Text World Theory: Rotten English of Ken Saro-Wiwa

In this blog post, I am familiarizing myself with the theoretical methods described in the chapters on text world theory from Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction and Cognitive Poetics in Practice by investigating two novels: Sozaboy: A Novel in Rotten English by Ken Saro-Wiwa and then Martian Time-Slip by Philip K. Dick.

In my initial response to text world theory I discussed how I am using these theoretical methods to revise and reorganize my own novel. During my revisions, I limited my consideration to the text world level of the novel so that I was free to experiment at that structural level. Also, I listed the FAPs and WBEs so that I could see connections that I had not thought of before. Now, I will apply the methods of text world theory to a reading of the post-colonial Sozaboy: A Novel in Rotten English by Ken Saro-Wiwa and sci-fi Martian Time-Slip by Philip K. Dick. I have limited the detailed analysis to the first few paragraphs of each novel, because I am particularly interested in how these opening pages relate to the complete novel.

An analysis using text world theory begins first by considering the discourse world of the text, which for post-colonial literature is quite different from the prototypical discourse world of two speakers in conversation. This prototypical discourse world can be stretched to accommodate a personal letter writer and receiver. And an analogy between letter writing and book writing, motivated by the metaphor “A book is the author’s letter to the world”, can further elaborate the model of a discourse world to accommodate novels. However, post-colonial literature, such as Sozaboy: A Novel in Rotten English, draws attention to consequences of the isomorphic relationship between the prototypical discourse world and the discourse world of the novel.

A prototypical letter is written by one person and delivered to another person by a system which is fairly indifferent to the letter’s contents. In contrast, a novel is written, edited, published, and disseminated by multiple people and organizations. It is also read, discussed, and taught by many more individuals and organizations. Almost none of the parties involved at any stage in the discourse world are indifferent to the contents of the novel. This is especially true for Sozaboy which is politically charged.

I first encountered to Sozaboy at a literary conference in Boulder, CO several years ago. The topic of the conference was first-person narrative, “The Shape of the I”. Timothy Morton was the key note speaker, and environmental philosophy was a central concern of the conference. The discourse world included university professors and artists giving presentations on the African Diaspora, literary criticism, environmentalism, performance art, and philosophy. All of these view points framed my reading of Sozaboy as an international novel, an environmental novel, and an anti-war novel.

Ken Saro-Wiwa was a Nigerian author and activist. He was executed in 1995 after a controversial trial by a military tribunal that was allegedly supported by the Shell Oil Company. In 2009, Shell Oil settled out of court and gave the families of those executed over fifteen million dollars without admitting any involvement.

The “Rotten English” in which Sozaboy is written is an invented language, a mixture of Nigerian pidgin, broken English and occasional idiomatic English phrases. According to a paper by Jeffrey Gunn at University of Glasgow, this invented language crosses “ethnic and cultural barriers and allows a critique of all parties involved in the Nigerian Civil War.” These parties involved in this civil war, which lasted from 1967 to 1970, include the Ibo–the dominant tribe in Eastern Nigeria–and the multitude of other ethnic minority groups that were located within borders of the newly proposed country. Saro-Wiwa invented a language that speaks across ethnic and linguistic lines, entailing every reader will at some point feel displaced by the language. Rotten English, at the level of the discourse world, is no one’s actual language, not even the author’s. The glossary included at the end of the book, even if it is not actually utilized by the reader, introduces into the Common Ground tools for crossing linguistic lines, implying that cultural displacement can be overcome.

In my initial post to this blog on Sozaboy I wrote about my feelings of social anxiety attending the conference, the anxiety I feel at all large gatherings. Sozaboy begins with a large social gathering, a celebration among the fictional villages of Dukana. The feeling of social anxiety Saro-Wiwa creates at the begining of the novel is rooted deep in the grammar of Rotten English and arises from a conflict between sub-worlds.

Although everybody in Dukana was happy at first.

All the nine villages were dancing and we were eating plenty maize with pear and knacking tory under the moon. Because the work on the farm have finished and the yams were growing well well. And because the old, bad government have dead, and the new government of soza and police have come.

Everybody was saying that everything will be good in Dukana because of the new government. They were saying that kotuma ashbottom from Bori cannot take bribe from people in Dukana again. They were saying too that all those policemen who used to chop big big bribe from people who get case will not chop again. Everybody was happy because from that time, even magistrate in the court at Bori will begin to give better judgement. And traffic police will do his work well well. Even one woman was talking that the sun will shine proper proper and people will not die again because there will be medicine in the hospital and the doctor will not charge money for operation. Yes, everybody in Dukana was happy. And they were all singing.

World building elements (WBE) establish location, time, objects, and characters. The WBEs in these first few lines locate the text world in farming community, Dukana, made up of nine villages and situated near a larger urban center, Bari. The celebration is happening at night in the middle of the growing season just following a regime change. The objects of the text world include the celebration, yams and other food, the moon and the sun, gossip (knacking tory), governments (old and new), courts, medicine and hospitals, and bribes. Except for the mention of an anonymous woman, there are no specific characters introduced to the text world in this opening. There are hints as to what kind of characters may appear in the story, but the lack of specific characters focus attention on the community, Dukana, as a whole.

The function advancing propositions (FAP) are elements of the text that advance the discourse in some way, that move or motivate the discourse. Most of the FAPs in this section are argument advancing rather than action advancing, statements about what will happen and will not happen. There are a few action advancing propositions: dancing, eating, gossiping, and singing; but those actions are tersely described. The argument FAPs, on the other hand, describe actions related to government corruption creating sub-worlds where bribery and corruption have ended. But the very first line of the novel undermines the potential efficacy of these arguments for ironic effect.

The very first line signals a discursive FAP with the subordinate conjunction “although”. The line is also an incomplete sentence, a dependent clause that calls for an independent clause to contrast with it. But the paragraphs that follow do not contrast with this dependent clause and instead argue for the truth of the statement that everybody in Dukana was happy. The feeling of social anxiety that arises in these first few paragraphs is rooted in the grammar of Rotten English. The sub-worlds created by the argument FAPs bolster the dependent clause in the first line, but grammatically, these sub-worlds increase the anticipation for the inevitable independent clause that will contradict them, undermining the sub-worlds even as they are established. The grammar signals to the reader that no matter how extravagant the promises of the new government, there must come an independent clause that runs counter to the happiness of Dukana. Indeed, several pages into the book the first line is repeated with the addition of an independent clause: “So, although everyone was happy at first, after some time, everything begin to spoil small by small and they were saying that trouble have started.”

In my next blog post, I will consider Martian Time-Slip by Philip K. Dick using text world theory. Although, Martian Time-Slip is a very different kind of novel than Sozaboy there are some interesting connections.

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