Academic journal article Journal of Narrative Theory

Immersed in the Storyworld: Rotten English and Orality in Ken Saro-Wiwa's Sozaboy

Academic journal article Journal of Narrative Theory

Immersed in the Storyworld: Rotten English and Orality in Ken Saro-Wiwa's Sozaboy

Article excerpt

Perhaps the most striking thing about Ken Saro-Wiwa's novel about the Nigerian Civil War, Sozaboy (1985), is that he references oil only once in the text, in passing. The novel's narrator and protagonist Mene-a naïve young man struggling to decipher the political and economic forces that shape his world-speaks of the natural resource in a metaphor about the dangers of serving as a soldier (soza) on patrol. "As petrol burns," he states, "that is how this patrol kills" (104). On the surface, the metaphor makes a figurative, visual, and aural connection between the fast-burning oil flares of the Niger Delta and the speed with which a patrolling soldier can meet his death. But dig deeper and the metaphor raises a significant question: why is oil not mentioned more in this novel?

The question is vexing given Saro-Wiwa's reputation as one of the world's foremost protestors of the oil industry. As a founding member of MOSOP (the Movement of the Survival of the Ogoni People) and through non-fiction texts such as the political pamphlet "The Ogoni Nationality Today and Tomorrow" (1968), the civil war memoir On A Darkling Plain (1989), the polemic Genocide in Nigeria (1992), and the prison diary A Month and A Day (1995), he launched an environmental justice campaign and drew worldwide attention to the corrupt oil politics of the Niger Delta and destruction of his minority Ogoni tribe at the hands of the multinational oil companies Shell and Chevron and their partners in the Nigerian federal government. In these texts Saro-Wiwa is insistent that the health of Niger Delta minorities such as the Ogoni relies upon the redistribution of oil profits, and he regularly appeals to the international community to help correct the social and environmental injustices to which they contribute when they purchase Shell and Chevron gas. Saro-Wiwa's campaign was so successful it eventually caught the ears of those he was protesting. After being arrested on trumped up murder charges and enduring a farcical trial that drew international attention, Saro-Wiwa was executed and thereby silenced by General Sani Abacha's regime on November 10, 1995. Oil was so important to Saro-Wiwa that he ended up paying for it with his life. Why then does his imaginative retelling of a war largely fought because of oil only mention it once, and figuratively?

One popular answer to this question is that Sozaboy is a text more interested in linguistic experimentation than oil or environmental justice. In the novel's "Author's Note," Saro-Wiwa writes that the nonstandard english Mene speaks-a language the writer labels "rotten English"-"thrives on lawlessness, and is part of the dislocated and discordant society in which Sozaboy must live, move and have not his being" (n.p.). He also clarifies that rotten English, a "mixture of Nigerian pidgin English, broken English and occasional flashes of good, even idiomatic English" is his own invention. Many scholars celebrate the text's language as a sustained experiment in linguistic nation building. Eckhard Breitinger foregrounds the importance of the novel's language to its representation of Nigerian identity when he argues that rotten English illustrates Saro-Wiwa's pragmatic attitude towards languages and the writer's desire to reach as wide an audience as possible. With respect to debates about language in African literature that challenge writers to reject English for indigenous languages, Breitinger sees Saro-Wiwa as opting for a third choice. Rotten English, Breitinger argues, is a hybrid language that speaks to a broader, middleclass national audience beyond that reached in Kana, Saro-Wiwa's indigenous Ogoni tongue, or by Standard English, which Breitinger sees as largely spoken by university-trained Nigerians (242). Abiola Irele similarly argues that "the most rewarding approach to the novel is to read it as the expression of a clearly defined national consciousness as it begins to express itself in our literature" (261). …

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