By Jesse Amar
Last year, Nigerian poet Onyinye Miriam Uwolloh published "Ishmael Na My Name," a long poem in Nigerian Pidgin that retells the story of Moby-Dick (an audio recording of Uwolloh reading from the poem at the Strand Bookstore is available here). Today on WWB Daily, Jesse Amar considers how "Ishmael Na My Name" updates—and challenges—Melville's original text.
Onyinye Miriam Uwolloh’s poem "Ishmael Na My Name" is a sequence of 136 haiku, all written in Nigerian Pidgin English, each summarizing a chapter of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. If this sounds heterogeneous, it is: it’s a strange mixture of elements, its form and content are at odds with each other, and the experience of reading it is sometimes surprising, sometimes jarring. Yet, for anyone acquainted with Melville’s novel, this strangeness and surprisingness is strangely, surprisingly familiar: Moby-Dick is itself a mixture of things, a philosophical treatise pretending to be an adventure story, a jumble of anecdotes, digressions, discourses, and dialects all sewn together into something that is only called a novel for lack of a better word, and which shows signs of bursting its seams.
So the apparent ill-suitedness of haiku for capturing the richness of Melville’s work is, paradoxically, appropriate. And just as appropriate is the fact that, while Melville found inspiration for Moby-Dick in his voyages abroad, Uwolloh has come to America and found inspiration in Moby-Dick. The voyage of the whaling ship Pequod, which Moby-Dick sometimes remembers to recount, begins in Massachusetts, and Uwolloh’s poem has ended up there. Somehow, somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic, the two writers seem to have met.
What purpose does it serve, and what problems does it raise, to rewrite Moby-Dick, the “great American novel,” in Pidgin—a language descended from English, developed under conditions of British colonialism, and still influenced by the near-global hegemony of anglophone culture? The answer, I suppose, is at least twofold.
“Uwolloh’s Ishmael does not speak the language of a colonizing power.”
On the one hand, "Ishmael Na My Name" asserts the power and utility of Nigerian Pidgin as a literary language. Colonialism in Nigeria, as elsewhere, has created a linguistic hierarchy in which the language of the colonizers is valued and that of the colonized dismissed. In the colonial situation, language is a bludgeon: the fact that a colonized person does not speak the dominant language is used to dehumanize her, and this dehumanization subsequently acts as an excuse for oppression. We are all familiar with racisms centered on language, from the mimicked accent that mocks and “others” to the overt hostility or condescension aroused by nationalistic rhetorics against speakers of foreign languages. This othering has a long history: the word “barbarian,” present in most European languages, descends from the Greek βάρβαρος, meaning a foreigner, a person whose speech can be safely ignored because they seem to be saying “bar-bar, bar-bar.” A catch-22 arises for those living under colonial oppression: either speak one’s own language and be ignored or persecuted, or speak that of the colonizers, and implicitly accept its rules, its standards. "Ishmael Na My Name," like other works in Pidgin—which burgeoned as a literary language in the ’80s, with poets like Tanure Ojaide, Tunde Fatunde, and Ezenwa-Ohaeto at the helm—asserts the language’s independence from English and its suitability for poetry, escaping the trap set by colonialism.
On the other hand, the poem absorbs Melville’s story into the canon of world literature: it picks out what is universal in Moby-Dick, what is still relevant a hundred and seventy years later, to a speaking community half a world away. And it takes the opportunity to question certain decisions to which Melville, writing in the racialist and racist America of the 1840s, committed himself.
To take the most obvious of these decisions, there’s a trio of characters in Moby-Dick, the three harpooneers aboard the Pequod, who represent various “savage” tribes and who were surely inspired more by the racist ethnographical treatises of Melville’s day than by any personal contacts he may have made in his travels. There’s Queequeg, a “cannibal” of the South Pacific; Tashtego, a “red man” of Martha’s Vineyard; and Daggoo, a “negro-savage” whose birthplace is only said to be “in Africa,” but who might be surmised to come from Nigeria or somewhere near it. Melville’s description of these characters is something of a blight upon the novel, and Uwolloh, in the clipped diction of her haiku, has eliminated its racist tenor. In the original, the narrator, Ishmael, describes Daggoo thus: “Third among the harpooneers was Daggoo, a gigantic, coal-black negro-savage, with a lion-like tread.” Uwolloh’s Ishmael says simply:
Queequeg, Daggoo, Tashtego
Na dem dey hunt whales
This is not so much a sanitization as an artistic choice. Uwolloh’s Ishmael does not speak the language of a colonizing power; he speaks Pidgin. And what he says in Pidgin is either what is essential to the novel’s plot or what is universal in its message. He does not linger luridly on ethnographic details.
