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This is where I come from, [Galahad] tell Daisy. You see how far it is from
England? (Sam Selvon). Compare and contrast ways in which writers on the course
present relations between England and another place and a transformation of English
and / or Englishness.
In this essay I plan to compare Sam Selvons 1956 novel The Lonely Londoners with
Chinua Achebes 1958 work Things Fall Apart. Although both novels were
published within only two years of each other, the texts focus on very different
themes within very different historical settings. Such texts encourage the process of
undermining authoritive readings of Englishness, of culture, nation, race and class1,
and by engaging with post-colonial criticism throughout my essay, I hope to come to
a conclusion about how both Selvon and Achebe represent a relationship between
England and another place, their home countries. For Selvon, the interaction between
peoples from the West Indian Caribbean and England, and more specifically London,
are of ultimate interest where as the focus within Achebes work is the invasion of an
African clan- the Igbo- by European missionaries. I will be exploring how the
depiction of the interactions of these groups of people come to represent
contemporary issues about colonialism and reverse-colonization between England and
two other places. Through this representation, I believe that a transformation of the
English language and what is considered Englishness will occur in both texts.
Although published in the late 1950s, Chinua Achebes Things Fall Apart
depicts pre-colonial Nigeria in the 1890s. Writing in retrospect, Achebe is able to
document the colonization of Africa in a time where the British Empire was
undergoing the process of decolonization. The novel can be seen as a response to
European works such as Joseph Conrads Heart of Darkness (1899), Achebe claiming
that Conrad was a bloody racist who rendered Africa to a metaphysical battlefield

David Rogers, The Revision of Englishness, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004), p.47.

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devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his
own peril2. Achebe himself recalls a time when he was younger and living in
Nigeria when he took sides with the white characters in works such as John Buchans
Prester John (1910) and Sir H. Rider Haggards King Solomons Mines (1885) and
even disliked Africans3. The white man, Achebe remembers, was good and
reasonable and intelligent and courageous. The savages arrayed against him were
sinister and stupid or, at the most, cunning. I hated their guts4. Soonsik Kim states
that Achebes portrayal of Igbo people and culture is contrasted to that of Conrads
portrayal of the Congolese in Heart of Darkness. Achebe has successfully created a
different kind of discourse on Africa. His works are among the first in English to
present an authentic inside view of African culture and people to the world outside
Africa5.
The fact that Achebe chose to write Things Fall Apart in English, and not his
mother tongue of Igbo, is one of the most interesting elements of the relationship
between England and Africa in the novel. Written standard Igbo was a stilted form
that was created by combining various dialects, and although written English was the
language of colonization itself6 and the one language enjoying nationwide
currency7, Achebes Things Fall Apart was one of the first works of African
literature to be written in the English language, with the exception of such texts as
Amos Tutuolas Palm-Wine Drinkard (1952) and Cyprian Ekwensis People of the
2
3

Chinua Achebe, Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays (New York: Doubleday, 1989), p.6.
Ezenwha Ohaeto, Chinua Achebe: A Biography (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997),
pp.26-27.
4
Ibid.
5 Soonsik Kim, Colonial and Postcolonial Discourse in the Novels of Yom Sang-Sop, Chinua Achebe
and Salman Rushdie, (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2004), p.17.
6 Amy Sickels, The Critical Reception of Things Fall Apart, Salem Press,
[http://salempress.com/store/samples/critical_insights/things_fall_reception.htm] <accessed 19
November 2013>.
7 Chinua Achebe, Morning Yet on Creation Day, (London: Heinemann Educational, 1975), pp.77-78.

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City (1954). The novel, written in English, thus became accessible to non-Africans,

