Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Orality vs. Literacy

While reading Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, I found myself taking special interest in the Ibo proverbs that seemed to appear on almost every page.  I loved how the Ibo incorporated proverbs into everything, from life lessons, to children’s stories, to warnings about the future.  For every event, there was a proverb to go along with it.  Their oral culture, so different from anything we experience in our modern, Western world, fascinated me, so I was immediately drawn to Ashcroft’s observations on orality.  Ashcroft points out that there is an “interrelationship between orality and literacy” (165) in post-colonial societies.  At first, it is hard to conceptualize this “interrelationship” when the two terms seem to be polar opposites.  Where one exists, the other does not.  We see this with the Ibo culture, where nothing is written, but instead passed down by spoken word.  Sadly however, at the end of the novel when British missionaries begin colonizing, there is a loss of orality.  As readers, we see “the dominance of writing...and Eurocentric notions of civilization as well as the view of writing as the vehicle of authority and truth, [leading] to an undervaluing of oral culture” (Ashcroft 166).  The proverbs become less prominent and the Ibo begin saying things like “My father used to say to me...” (Achebe 203), implying that their oral culture is slowly becoming a thing of the past.  
Orality versus Literacy creates a great internal conflict for the reader.  Are the Ibo better off with their oral culture, or should they be taught to read and write?  The paradox here, however, is that Achebe conveys the beauty of this traditional oral culture through the power of his own literacy.  In order to convey orality, it was necessary to employ literacy.  Achebe perfectly illustrates Ashcroft’s point by proving that there can be a functioning “interrelationship” between oral and literate cultures.  He shows that he can be Ibo, but he can also be an acclaimed English writer.  Achebe does not demand one or the other, he suggests both can exist in unison.  By doing so, Achebe invites the reader to see the world, not as black and white, but as a vibrant shade of grey.    

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