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In the Belly of a ‘New’ Culture: Paradigmatic Foregrounding in Sola Osofisan’s ‘Sin-Eater’

Introduction

One of the features of globalization is its tendency to interconnect people economically and culturally. It is also indicative of the shrinking of borders and boundaries in such a way that a deep sense of homogeneity and community can be felt and the world begins to look like one village peopled by those who share common bonds. The emergence of a techno-culture in communities that would otherwise have remained isolated sends great signals that globalization brings about ‘modernization’, and that this new culture brings about progress. But often the seeds of ‘progress’ do germinate into weeds of destruction, so that in the process of expanding links across humanity and evoking a global consciousness, globalization is both a balm and an irritant.

Darkvisions by Sola Osofisan

Darkvisions by Sola Osofisan

This paper examines how the Nigerian writer, Sola Osofisan, in his short story, ‘Sin-eater’, paradigmatically and stylistically deconstructs the anguish of Stella, his female character, who flees from the organization she works for. This thirty-page story is one of the ten short stories in Darkvisions, which was a co-winner of the 1992 Association of Nigerian Authors Prize for prose fiction. In it, Osofisan, who is also a poet and dramatist, reflects his concern for the loss of moral values in his fast-paced, globalizing society through his sensitive use of language. Much of the triumph this short story achieves is hinged on the close attention the writer pays to psychological details. The fears, doubts, hopeful anticipation, pain and anguish of his major character, among others, are revealed to us with skillful strokes of brilliance. The study reveals that a great deal of insights can be gained through an exegesis of the linguistic decimals deployed by a writer to project his vision of reality.

A New Social Order

Information and technological revolution is considered to be one of the offshoots of globalization, although globalization, till date, remains, to many, an elusive trend, multi-dimensional in scope, highly complex a process and full of contradictions (Erling and Hilgendorf 2004). Various disciplines – linguistics, geography, political science, sociology, economics, philosophy, etc. – have made inputs into the subject and offered numerous perspectives in its definition. In this regard, globalization is seen as diffusion of language, practices, values and technology which have influenced the way people all over the world live and think; compression of space and time; increasing information flow and technological scale, as the world is being shrunk; increasing cross border flow of information and culture, people, services, money, goods, etc.

Dale and Robertson (qtd. In Oyeleye 2005: 3) consider globalization as a process which is “multi-faceted in its operation, … massive in its reach and implications and… elusive as a concept” (4). In an attempt to offer an all-embracing definition, UNESCO sees globalization as “a set of economic, social, technological, political and cultural structures and processes, arising from the changing character of the production, consumption, and trade of goods and assets that comprise the base of the international community”1. The concept has been in existence since the 1980s, but it “stretches back decades, even centuries, if you count the trading empires built by Spain, Portugal, Britain, and Holland”2.

A basic consideration of globalization, despite its many faces, is that it introduces a new order, a new culture, into societies. How these societies have responded to it has always depended on their nature. While new techno-cultures, for instance, have been successfully managed by the advanced societies, they have brought pain and anguish to the poor ones with the attendant widening divide between the rich and the poor and general stiff competition among the few rich. ‘Modernization’, which globalization signals, has so engendered contradictions in the values of the societies which are engulfed by it that it is even considered to be more of an irritant than a balm for development. The divide which it creates between the rich who claim it is their right to be in it and the poor who equally seek it widens daily. Greed, criminality, terrorism and other vices are the end products.

It is this kind of society in transition that Sola Osofisan attempts to capture in ‘Sin-eater’, using the city of Lagos, Nigeria, as his setting. He lashes at those who, consumed by the desire to get richer at all costs, throw caution to the winds and ‘eat’ sin as a daily practice. In his moral tale, insidious corruption has put everyone in a state of helplessness. Police officers are corrupt and are ‘agents’ to multi-millionaire drug barons whom they are supposed to wage war against. (They, in fact, spy for them!) Young people cannot get jobs, despite having worked hard to earn good university degrees and are lured to join the forever-dangerous, yet tempting brigade of drug peddlers. To survive in the society, one has to do that which is neither right nor legitimate, without the fear of the attendant consequences.

