Poetry and Emotion 

Once Upon A Time by Gabriel Okara, a Nigerian Poet

You Laughed And Laughed And Laughed    by Gabriel Okara   

The problem with and perhaps a need for translations

This is a photograph of me     Margaret Atwood (1966)


Once Upon a Time
                                       By GABRIEL OKARA
  a Nigerian Poet

Once upon a time, son,
they used to laugh with their hearts
and laugh with their eyes:
but now they only laugh with their teeth,
while their ice-block-cold eyes
search behind my shadow. 

There was a time indeed
they used to shake hands with their hearts:
but that’s gone, son.
Now they shake hands without hearts:
while their left hands search
my empty pockets. 

‘Feel at home’! ‘Come again’:
they say, and when I come
again and feel
at home, once, twice,
there will be no thrice –
for then I find doors shut on me. 

So I have learned many things, son.
I have learned to wear many faces
like dresses – homeface,
officeface, streetface, hostface,
cocktailface, with all their conforming smiles
like a fixed portrait smile.
And I have learned too
to laugh with only my teeth
and shake hands without my heart.
I have also learned to say, ‘Goodbye’,
when I mean ‘Good-riddance’;
to say ‘Glad to meet you’,
without being glad; and to say ‘It’s been
nice talking to you’, after being bored. 

But believe me, son.
I want to be what I used to be
when I was like you. I want
to unlearn all these muting things.
Most of all, I want to relearn
how to laugh, for my laugh in the mirror
shows only my teeth like a snake’s bare fangs! 

So show me, son,
how to laugh; show me how
I used to laugh and smile
once upon a time when I was like you. 




You laughed And Laughed And Laughed

                                        by Gabriel Okara


In your ears my song

is motor car misfiring

stopping with a choking cough;

and you laughed and laughed and laughed.


In your eyes my ante-

natal walk was inhuman, passing

your ‘omnivorous understanding’

and you laughed and laughed and laughed


You laughed at my song,

you laughed at my walk.

Then I danced my magic dance

to the rhythm of talking drums pleading, but

 you shut your eyes and laughed and

 laughed and laughed


And then I opened my mystic

inside wide like the sky,

instead you entered your

car and laughed and laughed and laughed


You laughed at my dance,

you laughed at my inside.

You laughed and laughed and laughed.


But your laughter was ice-block

laughter and it froze your inside froze

your voice froze your ears

froze your eyes and froze your tongue.


And now it’s my turn to laugh;

but my laughter is not

ice-block laughter. For I

know not cars, know not ice-blocks.

My laughter is the fire

of the eye of the sky, the fire

of the earth, the fire of the air,

the fie of the seas and the

rivers fishes animals trees

and it thawed your inside,

thawed your voice, thawed your

ears, thawed your eyes and

thawed your tongue.


So a meek wonder held

your shadow and you whispered;

‘Why so?’

And I answered:

‘Because my fathers and I

are owned by the living

warmth of the earth

through our naked feet.’


The problem with and perhaps a need for translations

Gabriel Okara has tied theoretical reflection to the linguistic problem that confronts the African novelist in the practice of writing. In his essay "African Speech ... English Words," Okara explains:

As a writer who believes in the utilisation of African ideas, African philosophy and African folk-lore and imagery to the fullest extent possible, I am of the opinion the only way to use them effectively is to translate them almost literally from the African language native to the writer into whatever European language he is using as his medium of expression. I have endeavoured in my works to keep as close as possible to the vernacular expressions. For, from a word, a group of words, a sentence and even a name in any African language, one can glean the social norms, attitudes and values of a people. In order to capture the vivid images of African speech, I had to eschew the habit of expressing my thoughts first in English. It was difficult at first, but I had to learn. I had to study each Ijaw expression I used and to discover the probable situation in which it was used in order to bring out the nearest meaning in English. I found it a fascinating exercise. (15)

Okara's remarks are clear. If one wants to benefit from African culture, if one wants to express the African imagination, one cannot put aside the African language in favor of an academic European language. Okara has tried systematically to adapt the European language to the African reality. More than Nazi Boni, he has tried an almost literal translation of his language into English and the result of this "fascinating exercise" can be seen in his novel The Voice. One need not understand Ijo, Okara's native language to understand that in this novel the mother tongue influences and disrupts the English language. What Okara has done in this novel is to let the Ijo tongue speak in the English language, as is evident from the following passage:

Shuffling feet turned Okolo's head to the door. He saw three men standing silent, opening not their mouths. "Who are you people be?" Okolo asked. The people opened not their mouths. "If you are coming-in people be, then come in." (26)

In the main, The Voice is written in this way. Of course, there are passages where standard English is written. However, when Okara makes his characters speak or think, he pushes them to literally translate their language. Contrary to the example of Nazi Boni, Okara's writing is a conscious attempt to use the words and expressions in the way he has chosen to use them. According to Chantal Zabus, Okara's syntax creates "a counter-value system which jeopardizes the English logocentric relation between word and referent, between signifier and signified" (125). In other words, in attacking and deconstructing the syntax of English through the translation of Ijo, Okara seeks to free the African text from its foreign domination.

Source: Kwaku A. Gyasi; 07-15-1999

Writing as Translation: African Literature and the Challenges of Translation


                                                        This is a photograph of me      Margaret Atwood (1966)






Surfacing by Mark Tansey


The collection The Circle Game opens with This Is a Photograph of Me, which describes the landscape surrounding the lake in which the heroine has recently drowned. In Atwood's wry directions to the viewer lies her admission of the long and difficult process that surfacing is to be. First one must realize the need to surface. Identity comes after that, and full definition much later . . .

Atwood does not dwell on location, physical presence, or details of place. Her search is instead a piercing interior exploration, driving through any personal self-consciousness into regions marked by primitive responses both violent and beautiful.

Critic: Linda W. Wagner

Source: The Art of Margaret Atwood: Essays in Criticism, edited by Arnold E. Davidson and Cathy N. Davidson, Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 1981, pp. 81–94.

A novel by Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale, contains a similar theme of the buried consciousness. The protagonist’s resurfacing hinges on the possibility of the "other" seeing her. It is as critic Lois Feuer writes, " . . . a reconstruction of a reconstruction, . . . a rebuilding of a self all but obliterated by the pain of her experience and the necessity of forgetting in order to survive. She must create, or recreate, herself after having been "erased" as a person. When Serena Joy briefly shows her a photograph of her lost daughter, Offred cannot bear to have been erased from her child's memory: "I have been obliterated for her. I am only a shadow now, far back behind the glib shiny surface of this photograph. A shadow of a shadow, as dead mothers become. You can see it in her eyes. I am not there" (296).

Feuer, Lois, The calculus of love and nightmare: 'The Handmaid's Tale' and the dystopian tradition.(Women Writers: Margaret Atwood, A.S. Byatt, Rosellen Brown, Lee Smith, Wanda Tinasky). Vol. 38, Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, 01-01-1997, pp 83(13).