April 24, 2007

Required Reading #1: Goodbye, Heart of Darkness

It's always been my intention to occasionally revisit (or, in this case, visit) classic literature that often becomes required reading in English classrooms. I'm interested in thinking about it from a YA literature perspective, as well as from a personal standpoint. So, here goes.

Many of us over a certain age were required to read Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (and, if you were lucky like I was, your teacher also let you watch and discuss the movie Apocalypse Now). Of course, Heart of Darkness portrays (and simultaneously critiques) a particularly Eurocentric perspective on the colonization of Africa, and even though its tone is sometimes critical, the story is still imbued with the perspective of the colonizers.

If you're interested in a different angle on the idea of European colonization of traditional Africa, Nigerian author Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart tells the story of an Ibo man, Okonkwo, who fancies himself a great warrior. Told from an omniscient, storyteller-like viewpoint, this book provides a detailed glimpse into the day-to-day lives of villagers dwelling in a clan-based society--a society that proves all too vulnerable to the incursions of white missionaries. Despite the attempts of Okonkwo to deny the changes in his society as well as those within his family, which he had a hand in causing, he is unable to stop the white man from building a church in his village, nor is he able to stop his alienated son Nwoye from leaving tradition behind.

Although I found the details about life, culture, and social structure to be interesting, and the ongoing story of Okonkwo and his family to be an appropriately tragic parallel to the social backdrop, I felt a bit distanced from the events of this story. Young adults studying the book for a class might experience this sense of distance as dry reading. Nevertheless, this is an important work, and could be of enormous benefit taught along with its flip side, Heart of Darkness. I mean, c'mon...somebody has to have written a thesis on that, right?? Anyone? Anyone?

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