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How does Gurnah use characterization and the motif of dislocation to reveal social struggles in colonial East Africa in Paradise?

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Introduction

Paradise published in 1994, is a novel by Zanzibari writer Abdulrazak Gurnah. Set in the early 20th century, in the advent of colonization in East Africa, the story is a bildungsroman that follows the personal journey of the protagonist, Yusuf. After being pawned to his uncle Aziz by his parents Yusuf embarks on a journey through different households and trading expeditions. Coastal East Africa during this time was a cultural melting pot; the "highly Islamised and Arab-influenced Kiswahili-speaking area of East Africa" (Cammack) provides a complex scene where ethnic diversities intersect. Pre-colonial Zanzibar is central due to its major trading and slavery, factors that play a key role in the book. The fiction of Gurnah depicts issues of subalternity, power, and agency through a society on the brink of European domination. Gurnah explores social struggles through individuals' inner psyche and interrelations, rooted within the most basic units of a community. Various critics of the novel like those of Diane Schwerdt, CharlesSaran and Jacqueline Bardolph perceive Paradise as a response to Conrad's Heart of Darkness. While references can be found, these critics often follow the somewhat stereotypical tropes in common European colonial narratives. Thus, the critiques ignore the intricate relations of groups and subjects beyond the axes of 'the colonizer and the colonized’. Instead, this essay focuses on "approaching the novel as explicating the complications of East Africa before European imperialism" (Hodapp). Challenging stereotypes of colonial domination, this text reveals social malfunctions and asymmetrical relationships of people and events of the book. James Hodapp argues that "African literature has been stalled by this focus on European colonial narratives, which assumes that either there is no African literature before Things Fall Apart or that is not worthy of being incorporated in the field" (Hodapp). After reading Things Fall Apart myself,

 

I was interested in the effects of colonialism. Achebe makes it easy to perceive Europeans as antagonists, easily placing our sympathy with, the Igbo people. On the other hand, in Paradise's unique approach, "Gurnah deliberately complicates such a vision by portraying competing societies" (Ruberto 165). “Just over one year since Gurnah won the Nobel Prize in Literature, his book Paradise has been translated into his first language – Swahili” (Gurnah’s book). Before his Nobel prize, the book was nowhere to be found in East African countries. The fact that it was written in English further shows the effect of colonialism on colonial narratives. “Postcolonial thought starts out from the possibilities prompted by such transcultural histories, which offer other kinds of knowledge and cultural perspectives to those who dominate the world” (Young 22). Although Paradise was originally in english, falling victim to postcolonialism, ironically, it contains important historically subjugated knowledges alternative to traditional European colonial accounts. While there have been philosophical reviews of Paradise, this essay explores the literary strategies of a colonial novel, which centers on social tensions and diasporas.

 

To better understand the intent behind the research question, it is important to Consider Njabulo Ndebele's argument of the "rediscovery of the ordinary." Ndebele notes, "protest literature glosses over subtle human intimacies, in the process ignoring reflective and nuanced workings of human relationships" (Okungu 7). Ndebele's critique relates to Paradise as it proposes a narrative concerned with quotidian interactions of human experiences, where historical reference resides in the background. The extent to which Gurnah reveals social issues and colonialism can be explored in his crafting of characters, their interactions, and the recurring idea of dislocation. These are the driving forces of the novel, investigated below.

