Friday, February 28, 2014

Thoughts on Things Fall Apart

As I said before, I really enjoyed reading Things Fall Apart. At first I must admit I was skeptical of reading African lit. The only comparison I could draw from memory was a novel we read during freshman year - I can't quite remember the title, but I know I hated the writing style. I was nervous it would be another broken english slave novel, or an extremely subjective perspective from either a white or African author. Needless to say I was surprised when I realized it was neither. I was instantly captivated by the intro to Ibo culture, and even more so as the story continued to develop. Letting go of any previous opinions, I opened my mind to Achebe's writing and found myself enlightened. I honestly had no idea how incredibly civilized the Ibo were/are. Civilized, as in maintaining a system in which the society existed relatively harmoniously and efficiently. Granted, there are many aspects that would classify them as barbaric, but Achebe mainly highlighted their humanity rather than their inhuman qualities.

This just goes to show how little Americans are exposed to not only African culture, but also cultures in general. There's so much to learn about so many different kinds of people. That is why I enjoy this class so much. It's fascinating to read literature of different countries and then understand its significance historically.


I absolutely loved Things Fall Apart. Regardless of Okonkwo's flaws, I find his character very refreshing. In today's world, most protagonists are the stereotypical heroes who usually have integrity, cleverness, and patience. Beside those few wife/child-beating scenes, I actually quite enjoyed seeing Okonkwo's flaws emerge, because it showed his humanity. As hard as authors try to create the ideal human, nobody is perfect. I for one understand exactly how it feels to fear failure. Often times I've tried so hard to make things perfect, and as luck would have it, everything always seems to fall apart. I've had to learn (the hard way), that sometimes the best results come from pure spontaneity or relaxed planning.

Things Fall Apart and One Hundred Years of Solitude

While reading Things Fall Apart, I kept thinking back to One Hundred Years of Solitude. Both works portray societies crumbling under the pressure of colonialism. Just as in One Hundred Years of Solitude, the european colonists implemented themselves in the commercial culture of the village and slowly creeped into controlling all aspects of village life. The characters in both have to actively fight to save and uphold their culture and history as the oppressive colonialists destroy everything they ever held dear. Also, Things Fall Apart has some elements of magic realism that were so influential in One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Thoughts on Amistad

Today in class, Mrs. Quinet showed us Steven Spielberg's Amistad. Although earlier in the week I had hoped that we would watch Mean Girls, I am so glad we watched this movie instead. I remember briefly learning about the Amistad case last year in American History. The movie, however, burned in my memory a disturbing portrayal of the facts that we had previously absorbed as merely more information from our textbook to memorize for the next test. The Amistad does not shy away from showing the gruesome treatment of the African victims of the slave trade, and helps open audiences eyes to the grim history that so many wish to brush off and forget about. The Amistad, although it may have its minor historical inaccuracies as Mrs. Quinet pointed out while we were watching, serves to depict the Trans-Atlantic slave trade in an disturbingly detailed and accurate way. It's so much more than just a tear jerker; similar in this way to Spielberg's Schindler's List, he gives voices and faces to the so often forgotten in our country's dark past. I also think the movie was a great ending to our unit on Things Fall Apart. Sengbe's speech to John Quincy Adams reminded me of the Ibo beliefs about the afterlife and ancestors that I blogged about earlier this week.  

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Achebe on Things Fall Apart

This is an interview Achebe did with PBS in May 2008. Once you get to about the 3:10 mark, Achebe explains why he didn't paint a completely idealized version of Ibo culture and why Okonkwo is so flawed in Things Fall Apart. He says "I knew that I wanted the story to be true in the way fiction can be true." I think the fact that Achebe showed Ibo culture as flawed, in a way establishes his credibility. Meaning, we, as readers, can be more confident in knowing that Achebe is painting us an accurate picture of Ibo culture.  

