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The African Novel as a Strategy for Decolonization in Ama Ata Aidoo’s ‘Our Sister Killjoy’

In Our Sister Killjoy, the Ghanaian writer, Ama Ata Aidoo, domesticates the novel as a strategy for decolonization by re-presenting the “story of Africa”: employing a narrative style and engaging with subject matter that asserts the difference of Africa and Africans from Europeans. She subverts the discourse of Orientalism, which “constructs and dominates Orientals in the process of knowing them”. Through the character of Sissie, Aidoo challenges Western metaphysics and epistemology on which colonization and its notions of Otherness are grounded. She reverses the colonial travel narrative and criticizes colonization and its lasting impacts on Africa, the “artificiality” of life and the “coldness” of existence in the West, and Western advancement and technology.

Our Sister Killjoy

Our Sister Killjoy

Her narrative style does not conform to the standards of the traditional novel in that she mixes genres throughout the course of her work as a way of defying Western conventions in storytelling. This paper demonstrates how Aidoo succeeds in her endeavour to domesticate the novel as a tool for decolonization by tracing aspects of subversion of the dominant western discourse in the text and by analyzing the narrative style as an act of defiance in the processes of decolonization.

In “Post-colonial Literatures and Counter-discourse”, Helen Tiffin argues that “it has been the project of postcolonial writing to interrogate European discourses and discursive strategies from a privileged position within (and between) two worlds; to investigate the means through which Europe imposed and maintained its codes in the colonial domination of so much of the rest of the world. Thus rereading and rewriting of the European historical and fictional record are vital and inescapable tasks”. This is what Aidoo does in Our Sister Killjoy. The protagonist, Sissie, is an educated African woman who occupies a position between two cultures (Western and African) and through her journey to Europe, Aidoo rewrites the European historical and fictional record. By reversing the colonial travel narrative, Aidoo situates her narrator in a privileged position where she observes the West and creates a counter-discourse about it based on the knowledge that she generates from her observation. In so doing, Aidoo demonstrates Edward Said’s principle of resistance where one has “to know the Orient outside the discourse of Orientalism and to represent and present this knowledge to the Orientalists- to write back to them”.

In the first part of the novel, “Into a Bad Dream”, Sissie embarks on a journey to Europe and her misgivings about colonization and its lasting impacts on Africa are clear. She regards the presence of the fabricated elite who fawn at the feet of Europeans as one of the regrettable impacts of colonization. She says that “what is frustrating, though, in arguing with a nigger who is a ‘moderate’ is that since the interests he is so busy defending are not even his own, he can regurgitate only what he has learnt from his bosses for you.”. She presents a character called Sammy who “laughed all the time: even when there was nothing to laugh at. Or when she thought there was nothing to laugh at”. Through the narration, the narrator also reveals how the fabricated elite have produced avaricious African leaders who do not have the welfare of the masses at heart. She says:

From all around the Third World,

You hear the same story;

Rulers

Asleep to all things at

All times –

Conscious only of

Riches, which they gather in a

Coma –

Intravenously –

The argument is that the colonial process rendered most African elites incapable of addressing African problems. She regrets the plight of the postcolonial African when she laments:

I wail for

Lost Black minds

– Any lost Black mind –

As such, Sissie’s travel to Europe becomes a process of decolonizing the mind where she goes to the metropolitan centre to reread their history and the history of Africa generated through Western discourses in order to forge a new and authentic story that would help the new African repossess his lost mind. Thus Our Sister Killjoy, as a tool for decolonization, is read as a product of what Said termed contrapuntal reading; “reading back from the perspective of the colonized, to show how the submerged but crucial presence of empire emerges in canonical texts”. Aidoo’s rewriting gives insight into the dents that colonization left in Africa and exposes the ills that European writings strive to conceal. As such, Our Sister Killjoy does not simply exist as a form of refutation or contestation, but as a way of showing the dense interrelationship of imperial and colonial societies.

When she arrives in Europe, Sissie is no longer the Other of western imagination. It is the Europeans who become the Other of her African Self. As Lhoussain Simour rightly observes, “Aidoo’s work revolts against the psychological bondage of colonial ideology and strives to articulate a counter discourse of resistance through which the oddities of whiteness are explicitly uncovered. Messay Kebede notices that “central to the colonial discourse and the justification of colonial rule is the hierarchical notion of human races with its blunt promulgation of the superiority of the white race over all other peoples”. Contrary to this “popular” discourse that presents whites as rational and knowledgeable, Aidoo presents Marija, a woman who befriends Sissie in Germany, as ignorant and unenlightened. This notion is first perceived in her deficient accent when she asks, “ver do you come from?” and later on when she comments, “Ah ja, ja, ja that is ze country zey have ze President Nukurumah, ja?” In failing to mention the name “Nkrumah”, Marija’s ignorance is exposed. Her lack of knowledge is further vindicated when she thinks that Ghana is near Canada. By exposing Marija’s lack of knowledge in geography, Aidoo challenges the discourse of Orientalism by showing that the supposed knowledge about the Orient generated by the Occident is a farce since the colonizers cannot even locate some of the lands they dominated on the map.

