Indigenous Identity in Witi Ihimaera's "Whale Rider" and Chinua Achebe's Fiction

Bachelor Thesis, 2011
52 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Definition of Indigenous Identity

3. Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe
3.1 A “Collective Self” in Things Fall Apart
3.1.1 History and Time
3.1.2 Oral Tradition and Language
3.1.3 Rituals: the Circle
3.2 The Fixed Individual versus the Adapting Community
3.3 Diaspora Identities
3.3.1 The Notion of Change
3.3.2 Silencing: Orality into Literacy
3.3.3 Relocation
3.3.4 Unwriting Eurocentrism
3.3.5 Hybridity

4. The Whale Rider – Witi Ihimaera
4.1 “Return to History” in The Whale Rider
4.1.1 Oral Tradition and Language
4.1.2 Myth
4.1.3 Rituals: the Spiral
4.2 The Hybrid Individual versus the Collective Past
4.3 Rewriting Indigenous Identity
4.3.1 Influences of Western Culture and Globalization
4.3.2 Racism
4.3.3 Writing Motion

5. Comparison: The Shattered Circle vs. the Spiraling Journey

6. Conclusion

7. Works Cited

1. Introduction

“From dreams of the past to dreams of the future, from the traditional rhythm of the village life to the culture of the cities, […] from a conflict of values to a confusion of values- themes such as these wind their way through the books of both Achebe and Ihimaera.” (Rhodes 111).

This quotation is illustrative of the quite astonishing fact that the names Chinua Achebe and Witi Ihimaera occur simultaneously throughout a respectable number of works concerning postcolonial literature. This gives rise to the assumption that despite the writers’ backgrounds, being as diverse as Nigerian Ibo and New Zealand Maori, their works bear similarities. The most obvious link between these two backgrounds is the fact that both countries have experienced colonization. Consequently, the theretofore dominant indigenous cultures underwent profound changes. This disruption gave rise to major conflicts, such as the people’s captivity in a space in between. On the one hand they lived in a close connection to the past in the form of tradition and ritual and on the other hand they faced the colonial situation. The latter extorted adaption which led to hybridized cultures. In this context Justin D. Edwards uses his introduction to Postcolonial Literature to pose the question of whether postcolonial writing merely “moved peoples, regions and countries from subjugation to liberation” or if it “maps out where we come from and where we are going”. (Edwards 1). The latter, with an implication of progress, evokes the questioning of one’s belonging to and position within a culture, in other words: one’s cultural or indigenous identity.

In both Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Witi Ihimaera’s The Whale Rider indigenous identity is a central topic. Yet, it is challenged by the advent of colonization or, in the latter case, by the fusion of ancient tradition and modernism. As such, the aim of this paper is to analyse the literary representation of indigeneity in these novels using Stuart Hall’s dual definition in order to show how indigenous identity develops at the backdrop of colonization and what this means for the concept of identity in a postcolonial context. However, questions of gender will not be taken into consideration.

In order to do so Hall’s essay “Cultural Identity and Diaspora” will be employed to provide a theoretical basis and working definition for the succeeding analysis of the novels. The first part of the analysis concerning Things Fall Apart will be structured in accordance with Hall’s dual approach. Firstly, elements contributing towards a collective self, such as a history and language, as well as the literary representation of these aspects will be taken into consideration. Subsequently, attention will be drawn to the ways in which the individual is representative of indigenous identity and how this relates to the dynamics between community and individual. This part will contrast the idea of a stable self with a transformative one and thus also establish a connection to the succeeding analysis of diaspora identities in Things Fall Apart, which are based on constant progress. But how is the notion of change generally created through the use of narrative elements? This will be analysed in the very chapter. Then this question will be narrowed down to the representation of the development from orality to literacy. The results will then provide the basis for a discussion of relocation and hybridity to subsequently contextualize them in the concept of diaspora identities and, more generally, postcolonialism. Although the focus of the analysis is on Things Fall Apart the background of the last chapter will be used as an occasion for a brief discussion of the second part of his trilogy, No Longer at Ease. Due to limited space, however, this novel will only be regarded in its function as a prequel to Things Fall Apart and not as a complex separate work.