Wednesday, February 26, 2014


While reading the conversation between Mr. Brown and Akunna, when Akunna describes the Ibo religion, I noticed many similarities between Ibo beliefs and Hindu beliefs. Although Hindus worships over 330 million gods, some believe that reality is ultimately made up of one essence. Hindus believe that everything in this world is one, all the gods are of the same essence. Each god in Hinduism is a part of the whole. Akunna explains to Mr. Brown that, "We also believe in Him and call Him Chukwu. He made all the world and the other gods." Like in Hinduism, the Ibo religion chooses to worship various gods which they believe make up one essence. When the Ibo people worship a piece of wood, they understand that it is just a piece of wood, but it is a piece of wood that was created by Chukwu, just like the gods and humans. Mr. Brown tries to persuade Akunnu that a piece of wood is worthless but Akunna defends his beliefs by explaining, "It is indeed a piece of wood. The tree from which it came was made by Chukwu, as indeed all the minor gods were. But He made them for His messengers so that we could approach Him through them." The Ibo people also believe in having a chi just as Hindus believe in having an Atman. In a way, a chi is similar to karma, everything thing that happens to someone happens for a reason. The Ibo people and Hindus also believe in reincarnation. Both religions consider time to be cyclical rather than linear. Both see a connection between the spiritual world and the material world and stress the importance of respecting one's ancestors. Although their isn't as much of a defined caste system in the Ibo culture, their still seems to be characteristics of one. In the Ibo culture there are outcasts who hold no titles just as in the Hindu culture. However, in the Ibo culture, one has more opportunities to improve their titles and rank within society. For example, Okonkwo wasn't born with his rank, he was self made. The Ibo culture does not judge someone based upon who their father is, one is given the opportunity to improve their rankings and detach themselves from the reputations of their fathers. In Hinduism, it is much more difficult to improve your ranking within the caste system. One is born into a position and isn't given many opportunities to improve. Hindu's believe that if you are in a lower caste, that is because you had done something wrong in your past life and are now enduring the punishment in your present life. Yet, when comparing any religions, one can find many similarities. After Mr. Brown and Akunna's conversation, I found more similarities between Christianity and the Ibo religion than differences. Worshipping a piece of wood didn't seem as ridiculous to me. If someone believes in God, shouldn't they also believe that God created EVERYTHING? Worshipping something that God created while keeping in mind that God created it doesn't seem so irrational.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Ibo Belief in the Afterlife

While reading Things Fall Apart, I did a little of my own research about the Ibo tribe's beliefs about the afterlife. As we saw with the Egwugwu, the Ibo culture places a huge emphasis on ancestor worship. They believe that their ancestors are always watching over and guarding them. Ancestors also help to control the living's futures and protect them during emergencies. As a sign of respect, the chief always makes sure that some food is put on the side at all tribal events as a symbolic tribute to the ancestors. To show their appreciation to their ancestors on a daily basis, at the start of every meal, one would take a bite out of his food, throw it to the ground, and then yell out to his ancestors. 

The Four Titles

It's actually really hard to find a detailed explanation on the Igbo title system. Here's a breakdown of the Igbo political system:


  • Type "A" 
    • Segmentary Lineages, theocratic kingship, less differentiated title system e.g. Ozo or Eze title, age-grades, and associations e.g. Nri
  • Type "B"
    • Segmentary Lineages, secular kingship, less differentiated title system e.g. Ozo or Eze title, differentiated title system (hierarchically arranged), age-grades and association e.g. Onitsha, Aboh, Ogwashi, Oguta, Agbor, Issele-Uku
  • Type "C"
    • Segmentary Lineages, mixed sacred and secular kingship, associations e.g. Aro Chukwu

Middle Range:

  • Type "D"
    • Segmentary Lineages, Chiefship or headship, less differentiated title system e.g. Ozo or Eze title e.g. Ibagwa Ani
  • Type "E"
    • Segmentary Lineages, hyper-gerontocracy, less differentiated title system e.g. Ozo or Eze title, age-grades, associations e.g. Ibusa, Illah, Okpanam
  • Type "F"
    • Segmentary Lineages, hyper-age grades, gerontocracy, less differentiated title system e.g. Ezo or Ozo title, associations e.g. Asaba