Methodology

While Paradise takes place in the pre-colonial era, Gurnah wrote it from a postcolonial perspective, and the audience reads in a mostly current postcolonial context. According to Young, postcolonial devalued knowledge needs to be unearthed to regain fundamental cultural knowledge. "The self-conscious attempt to decolonize the mind and reappropriate repressed or devalued knowledge" (Young 23). This is seen in the book as it challenges colonial stereotypes by shifting away from the monolithic colonizer/colonized binary. Gurnah states, "I thought it was necessary to try and write and see how it might have worked if you portrayed a society that was actually fragmented" (qtd. in Ruberto 165). A more specific concept of postcolonialism that is evident in Paradise is Hybridity. "Cultures have become increasingly heterogeneous and diversified" (Young 77). East African societies mediated between languages, religions, and ethnicities. The idea of hybridity and the importance of human interactions in Paradise is further explained through the philosophical lens of Ricoeur. Ricoeur refers to the term " "temporalization of history" (Ricouer 1988, P 219) ... A "who" appears at that point of intersection where the history of a culture - sedimented and transmitted in its stock of knowledge, sayings, parables, songs and, myths that is the narrative and texts that constitute and inscribe a "structure of felling" - crosses the history of a named subject, constituting a particular consciousness." (Venn 45). The notion of temporalization reflects on the characters in the book as the reader indulges in their experiences. At a point where a culture's history crosses a specific character with a particular consciousness, we have a link between agency and the broader historical picture. Yusuf's constant dislocation allows him to cross different subjects within a specific historical standpoint, ultimately developing his identity. Thus, this essay discusses the author’s choices to reveal the social dynamics of colonial East Africa through two main techniques; characterization through agency and relationships. And the motif of dislocation as seen in exile and traveling.

Characterization

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  • Agency

    Gurnah focuses on micro dealings without denying an oppressive political power, but instead shifts focus to the deep characterization of his characters. The omniscient narrative voice is a driving force the author uses to allow interiority. Interiority allows the reader insight into the character's emotions and motives which are key to understanding their growing agency.

    • In the long silence, Yusuf could not make himself say the words that were burning in him. I want to take her away. It was wrong of you to marry her. To abuse her as if she has nothing which belongs to her. To own people the way you own us. In the end, Uncle Aziz rose to his feet and offered Yusuf his hand to kiss. As Yusuf bent forward into the clouds of perfume, he felt Uncle Aziz's other hand rest on the back of his head for a second and then give him a sharp pat. (Gurnah 241)

     

    In this extract from the book, Yusuf resents not being able to liberate Amina and himself. The narrator gives the reader interiority into Yusuf's feelings and thoughts. Firstly the realization of his slave estate. Yusuf says it is wrong "to own people the way you own us". His inner thoughts demonstrate his growing agency towards being enslaved. He no longer sees Aziz as a family figure but as an enslaver. Although he is growing in consciousness, he cannot say these words to Aziz. The italics in the text separate Yusuf’s direct internal monologue from the omniscient narrator’s description. The clever use of inner thoughts demonstrates that he is not yet able to break out of the slave-master relationship with his Uncle Aziz. "Contrary to some nineteenth-century slave narratives, Yusuf appears unable to overcome his lot" (Ruberto 158). This is further reinforced at the end of the extract when Yusuf kisses his seyyid's hands. This act demonstrates that his sense of agency is not enough to break out of the power dynamics imposed by Aziz. Toward the end of the novel, the narrator says -

    • "He would feel no remorse about his parents... They had abandoned him years ago to win their own freedom, and now he would abandon them. If they had gained any relief from his captivity, it would now end while he went to make a life for himself. While he was freely roaming the plains he might even call in on them and thank them for giving him some thought lessons to set him up in life." (Gurnah 234)

     

    Ironically, Yusuf is deciding to abandon his parents, who have already abandoned him. This irony is used to emphasize Yusuf's denial of his parent's absence as he tries to shift the decision to him. Moreover, the contrasting words "relief" and "captivity" are placed together; the words connote opposite feelings. This antithesis further supports the irony that in Yusuf's life, searching for freedom seems to be paradoxical to his subaltern status. The depiction of the lack of parental figures and childhood "for Africans is, therefore, a psychogenic impulse of self assertion and self search" (Okungu 44). Yusuf's plan to "make a life for himself" and roam freely in the plains is presented as an opportunity to him at the end of the novel; when the German column arrives at the shop and Yusuf “ran after the column with smarting eyes” (Gurnah 247). This final part has an ambiguous ending, leaving the reader to personal interpretation. Yusuf is then caught at the “temporalization of history” as he is caught between the intersections of two competing cultures. Running toward the Europeans marks the end of his relationship with Aziz; while he is able to break out of his old master, it is suggested that he now joins another oppressive master. This “signals not only the end of Yusuf’s relationship with the Arab social system but also the supersession of one exploitative system by another.” (Ruberto 161).