After this, a similarly structured analysis of Witi Ihimaera’s The Whale Rider will be pursued. Firstly, the literary representation of features of oral tradition and orality in general will be examined before attention is directed towards myth as a major constituent of Maori identity and its use in the novel. Then Hall’s definition of identity will be applied to the individual for the same purpose as in the analysis of Things Fall Apart. To embed the representation of identity in the broader concept of postcolonialism, the novel will then be discussed in terms of rewriting. Nevertheless, the aim of this chapter will not be a comparative approach of the ancient pretext as a basis for the modern novel. How have Western influences and elements of globalization been interwoven in the narration? And how do these contribute to rewriting? The result will be drawn on to answer these questions of the significance of rewriting and relocating for the concept of cultural identity.

Due to the suggested connection between the writing of Achebe and Ihimaera in the above quotation a comparison of the results gained in the separate analysis of their novels will be undertaken. The purpose of this comparison is to clarify the major differences and similarities which is a prerequisite of the contextualization of the concept of identity in postcolonialism as will be done in the conclusion.

2. Definition of Indigenous Identity

The term “identity” may evoke diverse connotations and associations, depending on the context and the discipline. This paper will, however, not consider identity in terms of psychology or sociology, but in terms of indigeneity. In order to analyse the representation of any concept of identity within a literary text, an initial definition of the term is vital. The approach of this paper will be based on Stuart Hall’s essay “Cultural Identity And Diaspora” and his understanding of it expressed in this very text, as well as on Peter Barry’s Postcolonial Criticism.

In his writing, Hall uses the development of a new cinema in the Caribbean and the emerging difficulties in presenting the various African cultural aspects visually as an example for a closer examination of the term identity and its implications. In this respect, “identity [should be seen] as a production which is never complete [and], always in process” (Hall 392). Hall states further, that there exist at least two ways of approaching cultural or indigenous identity. Firstly, indigenous identity can be understood in terms of one, shared culture, a sort of collective ‘one true self’, [which] people with a shared history and ancestry hold in common. Within the terms of this definition, our cultural identities reflect the common historical experiences and shared cultural codes which provide us, as ‘one people’, with stable, unchanging and continuous frames of reference and meaning, beneath the shifting divisions and vicissitudes of our actual history (Hall 393)

The term “collective self” here refers to various forms shared cultural values, such as traditions, religious beliefs and rituals. Moreover, language and the way it is used is another vital cultural code, particularly in cultures based on orality. Yet, according to Hall there exists a second related, but differently connoted approach to cultural or indigenous identity. This includes the difficulty that may sooner or later arise from understanding cultural identity as a “mere” oneness, which according to Hall is that “we cannot speak for very long, with any exactness, about ‘one experience, one identity’” (394). If regarding history as a continuously intervening factor, causing any forms of disruption and thus fragmentation, the second defining approach then contains the aspect of change. In this second understanding, indigenous identity is a matter of ‘becoming’ as well as of ‘being’. It belongs to the future as much as to the past. […] Cultural identities come from somewhere, have histories [but] […] undergo constant transformation. Far from being eternally fixed in some essentialised past, they re subject to the continuous ‘play’ of history, culture and power. Far from being grounded in mere ‘recovery’ of the past […] identities are the names we give to the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves within, the narratives of the past (394)

Hall considers this second understanding of the term a prerequisite for the full comprehension of the experience of colonization. In this sense, the perception of non-Europeans as “different” and “other” from the Western culture causes those people’s understanding of themselves as “other” and gives rise to boundaries of difference. This further implies that indigenous or cultural identity cannot be regarded as one fixed thing, but as a continuous repositioning and renegotiating.

