The Problematics of Writing Back to the Imperial Centre

Joseph Conrad, Chinua Achebe and V. S. Naipaul in Conversation

by Nabil Baazizi (Author)
©2021 Monographs X, 236 Pages


In the wake of decolonization, colonialist narratives have systematically been rewritten from indigenous perspectives. This phenomenon is referred to as "the Empire writes back to the centre"—a trend that asserted itself in late twentieth-century postcolonial criticism. The aim of such acts of writing back is to read colonialist texts in a Barthesian way inside-out or à l’envers, to deconstruct the Orientalist and colonialist dogmas, and eventually create a dialogue where there was only a monologue. Turning the colonial text inside-out and rereading it through the lens of a later code allows the postcolonial text to unlock the closures of its colonial precursor and change it from the inside. Under this critical scholarship, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) has been a particularly influential text for Chinua Achebe and V. S. Naipaul. Their novels Things Fall Apart (1958) and A Bend in the River (1979) can be seen as a rewriting of Conrad’s novella. However, before examining their different rewriting strategies, it would be fruitful to locate them within the postcolonial tradition of rewriting. While Achebe clearly stands as the leading figure of the movement, the Trinidadian novelist is, in fact, difficult to pigeonhole. Does Naipaul write back to, that is criticize, or does he rewrite, and in a way adopt and justify, imperial ideology? Since not all rewriting involves writing back in terms of anti-colonial critique, Naipaul’s position continues to be explored as the enigmatic in-betweenness and double-edgedness of an "insider" turned "outsider." Taking cognizance of these different critical perceptions can become a way to effectively highlight Achebe’s "(mis)-reading" and Naipaul’s "(mis)-appropriation" of Conrad, a way to set the framework for the simulated conversation this book seeks to create between the three novelists.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • 1 A Centre and Its Margins: The Dilemma of a Manichean Dichotomy
  • 2 ‘The Empire Writes Back to the Centre’: A Movement of Territorial, Moral, and Aesthetic Decolonization
  • 3 A Dialogue Where There Was Only a Monologue: Chinua Achebe Fights Back the Canon
  • 4 An African Condition in a European Tradition: Chinua Achebe and the English Language of Native Narratives
  • 5 Things Fall Apart: Chinua Achebe’s Heart of Whiteness
  • 6 V. S. Naipaul: The (Hi)Story of a Pro-Western Very Eastern Story-Teller
  • 7 The Mimic Men: ‘Almost the Same but not Quite’
  • 8 A Bend in the River: A Heart-of-Darkness Rewrite
  • Conclusion
  • Index

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I am deeply grateful to Jean-Pierre Naugrette, for his guidance, encouragement, and constant support. He not only opened my eyes to the colonial novel but anchored me in the world of Joseph Conrad who was to become my literary companion. I also wish to thank Richard Ambrosini, Robert Hampson and Marc Porée for expressing their interest in my work. I have benefited a great deal from other academics on different occasions, especially Chantal Zabus, Catherine Lanone, and Claire Davison. Their seminars, criticism, remarks, and encouragements justify my longstanding intellectual debt to them. Also, I should not forget to thank my former Professors at the Faculty of Humanities in Beni Mellal, namely Cherki Karkaba, Khalid Chaouch, Mohamed Rakii, My Mustapha Mamaoui, Mohamed Sghir-Syad, Mohssine Nachit, Farida Mokhtari for without them I would not have reached this stage.

I am gratefully indebted to a number of other researchers for having contributed to make this a better book than it would otherwise have been. A special thanks goes to the staff, faculty and graduate students at the University of Montreal for hosting me at their department and also for providing an encouraging research environment. My stay in Canada has largely been made easier with the help of Youssef Beaassi who offered a warm shelter and hospitality during those snowy days in Montréal.

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I am grateful to my doctoral school at the Sorbonne University in Paris for having awarded me grants that enabled me to participate in international conferences and to conduct research at the British Library and the University of Montréal. I should also be very grateful to Amina Jawhar of the Moroccan Embassy in Paris for her perseverance, for service above and beyond duty, in facilitating my application for the doctoral grant awarded by the Moroccan Government. Without such invaluable back up, the light at the end of the tunnel would not have been perceived.

Some of the material on V. S. Naipaul has been reworked from my two articles “V. S. Naipaul: The (Hi)Story of a Pro-Western Very Eastern Story-teller,” Commonwealth Essays and Studies 36.2 (2014): 51–60 and “‘The trunks of trees washed up by the see’: Of Uprootedness and Shipwreck in V. S. Naipaul’s The Mimic Men,” Arab World English Journal for Translation and Literary Studies 2.1 (2018): 26–38. Part of chapter four has been adapted from my article “An African Condition in a European Tradition: Chinua Achebe and the English language of Native Narratives,” Arab World English Journal, Special Issue on Literature 3 (2015): 197–210.

Finally, I am grateful to Meagan Simpson of Peter Lang Publishing, without whom the book would not have been possible.