The Story

The protagonist of ‘Sin-eater’ is a young lady who believes she has paid her dues by earning a university degree, and so deserves to have a job to take care of herself and her family. Hers is a desire to stop being “another faceless job-hunter pounding these same scarred streets, keening for the powerful words that could transform her from a non-person into a person within an instant. YOU’RE HIRED” (‘Sin-eater’ 3). However, everywhere she goes with her application, Stella meets brick walls, as the jobs are not meant for people like her but for those who are ready to present themselves before the libidinous slaughter slabs of those who hold the keys to the jobs.

As Osofisan narrates,

She (Stella) was propositioned time and again to bargain with something only a well constructed girl like her could offer strategically placed men… Men who unclothed every attractive girl in the secret corners of lewd minds, hungry eyes roaming and ravishing tantalizing nakedness. In return, they promised her favours only power could bestow; employment… a car… money… the very sun. (4)

Consistently rebuffing the moves and pressurized by her poor parents who are supposed to understand, Stella is at her wit’s end and at a point regrets why she opted to be a decent girl. It is at this point in her frustration and desperation that she meets an old school mate, Franca, who gives her a complete wardrobe overhaul and introduces her to a business she later finds out is connected with hard drugs. And then begins her life as a courier.  Stella’s life immediately changes as she begins to adopt a life style that is suitable only for the rich. Osofisan describes the new life that she finds thus:

“It was a life of speed. Reality was a perpetual blur of motion. It was a life on oiled wheels, and all aspired to flaunt the latest and most expensive gizmo-filled car around.” (9)

Stella soon progresses from a local courier flitting within the country between the north and south to an international one who, on the order of the leader of the Organization, heads for America with a package of cocaine. Her naïveté in the business is soon revealed as she is easily outwitted by the wily Franca who, unknown to her, removes the cocaine she is to go and deliver in America from her even before she embarks on the trip and replaces it with a false package. And on her return from the trip, she is accused by the same Franca of having pulled a fast one on the Organization by swapping the cocaine package she was asked to deliver with a fake one. Not able to bear the accusation, and faced with the prospects of a punishment from the Organization, Stella is in deep anguish and flees. As she tries to escape, she suddenly thinks she can be spared the wrath of the Organization if she confesses to the police. Believing that her innocence would be confirmed and that the Organization would be dealt with by the law enforcement agents, she eventually makes her confession to the police. No sooner does she finish than Franca herself appears at the station on the prompting of the very agents she had confessed to! Too late, Stella realizes that the police officers were on the payroll of the Organization and that she had been locked in a most painful setup. Her anguish deepens, she is forcefully given a jab of liquefied cocaine and she passes out.

On the Linguistic Analysis of Literature

This study is hinged on the fact that linguistic insights and methods are useful in the analysis of literature, because, in literature, the writer “does ‘interesting things’ with language” (Leech and Short 2). The creative manipulation of the linguistic code by the writer constitutes an important signal of the ‘interesting things’ the writer does with language, a process that is generally known as foregrounding. The term, ‘foregrounding’, otherwise known as de-automatization of the linguistic code, was introduced by the Prague School of poetics and means, in plain terms,

that the aesthetic exploitation of language takes the form of surprising a reader into a fresh awareness of, and sensitivity to, the linguistic medium which is normally taken for granted as an ‘automatized’ background of communication. (Leech and Short 28)

When a writer combines lexical features regardless of their grammatical classes and/or functions to make “meaning”, or violates the normal restrictions on their use, he creates a foregrounded effect.  Such foregrounding is normally paradigmatic and may be deliberate (an indication of the writer’s style) or merely be part of a tradition. The deliberate deviation from the norms of the language code or the accepted conventions of its use provides important material for the linguist analyzing literature. This is so, because through it, he gets to understand the artistic principle behind the writer’s creation. The language of literature is of especial importance to the linguist because it provides the writer the avenue to convey his unique artistic vision. Thus an understanding of how that medium has been exploited offers us useful ways of accessing the ideational component of the work. This is important, because the business of all art is to communicate, and as Osundare has noted,

Art thrives on the urge to share, to make known, and if possible, pass into common currency what was once a private fancy in the agitated flux that is the writer’s mind. (134)

Osofisan, as a language user, is aware of the normal restrictions that the norms of the English Language code impose. But he goes beyond the expressive possibilities of the language by ranging beyond the normal choices available to him in the language code and establishing, in the process, and for his own purpose, his own unique paradigms. In highlighting, through language, the plight of Stella who finds herself in deep anguish as she tries to survive in a fast-changing, globalizing world, he brings his creativity to bear. The rest of this paper will deal with these manifestations of paradigmatic foregrounding in ‘Sin-eater’.

