivious to the fact that after some three-hundred plus years in America, African tradition continues to manifest itself in our lives" (91-92). …

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