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My personal background and academic career have often involved crossing languages, cultures, disciplines, and countries. I was born and brought up in the cosmopolitan, bilingual, environment of the Moroccan cities of Beni Mellal and Khenifra, cities where Arabic and Tamazight are spoken, in a country that was a French Protectorate and where French is still a dominant second language. Yet, born to a father who is a teacher of English and a Moroccan expatriate to the Arabian Peninsula, I was brought up under the Anglo-American cultural and linguistic projections. Being receptive to language switches and diversity thus came to me at an early age and perhaps explains my interest in transcultural dialogue and transnational literatures. The practice has unquestionably spurred me to become a firm believer in the blending of academic perspectives and personal backgrounds as a means of enriching one’s intellectual formation.

My natural inclination towards research in post-colonial literature, therefore, lends itself well to the transition from the institutional, pedagogical and socio-cultural contexts offered in Morocco to those offered in France. Post-colonial literature, which deals with questions of identity and cultural clashes, especially those arising from the experience of colonization, is a topic that has naturally become an academic specialty of mine. I have come to learn that post-colonial literature offers particular points of access that differ markedly from the well-known and ←1 | 2→frequently researched canonical traditions. Considered peripheral along decades of Western criticism on the colonies, post-colonialism is now at the centre of the changing dynamics of the canon.

As a way of approaching the topic in my academic career, I have learnt to pursue the physical and cultural geography within the literature as an ordering principle, linking my interests in post-colonial literature to my physical displacement from Morocco to France, a journey from the ‘margin’ to the ‘centre’. To develop a certain mode of perception of a problematic as vexed as post-colonialism, displacement has undoubtedly enabled me to strip myself of the constraints of the Occidentalist perspective that were early implanted in me, and that were curbing my impartial orientation. My interest in global geographies is what draws me to the stance that in another context, a researcher may reconsider the concepts he/she forms, as I believe that only geographical displacement stimulates such reconsiderations. If I then studied the Orientalist discourse within the academic context of Morocco (the Orient), I wanted to grasp the opportunity of being in Paris to study it from within what was once an imperial centre. I found it incumbent upon me to occupy an in-between space, between a bystander and an active character within the main stream, a critical perception that would also allow me to consider my own research orientation as from a distance.

During my physical displacement, my interest in transnational narratives also urged me to reach out to writers investigating issues pertaining to cultural displacement and crossing boundaries. The critical dialogues across multiple geographies, imaginary boundaries, and theories that emerged during the one-way trip that draws an ex-colonial to the centre of the Empire – or at least its academic hegemony – proved necessary one’s detachment from the preordained frame set for anyone coming from ‘elsewhere’. Upon my arrival to Paris in 2007, I had to struggle to find someone to supervise my first-year thesis on “the Orientalist discourse in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” without being continually reminded of the “academic necessity” – what they called the “scientificity” of academic work – to distance myself from the theories of Edward Said, explicitly suggesting that he missed it all. It was as if any Oriental intending to research post-colonialism should be warned against using Said’s Orientalism (1978). The touchstone by which an Oriental’s academic integrity is measured lies in his ability to take distance from such “evil” books. Still questioning myself why someone like me should demonize Said in order to be “scientific,” I embarked on the ship with Marlow, Conrad’s narrator in Heart of Darkness, on the “scientifically interesting” expedition.

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During my second year in Paris, especially after my reading of The Mimic Men, I decided to broaden this vision to include V. S. Naipaul, a supposedly post-colonial writer who decided to rewrite Conrad’s Heart of Darkness from a certain perspective. The result was a Master’s thesis entitled Writing the Other’s Narrative Otherwise: V. S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River as a Writing Back to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (2010). The very expression “writing the other’s narrative otherwise” thus came to me from the newly acquired experience of reading imperial narratives also otherwise.

Such line of descent in terms of subjects soon opened up new horizons for a more elaborate PhD thesis, then a book, as the conclusion reached proved to me that “writing the other’s narrative otherwise” does not necessarily mean the post-colonial tradition of rewriting in order to criticize and commune with the canon. Naipaul does not write back to the canon in order to unveil and question the Orientalist discourse embedded in some Western narratives. He rewrites in an attempt to adopt and perpetuate such discourse. From this conclusion emanates the finding that a standard model for “writing back” is at the core of the problematics of post-colonialism. Without wanting to evoke the case against Naipaul, in this book we shall be led to understand that post-colonialism is not that homogeneous trend that sets itself solidly against the hegemonic discourse of colonialism, but there are the fissures such as Naipaul’s that threaten to make the edifice collapse, or fall apart, to use Chinua Achebe’s iconic formula.

The first chapter of this book provides the theoretical framework necessary for establishing firm grounds upon which the simulated conversation between Conrad, Achebe, and Naipaul can be held. Edward Said is necessitated as the most direct point of entry because he is nowadays undeniably considered as the great figure who opened up the debate around the Orientalist discourse. Accordingly, we find that his critique soon invites a dialogic relation with the inevitable Homi Bhabha, Gayatri Spivak, Albert Memmi, Jean-Paul Sartre, Frantz Fanon, and others. Most of the theoretical material of this book attempts to include their converging and diverging perspectives in analysing those literary texts that host and perpetuate an Orientalist discourse. We will also try to lay bare the political and ideological backgrounds leading to writing this kind of literature, especially in their embodiment of Michel Foucault’s premise of the link between knowledge and power; that is, how Western artworks influenced and were influenced by the works of the Empire.