Paradigmatic Foregrounding in ‘Sin-eater’

As already noted, Osofisan is a sensitive language user. But just as he is sensitive, he is also quite creative. The facility of his linguistic creativity relies a good deal on the collocational patterning he deploys, for ‘Sin-eater’ reveals a plethora of usual and unusual collocations3. Though the medium through which he communicates is prose, his gift as a poet comes in as aid.

When ‘Sin-eater’ begins, it is night, and Stella its protagonist is in flight. The author informs us that the night is not only dark but also deserted, hence Stella’s desperate need to see another person – at least to reduce the intensity of her fear. What she seeks is

1)         Any face. Any safe face. Any safe face away from the place of death… (1)

We must note the repetition in this text, which is used by Osofisan to heighten Stella’s psychological/physical longing for ‘friendly’, ‘trustworthy’ (not enemy, unreliable) company. The author’s deliberate italicization of ‘safe’ suggests that Stella is at the height of her suspicion and, despite her desperation, seeks to be more discerning than ever before. Before, she had trusted and been betrayed, and now, she is not going to take any chances. But the paradigmatic foregrounding resulting from the unusual collocation of ‘safe’ with ‘face’ is most remarkable. In normal usage, it is not quite common for a ‘face’ to be ‘safe’, though ‘place’, a locative nominal, is more common ‘company’ for ‘safe’. Yet the derivation of ‘face’ indicates some form of over-generalization in selection, most likely because of the phonological (vowel) similarity present in the two:

Place                –                       eIs
Face                 –                       eIs

It seems to be Osofisan’s feeling that a ‘face’ can be safe, just like a place, and so an extension of the rule of lexical selection can be undertaken. The use of the unfamiliar with the familiar, no doubt, contributes to the vivacity, freshness and uniqueness of Osofisan’s lexico-semantic structuring.

No less expressive is this passage, which describes Stella’s run from her imaginary pursuers:

2)         She pushed off into the night again, hugging the retreating shadows as if her life depended on it. It probably did. Her haunted eyes darted around the confined space of their sockets, stripping the night of its cloak of darkness… seeking the abnormal in a seemingly normal night. (1)

There is a complex paradigmatic structuring in the above passage, which shows the limitless possibilities of Osofisan’s collocational patterning. The rules of lexical combination are clearly not obeyed as will be appreciated in the paraphrase we render below of the passage:

As she again pushed off into the night, she was hugging the shadows (which were retreating). Her eyes were haunted and they dashed around… their sockets as they stripped the night of the dark cloak which it had.

In this text, possibilities meet impossibilities, as lexical items keep companies they would not ordinarily keep: “She … (was) hugging the retreating shadows”; “Her haunted eyes dashed around… their sockets, stripping the night of its cloak of darkness.” In reality, a human being can hug, but only that which is tangible and not an abstraction like shadows, whether it has the capacity to ‘retreat’ or not. In a similar vein, in ghost stories, we can have haunted ‘houses’, but not ‘eyes’. Ordinarily, that which has no hands or other similar facilities, cannot perform the act of stripping (as eyes are doing in passage 2 above) let alone the night. But in all these instances, Osofisan seeks to communicate something new, to take us into the physical and psychological dimensions of Stella’s fears. As she flees, reality takes on a semblance of unreality, and vice-versa. She has been thrust into the belly of something which she seeks desperately to get away from, and it is a huge battle indeed, catching a clear picture of anything. Her imagination constantly flips, as she is thrust from one stage of fear to another. In this state, as Osofisan describes,

3)         Stella convinced and consoled her galloping imagination that getting away, even temporarily, from Ikeja, a suburb of Lagos, the sprawling once-upon-a-time capital of Nigeria, could better her chances of escaping with her life. (1 – 2)

