Audience

Dialogues

To whom postcolonial authors write can considerably reveal their intentions. The approach of authors such as Olaudah Equiano, C.L.R. James, Howard Zinn, Michelle Cliff, or Merle Hodge to his or her writing style is directly connected to his or her motives. One particular clue a reader has to discovering an author's motives, is the author's intended audience. Once recognized, the audience unveils multiple motives. It proves interesting to work backward, and by taking a look at authors' audiences, discover what these authors might have set out to achieve.

The intended audience of postcolonial writers is of particular interest, because the author's intent invariably is to affect and influence members of that target audience in a particular way--whether this is to rewrite history, claim history, encourage social reform, or create fiction in order to build self-worth. The questions to ask once the intended audience is discovered are, "why them," and "what is the author trying to get them to think?"

No matter what the motives of the author, these motives must be purported in a manner that is enticing to the intended audience in order to get their attention and engage their thinking. It is the job of an artist to manipulate the audience's senses to achieve a desired effect. Some may argue that a particular effect might not be intended, or that the author might not even be conscious of manipulation. Even if this were true though, an artist still has to expect, and accept, the responsibility of influencing the observer in some way. This is especially interesting because authors of literature, as well as historians and social reformers usually write with a particular audience in mind, and authors of both literature and history are extremely intertwined in postcolonial literature.

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  Dialogues

Equiano's Audience

Equiano applies to the government of Britain to hear his plea. His plea is for the freedom of the slaves, and this is a difficult subject to get the Queen of England to listen to. His book is dedicated "to the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and the Commons of the Parliament of Great Britain."1 Thus, his intentions are to elicit the Queen's "compassion for millions of [his] African countrymen," and to show the "oppression and cruelty exercised to the unhappy negroes" to the Queen and the British legislature so that they might in turn play a part in the abolition of slavery.2 The government of Britain was not likely to jump right on the abolitionist band wagon though, because slavery and colonialism was incredibly profitable for them. Because of this, Equiano had to utilize British language and methods of writing, and Christianity in order to get the attention of the British aristocracy.

This reveals one obvious audience that Equiano intended to reach, but there were inevitably others. Others may have included abolitionists, historians curious about the effect of the slave trade on blacks, and even many Europeans interested in the popular novels of the day. Action-adventure-travel stories (to which genre Equiano's story at least partly belonged) were immensely popular.

James' and Zinn's Audiences

Just as Equiano's book is a sort of history--the history of his life--C.L.R. James' book, The Black Jacobins, is a historical account of the slave revolt in the French Colony of San Domingo that resulted in the establishment of Haiti in 1804. Howard Zinn's book, A People's History of the United States, is, likewise, a historical account. James' book reclaims the history of Haiti for the Haitians, by writing it focusing on their side of the conflict, rather than the European side. Zinn's book presents commonly known U.S. history from new perspectives--often from the underdogs' perspectives--and thereby begs readers to think about American history and what they know about the past of their country in new ways (note1). As historical books, their intended audiences are obviously historians, but a closer examination will reveal more intentions of the authors than simply documenting history--such as shaping a national morality.

As far as national morality is concerned, Zinn readily admits that he is hoping "our future may be found in the past's fugitive moments of compassion rather than its solid centuries of warfare."3 This idea is one that is important in these comparisons, because it shows that the intended audience helps illuminate the writers intentions--in Zinn's case those intentions are to influence the people's morality. This idea is also present in James' historical theory. In the preface to the vintage edition of The Black Jacobins, James claims his book is "a part of the history of our time," but also admits that it is "intended to stimulate the coming emancipation of Africa."4 By examining history from the perspective of those who have been denied their right to claim their own history, Zinn and James grant legitimacy to the so far undocumented histories of the underdogs-- particularly the colonized people in relation to postcolonial literature.

This shows that when comparing literature to historical documentation, the lines that distinguish the two areas can often blur. James realizes that he utilizes literary techniques in his telling of a true story, and claims that "the traditionally famous historians have been more artist than scientist: they wrote so well because they saw so little" (note2). This leads to a wealth of new questions--namely, who creates history, the heroes named in the stories, or the writers of the stories?

Michelle Cliff's Audience

According to Allen Carey-Webb, Michelle Cliff claims she writes mainly for academics. This is particularly interesting to me. Michelle Cliff's novel, No Telephone to Heaven, is about Clare Savage, who travels the world in search of education and identity. This search and travel results in her return to Jamaica, her homeland, where she decides to join guerrila troops fighting to reorganize Jamaica and, specifically, to oust a group of American and British filmmakers working on a "documentary" of Jamaica. This documentary is quite falsified and made quite "hollywood." This raises two important ideas for me: the importance of education, and the risk of assimilation in the search for identity.

Obviously, Cliff believes education is important. Her novel focuses a lot on Clare's education, and she admits to writing for academic audiences. The filmmakers in the story also elicit the thought of education. People learn in many ways other than school. Particularly, people learn from television, movies and social interaction, as well as from their education. In school, many history classes are taught from the perspective of the dominant people of that history. For example, Americans are typically taught what a triumph the Civil War was, not what a tragedy it was that the South was not able to secede. Because of this, perhaps Cliff sees writing for the academic community as offering them a perspective of history that they might not have been exposed to before.

