Tag Archives: Nixon

Making Time Spectacular: the slow, violent journey from Conrad to Habila

29 Mar

What made me feel the most excited about Helon Habila’s ‘Oil on Water’ was the fact that for me, this book marked a clear departure from “classic” post-colonial literature (in particular, Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’) towards writing that is far more grounded in the modern, multiple realities of post-colonialism as they exist today. Where the concern in the past was always the colonizing power of the center over the periphery, as well as the role (and use of) dichotomies and unsustainable positions, it can be argued that the concern of the modern post-colonial novel is with the newer forces of colonization, whether it is the privatization of public resources or environmental degradation brought about by the new colonizers: multi-national corporations, engaged in the age old post-colonial hunt for resources.

In a blogpost written for Nieman Storyboard, Rob Nixon points out effective storytelling techniques for approaching the issues raised by the slow violence of systematic environmental degradation or by association, socio-political corruption that has the most deleterious impact on populations that live on the periphery of society. Nixon places importance on these techniques by underlining the need to make unspectacular time spectacular, in order to create an impact on the reader.

For many of us I’m sure, the parallels between ‘Heart of Darkness’ (HoD) and ‘Oil on Water’ began with the opening section of Habila’s novel, which clearly situates the plot as a memory, recalled by the narrator (Rufus) in much the same way Marlow recalls the story he tells his companions as they wait for the tide.  In addition, this same retelling includes references to the role of fog, literal and metaphorical, that accompanies both first person narratives:

I am walking down a well-lit path, with incidents neatly labeled and dated, but when I reach halfway memory lets go of my hand, and a fog rises and covers the faces and places, and I am left clawing about in the dark, lost, and I have to make up the obscured moments as I go along, make up the faces and places, even the emotions.

When the sun rose there was a white fog, very warm and clammy, and more blinding than the night. It did not shift or drive; it was just there, standing all round you like something solid. At eight or nine, perhaps, it lifted as a shutter lifts. We had a glimpse of the towering multitude of trees, of the immense matted jungle, with the blazing little ball of the sun hanging over it—all perfectly still—and then the white shutter came down again, smoothly, as if sliding in greased grooves. I ordered the chain, which we had begun to heave in, to be paid out again. Before it stopped running with a muffled rattle, a cry, a very loud cry, as of infinite desolation, soared slowly in the opaque air.

Previously, we analyzed the mention of fog in Conrad’s HoD as a tool used by the author to convey not only the confusion felt by the white colonizer in attempting to navigate the “dark continent”, but also to describe how moving from the center (England) to the periphery (the African continent) within HoD constituted what Fabian described as a “denial of Coevalness”

Habila in ‘Oil on Water’ however, does not focus on the issue of center-periphery to arrive at a new discourse as much as he focuses on highlighting how the process of uncovering the truth about a situation (here, the kidnapping of James Floode’s wife) moves from a place of false assumptions and platitudes (physically– Nigeria’s urban centers, metaphorically conveyed by Floode’s own attitudes– “you people”– as well as the out-of-placeness of the Lagos journalists) through a “fog” of lies and corruption, towards the final truths revealed to the narrator by multiple voices— Isabel Floode, the kidnapped victim,  being just one– which are situated in Nigeria’s deltaic periphery, namely the island of Irikefe.

One of the storytelling devices Rob Nixon puts forth in his ‘Slow Violence’ is the use of “powerful analogies”, which Nixon suggests is effective when calling attention to the slow and violent fall-out of an occurrence of  environmental degradation. In addition, Nixon goes on to refer to the importance of rejecting “conventional narrative frameworks”, of telling stories “no one else can tell”, of “re-configuring big stories on a human scale”  and of using “striking” imagery.

Habila achieves all these approaches in ‘Oil on Water’, even while in some instances riffing off of Conrad’s HoD– there is a journey by boat undertaken; there are parallels drawn between the two primary characters, Rufus and Zaq, in a way that is similar to those drawn between Marlow and Kurtz; there is oil where Conrad had ivory, and the mysterious character who is overcome and changed forever by living with the natives is not Kurtz but Isabel Floode. There are also parallels between the light and the dark, the aforementioned fog, and the use of the first person narrative.

What I have come to appreciate most about Habila’s techniques and content is that unlike Rhys, who wrote Wide Sargasso Sea as an effort to “write back” with regards to the implications contained within the text of Jane Eyre and thereby was limited by this approach, Habila uses Conrad’s HoD as a jumping off point, linking to it in his writing only for the purpose of illustrating ways in which Nigeria is still being colonized in our supposedly modern and informed world. By doing so, I feel, Habila has successfully pointed out the still-relevant need to study and speak of Post Colonialism in new ways, bringing it out of (reflective, passive) literature and into the active world of International Development, non-renewable resource hunting and environmental degradation, while still having written a literary work that can hold its own comfortably in the Post Colonial canon.

