Untitled Document


  Ovo Adagha
  K. King-Aribisala
  Talal H.An’nayer
  Chris. Anyokwu
  Zino Asalor
  Jackee B. Batanda
  M.A. Bowley
  Brian Chikwava
  M. Gomo
  Ivor W. Hartmann
  Tracy Kidder
  Fungai Machirori
  J.K.S. Makokha
  Andie Miller
  Mandy Mitchell
  Dango Mkandawire
  Ngugi wa Thiong'o
  Obi Nwakanma
  Chuma Nwokolo
  Chris Okigbo
  Michael Onile-Ere
  Nii Ayikwei Parkes
  S. D. Partington
  A, Quarcoopome
  Ato Quayson
  Bryony Rheam
  Hans Schippers
  Emmanuel Sigauke
  Vamba Sherif
  Danielle T. Smith
  Peter W. Vakunta
  Victor Ehikhamenor






Click to read full Magazine
with Vamba Sherif

Vamba Sherif arrives home in Kolahun

I was returning home after 20 years, and the man who was driving me there turned out to be an ex-rebel. The last time I saw Kolahun, my birthplace in Liberia, was in 1990 ...

Cover Interview

Subscribe to African Writing
African Writing ArchivesAW Archives

African Writing on Facebook
buy file or download now!
Hone your creative writing skills with help from our fine coaches
AW Online Workshops



Key Words
Politics &







The Past is Prologue

(English, Metafiction and the Postcolonial Condition
in Karen King-Aribisala’s The Hangman’s Game)

Christopher Anyokwu, Ph.D.
University of Lagos, Nigeria.


African writers of fiction have long reconciled themselves to the so-called ‘fatalistic logic’ in the use of European languages such as Portuguese, French and English in the production and criticism of African literature. This is following the writers’ unwillingness to adopt a single or a group of indigenous African languages for the writing of African literatures. It has thus become fashionable for African writers of literature of English expression to fashion out an English which incorporates local African speech patterns and oral resources to convey their peculiar experience.
Karen King-Aribisala, a Guyanese-Nigerian novelist and short story writer also adopts in her work, particularly The Hangman’s Game a variety of English somewhat different from the “standard” form in depicting the historical challenges which her native Guyana and her adopted country, Nigeria, have had to meet and in their common struggle for socio-economic and political emancipation from British imperialism and postcolonial contradictions.
In this paper, therefore, we examine her handling of English, and the role of the language itself in shaping social life in Africa and its Diaspora.


You taught me language; and my profit on’t
Is, I know how to curse: the red plague gird you,
For learning me your language!
(Caliban in The Tempest)

Words Strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.
(T.S. Eliot, ‘Burnt Norton’)

The language in which we are speaking is his before it is mine. How different are the words home, Christ, ale, master, on his lips and on mine! I cannot speak or write these words without unrest of the spirit. His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech. I have not made or accepted its words. My voice holds them at bay. My soul frets in the shadow of language.
James Joyce, (A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man)

Caliban and the African, according to J.P. Clark in ‘The Legacy of Caliban’, have a problem in common; and that problem is the imposition of an alien tongue on the both of them. To every Prospero, thus, there is a Caliban; to every Robinson Crusoe, there is a Man Friday and to the English colonialist, there is an African ‘native’ upon whose tabula rasa mind, the colonialist must inscribe his own language. Clark also argues: ‘that the African has taken over a number of European languages is a fact of history, probably the one permanent evidence of the love-hate relationship today at play between Europe and Africa’ (1). Accordingly, African writers have found themselves, consequent upon their acquisition of western education, using European languages in their writing, such languages as Portuguese, French and English. For those who write in English, for instance, Chinua Achebe notes: ‘Therefore those African writers who have chosen to write in English or French are not unpatriotic smart alecs with an eye on the main chance-outside their own countries. They are by-products of the same process that made the new nation states of Africa’ (57). Still holding brief for the historical inevitability of the adoption of English as the medium of expression in Anglophone Africa’s cultural production, Achebe writes:

Those of us who have inherited the English language may not be in a position to appreciate the value of the inheritance. Or we may go on resenting it because it came as part of a package deal which included many other items of doubtful value and the positive atrocity of racial arrogance and prejudice which may yet set the world on fire (58).