As such, Hall’s reference to Frantz Fanon is essential. In The Wretched of The Earth Fanon states that “the first step for ‘colonialised’ people in finding a voice and an identity is to reclaim their own past [because] [f]or centuries […] [people] will have been taught to see history, culture and progress as beginning with the arrival of the Europeans” With this “Eurocentric universalism [as also expressed in Edward Said’s Orientalism] the “awareness of representations of the non-Europeans as exotic or immoral ‘Other’” (Barry 194) constitutes “the first characteristic of postcolonial criticism” (194). With regard to postcolonial literature, this characteristic as well as the above referred to boundaries of difference help towards comprehending literary representations of cultural or indigenous identity. In his explanation of otherness Hall, subsequently, refers to Jacques Derrida and his spelling of difference as differance. Although the spelling is slightly varied the meaning can still be detected. Moreover, this change does not only illuminate original traces but also newer meanings of difference/differance. Here the notion of postponement[1] of meaning ties in, for it is dependent upon repositioning and arbitrary stops (cf. Hall 397). On a meta-level the term differance further highlights the reality of indigenous cultures. Their identity of otherness is constructed and influenced by traditions (= original traces) as well as modern values (="new" meanings).

Yet, there is “no permanent equivalence between the particular sentence we close, and its true meaning, as such. Meaning continues to unfold”, and so does identity. (397).Using this conception of difference it is possible to apply Aimé Césaire’s and Léopold Senghor’s terms and speak of a Présence Africaine, i.e. the side of the repressed, and of a Présence Européenne, which “is about exclusion, imposition and expropriation” (400). Here, Hall also introduces the necessity of a “symbolic journey” (399) to “re-tell” (399) identity in the modern world. In this sense, cultural (diaspora) identities are based on the acceptance of diversity as part of the indigenous self and on a conception of the term which lives through hybridity and which continuously reinvents itself anew (cf. Hall 402).

3. Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe

3.1 A “Collective Self” in Things Fall Apart

As has been addressed in the initially provided outline of Stuart Hall’s conception of indigenous identity, differently connoted approaches and understandings of it exist alongside, not necessarily exclusive of, each other. In the following Hall’s first approach defines indigenous identity as one collective, stable self resulting from a mutual history and cultural structures of a people. This approach can be used in order to examine in what ways means of narration have been employed to represent the very conception. In doing so, both elements of language and style, as well as of content and structure in Things Fall Apart will be taken into consideration.

3.1.1 History and Time

The typical notion in colonial discourse further implies that “[t]he African has no character because he or she exists solely as a projection of European desire and [Africans] ‘have no history before the coming of the Europeans’” (Gikandi 27).This had repercussion on literature for a long time. It implied the superiority of Europeans, rendering all non-Europeans as universal and “same”. At the same time it gave rise to a depiction of “a landscape without figures, an Africa without Africans” (Carroll 2).

The Europeans regarded their arrival as the advent of the land’s history neglecting the already existing indigenous culture, consequently, the colonizers deprived the respective people of their indigenous identity, in terms historical and cultural values. In the course of the first part of Things Fall Apart, however, this is not at all the case. The description of the Ibo society is rather contrary to the stereotypical colonial one. This becomes obvious in the initial paragraph of the novel,

Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His fame rested on solid personal achievements. As a young man of eighteen he had brought honour to his village by throwing Amalinze the Cat.[…] It was this man that Okonwko threw in a fight which the old men agreed was one of the fiercest since the founder of their town engaged a spirit of the wild for seven days and seven nights (Achebe TFA[2] 3).

This very paragraph provides the introduction of a protagonist and his placement in a temporal and dramatic frame. Gikandi argues further that this is usually taken for granted throughout novels, but here it announces an opposition to the colonial discourse (26), which renders “Africans as a people without history” (27). On the contentual level the mentioning of the nine villages on the one hand and the reference to the founder of the town in connection to Okonkwo’s fight shows the Ibo’s possibility of looking back in time; it implies a “before” and, thus, a history. This “proof” of their history is thus also an imaginary response to the problems of genealogy and cultural identity” (29).

On a broader level, this paragraph illustrates the significance of history among traditional people in Western Africa in general because for them historic “[e]vents are evaluated in terms of how seriously or decisively they affect people’s lives. [If] they carry historical weight […] they become part of the historical record” (Obiechina 133). It is hence revealed in the very first paragraph that the successful fight carried out by Okonkwo does bear historical weight since it is used as a temporal point of reference within the shared history of the inhabitants of the nine villages. Due to their communal familiarity with this event, they are not only enabled to refer back in time and thus speak of one shared history, but also to remember a relevant tribal event, which exemplarily contributes to a shared cultural memory.