“We are the Delta”

27 Mar

Throughout Helon Habila’s Oil on Water, the degradation of the environment and the people seem to reflect each other.  When the Major talks to Rufus as they approach Irikefe Island, he warns the young reporter,

–Be prepared for what you are about to see.  Irikefe is now mostly ashes and rubble, bombed by the gun helicopter over there.  Not a hut is left standing…

[Rufus responds,] –What of the people?

–Most of them would still be there, I suppose.  But expect a lot of casualties, unavoidable, of course.  This is a war zone…” (166)

In this exchange, the “ashes and rubble” of Irikefe resemble the detritus of the “unavoidable” human “casualties” of the worshipers and villagers.  This resemblance between the status of the land and the people on the land transcends a mere mirroring, and instead argues for an intrinsic, inseparable link between humans and the environment in the Niger Delta.  The bond between people and the earth is most explicitly stated during Rufus’s interview with Henshaw, one of the “militants” locked up at the Major’s military camp: “–We are the people, we are the Delta, we represent the very earth on which we stand” (163).

Through its role as a nexus of the physical and living, the Niger Delta epitomizes Rob Nixon’s concept of “slow violence”: “a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all” (2).  The slow violence that Rufus observes is a gradual process, as fish, wildlife, and crops slowly die from chronic oil spills and flaring and villages, like Chief Ibiram’s,  slowly migrate from place to place in hope of an illusive better life.  But this violence is hidden in the fog of the Delta, nameless, just like the island, which the group of journalists expected to meet the militants ransoming Isabel Floode; not until page 168, when Zaq and Rufus return to Irikefe with the Major and hear the account of the violence that happened on the island before the reporters arrived that the reader learns its name – Agbuki.  This theme of namelessness is also seen in Rufus’ neglect to ask the old man and his son – Zaq and Rurus’s guides – for their names until well into their journey.  When something is nameless, whether the environment or the people living there, they are powerless, unable to tell their story of their slow violence.

Slow Violence, Edward Said and Ken Saro-Wiwa

19 Mar

In Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Nixon references Edward Said’s “The Public Role of Writers and Intellectuals” while discussing the role writers take in slow violence. Said’s view of writers is more broad and centered on the general sense of violence rather than slow violence associated with the environment. He describes two sides of writers: the select individuals that have control and power, and those “independent intellectuals who actually form an incipient community, physically separated from each other but connected variously to a great number of activist communities shunned by the main media but who have at their disposal other kinds of what Swift sarcastically called oratorical machines” (28). These two sides can be seen as the sides that Nixon represents of the oil companies and Ken Saro-Wiwa. The writer that Said focuses on is the second category that wishes to create awareness and movement. In the diverse range of violence, Said suggests that writers have three main roles to open up the eyes of those who are unaware; I will summarize his points briefly: 1.) presenting true (rather than distorted) perspectives on history 2.) building up areas of peace and coexistence 3.) stressing the need for human rights and redistribution of power and resources (34-5). In these goals Nixon seems to use Saro-Wiwa to indirectly provide a face to Said’s basic structure for writers. However, the two authors seem to emphasize different areas in the value of speed in today’s world. For Nixon, the negative aspects of speed include the audience’s desire of the spectacle that slow violence does not contain and therefore is harder to justify. Furthermore, technology has shortened stories to get them out faster, which also has a negative effect on producing stories on slow violence rather than something that is more exciting and eventful. The negative elements that Said points out are, not knowing one’s audience because the internet creates a wider range of readers, and the inability to control what is recirculated. However, the acceleration of communication enables freedom for writers to be heard all over the world, and this expansion of viewers is what Nixon also stresses that writers of slow violence need to take advantage of. For both general forms of violence and slow violence, “The intellectual can be perhaps a kind of countermemory, putting forth its own counter discourse that will not allow conscience to look away or fall asleep” (Said 35).

In Ken Saro-Wiwa’s A Month and a Day, the diary-like entries give a more real and personal face to the points that Nixon makes on writing about this type of violence. At one point, Saro-Wiwa explains why he continued to write a weekly column in the Sunday Times, he says, “The newspaper column widened my reading audience and spread my ideas to a considerable extent. Week after week, I made sure that the name Ogoni appeared before the eyes of readers. It was a television technique, designed to leave the name indelibly in their minds” (45). The specific moments that this writer explains his techniques, shows his moves and call for others to move with him in seeing slow violence as a major threat. The book leaves us on a rather negative note in his son’s letter to his father ten years after Saro-Wiwa’s death. His son writes, “Ten years have passed and, despite all the public outrage and grief, it appears that the world hasn’t learned anything from your death: we still live in a world where corporations rank profits well above their value to people and the planet” (215). Yet, even with this negativity, his son is still hopeful that more people will write and the world will one day see slow violence as it truly is.