While in Malawi, I had the chance to learn about the traditional meal that is served for every meal of the day, nsima. Nsima is basically watered-down, processed corn meal, the consistency reminds me of grits. Most rural Malawians primarily focus on growing corn in the rainy season and hope to save enough to last them throughout the dry season. Nsima lacks much nutritional value and can actually lead to malnutrition. I was shocked to see how much of a staple food corn was in Malawi, the children and adults I met seemed to consider it as vital as water. They were incredibly shocked to hear that I do not eat nsima everyday. On kid even asked how I was alive and healthy if I didn't eat nsima. Children in Malawi are taught that if they do not eat nsima they will be unhealthy and more likely to become sick. They are not aware that when eating the meal, most of the nutrition comes from the relish rather than the nisma. What I found most interesting was that Malawi's dependency on corn resulted from European intervention. Before having contact with Europeans, Malawians grew a diversity of nutritious crops that were native to the land. Malnutrition hardly seemed to be an issue. When the Europeans came to Malawi they also brought mono-cropping and corn from the Americas. Now most Malawians are dependent on corn and have forgotten about other nutritious crops which were once abundant and native to the land. While in Malawi, I had to opportunity to make and eat nsima. After the corn has been processed into a flour, it is mixed with water and cooked over a fire. As it cooks, you have to continue stirring it so that it eventually reaches the right consistency. After a while it becomes very difficult to stir. I  eventually had to give up and allow one of the other women to take over. When it is finished, it is served with a relish and eaten with your hands. Here are some pictures I have from when I was in Malawi and made nsima. 

Monday, February 24, 2014

World War I

We are coincidently learning about WWI in AP US history as well. I feel extremely enlightened; learning about the history, art, literature, etc. during WWI at the same time has really given me the ability to comprehend the war on a different level. Mr. Williams recently gave us a powerpoint presentation on the new warfare tactics used during WWI compared to the old style of warfare as used in, say, the civil war in America. Millions of people were killed in battle in WWI compared to thousands in previous wars. In the early and mid nineteenth century, if one side lost 20,000 people in a battle, they were thought to have obviously lost. However, in the Battle of Somme in WWI, more than one million soldiers were died or wounded, and their was no clear winner of the battle. The Battle of Somme is actually notable for the debut of tanks and high use of air power, which were both largely responsible for the extremely high amounts of deaths. As opposed to soldiers riding horses in cavalries, soldiers in WWI rode in tanks, on airplanes, or fought with guns in trenches.

My Trip to South Africa

I'm going to South Africa with Kyla over Mardi Gras Break, and I am extremely excited, especially because we are in the midst of studying African literature. Kyla's dad went to college in South Africa but actually grew up in Zimbabwe, so I'm hoping to learn about the culture in both places from him. Hopefully I'll be able to learn enough from Mr. Bernberg and my surroundings to write a blog post comparing the African culture of the Igbo tribe, the culture of tribes in Zimbabwe, and the culture in South Africa. I'm sure their will be stark differences between the different places, especially because of Apartheid. It will also be interesting to see how the different societies have evolved over the years under the pressure of westernization.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

While I was in Africa this summer I actually realized some of the effects that colonization had on Malawi. I'll try to bring it up in class because it is actually very interesting. It revolves around the nutrition in Malawi and how in fact the issues of malnutrition in the country actually result from the influences of European countries such as Portugal.
Since we have the Humanities test on Monday, I thought that I should bring up my own family's interest in African art. My mother's favorite style of art is actually African art. If you walk through my house you would notice my Mom's obsession with African art and in particular three women. I'll try and post some pictures soon. My mother's interest in three women actually comes from the fact that she has three daughters.

Africans in Heart of Darkness

Since we talked a bit about different portrayals of African people, I thought I'd talk a bit how they are described in Heart of Darkness. The novella takes place in the Congo under Leopold II, who exploited it for ivory and rubber. Conrad himself worked on an ivory boat in the Congo, and he wrote Heart of Darkness based on his experiences. I read it while I was in ninth grade, so my memory is a little hazy, but I do remember a few of his descriptions of Africans. In some cases, he describes them in a way that makes them seem unintelligent and sometimes even servile. The one African woman who was in charge of anything easily submitted to the insane Kurtz and kinda just did what he told her to. I really enjoyed Heart of Darkness and think it was a good work in many ways, but its' depiction of black Africans certainly wasn't one of those ways.

Mussorgsky and Stravinsky

In a previous post (I think it was my longest yet), I said that Mussorgsky's style could almost not be described as Romantic, despite the time in which he lived.  As we get into more and more bizarre art, I think that Mussorgsky was way ahead of his time, and may have done exactly what Stravinsky and Co. were going for.  Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring (there is a definite "the" in the title here too) was so controversial and revolutionary because it was deliberately somewhat ugly, wild, unrefined, and inelegant--which are all exactly how Mussorgsky's style is generally characterized, although it is generally branded as Russian nationalism (Stravinsky was also portraying Russia's roots...)  Another piece that shows Mussorgsky at his most inelegant (his critics would say "technically incompetent," and there might be something to that) is St. John's Eve on Bald Mountain, usually known as Night on Bald Mountain, a tone poem that portrays a witch's sabbath on a mountain at night.  It is almost exclusively known in a version very thoroughly revised by Rimsky-Korsakov, which makes for much easier listening but sounds like Rimsky-Korsakov, whose style is in many ways opposite to that of Mussorgsky.  Here is a recording of the original:

