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This study, “An Artist as a Historian…” set out to examine the historical perspective of the Nigerian Civil War using Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun and Chinua Achebe’s There Was A Country as instances. Using New Historicism as the theoretical framework, the study assessed and examined the historical antecedents of the war as well as the historical perspective surrounding the war as evident in the two books under study. Accordingly, this study observed that ethnic tension, quest for ethnic superiority, lack of good leadership, lack of political negotiations and dialogue, corruption and unnecessary quest for political power led to the Nigerian Civil War of 1967-1970. The study concluded that history has a tendency of repeating itself if the same thing is done again and again. This means that if the country repeatedly chooses wrong leaders and engages in ethnic issues, it may lead to another war. Therefore the leaders should formulate policies capable of uniting every citizen despite their ethnic differences and promote the concept of Fundamental Human Rights to protect all its citizens against ethnic prejudice.
1.1 Background to the Study
Literature represents an outlet of expression that is usually influenced by culture and which, in turn helps to change culture. As such, literature may be said to be a physical manifestation of the internal creative impulse. From prehistoric cave paintings to modern day film, art serves as a vessel for storytelling and conveying humankind’s relationship with her environment (Arthur Biddle and Toby Fulwiler 38).
Art is a documented expression of a sentient being through an accessible medium so that anyone can read, view, hear and experience. Art is a documented expression which expresses ideas and feelings through a certain art form. Therefore, art is created when an artist creates a beautiful object or pleasurable product of imagination which should entertain, inform, warn, create awareness and educate the reader or audience about various issues in society. In other words, the artist produces a stimulating experience that is considered by his audience to have artistic merit. (Steven Lynn 36).
Art is therefore, essentially committed to practical social realities, thus, writers (or critics) adopt different literary approaches and strategies to register their messages across to the audience. The artist is saddled with the task or responsibility of practically assessing the contemporary situation in society by linking or relating the past to the present in order to determine the future. There is something unique about man’s recording of the events of his own time. Indeed, this is probably the way writing of history began (Lynn 36).
The artist considers history as a relevant form of knowledge and finds it pressed into the service of the audience – hopefully as a means of illumination rather
than an instrument for propaganda. And the democratic need to know is accompanied by the constitutional right to know – which is the rights of the citizens of a democracy to have all possible information, favourable or not, regarding the character of public problems and the motives and effects of public policy. Therefore the contemporary historian, when he faithfully discharges his task, serves not only his old cause of historic truth, but also his nation’s cause of democratic responsibility (Ross Murfin and Supryia Ray 98).
The above fact undoubtedly constitutes the preoccupation of the two Nigerian writers under study, Chimamanda Adichie and Chinua Achebe in their Half of A Yellow Sun and There was A Country respectively. These texts in turn serve as the focus of this research. In other words, this research deals with the new historical approach evident in Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of A Yellow Sun and Chinua Achebe’s There Was A Country. In view of this we would say that New Historicism seeks to find meaning in a text by considering the work within the framework of prevailing ideas and assumptions of its historical era. Therefore, New Historicists concern themselves with the political function of literature and with the concept of power, the intricate means by which cultures produce and are reproducing themselves.
According to Murfin and Supryia (108) these critics focus on revealing the historically specific model of truth and authority (not a “truth” but a “cultural construct”) reflected in a given work. In other words, history here is not a mere chronicle of facts and events, but rather a complex description of human reality and evolution of preconceived notions. Literary works may or may not tell us about various factual aspects of the world from which they emerge, but they will tell us about prevailing ways of thinking at the time: ideas of social organization, prejudices, taboos etc (Murfin and Supryia 108).
On this note, this study seeks to examine the historical implications of Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of A Yellow Sun and Achebe’s There Was A Country through the lens of New Historicism.
1.2 Statement of the Problem
This study sets out to examine the role of an artist as a historian through undertaking a historical account of events in the postcolonial Nigerian society in literature. In other words, this research intends to solve the problem inherent in history and the Nigerian society through literature; from the perspective of two Nigerian Artists (Chimamanda Adichie and Chinua Achebe) in their Half of a Yellow Sun and There Was A Country respectively.
The study will also examine how these artists present the same event in history from different points of view, style and structure to reflect their status as literary historians. These problems will be tackled through drawing cases from the two novels under study.
1.3 Aims and Objectives
The aims and objectives of this study include, but are not limited to:
i) Examine the history of the Nigerian Civil War through the lens of literature as observed in Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun and Achebe’s There Was A Country.
ii) Identify literature (art) as a vehicle or tool for communicating the historical events of a society;
iii) To justify the suitability of New Historicism as a tool for interpretation of Adichie’s Half of A Yellow Sun and Achebe’s There Was A Country.
For the purpose of this study, Adichie’s Half of A Yellow Sun and Achebe’s There Was A Country shall constitute the primary source of data from which analysis using the framework of new Historicism will be carried out. Furthermore, since this study is based on library research, the library will serve as the major source of information, while books, journals, reviews and notes on related subject matter shall be adequately consulted. Additionally, the internet will also be surfed for useful materials that will further enrich the contents of the study.
1.5 Scope of the Study
This study shall primarily focus and concentrate attention on New Historical study through the examination of Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of A Yellow Sun and Chinua Achebe’s There Was A Country. It shall, however take into consideration issues related to New Historicism on the two books under study.