and in particular, Europeans. Essentially, the colonizers were now able to read a story
of colonization from the point of view from those whom they once colonized.
Although some criticized Achebes decision to write Things Fall Apart in English,
with some denouncing the language as part of the neo-colonial structures that repress
progressive ideas8 and writers such as the Kenyan Ngg wa Thiongo urged the use
of indigenous languages in African literature, Achebe defended his use of the English
language in his essay The African Writer and the English Language. In this essay,
Achebe argues that colonization gave the African people a language with which to
talk to one another9 and if it failed to give them a song, it at least gave them a
tongue, for sighing. There are not many countries in Africa today where you could
abolish the language of the erstwhile colonial powers and still retain the facility for
mutual communication10.
Yet there is another function still to Achebes decision to write Things Fall
Apart in English. Kim states that European colonial discourse on Africa was always
condescending. Thus Achebes dignified and stately narrative voice shatters the
European myth of the Other11. It is to this effect that Achebe modifies the English
language within his text. The novel relies heavily on the oral traditional that is so
important in the Igbo culture and draws on numerous folk tales to illustrate different
arguments throughout, such as the tale of the Quarrel between the Earth and Sky.
Many Igbo words are also included and glossed and it is by peppering the novel with
Igbo words, (that) Achebe shows that the Igbo language is too complex for direct
8

Ohaeto, p.246.
Achebe, (1975), pp.77-78.
10 Isidore Okpewho, Chinua Achebes Things Fall Apart: A Casebook, (New York: Oxford University
Press, 2003), p.58.
11 Kim, p.17.
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translation into English12. This contradicts the common perception among the

subjects of the British Empire that Africa was a land of silence, a negation of Western
culture and values. Where as Conrad and his contemporaries made the African
language sound primitive through his portrayal of encounters in Africa, Achebes
translation into English still retains the cadences, rhythms and speech patterns of the
language. Early on in the novel, the narrator states: Among the Igbo the art of
conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words
are eaten13. Here the reader receives an insight into the misunderstandings that have
occurred between the English and the Africans in terms of communication. In line
with this idea, Helen Luu believes that a grammar of values reveal the cultural
attitudes and the systems of values of society in which they exist14. Luu continues to
argue that the variety of Igbo linguistic and cultural forms function to alienate the
non-Igbo reader- in particular, the Western non-Igbo reader- by foregrounding the
readers position as cultural outsider to the Igbo society portrayed in the novel15.
Essentially, Achebe puts the colonizer in the little known role of colonial other within
his novel.
Sam Selvons The Lonely Londoners portrays 1950s London and the sudden
influx of immigrants that it saw as a result of the losses during World War Two that
left a huge gap in the labor market. The British government encouraged subjects of
the Commonwealth to travel to Britain via immigration campaigns and the 1948
British Nationality Act gave British citizenship to all people living in Commonwealth
countries, and full rights of entry and settlement within Britain. The text challenged
12

Ohaeto, p.250.
Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart, (London: Penguin Books, 1958), p.7.
14 Helen Luu, The Difference Language Makes: Constructing and Reconciling Otherness through
Linguistic Forms in Things Fall Apart, in Blazing the Path: Fifty Years of Things Fall Apart, Chima
Anyadike (ed.), (Nigeria: HEBN Publishers Plc, 2012), p.242.
15 Luu, p.242.
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the definition of Englishness, which was never spelt out, because it appeared selfevident to those who accepted it-great nation, great power, great Britain were the

essence of that Englishness16. Selvons text can quite clearly be linked in this way to
other canonical texts that also explore these themes, such as Alan Sillitoes Saturday
Night and Sunday Morning (1958). With regards to the language of The Lonely
Londoners, Selvon too incorporates elements of the language of the colonial other- in
this case, the Caribbean. The reader sees a mixture of Standard English, Trinidadian
English and Trinidadian Creole used throughout the novel. As David Rogers asserts,
throughout his novel, Selvon has devised a syntax and vocabulary which does not
directly imitate any of the varieties of Caribbean English, but instead proclaims an
Englishness not acknowledged by the traditional literary language17. As Achebe
relies on the oral tradition, so too does Selvon in a way that incorporates the
Caribbean folktale and tradition of the Calypso in both form and subject matter, thus
the calypso in Selvons fictions represents a return to authentic popular sources rather
than a literary device used to characterize the West Indian protagonists as culturally
different to the Europeans18. Selvons episodic narrative corresponds with the
calypsos use of disconnected narratives and Nick Bentley characterizes the calypso
in Selvons work with the use of comic situations, exaggerated events, picaresque
characters and carnival sensibilities and excesses19.
London is romanticized within the text, reflecting the belief from West Indians
and other immigrants that in England, the mother country, better prospects were to be
had for themselves and their families. In this way, The Lonely Londoners could be
16