     

    A recurring tool in the book used to further emphasize the lack of belonging and agency is the role of naming. As seen when Yusuf arrives at his uncle's shop and Khalil tells him, "And don't say him, say seyyid." (Gurnah 24) also, "He doesn't like beggars like you calling him Uncle, Uncle, Uncle. He likes you to kiss his hand and call him seyyid... it means master." (Gurnah 25). According to Khalil calling Aziz master (seyyid) is crucial, and he goes as far as punishing him if he says it wrong. To an even greater extent, the naming and re-naming of his Uncle Aziz blurs Yusuf's perceptions of parental figures in his life. "Uncle Aziz is absent just by the fact that he is not an actual parent but a master" (Okungu 50). Another example of naming is the nickname coined by Khalil: "listen to me, hey, Kifa Urongo...That was the name Khalil had for him in those days. Kifa Urongo, living death" (Gurnah 23). Obtaining a new name is linked to Yusuf's process of erasure of identity and alterity. The nickname 'living death' is also purposeful because it is highly representative of his marginal position within society. Yusuf is taken out of his natal home, and his domestic space becomes the many micro-spaces where childhood is interrupted. In that manner, naming disrupts the continuity of upbringing and distances family figures from Yusuf. Ultimately this has two purposes: It delays identity formation and independence. Second, it represents the effect of slavery on diasporic and marginalized groups.

    Interactions and relationships

    "Ricoeur stresses that we are literally 'entangled stories' (Ricouer 1996 p.6)" (qtd. in Venn). Following the French philosopher, the characters in Paradise seek to gain subjectivity through personal journeys, but they can only find it through the complexities and interactions of their communities. Paradise is told from the point of view of Yusuf and his myriad interactions. A discussion of two interactions and relations are explored under the importance of Yusuf’s journeys.

     

    Firstly, Yusuf's romantic relationships, as seen with Amina, reveal their subordinate state under a slave-master relationship to the broader power dynamics in society. Yusuf desires to escape with her and says, "Leave, and let me come with you" (Gurnah 233). As much as his love for her is strong, they are bound to the state of slavery. It is ironic that Amina was rescued from slavery by Aziz, yet she has no real freedom. Gurnah uses monologue to represent Yusuf's inner imagination, even though later on, he asks her to escape with him, they never do. In Paradise, "partners grapple with cultural, economic and racial forces which define them in negative and derogatory ways" (Okungu 12). Yusuf's relationships often fail due to the political and cultural struggles that inevitably affect them. So, factors over which they have no control, dictate their state of servitude. The reader can also observe this with Bati, one of the women Yusuf meets in a merchant's village. "What is this trading to do with a healthy young man like him? He says let him stay here, and Bati will teach him about life" (Gurnah 167). Nevertheless, their love does not go far as Yusuf is tied to a master, and Batu has her duty in her village. Via these romances, Gurnah reveals the micro-politics hindering relationships, which in turn are entangled with macro-politics (e.g., the economy of barter, as well as German domination).

     

    Gurnah's narrative strategy and diverse characters allow for a polyphony of voices, resulting in a discrepancy and hybridity of views. Such voices are "filtered through the unbiased and limited point of view of the slave-boy Yusuf" (Ruberto 142). The following extract is an exchange between Hussein and Hamid (Yusuf's current guardian), heard by Yusuf.

