Essay ~ The Epistolary as an instrument of Postcolonial Discourse in Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s In Dependence ~ Paul Liam


This analysis is primarily concerned with the utilization of the epistolary element as an instrument of postcolonial discourse by Sarah Ladipo Manyika in In Depence, and is based on the special edition of the novel published by Cassava Republic Press in 2016. This writer asserts that the novel in itself is not an Epistolary, but it deploys the epistolary technique in x-raying postcolonial themes with a special reflection on the realities that confronts post independent nations, located within the era of military rule in Nigeria. Besides the epistolary technique, the novel uses the third person point of view narrative technique in telling a story that is both didactic yet refreshingly creative. There are twelve epistolary exchanges in the novel, most them being the exchanges between Tayo and Vanessa, the central characters around whom the plot revolves.  

Manyika was raised in Nigeria, has lived in Kenya, France and England. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, and teaches literature at San Francisco State University. Manyika belongs to the generation of Nigerians whose experiences were shaped by military regimes, thus, it is safe to say that the novel is a dramatization of the political tensions of that period, set within a complicated historical context. The author uses the emotional angle of love to subtly explore racial tension, and to hint at the bigger question of a common humanity in an unequaled world.

The epistolary style as used by Manyika provides an escape for the narrator, especially in complicated situations in the narration. This use of the epistolary technique is escapist in nature; it is a means of conveying messages that the speakers would ordinarily find difficult to express openly. But of course, this is the fulcrum of epistolary writing in general, it allows for the expression of the things that would not have been said. The novel also employs the third person point of view technique; however, there is a constant switch to the epistolary style when political conversations such as racism or the exploitative consequence of colonialism of third world countries foregrounds in the text. The author-narrator does not want to be seen openly discussing the politico cultural realities, even the characters find it difficult to discuss the reality of their social-cultural complex so they resort to letter writing to enable them express their truest emotions uninhibited. Manyika cleverly escapes the risk of reducing her novel to a political commentary by adopting the epistolary technique.  The English novelist, Willkie Collins employed a similar style in his novel, The Woman in White. Just as in Manyika’s work, critical and confidential messages are discussed via correspondence among the major characters in Collins’ novel. At some point in Collins’ novel, the ‘letter’ becomes endangered so much that letters are hunted, intercepted and confiscated because of their potency to convey damaging information about the characters living in the same house. In this kind of technique, the narrator’s consciousness gives way to the consciousness of the letter. The letter becomes so important in the scheme of things within the text that the reader begins to look out for the next letter. The letter becomes a voice, an independent voice that discusses the things that would normally not be discussed openly. Vanessa, at some point in the course of the novel begs Tayo to write her more letters while insisting that he should be blunt and informal. For Vanessa, the letter becomes a channel of emotional connection with Tayo, hence her longing for more letters.

One of the remarkable examples of the epistolary style on the African continent is Mariama Ba’s So Long a Letter. In Ba’s novel, the letter is also employed as a means of escape from a patriarchal society that disempowered women by conditioning them to the caprices of men. Ramatoulaye’s letter to her friend Aissatou bears the heavy burden women underwent in traditional societies.  The letter, in Ba’s novel becomes an enabler for the appropriation of a feminist agenda in an oppressive patriarchal configuration. Through the instrument of the letter, the women are able to discuss their lives, away from the big brother eyes of the society. Being both post-colonial novels, there is a slight difference between Ba’s and Manyika’s forms of epistolary styles. While Ba’s is a complete letter in its form and does not make use of an external narrator, Manyika’s on the other hand only uses the style in complementary straight narrative technique.

In Manyika’s novel, there is the presence of an external narrator who isn’t involved in the construction of the letters, but moderates between the narration itself and the sub narration in the letters. Thus, Manyika’s characters become sub-narrators within the body of a larger narration.

Manyika, using the epistolary technique revisits the discourse of colonialism, racism, love, intercultural marriage, politics and the dilemmatics of third world countries. In the text, Nigerian is portrayed as a metaphor of the instability faced by many third world countries: leadership failure, corruption, dictatorship, ethno-religious conflicts, civil war and the general ineptness to self-govern themselves as independent societies. Colonialism left many of their colonies in a perpetual state of imbalance and a deformed psychological sense of self, hence the continuous dependence on foreign expert knowledge which further entrenches neocolonialism. Through Manyika’s eyes one is able to see the perpetuity of the dependence of the colonized peoples of the world on their former colonial masters. Perhaps, more instructive of Manyika’s many layers of meanings is the projection of an unattainable utopia occasioned by a warped consciousness that value its colonial past than it recognizes its own future.