However, Ashcroft et al tell us that, ‘one of the main features of imperial oppression is control over language’ (7). This is so because, ‘the study of English and the growth of empire proceeded from a single ideological climate and that the development of the one is intrinsically bound up with the development of the other, both at the level of simple utility (as propaganda for instance) and at the unconscious level, where it leads to the naturalizing of constructed values (e.g. civilization, humanity, etc) which, conversely, established ‘savagery’, ‘native’, ‘primitive’, as their antitheses and as the object of a reforming zeal’ (3). Therefore as part of the imperialist strategy of ethnocentric supremacy, the argument goes that: ‘The imperial education system installs a ‘standard’ version of the metropolitan language as the norm, and marginalizes all ‘variants’ as impurities’ (7). However, for discursive convenience as well as for conceptual clarity, Ashcroft et al differentiate between the ‘standard’ British English inherited from the empire and ‘the English which the language has become in post-colonial countries’ (8). For those condemned to use these “impurities”, these postcolonial “corruptions”, Achebe again counsels: ‘The African writer should aim to use English in a way that brings out his message best without altering the language to the extent that its value as a medium of international exchange will be lost. He should aim at fashioning out an English which is at once universal and able to carry his peculiar experience’ (61). Reacting to ‘the fatalistic logic of the unassailable position of English in our literature’, Ngugi, quoting Gabriel Okara, contends that:

Some may regard this way of writing as a desecration of the language. This is of course not true. Living languages grow like living things, and English is far from a dead language. There are American, West Indian, Australian, Canadian and New Zealand versions of English. All of them add life and vigour to the language while reflecting their own respective cultures. Why shouldn’t there be a Nigerian or West African English which we can use to express our own ideas, thinking and philosophy in our own way? (qtd. in Ngugi, 1986, 9).

By the same token, Frantz Fanon discloses that: ‘Every colonized people — in other words, every people in whose soul an inferiority complex has been created by the death and burial of its local cultural originality — finds itself face-to-face with the language of the civilizing nation; that is, with the culture of the mother country. The colonized is elevated above his jungle status in proportion to his adoption of the mother country’s cultural standards. He becomes whiter as he renounces his blackness, his jungle’ (18).

Also, it should be noted that as part of the politics and sociology of English, the language has over the years been institutionalized as not only the medium of cultural production, but equally significant is the fact that, it is also the medium of instruction in most African education systems, of administration, commerce and trade, justice, the press and so forth. So thoroughly entrenched is English (and, of course, other major western languages) in the popular — but, more crucially, in the elite — consciousness, that Abiola Irele bemoans Africa’s continued dependence on the use of English in African literature, an unfortunate development which reminds Africans of their colonial past (Irele 1981). The “positive atrocity” of the linguistic dominance of English in African literature has given rise to a form of what we might term “antiracist racism”: a certain anti-Englishness which is akin to the so-called “Anti-Americanism”, a discursive practice deliberately promoted by the United States’ academic establishment in order to gauge and assess the extent of their strength and power as the unipolar superpower in the world. Thus not dissimilar to Anti-Americanism, “anti-Englishness” is deployed as founding trope in the discussion of the nature and purport of English as the main instrument of expression in contemporary Anglophone African literary discourse. In the paper entitled ‘Dead End of African Literature’, Obi Wali forewarned African writers against the inappropriateness of the official adoption of the English language, forecasting in the same breath the ‘death’ of African literature, should African writers refuse to jettison the use of English in composing their work (Achebe, 1975, 60). Writing under the title ‘Imperialism of Language: English, a Language for the world?, Ngugi comments:

Needless to say, the encounter between English and most so-called Third World languages did not occur under conditions of independence and equality. English, French and Portuguese came to the Third World to announce the arrival of the Bible and the sword. They came clamouring for gold, black gold in chains, or gold that shines as sweat in factories and plantations. If it was the gun which made possible the mining of this gold and which effected the political captivity of their owners, it was language which held captive their cultures, their values, and hence their minds (Ngugi, 1993, 31).

Ernest Emenyonu in ‘Literature in a Second Language: Use of English in Nigerian Fiction’, puts the number of users of English as a second language at “around 400 millions”. Quoting Peter Strevens, Emenyonu argues that the non-native users of English probably outnumber the mother-tongue users by “400 million to 300 million” (325). We should add that these statistics are a conservative estimate of the real number of non-native users of English, since the number of users grows with time.

Indeed, apart from Ngugi and Obi Wali whom we may categorize as the ‘Nativist school’, we should also recall that the Bolekaja Troika of Chinweizu, Onwuchekwa Jemie and Ihechukwu Madubuike (see Toward the Decolonization of African Literature) as well as other African scholars have called for the rejection of English (and other European languages) and the adoption of African indigenous languages in their place. It is, however, trite to continue to bemoan the continued use of English since it is only one, if crucial, aspect of the comprehensive colonization of the African world. The African writer’s adoption of English should be appreciated within the context of the African’s dependence on Europe for, among other things, according to Wole Soyinka, “the major technological development: town-planning, sewage-disposal, hydro-electric power” (14-15).
In the same vein, J.P. Clark writes: ‘Elsewhere the African seems satisfied with having taken over a European tongue as he has the motor car, the radio, the refrigerator and all other articles of modern-day living. After purchase, a ware becomes the bona fide property of the consumer’ (5). Since the African writer must continue to use his adopted language, the question to ask is: Is its continued use a negative or a positive development? The point is, English is the linguistic aspect of globalization, as earlier highlighted, which has completely overrun Africa, thus further problematizing the issue of identity. Terence Hawkes tells us that culture is an intricate, continuing construction (Ashcroft et al viii), and identity, being an integral element of culture, is equally unstable, impure and hybridic in nature. (See Edward Said, 1984).