    • 'Do you know what I've heard about him, your partner? ' Hussein continued. 'that if his partners cannot pay up, he takes their sons and daughters as rehani. This is like in the days of slavery. It is not the way honourable people should conduct themselves.' (Gurnah 89)

     

    Clearly, it is sarcastic to say taking him as a rehani is like "in the days of slavery". Yusuf is currently a slave to Aziz, and other masters masked as parental figures; he is a direct example of Hussein's dialogue. Through Yusuf's de-attached point of view, he starts to gather information about himself and those around him. In this extract, Yusuf specifically learns more about Aziz as a master, unveiling his true role as his rehani and gaining consciousness.

     

    Gurnah's choice of having the narrative "coincide with that of Yusuf's perspective the novel allows different and competing accounts to overlap" (Ruberto 146). Gurnah's characterization and development of Yusuf are elucidated by allowing these heterogenous accounts to overlap through his personal journey. This is a clear example of how Gurnah traverses the complexities and overlapping parties of pre-colonial East Africa.

     

    Another function of the conversations heard by Yusuf is to represent the ambivalence of Africans and Arabs with respect to the Europeans. Hussein tells Hamid and Yusuf, "'I fear for the times ahead of us' ... 'These Europeans, and as they fight over the prosperity of the earth they will crush all of us. You'd be a fool to think they're here to do anything that is good'" (Gurnah 86). Hussein, unlike other characters (e.g. Abdalla), has a more prophetic and long-term view of the impact of European colonialism. His character assesses European dominion from a more social and psychological standpoint rather than economic in nature. Later in the novel, during Yusuf's trips to the interior, he gathers accounts from an economic point of view "there will be no more journeys now that the European dogs are everywhere." (Gurnah 186). These conflicting views (Hussein, Abdalla) are as complex as the changes brought upon by colonialism.

     

    In the various conversations of characters, Gurnah uses imagery and exaggeration to portray the Europeans as this irrational and brutal force. One of the traders says, referring to the Europeans, "they can go for days without sleep or water. Their spit is poisonous. Wallahi, I swear to you it burns the flesh if it splashes you.". The reader knows the characteristics used to describe the Europeans are erroneous; however, the exaggeration has a comedic effect. Abdalla refers to the Europeans as dogs and says, "By the time they've finished with us they would have fucked us up every hole in our bodies. Fucked us beyond recognition. We'll be worse than the shit they'll make us eat." (Gurnah 186). The author's repeated use of curse words has a startling effect upon reading the passage. It shows the anger of Abdalla, who recognizes that European arrival will imminently cause the end of the trading culture around which his life revolves. Moreover, the image Gurnah depicts, where the Europeans fuck "every hole" and make the natives "eat shit," is disturbing and further reinforces Abdalla's anger, which is rooted in fear. Through inconsistent narrative voices, Gurnah portrays the feelings of the merchants and traders whose life was about to be impacted by powerful European domination.

    Dislocation

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  • Exile

    Exile is a recurring theme in Gurnah's novels. In Paradise, the audience follows Yusuf as he is dislocated and relocated. While migrancy allows him to grasp various competing cultures, it is grappling with defining his identity while constantly changing masters and environments. The following scene occurs after Yusuf has been exiled from his home and has arrived at Aziz's house.

    • He caught a glimpse of the garden through the doorway...When he started to follow, his uncle, without turning round, extended the palm of his hand from his body and held it stiffly out as he walked away. Yusuf had never seen the gesture before, but he felt its rebuke and knew it meant he was not to follow. (Gurnah 21).