In Tayo’s letter to his father from Oxford, England, he berates the English culture of individuality, by comparing it with his Nigerian culture of communalism. Tayo, in fostering Manyika’s utopian projection, experiences a culture shock which leaves him questioning prior knowledge of the white people he had encountered back in Nigeria. He realizes that the whites are not after all the united tribe that he had thought them to be. A new consciousness overwhelms him. He recounts his discovery to his father thus:
I have come to the conclusion that because the English are a minority in Nigeria, they are obliged to be cordial in our country, whereas their true temperament is somewhat cold, much like their weather. You will also be surprised to discover that in this country, people do not greet each other in passing, not even Balliol men. (5)
In the same vein, his father writes him back informing him of the changes taking place back home in Nigeria, ‘Rumour has it that a Nigerian will soon replace our Chief of Police, and we hope so. God willing. And yet some white men are still thinking they own our land, not acknowledging it is a new Nigeria.’ (7) The possibility of the emergence of an indigenous Chief of Police is thus regarded as positive sign of true independence and a new hope for the country.

It is in this new Nigeria that Tayo would later fight military dictatorship and suffer persecution. Vanessa’s letter to Jane, highlights the whites’ racist inclination towards Africans and other races. Though, Vanessa is greatly disturbed by the division amongst human beings on the account of the colour of their skin. In the letter, she explains to Jane, her new experiences and her membership of an anti-racism society. She writes, ‘I’ve signed up for the Labour Club, JACARI (Joint Action Committee Against Racial Inequality), and the college music society.’ (13) Vanessa is also a student of Oxford, like Tayo, and she is the daughter of a former colonial master and an unapologetic racist. Vanessa is Manyika’s imagined utopia for attaining equality and inclusive society.

Tayo’s life in England represents the experiences of other Africans, who haven found themselves in Europe for studies through colonial benevolence, encounter a difficult reality that further affect their perception of their place in the world. Tayo’s eventual friendship with Vanessa sets the stage for a cross-cultural relationship, an obvious abomination to her family. In the relationship between Tayo and Vanessa, Tayo represents Africa, as the naïve and receptive lover who is gratified by the whites’ acknowledgement of him. Vanessa on the other hand comes off as the rare case of European generosity and patronage towards Africa. She is mortified by the ills committed by her forebears and thinks she can undo it by her relationship with Africa through her friendship with Tayo and membership of the anti-racist group in her school.

By dating Tayo, she is seen as privileging him by other white people in the text. Tayo too is aware of his place in a society hinged on a skin agenda, where he is considered to be the other, unwanted by the majority: ‘Miss Richardson is a student at Oxford who is interested in Africa and has invited a group of us to her grandparents’ home for the Christmas celebrations’ (29). He writes to his father about Vanessa. It is certainly a befitting introduction of Vanessa, considering that Africa has always been nothing more than a place of interest, a specimen for zoological research and economic exploration to the white man. Vanessa’s fascination with Africa is not only found in her attraction to Tayo, but also in her love for African arts and literature; she is always eager to create opportunities for an objective discussion of the continent and attempts too to draw a certain parallelism between Africa and Europe.

In many ways, Manyika creates a basis for self-evaluation in the reader’s mind. Her handling of postcolonial themes is done with such sublimity that leaves one wondering what her true intentions are. To accentuate the postcolonial agenda of the text, Vanessa in another letter to Tayo, uses Chinua Achebe’s works as metaphor for the dissection of fundamental challenges reminiscent of most colonized nations.
I only wish that his stories were not so tragic, but perhaps the tragedy highlights the dilemmas of post-independence, which brings me to your Perham review.” She says and further comments “I feel so flattered that you sent it to me and asked for my opinion. What do I think? I think it’s fab! I don’t have more to add except that reading Achebe made me wonder whether it might be worth mentioning somewhere in the piece that Africans themselves are sensitive to the difficulties inherent in the new post-colonial world. (48)
Manyika x-rays the universality of the misfortunes of immigrants of third world countries living in the West, when Tayo writes Vanessa again, telling her about inhuman conditions in which he and other immigrant workers are subjected to in a bread factory. He writes, ‘The least strenuous job of all, which is packing the goods and loading them onto the dispatch trucks, is reserved for the English. So that’s the pecking order: Pakistanis and Indians on the bottom, Africans in the middle, and English on top.’ (50) Pakistan and India are part of the third countries and also former colonies of the British Empire; their inclusion in this context in the narration buttresses the fact that the post-independence affliction is not peculiar to Africans.

In conclusion, there is no doubt that Manyika set out to write a work that would highlight the developmental challenges faced by post independent nations of the world. Nigeria is one of the examples of the failed colonial legacy, having been unable to figure out a workable path for her own development more than fifty years post independence. The postcolonial themes as explored by Manyika serve to remind us of the imbalances in the world, and draws attention to the need for rethinking a better future for humanity and for Nigeria in particular. Manyika’s clever use of the epistolary is remarkable and instructive. Nigeria must reassess itself in order to attain its full potentials as a nation.   

Works cited
Ba, Mariama (1981). So Long A Letter. Senegal: Heineman
Collins, Wilkie (1859). The Woman in White. USA edition (1860): Harper’s Weekly
Manyika, Sarah Ladipo (2016). In Dependence, Lagos: Cassava Republic Press

Paul Liam is a Nigerian poet, writer and literary critic. He is an Associate Editor at The Arts-Muse Fair.