Regarding the introductory paragraph in its structuring function, it can be argued that it “serve[s] as a model for the structure of the novel as a whole as [the narration] moves backward and forward in time” (Innes 36). Within the frame of the immediately following pages this becomes obvious on a linguistic level through phrases, such as “[t]hat was many years ago, twenty years or more” (TFA 3) and “[o]ne day a neighbour called Okoye came in to see him” (TFA 5). Contentually, the process of moving back and forth in time reveals information about Okonkwo’s success as a fighter, information about his father Unoka’s youth, Unoka’s adulthood and misfortune in life. Innes extends this observation throughout the next chapters and states that the second chapter “takes up the story of Okonkwo in his prime time” while the third moves backwards in time, narrating of “Okonwko’s boyhood and difficult struggle as a young man” (Innes 37). Although the information revealed here primarily illuminates the individual’s psychology, the effect on structure is undeniable. By means of moving back and forth in time, and thus relating past and present, the intertwining of the shared past, and hence of history, and the present constitutes a major feature of indigenous identity as stated in Hall’s first conception.

It should be stressed at this point that, in general, in Things Fall Apart time and space are collectively determined. Referring back to the very first paragraph of the novel it is striking that the nine villages form a “small-scale society in which the impact of events has limited spatial dimension” (Obiechina 141). This means that beyond the borders of the community, events, such as Okonkwo’s fight, do not have any consequences. With a community being “one” in terms of locality, time gains a more fundamental significance. Regarding Hall’s assumption of shared cultural codes as constituents of a collective self in a community, time can be read as a unifying element and integrating moment, which everybody is equally affected by, as a result of long-established ancestral tradition. On a contentual level this notion of time is represented through the inclusion of various elements, which imply a weekly or annual cycle and, consequently, the passing of time. One of these is the inclusion of markets which through their function symbolize community. This becomes obvious when it is said that Unoka would play with his band “for as long as three or four markets” (TFA 4-5). Similarly, festivities are employed one of which is the Feast of the New Yam, which “was held every year […] to honor the earth goddess and the ancestral spirits of the clan” (TFA 36). As Gikandi argues, this is a means of representing the culture’s sensitivity towards time (cf. 29). Furthermore, it is an ever recurrent, both ancestrally and spiritually substantiated, event affecting the community as an entirety and is thus an aspect through which “oneness” is established in Things Fall Apart.

Therefore, it can be concluded that in Things Fall Apart time serves eclectic purposes in its representation of indigenous identity. Firstly, it is employed to establish history contentually, by means of including past events of communal significance and structurally reinforcing them by moving back and forth in time. Secondly, time is used for socialization by referring to cyclical events and routines in the community which are all-encompassing.

3.1.2 Oral Tradition and Language

In West African communities orality plays a significant role. This gives rise to the assumption that oral tradition and language in general have a function reaching beyond the sole exchange of factual information. Here, the terms orality and language should be further clarified. Firstly, the Ibo language spoken by the people is a constituent feature of identity, given that Hall speaks of cultural codes. Secondly, orality refers to a vital feature of the storytelling tradition and is likewise an element of indigenous identity. This also becomes very obvious in Things Fall Apart, for here linguistic features are employed in diverse ways, which will be examined in the following. In doing so, the focus will be put on how language supports the conception of one “collective self” of a culture in part one of the novel, portraying the time before the arrival of the Europeans.

The above suggestion of the significance of orality can be traced throughout the narration. Innes explains that “the work as a whole, with its numerous digressions and episodic structure [is] reminiscent of oral composition” (33). Certainly the narrative voice contributes towards this impression. In various approaches there has been much discussion about the narrator since changes in the narrative voice occur throughout the novel. Oftentimes these are noticeable in the shift from a collective voice explaining life in the community to the thoughts of an individual, such as the protagonist Okonkwo. Carroll argues that “[w]hen the narrator begins to delve into the single mind we anticipate with foreboding an unpleasant turn of events. The individual seems vulnerable in his solitude and introspection” (35). This allows for the assumption that in Things Fall Apart communal life with shared thoughts and values is the standard and valued above the individual, whereas the probing into the individual’s mind is an exception and usually has a negative connotation. One instance of this can be found when Okonkwo is infuriated after finding out that his son Nwoye has become attached to Christianity ,[a]s Okonkwo sat in his hut that night, gazing into a log fire, he thought over the matter. A sudden fury rose within him and he felt a strong desire to take up his machete, go to the church and wipe out the entire vile and miscreant gang (TFA 152).

