Trauma in African Literature: Culture and the Phenomenon of Mental Distress in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Kilanko’s Daughters who Walk this Path


Ahmed, K.


One of the issues rarely considered in Achebe’s debut is the traumatic experiences of Okonkwo and Nwoye. To illustrate the significance of this mental distress on their lives, this study compares the novel to a more recent one that focalises trauma, Kilanko’s Daughters who Walk this, Path. The study aims to locate trauma and the disposition to recovery in culturally determined individuals such that traumatised persons within and without the same fictive world may respond differently to mental distress as a result of their cultural disposition. In the worlds created in the narratives of Chinua Achebe and Yejide Kilanko, both of African, Nigerian origin but different by generation and gender (also markers of culture), individuals who meet similar situations mentally respond differently, and those who are mentally distressed maintain different attitudes to healing. This difference, the paper argues, is determined by their cultural position to such experience. Herman’s views on trauma are adopted for their explanation of the unspeakability of trauma and the recovery process. This essay further shows that the unspeakability of trauma could be traced to the culture of silence and shame under which experiences are viewed as in Okonkwo’s world. The findings of the study show that both the perception of trauma and the response to it (such as disposition to healing) are culturally determined.


African Literature, Culture, Mental Distress, Recovery, Trauma


The entry of trauma discourse into literary studies is traceable to the intervention of literary critics and scholars like Cathy Caruth, Kali Tal, Dominick La Capra, Shoshanna Felman, and Dori Laub. It gained significant attention in 1996 with the publication of Cathy Caruth’s Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History and Kali Tal’s Worlds of Hurt: Reading the Literatures of Trauma. Literary trauma theory was established on two models, the Classic and the Pluralistic. The arguments of the two models revolve around the representability of trauma. For the classics, trauma, especially the event, can neither be ...


Okonkwo has a traumatic childhood in addition to other experiences of his life that have left psychic wounds on him. But because he exists in a culture where neither the idea of trauma exists in their lexicon nor the reality allowed expression, it is not focalised. This traumatic identity marks his shared quality with his son, Nwoye. As much as Nwoye seems to be antithetical to his father, both coincide at the point where they are responding to psychic wounds, though in different ways. In fact, Okonkwo’s constant dissociation from and disapproval of Nwoye evinces his anxiety over his trauma, and his attempt to deal with it, as permissible within his culture. His rise and fall are symptomatic of his trauma. In order to establish his trauma, it is important to understand trauma as “the response to an unexpected or overwhelming violent event or events that are not fully grasped as they occur, but return later in repeated flashbacks, nightmares, and repetitive phenomena” (Caruth 91). In this light, Okonkwo’s life is an index of trauma:


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