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Place is highly significant in literature since it is to a very significant extent, determinant of how all other aspects of a literary work are understood. Although it is usually considered a lesser element in comparison to say plot and characterization, place is of such significance in literature as to warrant more attention than it usually does.
In this paper, I will show that place is at least important as, if not more important than other literary aspects usually considered to be of more importance. The novel ‘Coming to Birth’ by Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye will serve as my reference towards the achievement of this purpose as I will attempt to show in this discussion.
Firstly though, it is important to conceptualize the term Place. There are two possible ways of understanding Place. The first is place as the fictional space where the action of a story takes place. At the same time, place may be approached from another perspective; that is without the text. In this case, the actual place that the author has been exposed to, and which serves to inspire fictional place, becomes essential.
I will begin with the concept of place as within the literary text, as the fictional space in which the action of a story takes place. Critical consideration of place in a work of art can never be divorced from time however, on the other hand, space cannot exist outside of time and vice versa. Whenever spacial context is alluded to therefore, its temporal aspect is, as a matter of necessity, implied.
In this paper therefore, any reference made to space should be understood to have automatically taken its temporal element into consideration. For this reason that engagement of both in equal measure poses the risk of shifting our focus from place to setting, more attention will definitely be paid to place than time.
As mentioned before, space colours the perception and comprehension of all other literal aspects since they exist in it. As such, we can see how space provides room for their interaction. The consumption and criticism of literature therefore is highly influenced by the space in which literary work was set.
Aspects such as characterization, thematic concerns, mood, plot are all dependent on space for their functioning as a harmonious whole. These elements will be considered one at a time in a bid to prove the centrality of place for objective criticism of the novel Coming to Birth which will serve as my reference for the achievement of this goal.
Background of the book Coming to Birth
Coming to Birth was published in Kenya in 1986. However, the events of the book captures actual historical events that had taken place even much earlier in Kenya and documents Luo’s cultural practices that are historical. It was written by Marjorie Oludhe MacGoye, an English woman who migrated to Kenya as a missionary bookseller, married D G W MacGoye, a Luo, and eventually settled permanently in Kenya.
The text has been chosen since it presents a literary work which can be considered to be the product of its author’s successful integration into a physical, cultural and economic context that is very different from her own. As we shall soon see in the discussion that follows, Oludhe has done great work on this book as far as the literal work are concerned, especially as it relates to the purpose of place which is our focus here.
Space is a great tool in helping authors bring out the traits they want to from their characters. ‘Coming to Birth’ revolves around Paulina, a village girl who goes to Nairobi to live with her young husband (Oludhe 12). She is introduced to us as naïve and unexposed. Macgoye then takes us through the next few decades of her life after she goes to Nairobi. It is what happens to Paulina that forms the plot of the story.
It has some aspects of a coming to age novel since it takes us through Paulina’s experiences which eventually see her mature and gain confidence in herself and her gender. Place has been utilized by Macgoye to show us the extent of Paulina’s growth. The novel opens with Martin, Paulina’s husband, going to the train station to meet Paulina when she travels to Nairobi from upcountry for the first time (Oludhe 27).
Mcgoye then uses Paullina’s newness to the city to highlight her naivety. She has been so unexposed that she cannot speak Kiswahili, Kenya’s Lingua Franca. In addition, she has great difficulties communicating with people who cannot speak DhoLuo, her mother tongue. On one point in time is when she gets lost after being discharged from hospital so early that Martin had not come yet to take her home (Oludhe 18).
In spite of her naivety, she however does begin to learn the ways of the city, albeit in a slow pace. She begins to learn Kiswahili (Oludhe 32) and even supplements her husband’s salary by crocheting (40). By the end of the novel, Paulina has changed from the girl described at the beginning of the novel which is obvious.
Again, Macgoye uses space here to foreground this growth in her protagonist. She is now living in a Kenyan Member of Parliament’s house and acting as their house keeper (Oludhe 95). By now, she is no longer the young unquestioning apolitical girl seen at the beginning of the novel and we can see how she pesters Martin to do something about the political detainment of Chelagat Mutai by the ruling autocratic regime.