To be sure, one could formerly meaningfully talk of the African as ‘a child of two worlds’ (see Mugo Gatheru’s novel A Child of Two Worlds); namely: African parentage and western or Islamic/Arabic colonization, but now, the African is only so named on the basis of heredity; he is now effectively a clone of the West, the ‘hollow man’/ the ‘stuffed man’ or the marionette of the metropole. Again, as J.P. Clark observes: ‘Today each of these alien European tongues provides for many Africans the one ready vehicle for thought and even for dreaming’ (emphasis added, 5). Hence Fanon notes that ‘A man who has a language consequently possesses the world expressed and implied by that language” (18). Ironically, it is this total immersion of the African subject in the metropolitan tongue that has reduced him to a mere mimic-man viscerally wracked by double-consciousness or split-personality disorder syndrome. This colonial legacy which can be considered as the hangman’s noose, or the Coleridgean “albatross” is threnodically lyricised by Niyi Osundare in Waiting Laughters

A white white tongue
In a black black mouth
Here, my mouth
But where, the tongue?

Either due to what T.S. Eliot terms ‘the intolerable wrestle with words’, or the psychic disquiet and the epistemic rupture caused in the native’s soul by a conquering tongue (as shown in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man) or, yet, because of some strange interplay of historical and social forces, the several “margins” and “peripheries” which make up the British Empire have spawned a rash of englishes by which the Empire writes back to the Centre. In this regard, we can talk of the nation-language, the patois, the Creole of the West Indies; pidgin, broken English and “rotten” English (consider, for instance, Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Sozaboy, Iwealas Beast of No Nation, ’Gabriel Okara’s The Voice and James Kelman’s A Disaffection, among others, all of which use either “broken” English or “rotten” English). T.S. Eliot captures the pains, frustration and anguish which a person trying to master a language experiences:

Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For one thinks one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it….
(Four Quartets)

There is a critical consensus among African literature scholars and critics that the African writer must draw upon his dual heritage, namely, his oral tradition-expressed through such tropes and figures of speech as proverbs, wise-sayings, folklore, traditional songs, festivals and rites of passage — and his western education. In his paper entitled ‘Yoruba Thought, English Words: A Poet’s Journey Through the Tunnel of Two Tongues’, Niyi Osundare shares with his reading public his modus operandi in verse making: how he blends ‘the syllable insochronicity and complex tone system of Yoruba’ and ‘the stress and intonation patterns of English’ (11) in order for his meaning to mellow into melody and vice versa.

This is where transliteration or, translation assumes a critical importance. It is through translation, to quote Ngugi, that we can “prey” on ‘the rich humanist and democratic heritage in the struggle of other peoples in other times and other places to enrich our own, and have ‘Balzac, Tolstoy, Sholokov, Brecht, Lu Hsun, Pablo Neruda, H.C. Anderson, Kim Chi Ha, Marx, Lenin, Albert Einstein, Galileo, Aeschylus, Aristotle and Plato in African languages’ (Ngugi, 1986, 8). What, therefore, distinguishes African literature is its marriage of two cultures, English and African through the instrumentality of transliteration and translation. The relative success achieved by different African writers in this regard can be seen from the ‘young’ English of Amos Tutuola’s novels, through Gabriel Okara’s ‘graded’ speech in The Voice to Chinua Achebe’s novels well-known and justly celebrated for their inimitable laconism. According to Dan Izevbaye:

The long history of the English language in Nigeria, its subsequent association with British administration, reinforced by an English literary education, meant that the Nigerian writer had two traditions of creative writing to which to relate — his own past and an intellectual and literary ‘past’ acquired through an English literary education. A realignment of the writer’s relation to this other ‘past’ which reaches back through English literary history, involves a return to alternative, indigenous sources of creativity (323).

It is important to emphasize at this juncture that the British state, and particularly the English nation exemplifies the irrepressible nature of the human spirit. This is so because England today is the product of an intriguing metamorphosis and the mutation of the Angles and Saxons, through Roman colonization, invasion by the Normans, the Magna Carta, political revolutions, the bloody suppression of the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish to the Rise and Fall of the British Empire upon which the sun never used to set. Having colonized large portions of the world and in the process, given them the English language as the dominant language of international exchange, it is now a question of English and the rest of us. And, more to the business in hand, the question is: How does, as a representative case, Karen King-Aribisala in her novel The Hangman’s Game handle the “positive atrocity” of English vis-à-vis her depiction of socio-historical tensions and contradictions which define the post-colonial condition? By ‘postcolonial’, we mean: ‘all the culture affected by the imperial process from the moment of colonization to the present day’ (Ashcroft et al 2). This definition is in part informed by the fact that, as Ashcroft et al opine, ‘there is a continuity of preoccupations through the historical process initiated by European imperial aggression’ (2). Thus, we are here concerned with the African experience as it exists during and after the period of European imperial domination and the effects of this on contemporary [African and Caribbean or West Indian Literatures] (2).

