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“A Far Cry from Africa” by Derek Walcott Essay

A Far Cry from Africa: Derek Walcott – Summary and Critical Analysis A Far Cry from Africa by Derek Walcott deals with the theme of split identity and anxiety caused by it in the face of the struggle in which the poet could side with neither party. It is, in short, about the poet’s ambivalent feelings towards the Kenyan terrorists and the counter-terrorist white colonial government, both of which were ‘inhuman’, during the independence struggle of the country in the 1950s. The persona, probably the poet himself, can take favor of none of them since both bloods circulate along his veins.

Derek Walcott
He has been given an English tongue which he loves on the one hand, and on the other, he cannot tolerate the brutal slaughter of Africans with whom he shares blood and some traditions. His conscience forbids him to favour injustice. He is in the state of indecisiveness, troubled, wishing to see peace and harmony in the region. Beginning with a dramatic setting, the poem “A Far Cry from Africa” opens a horrible scene of bloodshed in African territory. ‘Bloodstreams’, ‘scattered corpses,’ ‘worm’ show ghastly sight of battle. Native blacks are being exterminated like Jews in holocaust following the killing of a white child in its bed by blacks. The title of the poem involves an idiom: “a far cry” means an impossible thing. But the poet seems to use the words in other senses also; the title suggests in one sense that the poet is writing about an African subject from a distance. Writing from the island of St. Lucia, he feels that he is at a vast distance- both literally and metaphorically from Africa.

“A Far Cry” may also have another meaning that the real state of the African ‘paradise’ is a far cry from the Africa that we have read about in descriptions of gorgeous fauna and flora and interesting village customs. And a third level of meaning to the title is the idea of Walcott hearing the poem as a far cry coming all the way across thousands of miles of ocean. He hears the cry coming to him on the wind. The animal imagery is another important feature of the poem. Walcott regards as acceptable violence the nature or “natural law” of animals killing each other to eat and survive; but human beings have been turned even the unseemly animal behavior into worse and meaningless violence. Beasts come out better than “upright man” since animals do what they must do, any do not seek divinity through inflicting pain. Walcott believes that human, unlike animals, have no excuse, no real rationale, for murdering non-combatants in the Kenyan conflict. Violence among them has turned into a nightmare of unacceptable atrocity based on color. So, we have the “Kikuyu” and violence in Kenya, violence in a “paradise”, and we have “statistics” that don’t mean anything and “scholar”, who tends to throw their weight behind the colonial policy: Walcott’s outrage is very just by the standards of the late 1960s, even restrained. More striking than the animal imagery is the image of the poet himself at the end of the poem. He is divided, and doesn’t have any escape.

“I who am poisoned with the blood of both, where shall I turn, divided to the vein?” This sad ending illustrates a consequence of displacement and isolation. Walcott feels foreign in both cultures due to his mixed blood. An individual sense of identity arises from cultural influences, which define one’s character according to a particular society’s standards; the poet’s hybrid heritage prevents him from identifying directly with one culture. Thus creates a feeling of isolation. Walcott depicts Africa and Britain in the standard roles of the vanquished and the conqueror, although he portrays the cruel imperialistic exploits of the British without creating sympathy for the African tribesmen. This objectively allows Walcott to contemplate the faults of each culture without reverting to the bias created by attention to moral considerations. However, Walcott contradicts the savior image of the British through an unfavorable description in the ensuring lines. “Only the worm, colonel of carrion cries/ ‘waste no compassion on their separated dead’.” The word ‘colonel’ is a punning on ‘colonial’ also.

