Ambiguity in Sozaboy

When reading some of the pieces for this week, I was struck by some of the insinuations or implications of ambiguity in the African novel. Ambiguity in this context contrast a set of events, letting the African novel reflect the differences between contrasting spheres of experience (Dorsinville, 1971). The introduction to my copy of Sozaboy is written by William Boyd in 1994, and immediately introduces this idea of ambiguity in Saro-Wiwa’s language. Boyd uses the opening line of Sozaboy – “Although, everybody in Dukana was happy at first” – to explore these first ideas of ambiguity. Who is everybody? What should we take from ‘at first’ beyond the literal meaning? Boyd explains that Saro-Wiwa’s choice of subtitle, A Novel In Rotten English, opens a conversation about what makes up Rotten English. I feel like in the Rotten English of Sozaboy, ambiguity in some way central to the use of language in the story. The vagueness of certain words, such as ‘trouble’, ‘old’, ‘bad’, reoccur throughout. As they lack specific meaning at first, they are unable to support the themes Saro-Wiwa is trying to get us to see – good vs evil, the victimization of Dukana. Mbembe touches on ambiguity briefly throughout his paper by making references to things being given meaning – if something is lacking a clear, solid meaning, by definition it is ambiguous. Even North (2001) talks about the ambiguity of the relationship between Mene and the reader, made unclear in its nature by the form of Mene’s address.

Gunn (2008) argues that the use of ambiguous phrasing draws a parallel with the representation of Dukana as a victim in Sozaboy. I do agree with Gunn here, although simply stating that there is a parallel does nothing to explain it. The ambiguity of words used throughout the first two thirds of the novel, from dealing with a changing government to the establishment of a common enemy in Dukana, is resolved in the final chapters of the book. It appears to me as though ‘Rotten’ English is written to be intentionally vague, using ambiguity to highlight the position of Sozaboy and minority groups within the context of the ‘war’. This ambiguity also emphasizes the use of misdirection as a literary mechanism – at first we are unsure if some of the ambiguous terms refer to the previous struggles or to the dialogue of conflict taking place in the 1990s. At the end of the novel we see that the ambiguous ‘war’ that has been referred to throughout but not clarified until now takes on a new meaning through the association of words like ‘bad’, ‘stupid’, ‘useless’. Those terms, while we all understand that, take on different meanings when placed within a different context.

More reading:

Dorsinville, M. (1971). Levels of Ambiguity in the African Novel. Canadian Journal of African Studies / Revue Canadienne Des Études Africaines, 5(2), 213–225

Gunn, J. (2008). Inside ‘Rotten English’: Interpreting the Language of Ambiguity in Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Sozaboy. E-sharp: Social Engagement, Powerment, and Change, 11, 1-22

North, M. (2001). Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Sozaboy: The Politics of “Rotten English”. Public Culture, 13(1), 97-112

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