Sissie’s voyage to Germany and her relationship with Marija present Otherness as a double-edged sword. The novel reveals that just as the African was the Other of the European when the latter explored the African continent, the European also becomes the Other of the African when it is the African exploring. This is revealed when the narrator says, “At other times, they just sat, each with her own thoughts. Occasionally one of them would look up at the other.” Here, Aidoo domesticates the novel as a strategy for decolonization by subverting western notions of the Self and the Other that serve as justifications for objectifying Africans through the process of colonization and slavery. As Hildegard Hoeller points out, in Our Sister Killjoy, Aidoo does for African literature what Joseph Conrad does for Western literature in Heart of Darkness.

In Our Sister Killjoy, Marija has been portrayed as a native. Germans are depicted as the ignorant others. In some of her statements the narrator confesses that Sissie almost fell into a trap of reverse racism. She says:

So she looked around her, really well this time. And it hit her. That all the crowd of people going and coming in all sorts of directions had the colour of the prickled pig parts that used to come from foreign places to the markets at home. Trotters, pig-tails, pig ears. She looked and looked at so many of such skins together. And she wanted to vomit. Then she was ashamed of her reaction.

Unlike whites who notice skin colour and dehumanize the Other, Sissie feels ashamed to dehumanize her Other. In this way, Aidoo asserts African moral superiority over the West by asserting that Africans recognize difference but to them it does not entail inferiority or superiority of race. She overcomes her temptation to racism and feels ashamed.

Sissie’s visit to Germany also vindicates the artificiality of life in the West and the coldness that dominates their existence. She confronts the artificiality when “she walked along in her gay, gold and leafy brown cloth, looking, feasting her village eyes. Clothes. Perfume. Flowers. Fruits. Then polished steel. Polished tin. Polished brash. Cut glass. Plastic.” She regards the consumer goods that trickle to her home country as symbols of a continued presence of Western influence on Africans. Throughout the story, Sissie keeps alluding to the coldness that engulfs Europe. This is evident in the cold food that the people eat and even in the climate itself. When Sissie encounters Africans who do not want to leave Europe and go back to Africa, she becomes angry “at whatever drives our people to leave their warm homes to stay for long periods, and sometimes even permanently, in such chilly places. Winter in. Winter out.” She regards this coldness as a sign of a continent devoid of the vigour of life. Upon coming across too much cold and canned food, Sissie makes a sarcastic comment; “Praise the Lord for all dead things”. Thus, using the novel as a strategy for decolonization, Aidoo reverses the Western conception of Africa as a land of darkness and death by presenting Europe as a land of dead things.

Credit: www.amaatafilm.com

Credit: www.amaatafilm.com

In terms of style, Aidoo domesticates the novel as a tool for decolonization by mixing verse and prose in her narration. This is a deliberate way of defying Western conventions of storytelling by choosing to tell her story in her own way. As Simour observes, “the text is typical in defying all genre conventions unstably shifting between poetry and fiction. It fills some pages entirely while it leaves others almost blank, which is already in itself a political act meant to fissure and destabilize the Western literary canon; but at the same time to reverse the historical mode of Europe’s representation of its others”. Sissie’s sentiments about Europe and the evils of colonization are mostly evident in the parts where the narration is in verse. This maybe a deliberate effort by Aidoo to place emphasis on her critique of colonialism by investing in the power of words characteristic of poetry.

In the section titled “A Love Letter”, Sissie expresses the need for Africans to invent a new language for themselves. She argues that;

…we have to have our secret language. We must create this language. It is high time we did. We are too old a people not to. We can. We must. So that we shall make love with words and not fear of being overheard.

By defying the standards of the novel as a genre and choosing to narrate the story her way, Aidoo may be demonstrating one of the ways in which Africans can invent their own language in the process of decolonization. As Edward Said posits in Culture and Imperialism, “the novel, as a cultural artefact of bourgeois society, and imperialism are unthinkable without each other”. He further argues that, “along with an assumption of the centrality and sometimes universality of English values and attitudes goes an unwavering view of overseas territories”. Aidoo protests such universality and subverts the structure of the novel as a way of expressing that Africans as a people have their own ways of storytelling. In so doing, Aidoo challenges colonization and imperialism by asserting her difference, and by implication, the difference of Africans from Europeans both in terms of cultural beliefs and social practices.

To conclude, in Our Sister Killjoy, Ama Ata Aidoo domesticates the novel as a strategy for decolonization by re-presenting the “story of Africa”; employing a narrative style and engaging with subject matter that asserts the difference of Africa and Africans from Europeans. She subverts the discourse of Orientalism, which “constructs and dominates Orientals in the process of knowing them”. Through the character of Sissie, Aidoo challenges Western metaphysics and epistemology on which colonization and its notions of Otherness are grounded. She reverses the colonial travel narrative and criticizes colonization and its lasting impacts on Africa, the “artificiality” of life and the “coldness” of existence in the West, and Western advancement and technology. Her narrative style does not conform to the standards of the traditional novel in that she mixes genres throughout the course of her work as a way of defying western conventions of storytelling. As Helen Tiffin argues, “decolonization is a process, not arrival; it involves an ongoing dialectic between hegemonic centrist systems and peripheral subversion of them; between European or British discourses and their postcolonial dismantling”. Ama Ata Aidoo’s Our Sister Killjoy, as a dismantling of the colonial tale, serves as a strategy for decolonization both in terms of style and subject matter.

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Image: http://amaatafilm.com/

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