Storytellers, shamans and clowns
: postcolonial engagement with the supra-human in the novels of R.K. Narayan, Nuruddin Farah, Bessie Head, Ben Okri and Salman Rushdie

  • Margaret Joan Phillips

    Student thesis: Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) - CDU


    This thesis examines the various ways in which a group of contemporary writers from African and Indian cultures address spiritual affairs within their fictions. The neutral terminology "supra-human" indicates that the analysis treats each worldview as an equally valid explanation of the "reality" of phenomena beyond that which is materially verifiable and, at the same time, highlights the pantheistic nature of the human and numinous relationships which underpins these texts. The investigation shows that the cultural symbols employed both structurally and semantically by R. K Narayan, Nuruddin Farah, Bessie Head, Ben Okri and Salman Rushdie in their narratives describe the tensions that arise between a culture's sense of continuity and the historical and political pressures for change generated by their respective postcolonial conditions. Thus, the narratives are concerned with the maintenance of personal and societal identity, the restoration of a holistic form of meaning and the healing of psychological disjunctures caused by colonial and, in some instances, postcolonial fragmentation. All processes are found to involve, in one way or another, a perceived intervention of supra-human powers.

    Narayan's The Guide and Farah's Close Sesame survey the lives of two distinct "holy" men whose deaths (or transitions into an after-life) prove to be beneficial for their respective communities. The use of dreams or altered states of consciousness as healing mechanisms frame Head and Okri's narratives. The trauma of Head's life experience, as portrayed in A Question of Power, resembles a shamanic initiation ritual while Okri's answer to the malaise of Nigerian politics in his abiku novels lies in people's efforts to acquire shamanic perceptual and thus healing powers. In Midnight's Children, a clowning Rushdie treads a tenuous path between an acceptance of and a resistance to all possibilities that involve supra-human explanations. He advocates a new sense of spirituality forged by art's mediation of secular and sacred ideas but he cannot finally divest himself of his clownish fear of absurdity. In spite of their diverse means and backgrounds, the writers demonstrate that the human impulse to explain the workings of the universe is invariably countered by a need to maintain the potential of mystery within human understanding. Finally, the thesis contends that supra-human ideas continue to exert a powerful influence on the human imagination.
    Date of AwardJan 1996
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorDerek Wright (Supervisor)

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