Karen King-Aribisala’s novel entitled The Hangman’s Game is about a young female Guyanese who decides to embark upon a life-long research on a novel on Reverend John Smith and the 1823 slave revolt in the British Guiana (Demerara). Being a descendant of ex-slaves herself, the unnamed narrator finds herself voraciously devouring books of fiction and history available in her native country of Guyana. Far from slaking her thirst, her reading instead increases the hunger in her to explore her ancestral origins, her slave heritage, and, indeed, her identity. She travels to Lagos, Nigeria where she meets and falls in love with a lay pastor, himself a professor of linguistics, specializing in semantics. Now, a Guyanese-Nigerian by marriage, the narrator settles down to writing the novel which in alternate fashion captures vignettes of the life and times of the principal actors of the 1823 slave revolt, on the one hand and the heyday of “military democracy” in modern-day Nigeria, on the other.

The Hangman’s Game as a matter of fact explores a number of themes and sub-themes, one of which is death. The writer’s fascination with morbidity is writ large in her story, a relentless probing of death similar to what we find in Wole Soyinka. King-Aribisala examines the phenomenon of death from three main perspectives, namely (a) spiritual (b) literary/imaginative and (c) literal or physical. The spiritual dimension of the novel’s death-thematic is dramatized in the relationship between Rev. John Smithers, the British missionary and Pastor of Bethel Chapel in the colony of Demerara and the black slave community whom he together with his wife, Mary, seeks to convert to Christianity. Conversion may be considered as an act of psycho-spiritual and ethical evacuation or the emptying-out of one’s ontologic source of wholeness and cosmic self-progression. The result is: displacement, dislocation and the disruption of the victim’s spiritual fount of life. Thenceforth, he is life’s detritus on a never-ending free-fall. Karen King-Aribisala writes of Rev. John Smithers, ‘this was his life’s purpose’ (8). When what gives your life meaning is your systematic and methodical destruction of the other, then it means you do not believe in the moral and spiritual, and, indeed, the metaphysical integrity of the other: he is an existential vacuum, a virtual tabula rasa waiting to be invested with life and be inducted into the normative order of the civilized world; the human race, properly speaking.

But before his conversion, the Black man is a disturbing distraction, an exasperating reminder of the White man’s own origins: not as a falling angel but a rising ape. Playing God’s advocate, the missionary tries to salvage the savage and, more importantly, give him a language with which to have a handle on things and render him more amenable to his [the colonialist’s] whimsy. Little wonder, then, Rev. Wray who hands over the position of Pastor over Bethel Chapel to Rev. John Smithers, tells him that if he can convert one slave to Christianity, he will have succeeded in his life’s mission.

The second form of death which the novel examines is the literary or the imaginative — a ‘make-believe’ death. King-Aribisala narrates: ‘All of them-Mary, Rosita, John, the Governor, Quamina and Auntie Lou and Captain McTurkeyen-wanted me dead, and would have gotten away with it if I hadn’t been able to control their words, their thoughts and actions. Had I not done so I would have been dead, hanged by the neck in their hangman’s game’ (8). Reminiscent of Ted Hughes’s poem ‘Fox-Thoughts’, The Hangman’s Game here investigates the minatory and debilitating effects of literary creativity: the no-holds-barred foraging of the affective landscapes of the imagination, itself a product of fact and fancy. Underneath the innocence of children’s games, the conventional comedy of the comic strip and the sheer delight of imaginative diversion lurks the potentially dangerous ‘freedom’ of expression. It can result in auto decapitation by other means.

The third form of death explored in the narrative is physical death. Recounting the tragic story of the slave revolt of 1823, the writer goes to great lengths to detail the gruesome murder and mindless slaughtering of both black slaves and their white masters as the Quamina-led insurrection fails, leading to disastrous consequences. Rev. John Smithers charged with High Treason for allegedly inciting his slave congregation to revolt dies ignominiously before his pardon by King George of England arrives and Quamina, his Chief Deacon and the arrow-head of the revolt is killed, and his head impaled on the spiked gate of Plantation Le Resouvenir (48). On the other hand, in present-day Nigeria, EL Presidente or Butcher Boy, the military ruler of the country, orders the execution of three hundred and sixty-five citizens on trumped-up charge of sabotage (19). Thus, invariably, one citizen is murdered or sacrificed everyday of the year for the perverse pleasure of the maximum ruler.