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She has become so confident that she is even featured in the news for rescuing a small street boy from two other bigger ones who want to take his money by force in Nairobi’s streets. This is in spite of there being bystanders who are not willing to do anything about it. It is clear that Mcgoye has utilized space in this case to foreground Paulina’s growth as a character.
Plot is a sequential a string of events that have a causal relationship; the occurrence of one event of necessity leads to another occurrence of the next. This element of causality that characterizes plot is informed, to quite a significant extent, by place.
This is to say that if event A leads to the necessary occurrence of event B in contextual place I, it is not necessarily true that the exact same result would be achieved were Event A to occur in place of II. Many of Paulina’s decision can be interpreted this way.
She reacted to situations the way she did due to place. This could be attributed to a few other aspects that characterize place. These are the cultural, economic and social setup of the said setting. For instance, she is verbally and physically abused by her husband Martin when she first comes to Nairobi. He seems to blame her for her inability to carry pregnancies to term.
Paulina’s takes this abuse in silence. This is due to her upbringing as a Luo in Western Kenya where Luo patriarchal cultural practices are the norm. Place however does change her. Again due to place, her exposure to independent women does enable her to overcome these cultural hang-ups.
Again due to place, Paulina ends up changing form her apolitical nature to a woman who is not only informed about the goings-on in their country but one who is also engaged with these issues at a very intimate level. Paulina used not to give much of her attention to politics; that is until she has a son. At one point during the story, we see her and her son stand by the roadside to watch Mboya’s funeral procession.
This event captures a true moment in Kenya history since Mboya was an actual politician who had been a popular prominent Luo leader who had been assassinated by the regime in power under what still remains an unclear circumstance. By being at that particular place and at that particular time, Paulina loses her son when he is hit by a stray bullet fired by the police when a scuffle ensues.
This event goes a long way in having Paulina interrogate the actions and decisions of government, and as it later turns out this is one of the major turning point for Paulina during her life. Primarily because of place, Paulina goes through such a painful experience that it changes her completely. This turns out to be a very significant turning point in the novels’ plot as well.
Plot can also be said to be partly, if not wholly, the result of ten actions of the characters in a story. Viewed this way, plot becomes a function of characterization.
That is to say that a character’s given decision and its necessary subsequent outcome are dependent on that character’s psychological makeup and emotional state of being at the time that the decision is made. These two on the other hand, particularly the character’s psychological make up, do depend on space most of the time.
It is the second characterization based view that probably best fits Macgoye’s plot development. The plot of ‘Coming to Birth’ moves along, like mentioned before, with the development of Paulina from a naïve unquestioning girl, newly come to Nairobi who is then transformed to a confident, sensitive and informed woman. The realization of this growth is hinged upon the diverse spaces that Macgoye exposes her to.
This journey of growth begins with her first trip to a Nairobi slum characterized by filthy drains and small congested shacks which makes for living quarters.
Had Paulina been exposed to different places, she definitely would not have turned out as she did at the end of the novel. Macgoye therefore crafts apt places to put Paulina in order for her to grow into the woman that she did, shaped by the circumstances and places that she is placed by the story’s plot.
Place also is a great tool when the author wants to elicit particular emotions from the reader. Through description of place, the author is able to create apt mood and atmosphere in the text.
Marjorie attempts to achieve this by capturing the feelings of the reader by describing the awful condition in which this couple lives, if one would actually have any help to offer, he or she would do it without hesitation as this description elicits sympathy from the readers. As time goes by, Paullina starts attending classes where she finds a different class of people.
The environment challenges her to an extent of wanting to know how to read and write, of which she manages with time. This marks an outstanding turning point in her life as she is now armed at least in facing the world and making a living out of it. With education, she becomes a respected woman; in fact, we can argue that she becomes very assertive which makes her bold enough to demand divorce from Martin.