Rogers, p.45.
Rogers, p.46.
18 Susheila Nasta, Critical Perspectives on Sam Selvon, (Washington: Three Continents Press, 1988),
p.56.
19 Nick Bentley, Radical Fictions: The English Novel in the 1950s, (Bern: International Academic
Publishers, 2007), p. 273.
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seen as a precursor to such works as Hanif Kureishis The Buddha of Suburbia


(1993), where London is also seen to represent the heart of culture and vitality in
Britain. Selvon presents the lure of London in this text and almost elevates the names
of places within the city in a magical light. There is a repetition of these names, I
walked on Waterloo Bridge, I rendezvoused at Charing Cross, Piccadilly Circus is
my playground20. The city is characterized as the centre of the world21, and indeed
this was the image that was projected to colonies from the colonizer. For West Indian
writers too, this seemed true as London is indisputably the West Indian literary
capital22 and the post war phenomenon of West-Indian literaturewas created
not in the Caribbean, but in London23. As John Clement Ball comments, Selvons
narrative, more than any other from its era, manages to convincinglybalance an
embrace and critique of the metropolis24. The use of colour plays a vital role in the
depiction of Londons reality as it is continually characterized as either gold or grey,
creating the ambiguity that surrounds the city throughout. For many in Selvons text,
the dream of London is much like the diamond-studded pavement of Bayswater
Road- a complete illusion. This seems reflective of the way that despite being
encouraged to emigrate to England, many West Indian people faced extreme
prejudice and racism from sectors of indigenous British society on arrival into the
country, with many bars, clubs and dance halls excluding black people. This
frustration is felt by the West Indian protagonists throughout: In fact, we is British
subjects and he is only a foreigner, we have more right than any people from the
damn continent to live and work in this country, and enjoy what this country have,
20

Sam Selvon, The Lonely Londoners, (London: Penguin, 1956), p.121.


Things Fall Apart, p.134.
22 Ball, p.101.
23 Ibid.
24 John Clement Ball, Imagining London: Postcolonial Fiction and the Transnational Metropolis,
(London: University of Toronto Press, 2004), p.23.
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because is we who bleed to make this country prosperous25. These beliefs were
embodied in such anti-fascist/immigration groups as the League of Empire Loyalists
and the White Defense League.
As well as contradicting common beliefs about the language of Africans,
Achebe also uses his fiction to depict a peaceful and harmonious society, contrary to
the view of the colonial other as savage. Although the protagonist Okonkwo is
characterized as rash and aggressive, the other members of the clan reject these
actions not through peaceful actions. Ezeani refuses Okonkwos kola nut when he

has disrupted the week of peace: take away your kola nut. I shall not eat in the house
of a man who has no respect for our gods and ancestors26. This action of sharing
kola nuts and palm wine is repeated throughout Achebes narrative to highlight the
peaceful nature within this group of people and the complexity of their customs. It is
hinted at in Things Fall Apart that there is in fact much more social mobility possible
within the Igbo society as opposed to Europe in the eighteenth-century where ancestry
and inheritance wagered ones place within society. As Okafor points out, the
Hegelian ethnocentric theory of historyposits that Africa has neither a history nor a
future. The Igbo society that Achebe portrays is keenly aware of its history. Above
all, it is a society that judges a man not by the size of his inheritance, but rather by his
own personal accomplishments27. The wrestling match that opens the novel is an
example of this but also of how tradition can easily be overthrown as Okonkwo
throws Amalinze the Cat, who for seven years was unbeaten28.

25

The Lonely Londoners, p.27.


Things Fall Apart, p.29.
27 Okpewho, p.73.
28 Things Fall Apart, p.3.
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Achebe highlights another aspect of Igbo culture that colonialist Europe
tended to ignore- the existence of subcultures. With the introduction of the character
of Ikemefuna, who brings considerable excitement to the Igbo clan, the colonial