Human beings have been known to console other human beings, or themselves, but not “galloping imagination”, an abstraction. Similarly, horses are known to gallop, and when they do this, their four feet leave the ground. ‘Imagination’, even when it is at its creative best, is not known to do this. But in foisting these propositions, Osofisan seeks to communicate the intensity of Stella’s confusion as she tries to convince herself that exposing the organization she works for to the police would give her the freedom she seeks. It is a desperate act, but as Osofisan tells us,

4)         but if she could slip through the easily infiltrated police ranks to reach the superiors,     perhaps she could barter with the whole dirty story. Call a press conference and vomit the horrible truth before the whole world. (3)

Interestingly, almost every attempt Osofisan makes to tell his story gets trapped in the web of paradigmatic structuring. In 4) above, for example, the verb phrase, “vomit the horrible truth …” elicits the following meaning:

i)                   That truth can be horrible

ii)                  That truth can be vomited (like food or drink)

At this stage, Stella is ready to throw caution to the wind. She has kept the truth inside of her for quite some time and it is now horrible leaving it to remain there to torture her, to make her sick. She has to, like the act of vomiting, throw it all out, damning the consequences. Osofisan’s imagination is clearly peopled by things which are unreal and it is his ability to bring them to us this way that helps us to appreciate Stella’s dilemma.

When Osofisan goes back in time (a year earlier, actually) to capture Stella’s days of job-hunting, he informs us that Stella inherited the principle of being a good girl from her grandmother, and describes those days of her grandmother as days “when men respected women, and chastity walked proud.” (4)

When Stella and Franca meet again after their university days, we are told that Franca “drove Stella to the nearby Mr Biggs where both of them exhumed old times over a grand feast” (5). Corpses have been known to be exhumed and they are tangible, but not ‘time’, which is temporal and abstract. Osofisan’s choice of the verb ‘exhumed’ offers some indication that what Stella and Franca did was bring the times that were literally old and dead back to life in their conversation and, in reliving them, there is fresh reawakening not unlike a corpse that had been dead and buried being exhumed to be seen again. Clearly, just as the reason for exhuming a corpse is, in most cases, to examine the cause(s) of death, Stella and Franca’s examination of their past as undergraduates helps them to fashion new bonds of friendship which eventually makes Franca secure her first-ever job since leaving the university.

The meeting is crucial, for it signals Stella’s break with a past of intense suffering where

5)         an extended family of plodding job seekers stared her in the face. (4)

At the meeting, Stella had felt cheap beside Franca

6)         although she was turned out in what she considered her battle dress, her best blue flared skirt cringing under a courageous cream shirt. (5)

At that meeting too, Stella’s general appearance had been rather ruffled: “tired clothes, shoes crying for polish, dry crinkled skin…” (5).

Osofisan’s lexical selections and the manner he combines them reveals a broad-based collocational geography. In 5) above, the nominal phrase “an extended family of plodding job seekers” and the verb phrase “stared her in the face” offer some impossibility in real-life situation. But the choice of ‘family’ is meant to convey the feeling that Stella was consoled by seeing other job hunters like her plodding the streets. That this ‘family’ stared her in the face suggests that the reality of their presence was not lost on her.

In 6), in which Osofisan describes Stella’s cream shirt as “courageous”, various reactions are at once elicited: laughter, sympathy, etc. What is not lost on the reader is Stella’s courage to battle all odds. She had worn the dress so often that it had become a trademark. Ironically, it is not by deliberate choice, hence we sympathize with her. The world she finds herself in had values different from the ones she learnt from her grandmother and from the university, and she is prepared to battle on.