Melville, unfortunately, went so far as to report the speech of his “savage” characters in ungainly dialectal parody. At one point, Daggoo believes he has sighted the white whale from the prow of his long-boat: “‘Kee-hee! Kee-hee!’ yelled Daggoo, straining forwards and backwards on his seat, like a pacing tiger in his cage.” At another, reporting a conversation between the three harpooneers and Captain Ahab, Melville seems to make no distinction between the speech of Africans and African Americans, and infantilizes both: “‘And has he a curious spout, too,’ said Daggoo, ‘very bushy, even for a parmacetty, and mighty quick, Captain Ahab?’”
From the intelligible but servile sound of “mighty quick” to the absolute othering of “Kee-hee! Kee-hee!,” reminiscent of the Greek “bar-bar,” Melville modulates the language of his “savage” characters and casts them in different relations to Standard English: they are either incomprehensibly other, or comprehensible but rather ridiculous, palpably submitting to the strictures of a language not their own.
“Code-switching is both her style and her subject.”
There is a point to these racist depictions: Melville made few decisions flippantly. The dialects that he invents for his nonwhite characters are joined by a whole host of languages—various declensions of English, religious and philosophical and scientific forms of speech—all revolving around the novel’s central theme, the impossibility of communication. The crew of the Pequod, guided by the mad ambition of their captain, pursues Moby-Dick, the white whale, for reasons that are never wholly clear, and although various characters describe the white whale, it seems impossible to pin down its real essence; all attempts to pierce the mystery end only in paradox. Daggoo, shouting “Kee-hee! Kee-hee!,” is wrong—he hasn’t sighted the white whale, but a giant white squid—and Melville’s point is that language, from the most “primitive” to the most refined, is always wrong when it attempts to grasp certain central mysteries of life, embodied in the whale.
Uwolloh is more staid in her reporting:
Na so something rise
Daggoo talk say na white whale
But im be white squid
Her Pidgin, in contrast to Melville’s invented dialect, does not emphasize the ineffable. The former says something, where the latter ostentatiously does not. If Melville’s meaning is, roughly, that despite all attempts at communication, our lives remain mysterious, Uwolloh’s is that despite the mysteriousness of our lives, communication is possible. As she writes in her introduction to the poem, “the Pequod crew must have found a way to communicate despite the language barriers and differences in beliefs.”
Arguably, Uwolloh’s language makes this point for her. Communication, including poetic communication, may, in a way, be more possible in Pidgin than in English. Pidgin is a trade language, a lingua franca, used originally for commercial purposes among Nigerians who spoke various languages at home, but who were united by the fact that they all lived under British rule. Although it is now a full-fledged language, with a unique grammar and vocabulary, Pidgin retains the marks of its original purpose: it is a language that breaks down barriers to communication, rather than setting itself up as a monolith, as English and other colonial languages do.
It should be noted, apropos of this point, that Uwolloh’s poem is not only accessible to speakers of Nigerian Pidgin; an English-language reader, with a little preparation, can broach the text and enjoy the poetry. There are a few unfamiliar grammatical words, like na, which means is/am/are, and dey, which means is/do/does; and there are a few nouns and verbs to be learned, like sabee, which means to know, and which, as Uwolloh points out, is also used in the original, though interestingly by Queequeg rather than Daggoo. Otherwise, the vocabulary is mostly shared with English.
Many writings in Pidgin are not so approachable, and "Ishmael Na My Name" could have been considerably more regional and impenetrable. This might, in a sense, have been more “authentic,” but it would have conflicted with the author’s implied purpose, to “find a way to communicate despite the language barriers.” There is a phenomenon known as code-switching, in which bilingual speakers modulate between two languages, adjusting the density of their speech by degrees to suit a given context. Uwolloh has used such modulation as a literary technique, and crafted a poem with several audiences in mind. What is doubly interesting is that code-switching is both her style and her subject. Melville’s Daggoo switches codes too, going from “mighty quick” to “Kee-hee! Kee-hee!”; but the effect is alienating. Uwolloh, from a perspective more sympathetic to Daggoo’s, employs a hybrid language to enhance, rather than obstruct, communication.
It’s a bold idea: Uwolloh has melded elements that do not obviously belong together, and through this melding, something fresh has shaken out. From a novel about barriers to communication, she has made a poem that communicates.
Published Feb 17, 2021 Copyright 2021 Jesse Amar