The Hangman’s Game also interrogates the subject of slavery. In this regard, the narrative persona comes across as a kind of Calibian who has been “civilized” and taught a language, and then she uses her adopted speech to “curse” her benefactor: the English. With every page bristling with calibrated and nuanced indignation and ire, the narrator unfurls the bitter reel of a past violated and despoiled by white colonial conquistadors. ‘Slavery was a just institution’ (8), the novelist reports, and, also reveals that, ‘slavery of various sorts still exists there’ (8). What this statement implies is that slavery far exceeds or goes beyond the institutionalized chattelization of the human subjects, ‘the bartering of the human flesh’ (8). It is basically, the superimposition of a person’s will on another and the corresponding or consequent comprehensive depersonalization and “thingifization” of that ‘person’. In the eighteenth century, it took the form of the sale and transport of a black person from Africa to the so-called New World for the sustenance of plantocracy, itself the basis of the wealth of the western world; in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, slavery morphed into less egregious, albeit equally devastating guises in the form of imperialism and colonialism. For the imperial enterprise to function properly and for colonialism to effectively take root, a total all-out war was declared against the Blackman’s way of life. With an utter desecration and decimation (some might say, extirpation) of the Blackman’s culture, he was in fact lost: cut off from his ancestral roots; he flounders into a void, flailing, and desperately searching for an anchor in order to regain a sense of location. But he cannot. He is, sadly, displaced and dispossessed. With the wholesale emptying-out of his cultural essence and his “stuffing” with alien ways, he finally arrives an ape sedulously mimicking his master’s mannerisms, much to the master’s delight and gratification.

In the contemporary twenty-first century, the slave’s condition is even more grim, and his enslavement total. For him, his forebears were heathen and he a Christian delivered by mercy and grace as Phyllis Wheatley enthuses in her poetry. His ancestral past was a long night of savagery from which the white man, acting on God’s behalf, has come to rescue him, and his folk-ways, pagan jiggery-pokery or mere hooey; and his culture, now completely unrecognizably bastardized, remains an albatross which he strives to slough off in a bid to fully immerse himself in white culture (see Ayi Kwei Armah’s Why Are We So Blest?). Lengthening of hair, bleaching and numerous other forms of affectation betoken the slave monomania. And, now in our “frontier-less” or borderless globalized world, how does the colonized subject represent himself in literature? Is it the same way in which the ‘master’ represents himself in literature? Does not the history of the colonized come into play or implicated in the textuality of the tale told? What, in fact, is real and what false for the “emancipated” ex-slave or his descendant? What ‘reality’, then, is he re/presenting? The white man’s whims and caprices made flesh: himself? For us to be able to provide compelling and credible answers to these questions, we need to come to terms with the nature of ‘reality’ which the novel purports to be conveying to us, the readership. ‘Reality’ itself, it must straightaway be conceded, is complex; and, for a thoroughly depersonalized ‘native’, ‘reality’ is coterminous with a slice of Dante’s Inferno: a cocktail of fiercely irreconcilable contradictions and tensions. What is worse, even in trying to encode and transmit her ‘reality’ (or illusion?) she also relies on the use of borrowed tropes as well as conventional modalities of mimesis. The virtual raid of the ‘master’s’ tool shed further complicates “the grammar of the telling”. Whose story is it, anyway? His/story, her/story, history as a lousy lie?

Karen King-Aribisala also investigates the issue of slavery by examining the basic psychology of power. In this connection, therefore, she demonstrates that power more often than not expresses itself in its misuse and abuse. We are here referring to tyranny and dictatorship. According to Osundare in his reading of The Hangman’s Game, “In the amazing tapestry of this novel, these two places (Demerara, Guyana, 1823; and Nigeria of the late 1990s], these two histories, weave into each other in their seamless horrors and surreal absurdities”. (See blurb). In Demerara, the Governor, His Excellency Theophilus Edward George Murrain talks of ‘the inconsequence of black lives’ (8), and, the white prosecutor claims: ‘The Negroes are little more than children … Their minds, their very sensibilities, are not as developed as ours… The Negro species lacks intellect; they are a race who cannot think for themselves’. (147). The slave owners who claim that the Bible sanctions the institution of slavery, work their black slaves to death, subjecting some of them to rape, deprivation of basic needs and allied abuses. Wanton killing of slaves for the flimsiest of excuses abound in the slave community. This brutal colonization by a foreign power finds an indigenous equivalent in military despotism in Nigeria as Butcher Boy hangs a so-called dissident poet and clamps down on the entire populace. El Presidente, like his infamous predecessors such as president for Life Macias Nguema (late) of Equatorial Guinea; Emperor for Life (ex) Jean-Baptiste Bokassa of the Central African Republic, Life President Mobutu Sese Koko of Congo and Life President (Late) the Field-Marshal El-Haji Dr. Idi Amin of Uganda, seeks life presidency. This peculiarly African scourge still ravages the continent to date: from Mathieu Kerekou of Benin Republic, Nyadema of Togo and Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria to Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. Interestingly, also, Butcher Boy kills, maims and rapes at will, relying on occult powers and brute force to stay in power. He even survives coup attempts like a cat with nine lives. This portrayal of the abuse of platform reminds us of similar situations in Achebe’s A Man of the People and Anthills of the Savannah, and Soyinka’s A Play of Giants, Opera Wonyosi, From Zia with Love and King Baabu.