The Africans associated with a primitive natural strength and the British portrayed as an artificially enhanced power remain equal in the contest for control over Africa and its people. Walcott’s divided loyalties engender a sense of guilt as he wants to adopt the “civilized” culture of the British but cannot excuse their immoral treatment of the Africans. The poem reveals the extent of Walcott’s consternation through the poet’s inability to resolve the paradox of his hybrid inheritance The introduction to Yasmine Gooneratne’s first collection of short stories begins with a 9th century poem translated from Gaelic and is littered with references to the author’s colonial education, post-colonial experience of exile and emigration (Sri Lanka to Australia) and a revelation of a fervent dedication to the British literary canon (viva Ben Jonson, Alexander Pope, Jane Austen). If you are left, at this point, with a feeling that you are about to be force-fed traditional “between the lines”, “subaltern” South Asian diaspora narrative that will turn your brain into PoCo foie gras, don’t worry-you are not alone. You will first be greeted by a blizzard of kurakkhan, karipincha leaves and other italicised delicacies, but if you hold on for just a bit longer, you will find “How Barry Changed His Image” and will forgive all the 46 pages that preceded it.

In this story, Bharat and Navaranjini Wickramsingha swap Sri Lanka for Australia and insist on setting themselves apart from Australia’s large Vietnamese population whom they refer to as “those Ching-Chongs slit-eyed slopeheads”. As Wickramsingha glows toxic in his emerging racial self-hatred, his wife listens to talk-back radio, happily absorbing some top Australian argot, and before long Bharat and Wickramsingha have effaced their opulent Otherness to become Barry and Jean Wicks – true blue fair dinkum Aussies. Good Onya Barry. Top 10 bestsellersClick here to EnlargeWritten between 1970 and 2001, many of the 17 stories are sopping with a deliciously tart zest, especially the ones set in Australia that are free of all the annoying echoes – explanations that often accompany stories of a linguistically hybrid reality for a “western” audience. Thematically disparate, the best stories are the ones like “A Post Colonial Love Story”, “His Neighbor’s Wife” and a few others that are both dark and funny and also lucid in their disclosure of the (mis)conceptions of identity and race and provide interesting cross-cultural commentary.

The few stories that are set in Sri Lanka do not satisfyingly evoke the country, its people or its troubles and most distressing of all – almost all the stories are burdened with prescriptive “twists in the tale”, which can leave you feeling that you’re eight, in moral science class and have just been slapped on the wrist with Ms Austen’s Sri Lankan silkwood ruler.

To provide interpretations of imperialism and the struggle for “decolonisation” from it requires a constant and self-conscious shedding of the old, especially when it is clear that relics of the Raj reside so deep in our rhetoric that sometimes it is impossible to be certain they’re even there. There are always new stories of new ways in which post-colonial repression, impotence, diaspora and displacement raise their head, but if you’re coming to this collection looking for that kind of revelation, you might have to take it under the knife. Chances are you’ll find nothing that hasn’t been previously diagnosed; it’s all quite benign, and in the end, but for Barry and the Aussie angle, I fear The Masterpiece as a peep show of post-post-colonial psyche mostly beats around the bush.

Chinua Achebe argues that writers, just as historians explore history or politicians deal with politics, have to fulfill their assigned duty: To educate and regenerate their people about their country’s view of themselves, their history, and the world. He openly and impregnably expresses his firm conviction about how Europe influenced Africa’s self-image, and his arguments are designed to announce this opinion. Assertively, he makes it clear that Africans would suffer from the belief that racial inferiority is acceptable. He wants to change this view and calls African writers to be responsible for – and dedicate themselves to – their society. Throughout the essay, he uses several tangible occasions as supportive examples for his claim. Achebe begins by clarifying that “the kind [of writing he does] is relatively new (40)” in Africa. By explaining that the Africans have been educated by the Europeans in terms of the common relationship between writer and society, he shows that the European’s view has been injected into the African mind: According to the Europeans, an artist – in particular a writer – would be in “revolt against society (41).”