1.6 Limitation of the Study
By reason of the constraints placed by time and the thin purse of the researcher, this study will only be limited to the analysis of the works of the authors. Therefore, the researcher may not be able to spread the scope of this study to cover oral interview or any other form of information-gathering.
1.7 Significance of the Study
History deals with the recollection of past events and told in the present to shape the future. Therefore, the overall goal of this research is to assess the effectiveness of art as a means of communicating the political, cultural, religious and socio-economic history of a society, in this case, Nigeria. With this in mind, the significance of this study lies in its overall contribution to scholarship. Accordingly, researchers and students of literature who may want to engage in literary criticism from the perspective of New Historicism are the likely beneficiaries of this study.
Additionally, those who want to research using any or all of the books studied in this research, are also likely to benefit from this research. Therefore, they can make this study their reference material.
1.8 Theoretical Framework
This study shall be consolidated on the framework of New Historicism. New Historical theory will, therefore serve as pivotal guide to the analysis of the two texts. It could, accordingly, be said that New Historicism is an approach to literary criticism and literary theory which is based on the premise that a literary work should be considered as a product of the time, place and historical circumstances of its composition rather than as an isolated work of art or text. It has its roots in a reaction to the “New Criticism” of formal analysis of works of literature, which was seen by a new generation of professional critics as ignoring the greater social and political consequences of the production of literary texts. (Catherine Belsey 145). On the whole, therefore, it could be summarized that new historicism concerns itself with how a work of literature reflects its historical and socio cultural context. In other words new historicism gives all kinds of super-interesting contexts for understanding works that the audience read. Readers may think that they know these works, but when they learn more about how and why such works were created or how the author’s biography feeds into them or better still how the political and social upheavals of the time are reflected in them, the work becomes totally transformed (Murfin and Supryia 121).
New Historicism developed in the 1980s, primarily through the work of the critic Stephen Greenblatt and gained widespread influence in the 1990s and beyond. New Historicists aim simultaneously to understand the work through its historical context and to understand culture as well as to investigate the intellectual and cultural history through literature. The approach owes much of its impetus to the work of Michel Foucault, who based his approach both on his theory of the limits of collective cultural knowledge and on his technique of examining a broad array of documents in order to understand the episteme of a particular time. Therefore, using Foucault’s work as a starting point, New Historicism aims at interpreting a literary text as an expression of or reaction to the power-structures of the surrounding society (Belsey 148).
New Historicism arose in the late twentieth century as a result of the historical evidence of the wide spread of structuralism and surellism. The label of “New Historicism” came from its adoption of a historicist sensibility, much as had occurred within historical scholarship in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but coupled with the approach of “New History” (Don Meyer 65).
New Historicism seeks to find meaning in a text by considering the work within the framework of the prevailing ideas and assumptions of its historical era. Its adherents (New Historicists) concern themselves with the political function of literature and with the concept of power, the intricate means by which cultures produce and reproduce themselves. The preoccupation of history here is not a mere chronicle of facts and events, but rather a complex description of human reality and evolution of preconceived notions. New Historicism is more socio historical and is concerned with ideological products or cultural constructs which are formations of any era (Murfin and Supryia 8).
So, New Historicists, who insisted that ideology should manifest itself in literary production and discourse, interest themselves in the interpretive constructions which the members of a society or culture apply to their experience.
1.9 Background of the Authors
i) Chimamanda Adichie
Adichie was born on September 15, 1977 in Enugu State, Nigeria. She studied medicine and pharmacy at the University of Nigeria and then moved to the U.S to study communication and political science at Eastern Connecticut State University (B.A., 2001). She obtained an M. A in creative writing from John Hopkins University Baltimore. After initial writing poetry and one play, For the Love of Biafra (1998), she wrote several short stories published in literary journals. She has won various prizes. Her first novel Purple Hibiscus was published in 2003. Her second novel Half of a Yellow Sun was published in 2006 and it won the 2007 Orange Broad Band Prize for fiction.
Her latest book is a collection of short stories; The Thing Around Your Neck (2009), short listed for the 2009 John Llwelleyn – Rhys Memorial Prize and the 2010 Commonwealth Writers Prize, African region, Best Book. Chimamanda lives between Nigeria and the United States (Wikipedia).
ii) Chinua Achebe
Chinua Achebe was born on November 16, 1930 at Ogidi in present-day Anambra State. Achebe grew up in the Igbo town of Ogidi, Nigeria. He was accepted into the Prestigious Government College in Umuahia in 1944. As an exceptionally brilliant student, he completed his studies there in just four years instead of the five years study. He loved the library and spent hours reading books by different authors. He therefore got admitted into the university college (now the University of Ibadan) in 1948 to study medicine. However, his interest was not in medicine therefore he shifted his focus to study English, History and Theology – a situation which made him to lose his scholarship.
Achebe began writing during his university years. In 1958, Achebe published his first novel Things Fall Apart, it was followed by No Longer at Ease (1960), Arrow of God (1964), A Man of the People (1966), Anthills of the Savannah (1987) and the latest one, There Was a Country (2012). Achebe died in 2013 in Massachusetts (Wikipedia).
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