Unfortunately, however, Stella’s new job is not the most suitable for her kind of high moral standards even when she meets the high and mighty and the poor and lowly who had been washed by the strange tide of the brand new world. This last group Osofisan calls

7)         The buyers of auctioned dreams, frigid screams… Vague young men and women who had embraced habits they lacked the financial muscle to sustain and the demonic will to refrain from… They drifted about as if borne by the wind, disconnected, coke-caned into the silly state of scattered days… (11)

“The buyers of auctioned dreams” refers to those who seek dreams that are not realizable but can only be imagined under the ecstatic effect of hard drugs. The neologism ‘coke-caned’, which is derived from a Noun + Verb combination is an obvious phonological pun at the word ‘cocaine’ and is meant to reinforce this proposition. The reader’s familiarity with the abbreviated word for cocaine (‘coke’) offers useful guide in the interpretation of the lexical compound. The verb ‘cane’ to which a past-tense ‘- ed’ morpheme has been added in the above passage, refers to the act of hitting someone with a stick as a form of punishment. Osofisan clearly alludes to this act in deriving ‘coke-caned’, meaning to be punished by ‘coke’. Clearly, the men and women who are being spoken about have lost their bearing as a result of excessive indulgence in cocaine and must now float about as dregs of the society.

Stella had been working for six months when she meets, for the first time, with the head of her Organization variously referred to as ‘Chief’, ‘Father’ and ‘God Father’. She is given briefs on a mission she has to go with hard drugs to the United States. During the brief, we are told that

8)        The Chief turned back to Stella, his low voice hissing out of the small mouth like the unwanted blessings of a mamba. (11)

The simile in this text exhibits instances of irregular foregrounding. How does one “hiss” words from his mouth when he is speaking in a low voice and a hiss is supposed to suggest a loud whisper? Again, how can these words be likened to the “unwanted blessings of a mamba”? Can a mamba bless, even if the blessings are “unwanted”? Incredulity is what stares the reader who confronts this passage. But like every instance of foregrounded irregularity in literature, there is always some form of “sense” in apparent nonsense. Information offered by Osofisan indicates that the Chief is the most feared person in the Organization. He is not only thought to be like God, but believed to be God himself. He is held in deep awe, and his word is law. These things explain why at this encounter Stella is completely overwhelmed by respect and fear that even make her tremble. Even when the Chief “appears” from the rooms to meet Stella, she sees that as “materializing” (13). Thus Osofisan’s preference for the word “hissing” is well motivated. He is seeing things from Stella’s perspective. She is not listening because of her awe, and, therefore, everything comes to her like hissing. As for the reference to the venomous African snake called the mamba, it is observable that its motivation derives from the preceding word “hissing”, for it is the habit of this snake (like all snakes) to hiss. But more importantly, Osofisan alludes to the awe in which Stella holds the Chief as he briefs her. Like the mamba, whatever pronouncements that would come from him would never go down well with her in her state of mind. It is necessary to note that it is this encounter with the Chief that is responsible for the change in Stella’s fortune.

When Stella eventually goes to the police station after her wandering to expose the Organization, she meets

9)         A moody policeman perched behind a moody desk in a mouldy office moodily stabbing at his nicotined teeth with a ballpoint. (23)

Besides,

10)       Dirty posters on the abused walls lamely urged: HELP THE POLICE TO FOIL A ROBBERY… DIAL 199… THE POLICE IS YOUR FRIEND. (23)

The picture Osofisan paints here is a laughable, yet grim one, and it is at once meant to suggest that where Stella had come thinking she would place all her burden would, despite its pretences, offer her no succour afterall.

In passage 9), we are struck by the nominal phrase, “a moody desk”, which offers to the reader a rather strange proposition. Expressions like “a moody man”, “a moody child”, where the adjective, ‘moody’ selects an animate object, are quite familiar, as only an animate object with human characteristics can elicit the action described. But not a “moody desk” in which ‘desk’ has the features

–        animate

–        human

–        + item of furniture.

Osofisan’s choice is meant for stylistic purposes. He sets to paint a gloomy picture of the police station where not only the personnel but also the objects that are in it offer no hope to those who come there. His proposition seems to be that only a ‘moody’ desk would befit a “moody policeman”.