As such, the narrative voice is digressive in two ways, i.e. the shift in terms of community and individual as well as in temporality (cf. 3.1.1). Structurally, this certainly resembles a person’s line of thoughts, and hence a mode of oral storytelling, rather than a typically written form in the Western frames of reference.

The emulation of oral storytelling and the emphasis on oral tradition in general is intensified linguistically through the incorporation of proverbs, songs and Ibo words left untranslated in the otherwise English novel. Although the “style is […] unpretentious, and concise, it can on occasion glow with radiance and serenity [as well as] rhythms […] to reflect such movements” (Palmer 62). Since the narration abounds with proverbs, this suggestion is confirmed early in the plot, “[a]mong the Ibo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palmoil with which words are eaten” (TFA 7). Strikingly, this again reinforces the status of language by employing an artistic element depicting the Ibo culture and tradition that is vibrant and alive. When considering the distribution of these sayings throughout the novel, it will soon show that more than three quarters can be found in the first part of Things Fall Apart (cf. Beckmann 117), prior to the arrival of the Europeans and the cultural destruction and silencing resulting from it. However, it is difficult, if at all possible, to narrow down the function of the various proverbs included in Things Fall Apart to a single purpose. As Adéékó accounts, [i]n African literature, proverbs are commonly used to mark thematic shifts, indigenous high rhetoric, self-conscious speech, and the intellectual sharpness of characters” (50). In terms of the representation of historicity of the people in Umuofia the proverb may also be regarded as the collected “wisdom of the ages” (Ogede 27), for it is oftentimes introduced with a reference to the elders and, thus indirectly, with a reference to a time “before”. Among others, proverbs such as “As our fathers said, you can tell a ripe corn by its looks” (TFA 22) as used by Okonkwo’s father Unoka when trying to postpone the repayment of his debts, “Our elders say that the sun will shine on those who stand before it shines on those who kneel under them” (TFA 7-8). Although Ogede argues further that “the rhetoric of proverbs […] requires a shift of focus from situation” to situation (28) in order to understand the symbolic meaning behind it, the use of the sayings with those introductory phrasings hints at the tendency to judge current events with the justification of long-inherited ancestral knowledge.

Apart from proverbs, the above mentioned inclusion of Ibo words is vital for the literary representation of indigenous identity. Ogede refers to the incident when Akueke’s mother tells the girl to take off her jigida, “[e]veryday I tell you that jigida and fire are not friends” (TFA 71), and argues that translating this word into English could not “[summon] to life […] the rhythm, rhetoric and verbal echo” (Ogede 22). In line with this Kortenaar remarks that these Ibo words express an entire world which cannot be translated into English correctly (cf. 126). Here Miri introduces an important point which establishes a direct connection between the rhythmic sound of the words and identity because [o]ne other way in which the modern African/Nigerian writer tries to return to his roots (the Igbo culture) is by achieving the musical basis of the traditional oral art. Many kinds of oral modes use music in one form or another: whether in the actual singing of songs, or in the meaningful control of tonal accents (105)

Both of these assumptions are convincing when taking into regard that the Ibo words all refer to culturally significant elements, such as musical instruments, “the blood-stirring and intricate rhythms of the ekwe and the udu and the ogene” (TFA 6). Similarly, references to a personal god, like the chi, remain in Ibo throughout the novel. The voice of Chielo when she comes to remove Okonkwo’s daughter Ezinma from the house on behalf of the goddess Agbala is in Ibo, “Okonkwo! Agbala ekene gio-o-o! Agbala cholu ifu ada ya Ezinmao-o-o” (100). This shows that Ibo expressions are left untranslated when they occur in a religious ritual. In this respect Mphande’s explanation that some forms of oral tradition “function in ritual and cult, such as invocations, incantations, funeral songs, praise songs, etc.” (416) stresses the close connection between ritual and language; hence it gives rise to the idea of language itself being a ritual. Here Jannetta argues that “the ritualistic quality and its connection to the oral tradition” (25) is a textual strategy of representing identity.