reader is reminded that Things Fall Apart is not a representation as Africa as a whole,
but only of a small clan in Nigeria. The metaphor of the locusts used by Achebe to
represent the imminent coming of the missionaries, (And at last the locusts did
descend. They settled on every tree and on every blade of grass29), is not necessarily
represented in a strictly negative light although the breaking of the branches shows
the unavoidable loss of Igbo tradition, snapping under the weight of colonialism.
Similarly, the Tale of the Tortoise and the Birds also points to the coming of the
British Empire as represented by tortoise: he is a character that doesnt belong among
the birds who proceeds to raid their food stores. When the missionaries eventually do
come in chapter sixteen, the reader again witnesses the ambiguity of their coming,
which is neither characterized as neither good nor evil- the event is even surrounded
by some comedy at the translators expense. Achebe himself stated that I never will
take the stand that the Old must win or that the New must win30. Mr. Brown, for
example, is more understanding and enlightened than the average white colonist. His
name, Brown, seems to hint at an area of understanding between black and white
unlike the harsh character of Mr. Smith. Smith denotes a generic European colonist
who saw things as black and white. And black was evil31. Mr. Brown seems to
encompass the rare cross-cultural understanding of the wish to preserve peace and
harmony in the society and despite not understanding beliefs, still maintains respect in
his dealing with them. The character of Obrieka seems to be used by Achebe to point
29

Things Fall Apart, p.53.


Bernth Lindfors, Early Nigerian Literature, (New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, 1982),
pp.101-102.
31 Things Fall Apart, p.174.
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to fallacies within both spheres of understanding. Obrieka is quick to defend the
murdered white man who first enters the neighboring clan when he learns that the
Africans without good cause killed him: Never kill a man who says nothing. Those
men of Abame were fools. What did they know about the man?32. Similarly,
Obrieka outlines the foolishness of the colonizers when trying to change Igbo
customs: How can he (understand) when he does not even speak our tongue?33.
This utterance seems to mirror Achebes aim in writing Things Fall Apart- to remind
the West that Africa has its own language and culture, and to provide an
understanding of Igbo culture through language. In this way, Achebe demonstrates
that cultural and linguistic practices are inextricably linked.

Similarly, Selvon uses one character, Galahad, in particular to undercut


the negativity of Moses who is constantly pessimistic and bitter about his views on
England. He is quick to remedy Mosess qualms: the best thing to do is to take milk
regular34. Solutions such as this are presented by Galahad throughout the novel.
Selvon invests real interest in this character and therefore, the hope of a multiracial
and equal society within Britain. The fete in St. Pancras hall also embodies this hope,
as it is one of the only events in the book that welcomes all characters- white and
black. In this scene, Selvon is able to fuse Trinidad and London, and St. Pancras Hall
starts to look like Salt Fish Hall35. This seems to be Selvons way of envisioning a
new kind of socially inclusive space and the use of the calypso combines possibilities
of both the past and the present of the cultural resources of Trinidad with the
opportunities available in London. As Galahad states, the things that happening here

32

Ibid, p.131.
Ibid, p.166.
34 The Lonely Londoners, p. 78.
35 The Lonely Londoners, p.102.
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tonight never happen before36. The character of Tanty is also a figure of dynamism
within the novel and represents the Caribbean past thriving and prospering in London.
The optimistic figure of Galahad is not, of course, granted the monarch-status he sees
in himself though within the novel. With a harsh jolt back to reality, a child
comments on his colour and therefore makes him the subject of a racializing gaze,
which threatens to curtail his agency. Despite the gold that characterizes London, the
grey is also visible too and the pathetic fallacy used by the author makes clear that
London is perhaps not as inviting as many envisage: fog sleeping restlessly over the
city and the lights showing in the blur as if is not London at all but some strange place
on another planet37. When Galahad arrives in Britain he is sleeping and has to be
awoken by a guard, implying that many will face a literal rude awakening in the city.
It is clear to see then that neither Selvon nor Achebe presents a clear-cut
dichotomy within their respective texts of the colonizers as evil and the colonized as
inherently good. Indeed, Achebe highlights the economic benefits of colonization and
shows the Igbos delight at the hospitals treatment of illnesses while Selvon
emphasizes the importance of hope throughout his novel. Nevertheless, Achebe is in
no way encouraging a positive reading of the colonization of Africa. This much is
obvious when Okonkwo and other male members of the clan are punished according
to English juridical systems and are judged against accepted British standards.
The ending of Things Fall Apart is particularly relevant to the relationship
between England and Africa. The District Commissioner ends the narrative with the
assertion that the story of this man who had killed a messenger and hanged himself
would make interesting reading. One could almost write a whole chapter on him.