The Hangman’s Game is a classic case of self-writing as the recounting ego embarks on a self-fulfilling quest for her identity, a re/search which has been rendered a Holy Grail of a kind by the mazy network of insecurities which, effectively, is contemporary experience. In spite of the difficulty (or impossibility?) of achieving this mission, the narrative persona, the author’s own alter ego, decides to “earth” her re/search in the flesh-and-blood of real time, of real life by getting married to a proper “son of the soil”, one who can partly help her reconnect with her racial selfhood. Thus, the conjugal union of the narrator and the lay pastor transcends the marriage between a couple and, in actual fact, symbolizes a marriage between Africa, and its Diaspora: it is a veritable reunion, a homecoming.

The novel, also, in its near-cabalistic spelling game, can be interpreted as a love story hinged upon John 3:16: the substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross of calvary for the redemption and deliverance of humankind from the curse of the law and sin and the promise of freedom in time and in eternity. Yet, to embrace the king, as Camara Laye’s The Radiance of the King demonstrates, is a purgatorial ordeal, a test of spiritual stamina. Yet, again, what stands between the quester and her salvation, her final resolution of the identity problem is her “blindness”. The Hangman’s Game furnishes an intriguing psychologization of “blindness” in its myriad manifestations through, principally, the nursery rhyme on the “Three Blind Mice”. Blindness, thus, represents all sorts of false burdens under which people languish in their daily search for meaning.

In the foregoing discourse we have attempted to investigate some of the major thematics of the narrative in our primary concern with the role of language, the English language, in this instance, in relation to the postcolonial condition known only to peoples whose lives have been destroyed, dislocated and disrupted by a marauding imperialist foreign power. For Karen King-Aribisala, having acquired English, a language which carries with it, to paraphrase David Diop, “the bitter memories of extorted kisses and promises, broken at the point of a gun”, what does she do with it? In line with T.S. Eliot’s ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, how does this novelist, this singer of tales, “use” English? Does she, in the Achebean sense, commit an organized violence on her adopted tongue in order to convey her “peculiar experience”? Perhaps in order for us to be able to answer these questions, we need to now pay close attention to her idiom and imagery, and, in sum, her style in The Hangman’s Game. According to J.P. Clark:

‘No work is so impersonal that it does not at some point carry upon it the pressure of the personality of its author and none is as personal that it does not possess an independent life of its own’ (19).

Accordingly, we shall seek to uncover the stylistic features of King-Aribisala’s work with a view to conveying her handling of English or/and the other way round. She adopts the first-person narrative technique in her novel by telling her story through an unnamed female character. This participant-narrator otherwise known as the persona seems to be a thinly-disguised auto-biographic ploy adopted by the author to embark upon a personal odyssey of her traumatized history. A Guyanese-Nigerian herself and a distinguished Professor of English at the University of Lagos, Nigeria, Karen King-Aribisala clearly fits the bill. Bearing this fact in mind, let us examine how she uses her alter-ego to reconstitute her own deeply-violated historical consciousness. Research, the very hub of the writer’s life as an intellectual, academic and creative writer, plays a decisive role in this connection. The reading of archival material, both fictive and historical, has its advantages as well as its drawbacks. Research is a form of remembering; and, in the words of Homi K. Bhabha: ‘Remembering is never a quiet act of introspection or retrospection. It is a painful re-membering, a putting together of the dismembered past to make sense of the trauma of the present’ (xxiii). In Wole Soyinka’s book entitled The Burden of Memory, The Muse of Forgiveness, we are told that:
The black poet-both within the continent and the Diaspora — has been thrust into the heart of this hunger for closure, and has responded in a diversity of ways that testify to the poet’s unique formation in colonialism and displacement (or alienation) and self-restoration through a humanistic ethos that sometimes appears to be a deliberate act of fatih (sic) (faith), more a quest than a cultural given. (21).

Research, thus, in The Hangman’s Game, is an act of making sense of the present by interrogating the past. But in order to overcome the limitation of deskbound or library-based research, the author, nay, her persona enlists her very life as a veritable instrument of re-membering. She gets married, as we earlier noted, to a man through whom she may plumb the depths of her identity. And part of her identity is revealed through language. The English language adopted in the novel is a mix of American and British English. This shows that the novelist is caught in a zone of intense contestation between erstwhile colonial masters (Britain) and the new or present ‘post’-colonial masters (the United States) which, in an attempt to assert its independence from Britain, has “cannibalized” English by Americanising its graphology, orthography, grammar, semantics and phonology. King-Aribisala herself a product of both American and British cultures, struggles to express herself in a language whose bloodied history still informs and shapes contemporary experience in our post-industrial era. Her complex legacy, therefore, is the collective fate of postcolonial subject races scattered across the world. Karen King-Aribisala who talks about ‘creating fiction out of facts’ (13) brings to bear on her material a sense of lexical and verbal skittishness in which she endlessly neologises, investing words and concepts with new, idiosyncratic meanings. Consider this:

My words are my words, not their words which they can use to weapon me out of existence. They are only characters that, in all innocence, I created. (13)

and this:

But I had used only the bones of this historical account for my own story. The plot was mine but my characters were intent on out-plotting me. As God is my witness, I was going to be in control whether they liked it or not — or kill them off (13).