The bizarre orchestration, fragmented development, and overall ugliness of the piece, as well as its nightmarish subject matter, are a stark contrast to Rimsky-Korsakov's perfect orchestration and carefully structured pieces.  It's not much of a contrast at all, though, to Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring--in fact, I think that Night on Bald Mountain in this version is strangely more disconcerting; at least there's a single idea that's fairly clearly expressed in The Rite of Spring.  At best, Mussorgsky's piece is revolutionary, keeping the listener off balance in a fashion that mirrors his subject.  At worst, it is an incompetent, aimless mashup of half-written ideas.  I personally love this piece; whether or not Mussorgsky was actually capable of writing in a more traditional style, I think he still managed to achieve a spot-on tone for this piece by leaving it, in a sense, only partially written.

World War I: Before and After

Recently I read the poem Pro Rege Nostro by William Ernest Henley, one of my favorite poets (mainly for his poem Invictus). Henley wrote Pro Rege Nostro in the late 1800s, fifteen years or so before World War I. The poem is essentially Henley's love letter to England, and also became extremely popular during the war as a sign of patriotism. Here is the first verse:

"What have I done for you, 
England, my England? 
What is there I would not do, 
England, my own? 
With your glorious eyes austere, 
As the Lord were walking near, 
Whispering terrible things and dear 
As the Song on your bugles blown, England -- 
Round the world on your bugles blown!"

In this verse from Pro Rege Nostro you can see how strikingly different it is from Eliot's The Waste Land, which was written only about two decades after Henley's poem. Pro Rege Nostro displays utter patriotism, whereas The Waste Land describes London as a broken place filled with disillusioned citizens as a direct result of World War I.  

"Unreal city,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn, 
A crowd flowed over London bridge, so many,
I had not thought death undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet."

Just through these two poems you can see the way in which events, such as World War I, can effect literature and poetry. Because of this, they become almost history lessons that catalouge the general attitudes, feelings, and emotions of society through these historical events.

Modernist Music in America

American composers were pretty much absent from classical music until the early 1900s; perhaps the most popular American composer in Europe up to that point was the New Orleanian pianist Louis Gottschalk (whose music is interesting but does not really belong in this post).  I think that the rapid modernization of America, the spread of jazz, and a renewed acceptance among European audiences of fusions of art music and popular music all contributed to a great increase in the prominence of American composers like the Gershwin brothers, John Philip Sousa, Irving Berlin, and later Aaron Copland, William Bolcom, Dave Brubeck, and, unfortunately, John Cage.  One thing all of these composers have in common, except maybe John Cage, is their conscious use of popular music; much of their music is not really "classical" in the traditional sense.

The modernist music of America shares a number of commonalities with that of Europe: it is somewhat more chaotic and less formal, it uses some non-musical textures, and it integrates popular music to a large extent.  George Gershwin is a very good exemplar of this style.  He began his career as a composer with jazz music that was not intended for a concert hall; he turned to a more classical style after a trip to Europe in the 1920s, during which he composed his most famous work, Rhapsody in Blue, and the symphonic poem An American in Paris (1928).  Here is a recording of the latter:

The piece is programmatic: it begins with a sudden, loud series of themes which are supposed to represent the overwhelming impression of Paris.  The jazz influence and lightheartedness of the music are immediately evident.  Around 7:30, the music changes to a bluesy rhythm and a blues scale as the subject thinks of home.  Like the other Modernist composers we've mentioned, Gershwin takes a lot of liberties with tonality; however, unlike Schoenberg, he doesn't create a deliberately obscure style, but rather fuses preexisting styles in an accessible way.

Aaron Copland was a later composer and more strictly classical than Gershwin.  His style is strongly influenced by folk music and, like Gershwin, he consciously worked to ensure that it had wide appeal.  His most famous piece is the ballet Appalachian Spring, now usually performed as an orchestral piece.  Despite the name (in which "spring" refers to the geological feature), it was intended to depict pioneers in Pennsylvania.  Here is a recording:

The piece is generally tranquil and pastoral.  It is characteristic of Copland in that it mixes tonal classical music, some atonal diatonic influences, and folk melodies (like "Simple Gifts" at the end).  If you are reading the score, it is superficially rather similar to Schoenberg or late Stravinsky; Copland, though, managed to find a way to use atonal, polyrhythmic techniques to achieve bright and tranquil sounds.