     

    "This scene, through an extremely symbolic social division of space, configures the liminality of the slave figure." (Ruberto 143) This marks the beginning of the intricate slave-master relationship between Aziz and Yusuf. The garden to which he is denied entry and the hand signaling are symbols that help depict the levels of power and subjugation Yusuf experiences during his slavery status. Afterward, in the novel, Aziz gives Yusuf to Hamid, his new temporary master. When Aziz left him, "There had been no explanations, simply a pat on the head and the instruction to stay behind with Hamid.” (Gurnah 63). Aziz who was the closest thing to a father figure for Yusuf had left him with a new master. In Paradise, the disruption and erasure of identity "originates from a person of authority in the protagonist's young life, mostly within the family" (Okungu 41). This is the difference with slavery in pre-colonial coastal East Africa; slavery was internal, taking place within families or relatives. On the contrary Western slavery was of an outside origin. The abandonment of Yusuf by family members is perhaps challenging the trope in colonial narratives that Europeans are the sole cause of slavery. Gurnah lets the reader into the malfunctions of the primary micro space that is family to let the reader judge experiences lived by multiple individuals during colonialism. The regular change of master and acculturation Yusuf experiences throughout the novel places him at the margins of various competing societies and authorities. The relationships between Yusuf and his various authorities can be seen as parallel to the layers of authority in colonial Africa. Yusuf appears to be trapped in a stage of transition between the competing parties in coastal Arab/African society. Hence, the term hybridity, as seen with Yusuf’s collision with heterogeneous cultures, mirrors the concept of hybridity as a result of colonialism. As he grows, he has to learn to adapt to the changing dynamics in the societies he is forced into. This is essentially a reflection of the historical experiences of East Africa, as the different prisms of colonization had to adapt to the changing environment.

    Travel and Trade

    Kenyan scholar Gikandi's thesis on the role of travel says, "It is primarily by rewriting the colonial other along the traces and aporias sustained by the trope of travel that the imperial travelers can understand themselves" (qtd. in Ruberto 128). By these means Paradise, sustains the importance of travel to give voice to marginalized groups that might have been altered by European colonial literature. The different trips Yusuf partakes in drive the plot. The journey to the interior is perhaps the biggest event in the opening of Yusuf's consciousness. Also, traveling helps to set in motion the inclusion of differing cultures. The importance of traveling and trade can be observed in the following description.

     

    "A drum, a horn and a tamburi, all played with joyful and irresistible zest, led the men off. Behind the musicians a line of porters carried the packs and sacks, shouting cheerful abuse at each other and at bystanders who had come to see them off." (Gurnah 35). The whole scene is heightened to a semi-mythical level. The author paints an image in the reader's mind of a festive scene where bystanders celebrate porters.

     

    Travel is also meaningful as it appears as a way of unity. "The travellers brought news with them and incredible stories of daring and fortitude on the journeys. A few people from the town came to share their company and listen to the travellers" (Gurnah 71). Here Gurnah is portraying traveling as a way of gathering and unity, bringing the vast diversity of people of East Africa into one crowd, one mass. It could be argued that Gurnah chose traveling as a recurring idea because it is a way of unification that is being threatened by European settlement. An institution (trading) of such importance is representative of "the multilayered East African social, political, cultural, and economic space at the time" (Berman). Abdalla also taught Yusuf about the business of trading -

    • "'This is what we're on this earth to do... 'To trade. We go to the driest deserts and the darkest forests, and care nothing whether we trade with a king or a savage, or whether we live or die. It's all the same to us. You'll see some of the places we pass, where people have not yet been brought to life by trade, and they live like paralysed insects. There are no people more clever than traders, no calling more noble. It is what gives us life. (Gurnah 119).

     

    This statement by the mnyapara (caravan leader) Abdalla demonstrates that trading isn't even a job but "life". Gurnah writes a series of juxtaposing sentences, "king or savage", this or that... to highlight the extent the travelers go to trade. Next, the simile compares people who have not experienced trading to "paralysed insects", suggesting trading is as essential to life in East Africa as life itself. "For Gurnah, the members of the caravan are not interchangeable stand-ins for East African traders but individual storytellers and characters whose personal travails are as important as the history of East African caravans" (Hodapp 100). In such a manner, the colonized subject resisting imminent colonial rule is given a voice through the stories and experiences of travelers and traders.

