Brief Thoughts on Othering

The Oppression-Resistance Binary:

Authenticity of Representation in Two Post-Colonial Novels


This is an attempt to examine how the inferior representation of another establishes the oppression of that other.

For this study, I conduct a discourse analysis of two post-colonial novels, viz, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad and The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, looking at how language is employed in the depiction of oppressive descriptions and resistant actions.

 The Injustice of Oppressive Domination

It has been argued time and again that the West often engages in a systematic misrepresentation of other peoples and cultures in historical and geographical reports.

Scholars like David Livingstone have stated that such misrepresentations constitute

1. “the projecting of an inferior or demeaning image on another [which] can actually distort and oppress…;” and

2. “denied recognition [which] can be a form of oppression…”

He states further that “the understanding of identity… operates with something like its own notion of authenticity.”

In The Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad shares this view as he condemns the oppression of others through misrepresentation thus:

“The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much,” (HOD, 7-8).

In The Poisonwood Bible, Kingsolver echoes this notion of the injustice of oppressive domination when she begins her narrative by considering, through the stream of consciousness of one of her main characters, what “an Africa unconquered altogether” might be like now, comparing that Africa to a “unicorn that can look you in the eye,” (p. 8).

Despite their expression of such opinions, however, both novelists go ahead to give descriptions of Africa/ns that oppress and distort the image of Africa.

Oppression through Inferior Descriptions

In The Heart of Darkness, Conrad projects Africans in several demeaning terms. He calls them:

  • “a camp of natives…[or] enemies” (16);
  • “criminals” to whom the outraged law had come, (18);
  • “rebels” whose heads had been chopped off to adorn the stakes around Kurtz’s compound, (73);
  • “savages” or “niggers” whose “black rags were wound round their loins, and the short ends behind waggled to and fro like tails;” and he refers to another as
  • “an improved specimen”  who looked like “ a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat, walking on its hind legs.”

In The Poisonwood Bible, on the other hand, a story about a phenomenon told by Africans is dismissed as “another fabulous tale from the dark domain of the poison-tipped arrows and bone-pierced lips” (p. 7), while reference is made to Africa itself as “the animal kingdom making hay in the kingdom of glory,” (p. 10). It is also suggested that Nathan fails at “subduing the untamed wilderness for a garden,” (p. 36).

Categories: Research, Studies, Teaching

6 replies

  1. I am not sure if I will hit the topic you want bring to discussion here, but your post remind me of a discussion that I often have with friends: how to deal with authors and books that clearly have a racist language? And what about those that the racism is not so clear, but still there? Of course I am not talking about current authors, because the approach should be different, in my opinion.

    In Brazil, one of the classics of our literature is ‘Sitio do Pica-Pau Amarelo’, by Monteiro Lobato. He wrote it in late 19th, early 20th centuries, when slavery had just been abolished, but many farms still had forced labor. ‘Sitio do pica-pau amarelo’ are a series of adventures lived by Pedrinho and Narizinho when they go to spend vacations in their grandma’s farm. There, they are joined by Emilia, a doll who speaks a lot and often get them in trouble; Visconde de Sabugosa, a very wise corncub and many others. I grew up reading these stories, and I remember how much I loved them!

    Well, Monteiro Lobato was a very racist man. He never hide it, he had no reason to. And this racism is evident in his books. The white Grandma had a fat black lady – Anastacia – who worked for her. Anastacia cooked like no one else, but she was not smart in his stories. Besides that, in many adventures, Lobato describe other black characters as ignorant, thick, or plain stupid. Racism is on Lobato’s pages, and although it is not the main thing of the book, it is not difficult to find it either.

    So, should I let Samuel (my son) read these stories? I don’t want to deny him the same delight I had reading them. And I will not. I didn’t grew up to be a racist person. However, I know I grew up in a racist society, and I had to actively work to not be racist (and it is a work in progress). And I think, as Victoria explains above, that the kind of description that Lobato, or Conrad do are powerful, oppressive and formative too! So, if Samuel one day decide to read Lobato, I will be sure to point out to him how bad those descriptions are, and have this talk with him, no matter how young he is. If he can read, he should know about the power of these words!

    How did I make a post on ‘thoughts of othering’ into a parenting debate? This is what happened when you have a baby during your PhD…

    Sorry, Victoria!