Rite of Spring

When Mrs. Quinet showed us The Rite of Spring in Class, I remembered seeing the ballet in Dr. Ramos's class last year. After her lesson, the dance didn't look so random and spastic. Last year when I saw this video, I totally understood why they threw tomatoes at them. I now understand why the choreographer staged the dance as an untraditional ballet to represent the fragmentation of society. Thanks Mrs. Quinet!

Side by Side: Grinch v. Eliot

The tone in their voices is very similar. They are both very rhythmic, yet boding. Both criticize society, yet for opposite things. One criticizes Whoville for its Christmas celebration, and the other criticizes society's attitude of ennui.


Picasso's Guernica shows the tragedies of war and the suffering it inflicts upon individuals, particularly innocent civilians. It remains a reminder of the tragedies of war, an anti-war symbol, and an embodiment of peace. Interestingly, it was painted in Paris, and not to be brought to Spain until liberty and democracy had been reestablished in the country. I thought it'd be interesting to share some the metaphors throughout the painting. I was lucky to see this painting in 2009, and I remember being absolutely fascinated as the tour guide explained to us the same list I'm sharing now. 

  • The overall scene is within a room where, at an open end on the left, a wide-eyed bull stands over a woman grieving over a dead child in her arms.
  • The centre is occupied by a horse falling in agony as it had just been run through by a spear or javelin. The large gaping wound in the horse's side is a major focus of the painting.
  • Two "hidden" images formed by the horse appear in Guernica:
    • A human skull overlays the horse's body.
    • A bull appears to gore the horse from underneath. The bull's head is formed mainly by the horse's entire front leg which has the knee on the ground. The leg's knee cap forms the head's nose. A horn appears within the horse's breast.
  • The bull's tail forms the image of a flame with smoke rising from it, seemingly appearing in a window created by the lighter shade of gray surrounding it.
  • Under the horse is a dead, apparently dismembered soldier; his hand on a severed arm still grasps a shattered sword from which a flower grows.
  • On the open palm of the dead soldier is a stigma, a symbol of martyrdom derived from the stigmata of Christ.
  • A light bulb blazes in the shape of an evil eye over the suffering horse's head (the bare bulb of the torturer's cell). Picasso's intended symbolism in regards to this object is related to the Spanish word for lightbulb; "bombilla", which is similar to the word "bomba" for bomb in Spanish.
  • To the upper right of the horse, a frightened female figure, who seems to be witnessing the scenes before her, appears to have floated into the room through a window. Her arm, also floating in, carries a flame-lit lamp. The lamp is positioned very close to the bulb, and is a symbol of hope, clashing with the lightbulb.
  • From the right, an awe-struck woman staggers towards the center below the floating female figure. She looks up blankly into the blazing light bulb.
  • Daggers that suggest screaming replace the tongues of the bull, grieving woman, and horse.
  • A dove, holding an olive branch is scribed on the wall behind the bull. Part of its body comprises a crack in the wall through which bright light (hope, or the outside world) can be seen.
  • On the far right, a figure with arms raised in terror is entrapped by fire from above and below.
  • The right hand of the man suggests the shape of an airplane.
  • A dark wall with an open door defines the right end of the mural.


Yesterday, I taught the freshman about the Meiji Restoration. Primarily, in studying the Meiji Restoration you hear of how the West influenced Japan. Fun fact: Emperor Meiji’s cabinet was called the “Dancing Cabinet” because they were obsessed with western ballroom dancing. However, just like the Igbo culture, Japanese culture also had an enormous influence on Western art through the late 1800s to the early 1900s.
         I did a little experiment in my presentation with the freshman. I put these two works next to each other and ask them what nationality they thought the artists of the two works were.

           The first one they got right away—Japanese. It’s actually a traditional Japanese woodblock print. However, no one knew the second, which is The Courtesan by Vincent van Gogh c. 1887.

         Van Gogh coined the term “Japonaiserie,” which he used to describe the influence of Japanese art. In 1888, Van Gogh wrote “All my work is based to some extent on Japanese art…”