Besides the playful seriousness of her style, King-Aribisala uses her work as a form of metafiction as these excerpts show. As the fabulator creates her characters, investing them with life and all whatnot, so did/does the white man “re-create” the man of colour, who lives or dies at his pleasure, metaphorically speaking. In the light of this, therefore, the narrator in The Hangman’s Game parallels the colonialist, the latter-day Prospero. We may then talk of the portrait of the Artist as God: for her victimhood, the colonized persona achieves herohood or apotheosis by insinuating herself into the saddle normally occupied by the owner of language. Acquisition of English thus grants one access to power; and in this Kubla Khan-like dome of power, the writer-God creates characters over whom she reigns supreme. This delusion of power provides a semblance of importance to the writer whose social importance is doubly guaranteed by the institutional role of literary creativity and her command of language. According to Ngugi: ‘The point however is that the mastery of the English language was the measure of one’s readiness for election into the band of the elect ‘(Ngugi, 1993, 32). When we seriously consider this as the basis of social ranking in the post-colony, we can then begin to appreciate the class underpinnings and the wider ramifications of this linguistically-derived culture of social hierarchy. The hollowness and the sheer vanity, which drives social mobility and, also, acts as motive force for self advancement becomes all too clear. The black man’s claim to self-fulfilment and, even, integrity becomes suspect as his entire life is hinged upon an illusion. The ultimate tragedy in this scenario, however, is the fact that the black man’s existential worth is principally measured by the degree of his possession of English and the extent of control English exercises over him.

The novelist uses English as class marker in The Hangman’s Game. While, for instance, soldiers in the neo-military postcolonial necropolis called Nigeria use pidgin (18) and beggars, too, do (80-81), Auntie Lou mostly uses what appears to be a compromise between ‘nation-language’ and “broken” English as do most of the slaves in the narrative. Conversely, the more highly-placed characters, like the participant-narrator, her husband, nurse, Gardener, Deaconess, Governor Murrain, and El Presidente speak good or standard English. Language is also employed as a “dress” of thought:

When we are on the Third Mainland Bridge again, heading for Ikoyi, I feel hemmed in by present and past; by country and country. I look at my dress and I’m still thinking of hemming. It’s supposed to be a tidying up, a neatening of the raw seams and seamy side of life. Hem. Hem. (81).

As this passage demonstrates, Karen King-Aribisala here as in many places in the novel freely indulges in pleonasm, heteronomy, polysemy and ideophone. All of these figurative strategies are deployed by the poeticizing novelist to disclose the inner realities of her characters, and, by implication, hers as well. By the same token, The Hangman’s Game seems to be composed around a kind of palimpsest or a mosaic whereby the author adroitly weaves together to form a composite tale such elements as nursery rhymes, folktales, popular legends, Bible accounts, ancient history, myth, and distant or underlying echoes of reggae, especially Bob Marley, whose undying spirit of dissent derives from Quamina and his ilk as they burn down Georgetown (“Shantytown”). Indeed, during the last slave insurrection in Demerara in 1823, the Rastafarian lexicon of dissent and the patois of protest constitute the sub-textual groundswell of the revolt. Furthermore, Demerara comes through as an Eden with a snake in it: although, Rosita is said to be the “snake”, the sultry temptress that she is, the novel makes us believe that the slavers are the snakes who destroy the Edenic bliss of this tropical paradise. The writer in an oblique, implicitly devious manner uses this slave community as a microcosmic tableau for a worldwide reach of slavery of various sorts.

Irony is used as the main organizing principle in this regard. The plantocracy of Guyana depends to a large extent on the cultivation of sugar cane; and the local economy thrives upon black slave labour. As Samuel Selvon’s short story ‘Cane is Bitter’ dramatizes, the ironic implications of using excruciating pains and deprivation to produce “sweetness”, to create wealth are obvious enough. Moreover, it is also ironically instructive that the British Council funds the narrator’s research on slavery and the Slave Trade, a development that smacks of connectedness. Also, it appears oddly ironic that Reverend John Smithers, a rather innocent man, is docked by his own people for a crime he knows very little about. Consequently, he dies, a Christ-figure for black liberation. Currently on a global scale, the light of enlightenment and liberty seems to be borne by white Buckra who, ironically, work to upset the slave system in our world. The narrator’s husband’s calling as evangelist should be apprehended in this light. His Christian Outreach is an aspect of this strategy of emancipation. Karen King-Aribisala, however, presents this Christian Outreach like the Deriddean ‘truth’ — forever postponed, like hope deferred. This event is curiously eschatologically momentous, and redolent of epochal rupture of some sort.

