Bowdoin Reads

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Sozaboy: A Novel in Rotten English
by Ken Saro-Wiwa

I’ve always enjoyed reading novels written in a powerful voice and in an unfamiliar version of English. For example, many characters in Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies speak a hybrid of South Asian languages and English; some characters also use the lingo of sailors and opium traders. The world Ghosh writes about becomes wonderfully fresh and alive as a result. Adam Thorpe’s Ulverton is written in a series of chapters set in different time periods, and each uses different versions of English, some of which are in local laboring dialect. You begin to realize that people in different situations see the world differently – in part because the very language they speak or write is different, too. These books stretch your sense of the world, as if you’re reading something partly in a different language while still staying in English.

Sozaboy is an especially powerful novel in this vein. Written by Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was eventually executed for his activities in dissent from misgovernment in Nigeria, it relies on what the author calls “rotten English,” a mixture of Nigerian pidgin English and broken English: “sozaboy,” for example, is the novel’s term for “soldier boy.” The novel is written in the voice of a young man, an apprentice driver, who has very little education and is easily influenced by others. When the Biafran civil war breaks out, he – like most others in his village – has almost no idea what is going on, but he signs up to join the military force in his region because he feels it would make him more of a man, more appealing to his fiancee. He is not at all prepared for war, and his experiences quickly shatter his expectations. But because he is so naïve and unfiltered in his responses, he conveys the devastating effect of all that he witnesses with unusual power. His simplicity paradoxically makes it easier for the reader to grasp Saro-Wiwa’s wide-ranging critique of Nigerian society. The “rotten English” protects an American reader somewhat from the horrors Sozaboy witnesses, yet at the same time vividly captures something rotten, too. You end up being moved on many levels at once. This is surely one of the masterworks of African fiction – and indeed of modern writing in English.

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