The forms of shame and African literature

Authored by: Naminata Diabate

Routledge Handbook of African Literature

Print publication date:  March  2019
Online publication date:  March  2019

Print ISBN:
eBook ISBN: 9781315229546
Adobe ISBN:


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Okonkwo, the male protagonist of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1959), took his own life for various reasons, including certain legal trouble and possible incarceration in the colonial prison for killing a court messenger, and perhaps because of shame. Although the third person narrator provides no access to the protagonist’s feelings leading up to his death, it is clear that shame followed Okonkwo his entire life. Not only did his father’s disgraceful life and shameful death haunt him until his final moments, but the encroaching effects of missionary intervention and of the colonial administration combined with other life challenges, such as the inadvertent killing of a clansman, erode Okonkwo’s self-confidence. I start with this reference to Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in order to make a point. Colonization as a source of shame for the colonized is a recurring theme in African literature, as Cilas Kemedjio reminds us in his analysis of shame and modernity in African literary fiction (1999). Shame is inextricable from the advent of modernity, albeit suspended, argues Kemedjio, because it creates in the native an acute awareness of the germinal defeat of being colonized by foreign powers, and of being subsequently abused and cheated by postcolonial leaders. 1

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