As such, it can be concluded that in Things Fall Apart language is particularly significant in the representation of collective values and identity. The shifts in the narrative voice, emphasizing the communal aspect, as well as the digressive structure convey oral tradition more subtly whereas the rhetoric and ritualistic elements of language do this more obviously, yet as effectively.

3.1.3 Rituals: the Circle

In the previous chapter in the discussion about the representation of oral tradition it has been argued that language itself can be seen as a ritual constituting a basic element of cultural identity. Kluckhohn makes a more general suggestion, saying that “people can count upon the repetitive nature of the phenomena” (42) which provide “fixed points” (43). This broader understanding defines ritual as not being exclusively limited to language, but as a repetitive structure, in diverse areas. Accordingly, the profound link to indigenous identity emerging in Things Fall Apart will be highlighted.

In fact, the novel abounds with repeated behavioral and structural patterns which, however, may vary in their impact on generating identity. A very basic, yet ever-recurrent, form of ritual in Things Fall Apart is the breaking of the kola nut, which is always done upon the arrival of visitors as a sign of hospitality. Similarly, the egwugwu have a ritualistic function since they appear repetitively, personifying the ancient spirits of the nine villages. Their function as judges in chapter ten reveals how they incorporate ritualistic features which bear a close link to identity. Not only are they “the most powerful and the most secret cult in the clan” (TFA 88) but their appearance in masks at court evokes a highly ritualistic perception. In this instance the connection between ritual and oral tradition stated in 3.1.2 is once again confirmed as one of the egwugwus initiates repeated oral forms, “‘Umuofia kwenu!’ shouted the leading egwugwu, pushing the air with his raffia arms. The elders of the clan replied, ‘Yaa!’/ ‘Umuofia kwenu!’/ ‘Yaa!’/ ‘Umuofia kwenu!’ /’Yaa!’” (89).

This quotation exemplifies ritualistic performance which when combined with its inherent repetition implies a circular movement. In this respect, Gikandi’s suggestion of the “circle of culture” (33) is essential. Not only can the circle be comprehended as a metaphor of ritual but it is also a major motif in the novel, signifying “unity and totality”[3] (34). In the narration the image of the circle occurs whenever events of communal significance take place, such as a wrestling match in chapter six where the people stand “round in a huge circle” (TFA 46) and “two young men carrying palm fronds [run] round the circle” (47). During a wedding ceremony in chapter twelve the circle has a similar function since “[t]he elders said in a big circle and the singers went round singing each man’s praise as they came before him” (118). Gikandi argues that this “hermeneutical circle- the process by which the culture understands and interprets itself” (35) is always created through sound or, more precisely, through drums. This is true since the communal circle is always accompanied by the sound of drums, “[o]ld men nodded to the beat of the drums and remembered the days when they wrestled to its intoxicating rhythm” (TFA 47).

The circle can therefore be seen as a significant motif, not only symbolizing communal unity, but also linking it with ritual and oral tradition. In other words, it is a metaphor bringing together constituent features of cultural identity. Gikandi also draws attention towards the break-up of the circle as an expression of cultural crisis (cf. 35). With regard to the circular, repetitive nature of the ritual, this break signifies that the ritual is no longer “’supra-individual’” (Kluckhohn 44), which means that it has seized to “meet the ‘needs’ of a number of concrete individuals” (44) in a “coherent culture” (44). As a result, the destruction of the circle through external forces can also be transferred to the emerging silence at the end of the novel (see 3.3.2), since the element formerly binding together the “absolute and inescapable link between being and voice” (Gikandi 33) no longer exists, except for a few scattered pieces, textually manifested through the emulation of oral tradition in a written text.