36
37

Ibid, pp.102-103.
Ibid, p.23.

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Perhaps not a whole chapter but a reasonable paragraph, at any rate38. This statement
demonstrates the inaccuracy of accounts of Africa such as Conrads and where as
Achebe has written a whole book about the life of Okonkwo, he asserts that a
European account would likely portray him as a savage. In this way, Achebe
undermines and satirizes the entire tradition of Western ethnography of imperialism
as a cultural project. The Commissioner, had already chosen the title of the book,
after much thought: The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger39.
Not only does the District Commissioner here reduce the African peoples to incapable
infants through the use of the word pacify, but also show that the much thought
has only centered around his own ideas, rather than on his subjects. The ending of
The Lonely Londoners, is however, fairly hopeful. Where as the narration opens on a
grim winter evening40, we leave Moses on a summer night (where) laughter fell
softly41.
After exploring the depiction of Englishness within Sam Selvons The Lonely
Londoners and Chinua Achebes Things Fall Apart, and the way that England is
portrayed in connection with countries it has colonized by both authors, I assert that
although both texts are highly critical of British colonization, there are elements of
hope within both works. It is interesting that both texts have sequels, inferring that
neither novelist is completely satisfied with the endings that take place within their
novels, but instead hope for a future that amends the issues they have both explored
within their writing. Anticipating the way that the arrival of West Indian immigrants
into Britain in the 1950s came to symbolize the beginning of a multicultural nation,

38

Things Fall Apart, p.197.


Ibid.
40 The Lonely Londoners, p.v.
41 Ibid, p.138.
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Selvon hints at the multiculturalism that he hopes will continue in Britain through the
depictions of his characters sexual relations with white woman- therefore creating the
possibility of mixed-race offspring within the text. Achebe, in the writing of Things
Fall Apart, engaged in literature as a decolonization tool42, where as Selvon
narrated the story of Englands reverse-colonization, where the words of Louise
Bennetts poem Colonizin in Reverse seem particularly apt: Wat a devilment a
England! / Dem face war an brave de worse, / But me wonderin how dem gwine stan/
Colonizin in reverse43. Both texts ultimately reach out to a readership that were once
subjects under the British Empire and ask the reader to sympathize with the position
of the colonial other, while challenging notions of what it means to be English.

Bibliography

Achebe, Chinua, Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays (New York: Doubleday,
1989).
Achebe, Chinua, Morning Yet on Creation Day, (London: Heinemann Educational,
1975).
42
43

Okpewho, p.72.
Louise Bennett, Colonization in Reverse, (1966), lines 41-44.

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Achebe, Chinua, Things Fall Apart, (London: Penguin Books, 1958).


Ball, John Clement, Imagining London: Postcolonial Fiction and the Transnational
Metropolis, (London: University of Toronto Press, 2004).
Bentley, Nick, Radical Fictions: The English Novel in the 1950s, (Bern: International
Academic Publishers, 2007).
Kim, Soonsik, Colonial and Postcolonial Discourse in the Novels of Yom Sang-Sop,
Chinua Achebe and Salman Rushdie, (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2004).
Lindfors, Bernth, Early Nigerian Literature, (New York: Holmes & Meier
Publishers, 1982).
Luu, Helen, The Difference Language Makes: Constructing and Reconciling
Otherness through Linguistic Forms in Things Fall Apart, in Blazing the Path: Fifty
Years of Things Fall Apart, Chima Anyadike (ed.), (Nigeria: HEBN Publishers Plc,
2012).
Nasta, Susheila, Critical Perspectives on Sam Selvon, (Washington: Three Continents
Press, 1988).
Ohaeto, Ezenwha, Chinua Achebe: A Biography (Bloomington: Indiana University
Press, 1997).
Okpewho, Isidore, Chinua Achebes Things Fall Apart: A Casebook, (New York:
Oxford University Press, 2003).
Rogers, David, The Revision of Englishness, (Manchester: Manchester University
Press, 2004).
Selvon, Sam, The Lonely Londoners, (London: Penguin, 1956).
Sickels, Amy, Thr Critical Reception of Things Fall Apart, Salem Press,
[http://salempress.com/store/samples/critical_insights/things_fall_reception.htm]
<accessed 19 November 2013>.