Now, a woman who could not feed herself becomes well up to a point of being a breadwinner in her family as well as Martins family in the upcountry. This clearly brings out the theme of change and shows how education has empowered her as she actually decides to leaves her to Mr. and Mrs. M in the modern estate.
Marjorie also uses different places to bring out her world view. Marjorie uses place to show how events change with time. The novel starts by depicting the lives of Africans during colonial period and moves on sequentially to the postcolonial era. At the start, we see how the colonial regime erected curfews that restricted people from moving at night as way of oppressing political dissidents.
This was witnessed mostly in towns, especially in slum areas where we see our main character residing at one point in time. Thus, place brings out the theme of fear and insecurity. The small group that is allowed to move at night has to speak loudly so that police officers may hear what they say. Operational anvil that denies people their freedoms characterizes the period.
Mrs. M is more learned compared to Paullina because she is a nurse and her husband is a Member of Parliament; Mr. M has cash that he uses during campaigns to earn votes from citizens. The writer uses place to bring out the theme of contrast. This comes out when the life of Mr. M is compared to that of Martin and Paullina. Martin could not afford even his own fare when he went to pick Paullina at the bus station.
Mr. M can feed a whole congregation. In this environment, Paullina is portrayed as someone who knows politics because she could encourage women to fight for their rights. Marjorie tries to bring out the theme of politics and the subject of corruption.
She elucidates that politics and corruption are tied in the third world. Mr. M responds to the wishes of citizens during campaigns but immediately forgets their interests after he is elected. He is no longer therefore serving the interests of the citizens because he is in power.
Marjorie tries to capture the feelings of the reader by describing the awful condition in which this couple lives, if one would actually have any help to offer, he or she would do it without hesitation. As we previously saw, Paullina starts attending classes where she finds a different class of people. An author’s thematic concerns are very much influenced by place.
Thus, an author brings to the fore, themes that he has come across in the place that one lives in. Macgoye was born in Britain but she immigrated to Kenya while working with the Church Missionary Society. She however got married in Kenya and finally decided to settle there permanently.
Eventually, she came to so well understand the cultural practices of the Luo amongst whom she settled and lived amongst for decades that she ended writing the novel almost as an insider; one born and brought up in the Luo cultural context.
Indeed, the effect of her having lived in Kenya is clearly seen in the thematic concerns of her novel; in fact, her major concern and themes in the book ‘Coming to Birth’ is gender issues.
She is able to foreground the problems that African, in general, and Luo, in particular, has to go through simply because of their gender. Important to note also is that this is in the post independent African state when illiteracy was high and the patriarchal cultural practices of the Luo were yet to be significantly eroded by western ideals of gender equality.
Had the book been set in a different place, say West Africa, the portrayal of themes, be they similar to those from Kenya, would definitely have been different. She also tackles the politics of post independent African states and the intolerant and autocratic nature of the regimes that took over from the colonial governments.
They are characterized by assassinations, for instance those of Tom Mboya and J M Kariuki, as well as illegal political detentions like the one Chelagat Mutia had to endure. The development of Paulina as a character is juxtaposed with the political development of the young Kenyan state. In many ways, Kenya at independent is so much like young Paulina.
Its evolvement towards becoming a free and democratic society is slow, steady but sure. However, in light of Paulina’s eventual, maturity into a graceful and confident woman, the reader is left hopeful for better days to come in Kenya’s political climate even though the plot of the story deliberately leaves this to be the suspense of the plot.
In conclusion we can affirm that Oludhe has indeed used key literary approaches, and particularly place which has been our focus as we have seen throughout this discussion. In retrospect, it is clear that place should be given a lot more significance in literature appreciation and criticism than is happening right now.
It has been clearly shown that place affects works of literature right from before they were created to their affective reception by their readership.
While it is clear that place is of more significance in some works than in others, they all share in the fact that it should never be overlooked or even undermined by either consumers of literature or its critics. It should never be relegated to the background as it has currently been the case. It forms a lot more than background. It is the arena on which the action of a story takes place.
Oludhe, Marjorie. Coming to Birth: Women writing Africa series. Nairobi: Feminist Press, 2000. Print.