The Hangman’s Game, all told, relies for narrative and ideological effect on several elements of postmodernism. The novel’s title itself, with its barefaced macabre intimations, announces to the reader, like a swimmer contemplating a sea, to brace him/herself for a gothic experience. Well-known for her wordplay and language games (See Our Wives and Other Stories and Kicking Tongues which this critic had commented on elsewhere, Anyokwu 2006) Karen King-Aribisala combines visual graphological clues, Rushdiesque penchant for wry, sardonic humour based on putting a riddling spin on words and events, and neologism to convey her message. Apart from her abiding interest in horticulture and landscape painting which she shares with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, King-Aribisala equally seizes upon the use of silhouette as counterfoil or backcloth for narrative events. The Guyanese past, in this connection, furnishes the silhouette for the Nigerian present. Accordingly, the writer uses the technique of doublings as a basis for characterization: for example, she parades the pairs of Governor Murrain/El Presidente, Rev. John Smithers/Narrator’s pastor-husband, Mary/Narrator, Rosita/Nurse, Quamina/Gardener and Auntie Lou/Deaconess. Thus, Art mirrors life and vice versa in the narrative as demonstrated in the Nurse revolt scene (127).

As if to maximize her deployment of postmodernist aesthetics, the novelist also relies on the meaning-signalling potential of the blank page: a void full of life’s imponderables. The indeterminacies, the hesitations, the slippages, and the neither-nor and the self-cancelling nature of things — the post-modern condition — confer, finally, on The Hangman’s Game its riddling essence.



Achebe, Chinua. ‘The Africa Writer and the English Language’, in Morning Yet On Creation Day. London: Heinemann Educational Books Ltd., 1975.
Anyokwu, Christopher. ‘Wordplay and Fancy: the Nigerian Question in Karen King-Aribisala’s Kicking Tongues’, in LARES: A Journal of Language and Literary Studies, ed. V.O. Awonusi, 308-319. Lagos: Department of English, University of Lagos, 2006.
Armah, Ayi Kwei. Why Are We So Blest? London: Heinemann Educational Books Ltd, 1972.
Ashcroft, Bill, et al. The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures. London: Routledge, 1989.
Bhabha, Homi, K. ‘Remembering Fanon’ in Black Skin White Masks. Frantz Fanon. London: Pluto Press, 1967.
Chinweizu, et al. Toward The Decolonization of African Literature vol. 1. Enugu: Fourth Dimension Publishers, 1980.
Clark, J.P. ‘The Legacy of Caliban’, in The Example of Shakespeare. London: Longman Group Limited, 1970.
Eliot, T.S. ‘Four Quartets’ in Collected Poem: 1909-1962. London Faber and Faber, 1963.
____________. Tradition and the Individual Talent’ in Selected Essays. London: Faber and Faber, 1933.
Emenyonu, Ernest. ‘Literature in a Second Language: Use of English in Nigerian Fiction’, in New Englishes: A West African Perspective, eds. Ayo Banjo, Ayo Bamgbose and Andrew Thomas. Ibadan: Mosura Publishers and Booksellers, 1995.
Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin White Masks. London Pluto Press, 1967.
Irele, Abiola. The African Experience in Literature and Ideology. London: Heinemann Educational Books Ltd, 1981.
Izevbaye, Dan. ‘Endless Beginnings: Figures of Creation in Nigeria Literature’, in New Englishes: A West African Perspective eds. Ayo Bayo, Ayo Bamgbose and Andrew Thomas. Ibadan: Mosuro Publishers and Booksellers, 1995.
King-Aribisala, Karen. Kicking Tongues. London: Heinemann, 1998.
_____________. Our Wives and Other Stories. London: Heinemann, 1991.
_____________. The Hangman’s Game. Leeds: Peepal Tree Press, 2007.
Ngugi, Wa Thiong’O. Decolonising the Mind. London: James Currey Ltd, 1986.
_____________. ‘Imperialism of Language: English, a Language for the world?’, in Moving the Centre: The Struggle For Cultural Freedoms. London: James Currey Ltd., 1993.
Osundare, Niyi. Waiting Laughters. Lagos: Malthouse Press Ltd, 1990.
_____________. ‘Yoruba Thought, English Words: A Poet’s Journey Through The Tunnel of Two Tongues’, in Thread in the Loom: Essays on African Literature and Culture. New York: Africa World P­ress, 2002, 11-30.
Said, Edward. ‘On Repetition’ in The World, The Text, The Critic, London: Faber and Faber, 1984.
Soyinka, Wole. Poets of Black Africa. Oxford: Heinemann, 1995.
_______________. The Burden of Memory, The Muse of Forgiveness. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.



Copyright © African Writing Ltd & respective copyright owners. Enquiries to permissions(at)african-writing.com.

(Free to current
print Subscribers)
African Writing, Many Literatures, One Voice