3.2 The Fixed Individual versus the Adapting Community

When analysing indigenous identity in Things Fall Apart not only the entire community in a broad scale approach, but also some of its members have to be taken into consideration. In this context, the individual is not significant in terms of his psyche and his emotions but as a type, representing the community for “[t]he identification of the individual with the group of which he forms part, and with its social and cultural outlook, is the very essence of traditionalism” (Obiechina 202). Therefore, in Things Fall Apart indigenous identity is portrayed through the various characters featuring the dynamics resulting from the interplay of community and individual

Considering the protagonist Okonkwo, his position in society is vital. At the beginning, in the introductory paragraph (cf. TFA 3), his fight is used as a historically significant temporal marker for communal life. At the end he commits suicide. It is rendered “an abomination for a man to take his own life [and] an offense against the Earth” (TFA 207). This gives rise to the question of the impact indigenous identity has on the individual as well as its relation to the community.

Initially, he appears to be the epitome of the values appreciated in the community since he does not regard anything as high as success, status and tradition. His entire life is driven by the ambition to be better than his father Unoka whose life had been misfortunate. The basis to social recognition within the community includes, for instance, inheritance of a farm, “[w]hen Unoka died he had taken no title at all and he was heavily in debt” (TFA 8). The following paragraph shows how his fame and wealth as a farmer in part one of the novel implies success within the value system of his community,

[h]e was still young but he had won fame as the greatest wrestler in the nine villages. He was a wealthy farmer and had two barns full of yams, and had just married his third wife. To crown it all he had taken two titles and had shown incredible prowess in two inter-tribal wars. […] Age was respected among his people. But achievement was revered (TFA 8).

Yet, by means of holding onto the values in an extreme manner “Okonkwo acquires his heroic and then tragic status by becoming alienated from the very values he espouses” which leads to his “ambivalent relationship with the social grammar of his culture” (Gikandi 39). This becomes particularly obvious in chapter seven when Okonkwo’s foster son Ikemefuna is killed (cf. TFA 61). The decision is made by the Oracle, and thus it is ancestrally justified, “Yes, Umuofia has decided to kill [Ikemefuna]. The Oracle of the Hills and the Caves has pronounced it” (TFA 57). In the same instance, Ogbuefi Ezeudu, who delivers this news to Okonkwo, says to him that he should not participate in the killing because Ikemefuna sees a father in him. In the actual murder, however, “Okonkwo drew his machete and cut [Ikemefuna] down. He was afraid of being thought weak” (TFA 61).


[1] The French verb différer can be translated as both “to differ” and “to postpone”.

[2] Subsequent references to this novel will be designated as TFA.

[3] Gikandi here speaks of “unity“ as phallocentrism, arguing that it is only achieved of excluding women from the circle (cf. 34). It is certainly true that strong patriarchal elements to be detected in the novel, yet since this paper does not focus on gender identity “unity” and “circle” will here be comprehended in terms of the entire community as opposed to the imminent intervention of the Europeans. For more information on womanhood and the female versus the male principle in Things Fall Apart, see Ousseynou B. Traoré, “Why the Snake Lizard Killed His Mother” In The Politics of (M)othering, edt. Obioma Nnaemeka. London: Routledge 1997. 50-69. and Victoria A. Alabi.“Mother Is Surpreme: A Semiotic Reading of Motherhood and Womanhood in the Three of Achebe’s Novels” in Emerging Perspectives on Chinua Achebe, Vol.2 Isinka, the Artistic Purpose”, Ed. Ernest N. Emenyonu, Asmara: Africa World Press, Inc. 2004. 385-394.

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Indigenous Identity in Witi Ihimaera's "Whale Rider" and Chinua Achebe's Fiction
University of Dusseldorf "Heinrich Heine"
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Ihimaera, Achebe, Whale Rider, Things Fall Apart, New Zealand, Nigeria, cultural identity, indigeneity, colonialism, hybridity, indigenous, ritual, circle, spiral, Stuart Hall, No longer at ease, Okonkwo, Kahu, Maori, Ibo, Kahutia-te-Rangi, eurocentrism
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Annemarie Pabel (Author), 2011, Indigenous Identity in Witi Ihimaera's "Whale Rider" and Chinua Achebe's Fiction, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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