image Taking the book solely at face value, Song of Lawino & Song of Ocol are verses concerned with the disintegration of the marriage of Lawino, a rural African (Acoli) woman and Ocol, her western-educated husband. However, peeling back the cover of the words even a tiny bit reveals a woman committed to her indigenous culture versus a man who thinks that her culture needs to be removed from the face of the earth. How could two such people co-exist in the same household? How could two such differing ideologies co-exist on the same planet? According to Ocol, not at all. His song is full of imagery that calls death upon the culture Lawino praises in her song.

We will smash

The taboos

One by one,

Explode the basis

Of every superstition,

We will uproot

Every sacred tree

And demolish every ancestral

shrine.

In Ocol’s song, the thing that is so striking about this book – the use of indigenous Acoli symbols to present a woman solidly rooted in her culture – gets turned on its head. Every thing African becomes associated with death, decay and other imagery meant be extremely negative. However, that is not the case with Lawino. Unlike she does not hate foreign customs. They are simply not hers.

I do not understand

The ways of foreigners

But I do not despise their

Customs.

Of course if things were as simple as that, there would be no need for Lawino to sing her song. For instance, I agree with Ocol’s installing of an electric stove in their house. . Lawino doesn’t know how to use it and is, in fact, scared of it.

I am terribly afraid

Of the electric stove,

And I do not like using it

Because you stand up

When you cook.

Who ever cooked standing up?

And the stove

Has many eyes

I do not know

Which eye to prick

So that the stove

May vomit fire

And I cannot tell

Which eye to prick

So that fire is vomited

In one and not in another plate.

Instead of patiently teaching Lawino the benefits of the stove and how to properly use it, Ocol rails against her. He considers her lack of knowledge one more African deficiency he wants to divorce himself from. His attitude is revealing especially because he later becomes a leader of his country’s independence struggle for Uhuru (freedom). As Lawino tells it, Ocol says

White men must return

To their own homes,

Because they have brought

Slave conditions in the country.

He says

White people tell lies

That they are good

At telling lies

Like men wooing women

Ocol says

They reject the famine relief

Granaries

And the forced-labour system.

After revealing this, Lawino goes on to question an Uhuru where her husband can’t even get along with his brother.

When my husband

Opens a quarrel

With his brother

I am frightened!

You would think

They have not slept

In the same womb,

You would think

They have not shared

The same breasts!

And they say

When the two were boys

Looking after the goats

They were as close to each other

As the eye and the nose,

They were like twins

And they shared everything

Even a single white ant.

Even more astute however, is her statement describing the period of “independence”.

Independence falls like a bull

Buffalo

And the hunters

Rush to it with drawn knives,

Sharp shining knives

For carving the carcass.

And if your chest

Is small, bony and weak

They push you off,

And if your knife is blunt

You get the dung on your

Elbow,

You come home empty-handed

And the dogs bark at you!

In raising questions that center around the concept of post-colonial independence and how such an entity impacts on the consciousness of Africans who have been educated outside of africa as well as rural Africans who have never left the continent, the Song of Lawino & the Song of Ocol ranks up there with Ama Ata Aidoo’s Sister Killjoy. Both Sissie and Lawino were asking the same questions. The current state of the continent provides the answer.

The writing prompt for this week’s participants in the Literary Blog Hop over at the Blue Bookcase website is what is the most difficult literary work you’ve ever read? What made it so difficult? The question immediately to mind the book I’m currently reading, Cane by Jean Toomer – and the problems I’m having finishing it. 

I have tried; sincerely, honestly tried. To be honest, it’s not because the book is unreadable or because I don’t like it. I do like it and it is readable. However, I’m finding it difficult to read Cane like a regular novel. There are no main characters and/or narrators. Perhaps I’m being too linear but it seems as if the only thing holding the diverse set of characters together is Sparta, the early twentieth-century rural Georgia town they all inhabit. Toomer wrote the town in such a way that it seems hell bent on being the stage on which the stories and poems are presented and he did so with a clear mastery of language. Cane is undeniably visual and therein lies the reason I find it difficult to read it continuously. The short prose pieces are so packed with imagery I think of them more as vignettes; literary vignettes I can put down, ponder over and return to.

As I end part one, I find myself putting it down to ponder some of the characters, particularly Karintha. On the surface, the two page chapter on Karintha appears to deal with what today would be called pedophilia:

Men had always wanted her, this Karintha, even as a child. Karintha carrying beauty, perfect as dusk when the sun goes down. Old men rode her hobby-horse upon their knees. Young men danced with her at frolics when they should have been dancing with their grown-up girls. God grant us youth, secretly prayed the old men. The young fellows counted the time to pass before she would be old enough to mate with them. This interest of the male, who wishes to ripe a growing thing too soon, could mean no good to her.

I found myself curious as to why Toomer, a Harlem Renaissance writer, would choose to start Cane with such a topic. Why have the opening gambit be a tale about how a young girl in the process of growing up became the town prostitute? In fact, the majority of the stories in the section I’ve read so far focus on women. So much so, that I found myself noticing similarities with some of Toomer’s literary descendants; particularly Alice Walker (setting) and Ntozake Shange (language).

I know Alice Walker read Toomer. In In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, she wrote the following:

A few of us will realize that Cane was not only his finest work but that it is also in part based on the essence of stories told to Toomer by his grandmother, she of the ‘dark blood’ to whom the book is dedicated, and that many of the women in Cane are modled on the tragic indecisiveness and weakness of his mother’s life. I also wondered if he received flack for writing about the abuse some black women experience as Walker and Shange did. Cane was for Toomer a double ‘swan song.’ He meant it to memorialize a culture he thought was dying, whose folk spirit he considered beautiful, but he was also saying good-bye to the ‘Negro’ he felt dying in himself. Cane then is a parting gift, and no less precious because of that. I think Jean Toomer would want us to keep its beauty, but let him go.

Well, as I said in the beginning, I am letting go of the book for now. What I term Cane’s vignette style, in my opinion, doesn’t support a straight through to the end type of reading. Nonetheless it is still highly valued literature for its written-with-love and extremely lyrical depictions of life in the town of Sparta, Georgia and I will definitely complete it.