In all likelihood, cultures may be sceptical about other cultures that may be exotic and harmless to some extent, but how this view can lead to disastrous ←3 | 4→results when it is taken by a military and economically dominant culture against one deemed backward? Edward Said talked a lot about the necessity of understanding the connections between fiction and the world, and, more particularly, between the Orientalist discourse and reality. The narrativized reality of the Orient presented through the Orientalist discourse is seen as being associated with colonial concerns and ambitions of the West towards the East. Therefore, according to Bhabha, the textual establishment of the Orient as the different Other helps establish the binary opposition by which Europe’s own identity can be created. In almost all Orientalist/imperialist texts, we have the creation of the Manichean dichotomy of modern/old, civilized/uncivilized, superior/inferior, us/them, and the like. The subaltern, in such dichotomies, as Spivak famously concluded in her essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” can never speak.

After an understanding of the ways Said and others sparked the issue of Western views on the Orient, we move to establish a paradigm according to which Joseph Conrad, as literally an Orientalist, is designated as the thematic precursor of Achebe and Naipaul. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) can serve as a testing text for many of those paradigms. The novella is a key part of the canonical tradition, but its presence testifies to the cultural and literary pluralism it entails. On the one hand, we will try to see to what extent Heart of Darkness resembles other late nineteenth-century imperialist narratives. On the other, we should consider the basis on which some scholars built their justification of the imperialist discourse in the novella, especially through the most prevalent argument that it is a logical necessity that Joseph Conrad should have identified other cultures as different, since otherwise, their distinctive characteristics would be invisible. We may underscore the reading by suggesting that it is the Orientals’ very difference from the Europeans that helps create the opposition by which Europe’s own identity is established, in line with Said’s premise on the relationship between the Orient and the Occident further elaborated in Orientalism.

In fact, a tremendous scholarly controversy has been taking place on whether Joseph Conrad was an imperialist or an anti-imperialist writer. Even though Conrad’s presentation of imperialism and native Orientals was, and is, questionable, one cannot deny that he was one of the few writers who recognized the wrongs of imperialism at a period when most European writers led a campaign for conquering the Orient. Therefore, it is deemed necessary for the purpose of this book to examine the double-edgedness of Conrad’s language: imperialism vs. anti-imperialism. The split between these two intellectual extremes is what shall be highlighted. In other words, to find a clear answer to the vexed question of whether Joseph Conrad was an imperialist or an anti-imperialist writer remains ←4 | 5→an ultimate objective. At first sight, it may seem that the intention is to use the cultural theories of Said, Spivak, Bhabha, and Foucault to criticize Conrad’s, to use Chinua Achebe’s phrase in his famous essay on Conrad, “bloody racism.” Yet, the survey of Said, for example, is by way of foregrounding a further distinction between Conrad and other late nineteenth-century imperial writers like Rudyard Kipling, Henry R. Haggard, Robert L. Stevenson, and the like. My firm conviction is that Conrad is undoubtedly a severe critic of imperialism.

Other than Achebe’s, one can confront no resistance in defining Conrad as an ironist who chooses an ambiguous style to voice his criticism of imperialism. True, the difficulty in reading his texts lies in the ways his strategies of concealment can be unveiled. But Conrad’s texts demand an effort on the reader’s side to unravel the multi-layered complexity of his narratives. The reader is invited to use his interpretative skills to face the daunting task of deciphering Conrad’s ambiguous style. Given the widely different contexts in which – and the backgrounds against which – Heart of Darkness was read justify the diverging interpretations that it continues to generate. Contrary to Achebe’s, and to some extent Said’s, rude dismissal of Conrad’s genius this book intends to pay tribute to Conrad. Although he chooses an ambiguous style, he is among the very few writers at the turn-of-the-century who decided to break silence and speak truth in the face of the Empire. With Conrad, it is important not to belittle the role of irony as a subversive strategy used to conceal the writer’s undermining of the Empire. One may question why Conrad chose irony instead of overt criticism. Nevertheless, one has also to put Conrad’s texts in their fin-de-siècle context, a period characterized by the prevalence and easy-acceptance of imperial ideology, and a writer who criticized such rooted tradition would have been too easily dismissed and his career aborted.


X, 236
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (March)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2021. X, 236 pp.

Biographical notes

Nabil Baazizi (Author)

Nabil Baazizi holds a PhD in English from the University of Paris Sorbonne Nouvelle. He has published papers in which he traces the literary genealogies of colonial and postcolonial narratives. His main area of research is the strategies of decolonizing fictions in Africa, India, and the Caribbean.


Title: The Problematics of Writing Back to the Imperial Centre
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