The picture of gloom is also captured in text 10) which is reflective of the posters in police stations calling on everyone to cooperate and assist the police because they are our friends. Of special interest to us is Osofisan’s collocation of the past tense verb ‘urged’ with the noun phrase “dirty posters”. There is clearly a ‘mistake’ of selection here, because literally speaking if anything would have to urge, it would have to be a living, animate, most expectedly human object endowed with that capacity. Posters have no capacity to ‘urge’, let alone ‘lamely’, except, perhaps, figuratively. Thus Osofisan’s personification of posters in the passage is stylistically designed to animate them, give them human attributes. Unfortunately, this attribute of animacy goes further to reinforce the attenuating capacity of the human being to do anything right or well. That the posters are said to be dirty and can only urge ‘lamely’ suggests this.

Stella’s final betrayal by her friend, Franca, is revealed at the station where Franca and two men from the Organization are secretly invited to the station by the very policeman Stella had confessed to. She thought she still had hope when Franca indirectly admits to her that she had been responsible for the swapping of the cocaine parcel. But as we are told,

11)       Stella found her friend’s eyes… Saw the sorry smile… And hope died a premature death.                                                                                                                             (29)

Once again, the expression “hope died a premature death” instances paradigmatic foregrounding as ‘hope’ is invested with life to the extent that it is given the capacity to die even prematurely. This is the same death Stella had envisaged and feared but which, as things were, seemed most likely for her when she is forcefully injected with the liquefied cocaine and she falls into unconsciousness.

Conclusion

There is little doubt that one important facility language offers the language user, despite its rules, is a high level of flexibility. It is this flexibility which enables him to manipulate language in the manner he does to project his artistic vision. In this paper, we have seen how Osofisan, in trying to tell the story of his character in a globalizing world, goes beyond language’s expressive means and establishes his own unique paradigms. The unique collocations which establish these paradigms are clearly indicative of his creativity as a writer. They also affirm that a writer truly worth his salt who confronts a reality in which he must express himself must do so in a manner that he would not be constrained. Reaching beyond language’s expressive means is a manifestation of this freedom of the creative spirit. In ‘Sin-eater’, Osofisan has focused on the anguish of his character. He has explored the nature of this anguish against a backcloth of the character’s anxieties and fears. At the end, we do not just have a realistic portrait of the character, but also the world in which she tries to live.

Overall, our aim in this study has been to see how in examining aspects of the tools Osofisan has used in telling his story we are able to establish a basis for critical intuitions.

Notes

1        See UNESCO. Globalization and Governance in the UN System. http.//www.unesc.org/most/globalization/Introduction.htm.

2        See e-cyclopedia. Globalization: What on Earth is it about? BBC News Special Report, February, 1999.

3        Remarking on the importance of collocation to the study of the language of literature, Gregory and Spencer state that “the creative writer often achieves some of his effects through the interaction between usual and unusual collocations” (‘An Approach to the Study of Style’ 674).  Collocation itself is set up to account for the tendency of certain items in a language to occur close together.  Simply put, it is the ‘company’ lexical items keep.

Works Cited

Erling, Elizabeth J. & Hilgendorf, Suzanne K. ‘Globalization and Its Impact on Higher Education in the German    Context. Essen: LAUD P aper (2004), No. 623.

e-cyclopedia. Globalization: What on Earth is it about? BBC News Special Report, February, 1999.

Gregory, M. and Spencer, JA New Social Order. ‘An Approach to the Study of Style’. Linguistics and Style.

Eds. N. E. Enkvist et al. London: OUP, 1964.

Leech, Geoffrey and Michael Short.  Style in Fiction: A Linguistic Introduction to English Fictional Prose. Essex:  Longman Group, 1981.

Osofisan, Sola. Darkvisions. Lagos: Malthouse Press, 2001.

Osundare, Niyi. ‘Style and Literary Communication in African Prose Fiction in English’. Topical Issues in  Communication Arts 1. Ed. Solomon Unoh. Uyo: Modern Business Press, 1987. 134-167.

Oyeleye, ‘Lekan. ‘The New  Linguistic Order: A Critical Examination of the Impact of  Globalization on the  English Language (in Nigeria)’.  Perspectives on Language and Literature. Eds. Moji Olateju & ‘Lekan Oyeleye.  Ife: Obafemi AwolowoUniversity Press, 2005.

UNESCO. Globalization and Governance in the UN System. http.//www.unesc.org/most/globalization/Introduction.htm.

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Reposted courtesy the author and http://www.asomwan.com/

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