    • Thanks Nara,
      And sorry all for long silence again… – I have resumed at work and I still don’t have help with the baby, (Oh in Ghana, it’s often the case that your mother would move in and help with the baby for as long as you need her to, unfortunately that hasn’t been it for me), so I’m juggling quite a bit. It’s both exciting and exhausting. At the same time I’m trying to keep up with looking for funding for my stuies which should by all means start in September, come harmatten or mansoon rains.

      I find your comment interesting Nara, and it reminds me of stories I read as a child. Baba Yaga, the witch and Ivan the fool and so many other characters all of whose names I wouldn’t immediately remember. But looking back to them now, I can just see how they were othered in different ways either consciously/ intentionally or otherwise and who, in many ways, would form an image in the mind of the growing child of what is considered socially, culturally, acceptable or deviant.

      Yes, we constantly live wth racism in diverse forms and would do right if we accept that it exists and address it if need be; but in my opinion, only “if need be,” for sometimes we dwell too much on the racism (inexcusable) and lose the essence of the substance. This is where I think Achebe faults for, infact, it is instructive to note that Conrad himself condemns racism in his text but goes ahead to reflect it. Could it be he is only capturing that which he observes around him, rather than that he is himself racist. This is my reading of his work and I find it revealing that in others of his works he is “racist” against europeans, asians, americans, and so on and forth.

      Well Katie,
      I particularly like that song too: ‘Ye Bounce wo visa a’… And I would gladly go through the lyrics and explain it to you because it is much more interesting when you actually understand it more thoroughly. Having gone through that last year, (the first ever time I’ve experienced a ‘visa-bouncing’) I can finally come to appreciate the lyrics even better: thus the process of hybridisation for me becomes complete. I must confess I do not know the words offhand, but at least now I can understand the mental processes one has to go through on this side to take control and in the representation of their identities/ selves/ -stories.

      O.k. That’s it for now or I could keep going on and on….


  2. Thanks for sharing this Victoria. I really like the way you highlight the contradiction between what Kingsolver and Conrad explicitly say and what they then do through the language of their novels. I was interested to see that your ‘methodology’ is to use discourse analysis. Discourse analysis is something I’m keen to read / find out more about, particularly because my research needs to analyse diverse kinds of texts from novels to blog posts to interviews to newspaper articles. Would be really interested to hear more about your methodology sometime and let me know if you have any reading recommendations on discourse analysis!

  3. Have been thinking about this, too, as well as crosses with the debates raised by Nara in her comment. Monday, at the African Popular Cultures workshop, we saw a film by Jesse Shipley about a Ghanaian hiplife star, Reggie Rockstone Ossei, on his extended trip to the Bronx, NY. Even though the film was more dialogue than music, I was intrigued by the sounds of hiplife – Ghanaian highlife music rhythms with hiphop lyrics etc – I used to like hip-hop, early hip-hop (betraying my age AND my feckless youth), hip-hop-light I guess (Tribe Called Quest, MC Solar, Three Feet High and Rising – that kind of thing) – bear with me on this, it’s going somewhere – but even though I really enjoyed the beats and the “licks” (yes – technical term) and the skill involved, I didn’t pursue it because of the violence in much of the lyrics, not to mention misogyny, coupled with the increasing and relentless pursual of commodity bling culture. But I like the “licks”. (Perhaps that’s why – years later – I pursue English literature – always after the “licks” of hiphop in poetic textual form – sigh). After Shipley’s film have been listening to Reggie Rockstone A LOT! Like it. (one of my faves):
    The rhythms are new to me – both musically and linguistically – and I have no idea of much of the content, apart from what Prof Shipley discussed in his paper – which concerned those of Rockstone’s songs that played out the consequences of foreign travel on home life, and an example of a song called ‘Ye Bounce Wo Visa’. I am really intrigued by this sense, extrapolating out, of what one feels and enjoys, and what one knows and can process – and how the ethical spaces in between are not necessarily distinct, quite how much these kinds of politics jostle for articulation in those mixed up, perhaps even ‘hybrid’ spaces – page, song, speech – the concept of vigilance and its possibilities as both enabling and restrictive force…
    It brought to mind those textual moments where it suddenly does become very clearly distinct, though – thinking about Achebe on Conrad, for example – the turning of those ambiguities into something absolutely unequivocal – or how, as Victoria describes, Kingsolver, in the same breath, both imagines an Africa on and potentially in its own terms, but absents it from the possibility of this agency by reducing it to a mythical creature.

  4. This is interesting to know. Hope more of these will be shared. Thanks, Mrs. Moffat (my former lecturer at the University of Ghana)


  1. Now We Are One « Africa in Words

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