This would make sense since her literature is similar to much other "been to" literature. In "been to" literature, the hero typically travels to the "motherland," (in many cases, England) and by doing so acquires a new perspective of themselves and their history. They then return to their homeland, as Clare Savage does, and work to help their often struggling, decolonized country establish itself in terms of history, identity, and social structure. If Cliff is writing to the academic community, she is, in effect, working as the impetus that exposes people to new ideas by means of a foreign education--often in the colonier's country. By offering the readers this new view of Jamaica, Cliff is educating people, just as Clare educates the children of Jamaica in the "history of their...our homeland," and these people can then take it back to Jamaica and spread this new perspective around.5

The risk she runs by writing in English is to confuse the audience with exactly how assimilated she is. Just as Equiano must use English and British influences to make his point effective to his audience, Cliff must make her work applicable to higher education, and this means adopting certain styles and techniques that will be recognized by those in the dominant position--those able to grant a higher education to people. Once she gains the respect of this audience, she can bring her work to academic circles, and thereby bring it to people who can spread it throughout the homeland.

Cliff combines truth with fiction too, just as Equiano, James, Zinn, and Hodge do, in order to achieve specific desired effects. The desired effect is to reclaim the history of oneself, and one's culture. Because colonized peoples' cultures have been so manipulated and changed by colonizers, it is necessary for them to rebuild their culture and cultural heritage. This means redefining their own history and the history of their culture, as well as creating new cultures for themselves and their societies by means such as art and literature. This is especially true in Cliff's case, because Jamaicans are so socially split into class categories. The ones who can benefit from a higher education can also benefit from Cliff's book by reassessing their history and their place in their country's community.

Merle Hodge's Audience

Similar to Cliff, Merle Hodge wishes to use her writing to benefit her homeland. Rather than write towards academics and rely on them to bring the information back to the homeland though, she wishes to write directly to the people of her homeland. Hodge has benefitted from a foreign higher education as Cliff has, but while she returned to her homeland of Trinidad, Cliff lives in the United States. In Trinidad, Hodge teaches at the University of the West Indies and continues to write in her homeland.

While she is continuing the beneficence of higher education in her homeland herself, she also continues to write, and this is important to her because she feels that a solid body of fiction will help create a more concrete identity for the Caribbean. For her, not only claiming history is extremely important, but so is deciphering one's own reality, which she believes fiction does for a people.6 Hodge believes that fiction's proper role "in human societies includes allowing a people to 'read' itself."7

During colonialism, and even still today, colonized countries, and now "Third World" countries, are barraged with foreign propaganda in the form of fiction, television, and movies. As Hodge recognizes, "fiction validates reality," and this is why she feels that "fiction which affirms and validates our world is therefore an important weapon of resistance."8 By creating a body of Caribbean fiction, authors will also be creating a Caribbean culture. Because of the political power of fiction, and how subversively it has been used in colonized countries in the past, Hodge feels that it should now be utilized as a revolutionary tool to achieve cultural sovereignty; she claims, "creative writing becomes, for me, a guerrilla activity."9

  Notes

1.Underdogs:
On page 10, Zinn says, "in that inevitable taking of sides which comes from selection and emphasis in history, I prefer to tell the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks, of the constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson as seen by the Cherokees…" and the list goes on.10

2.Historians:

This sentence is followed by this: "To-day by a natural reaction we tend to a personification of the social forces, great men being merely or nearly instruments in the hands of economic destiny. As so often the truth does not lie in between. Great men make history, but only such history as it is possible for them to make. Their freedom of achievement is limited by the necessities of their environment. To portray the limits of those necessities and the realisation, complete or partial, of all possibilities, that is the true business of the historian." This idea is further examined on the literary style vs. historical fact page.

  Links

Sorry, the only links I could really find relating to the theme of audience were about Equiano. I strongly encourage you to check out the other authors' sites too.

***Olaudah Equiano's Journeys: The geography of a slave narrative, by Thomas Doherty, addresses many aspects of Equiano's text, but some parts are devoted to his audience. However, this site is under construction, and will not work. I use this article on other pages and cite it; it can be found at libraries.

Also, check the teaching links, even if you don't intend to teach, because they offer quick insights to Equiano's intended audience.

Included Authors:

Olaudah Equiano Michelle Cliff
C.L.R. James Merle Hodge
Howard Zinn

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  Teaching

The aspect of a work's audience is relavent to studying literature comparatively. Study questions relating to the audience can lead to interesting discussions about topics relating to other themes discussed throughout this postcolonial literature site. It is also interesting to see how many different audiences can come into play just in one particular work. For more ideas about study or discussion questions, see Vicki's teaching methods page. Also, here are a couple helpful links:

Professor Gregory Jay's Notes on Olaudah Equiano's Interesting Narrative, which includes a brief background, a quick look at the rhetorical situation (which includes a little about the audience and intent of his book), and issues for discussion and interpretation.

Another brief summation of information similar to that discussed on this site is an Equiano page that discusses classroom issues and strategies, and will give the reader a quick background of Equiano and many ideas surrounding the text is Olaudah Equiano (1745-1797). It also includes a paragraph on his audience.

 

 

  Citations

1. Equiano, Olaudah. The Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavas Vassa, the African. New York: Dover Publication, Inc., 1999, 2.

2. Ibid., 184.

3. Zinn, Howard. A People's History of the United States. New York: Harper Perennial, 1995, 11.

4. James, C.L.R. The Black Jacobins. New York: Vintage Books, 1989, VII.

5. Cliff, Michelle. No Telephone to Heaven. New York: Plume, 1996, 193.

6. Hodge, Merle. "Challenges of the Struggle for Sovereignty: Changing the World Versus Writing Stories," in Caribbean Women Writers: Essays from the First International Conference. Wellesley, MA: Calaloux Publications, 1990, 205.

7. Ibid., 205.

8. Ibid., 206.

9. Ibid., 206.

10. Zinn, Howard. A People's History of the United States. New York: Harper Perennial, 1995, 10.

Colonial & Postcolonial Literary Dialogues

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