    Conclusion

    According to Newman, Postcolonial writers are "often at their politically sharpest, when they are also at their most literary" (qtd. in Jacobs, J. U.). This is true for Gurnah, whose unique portrayal of East Africa challenges previous colonial writings and the reader's feelings. Like Ndebele's argument of the "rediscovery of the ordinary." Gurnah explores issues of power, personal agency, subalternity, culture, and colonization by going back to the 'ordinary'. He explores human experiences in prose that aids in unearthing the complex layers of the parties involved in East Africa. The deep characterization of his characters is developed through their experiences in the quotidian micro-spaces, to their migrant habitats. The interactions between characters and the link between person and place afford the reader a lens to read pre- colonial Africa through the basic units of the community. The motif of dislocation and exile places Yusuf "at the margins of two competing systems of rule where relationships of power cannot be overturned, Yusuf “becomes the epitome of the disempowered colonial subject." (Ruberto 161). Abdulrazak Gurnah is able to counteract European recounts by writing a novel driven by subordinate voices from the perspective of a slaved boy. The wide variety of voices challenges the reader to question, rather than judge, the stories of travel and slavery in pre to postcolonial East Africa. To conclude, Gurnah sets the notion of colonialism into perspective through the overlooked stories and effects on particular communities while also exploring the inner aspects of individuals. Ultimately unearthing the complexities of colonialism that go beyond stereotypical narratives of oppressive European domination.

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  • Works Cited

    Berman, Nina. "Yusuf's Choice: East African Agency during the German Colonial Period in Abdulrazak Gurnah's Novel<i>Paradise</i>." English Studies in Africa, vol. 56, no. 1, May 2013, pp. 51-64. Taylor & Francis Online, https://doi.org/10.1080/00138398.2013.780681. Abstract.

     

    Cammack, Paul. "Abdulrazak Gurnah, Paradise, Bloomsbury, 1994, 2004." What's Worth Reading, Weebly, whatsworthreading.weebly.com/paradise.html#:~:text=It%20relates%20the%20jou rney%20of,at%20the%20heart%20of%20both. Accessed 20 Aug. 2022. Gurnah, Abdulrazak. Paradise. New York City, New Press, 1994.

     

    Gurnah, Abdulrazak. Paradise. New York City, New Press, 1994.

     

    "Gurnah's Book Paradise Translated Into Swahili". The Star, 2022, https://www.the- star.co.ke/news/africa/2022-11-14-gurnahs-book-paradise-translated-into-swahili/. Accessed 1 Dec 2022.

     

    Hodapp, James. "Imagining Unmediated Early Swahili Narratives in Abdulrazak Gurnah's 'Paradise.'" English in Africa, vol. 42, no. 2, 2015, pp. 89-107. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26359419. Accessed 17 Sept. 2022.

     

    Jacobs, J. U. "TRADING PLACES in ABDULRAZAK GURNAH'S<i>PARADISE</i>." English Studies in Africa, vol. 52, no. 2, Oct. 2009, pp. 77-88, https://doi.org/10.1080/00138390903444164.

     

    Okungu, Anne Ajulu. Reading Abdulrazak Gurnah: Narrating Power and Human Relationships. 2016. U of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, PhD thesis. Core.ac.uk, core.ac.uk/download/pdf/188769731.pdf. Accessed 18 Aug. 2022.

     

    Ruberto, Marco Neil. Itinerant Narratives: Travel, Identity and Literary Form in Abdulrazak Gurnah's Fiction. 2009. Nottingham Trent University, PhD thesis. Core.ac.uk, core.ac.uk/download/pdf/30650952.pdf. Accessed 28 Aug. 2022.

     

    Venn, Couze. "Narrative Identity, Subject Formation, and the Transfiguration of Subjects." Subjectivity, vol. 13, nos. 1-2, 4 Apr. 2020, pp. 39-59, https://doi.org/10.1057/s41286-020-00089-7.

     

    Young, Robert J. C. Postcolonialism. 2nd ed., Oxford University Press, 2020. Very Short Introductions.

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