Achebe, however, hints that his people should not “reproduce (40)” the Europeans . He is eager to explore what society expects of his writers instead of what writers expect of society. By doing so, he wants to concentrate on the situation at his homeland, stating that he “know[s] that [he does not] have to [write for a foreign audience] (41).” This sentence is one of the examples for when his language reveals that he is very autonomous, even a little bit arrogant, and willing to express his opinion overtly. In the next segment, Achebe indicates that most of his readers are young, which implies that they still have a lot of capacity to get educated. Thus, hope on a better self-image of Africa arises. Achebe claims that many of his readers regard him as a teacher, a statement which is almost pretentious. In this part, he also includes a letter from a Northern Nigerian fan in order to show what a reader like him expects from the author, Achebe. Suggesting that “it is quite clear what this particular reader expects of [him] (42)” is a false dilemma because it seems like there is only one option of looking at the situation, which manipulatively guides the reader to view things like Achebe. Through an encounter with a young woman teacher who complained about the progress of the course of events in Achebe’s No Longer at Ease, the author realized that he needs to make his novels afford an “opportunity for education (42).”

He does not think the woman’s opinion is right. In this part it becomes clear again that Achebe is very self-assured, as he points out that “no self-respecting writer will take dictation from his audience [and] must remain free to disagree.” However, he cleverly depicts himself as merciful because he comprehends that his European-influenced society needs to be efficiently educated. His concern comes into sharper relief in the next segment. Achebe sardonically illustrates one of the differences between Europeans and Africans by the example of “turning hygiene into a god (43),” a peculiar blasphemy in Achebe’s eyes. He admits, though, that Africans have their own respective sins, the most significant being their “acceptance of racial inferiority (43).” He confesses that not only others need to be blamed; African people, too, would have to “find out where [they] went wrong (43).” It follows a short anecdote of 1940’s Christians who where shocked to see Nigerian dances on an anniversary, which exemplifies “the result of the disaster brought upon the African psyche in the period of subjection to alien race (43).”

Achebe uses appeal to pity here and in other parts, as he only presents the picture of the pathetic African. In this way, he disregards the fact that the West does indeed know many educated, highly respected men, tales, and traditions from Africa. His next example further describes the “traumatic effects of [Africa’s] first confrontation with Europe (44).” Achebe tells about a student who wrote ‘winter’ instead of the African trade wind ‘harmattan’ which occurs during wintertime – just because he was afraid to be called a bushman by his peers. Achebe does not want his people to be ashamed of their origin, he wants Africa to “regain belief in itself and put away the complexes of […] denigration and self-abasement (44).” It seems like Achebe tries to rectify the sentiment that has been inflicted to his African people through post-colonialism. Achebe maintains that education needs to be advanced in order to “get on [their] own feet again (45).” Achebe’s theme becomes most clear in the next part when he requests his society to confront racism and rediscover themselves as people. In order to achieve these goals, he obliges writers to educate society with their works. He glorifies the writer as “the sensitive point of […] community,” and brings up the argument that each job carries certain duties that need to be fulfilled as society expects them to be. Achebe himself almost seems to crave for these expectations, as he “would not wish to be excused (45).”

The essay concludes with Achebe quoting a Hausa folk tale in order to show that art and education do not need to be mutually exclusive. He leads the reader onto a “slippery slope” here, as he claims that if one considers the tale’s ending “a naïve anticlimax (46)” then one would not know much about Africa. This expressive conclusion can make the reader feel like he would be uneducated and prejudiced. Achebe’s urge to make African society stand up for autonomy and to make them find self-confidence is approached in a very subjective manner. It is questionable whether he is too subjective at some points. Reading his essay raises the question: When is subjectivity proper? It depends whether Achebe’s claims and false dilemmas base on historical facts, common opinions, or his personal observations, which can not absolutely be detected through this essay.

However, regardless of where his claims have their origin, he overgeneralizes too forceful; for example by demanding that each and every writer should take upon the task of education society. Achebe could as well just speak up for himself and announce that he proudly embraces the task that he himself has given to him. He could be satisfied with that and leave the rest alone, but his emotion come into play. Due to his troubled attitude towards African’s self-perception and its history with Europe, Achebe’s views are inevitably colored with a sometimes direct, sometimes indirect call for change. He strives to present the world a different image than the self-conscious one he assumes exists persistently. By the time he wrote the essay, this assumption might have been true, but reading the essay today, it leaves an impression of an author who desperately tries to force the righteous image of Africa onto the public.

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