Opinion – Intertextuality and Modern Works of Literature
My exposure to Literary Theory and Criticism as a major course in my field of study at the university has given me some clarity and higher understanding of modern literary works. This course has taught me to look at literature from a completely different perspective; that a work of art cannot be understood in isolation. I first had a glimpse of understanding of this assertion when I came across different arguments of intertextuality which shall be the basis of my arguments on this article.
But first, somebody may ask what intertextuality means and what it entails. I shall adequately make you understand the concept, or perhaps just introduce the theory of intertextuality and afford you the opportunity to make sense out of my arguments in this piece.
It was the French linguist, Julia Kristeva who expounded the theory of intertextuality even though the term now has been given different meanings and contexts. In her theory, she defined intertextuality as a literal and effective presence of a text in another text. When we analyze this assertion in its context, what Kristeva is arguing here is that no work of literature exists out of a vacuum; that every literary work is either a response to another literary text or a continuation of another text. At some points, intertextuality also entails the differences and similarities in different texts by different authors.
Julia Kristeva is in line with the structuralist theory which is also inclined to the belief that no literary text is independently created out of a vacuum. What a person writes simply is a response to what another person has already written or a continuation of a particular literary text.
I would have doubted this assertion if I weren’t introduced to the theory of intertextuality because the first thought that would engulf any writer when he first reads the concept of intertextuality is that this particular theory is degrading the value of the author. You cannot imagine taking the trouble to write a particular work of literature and a theory is claiming that what you have written is inspired by another person’s write up. Is this theory particularly claiming that modern writers are plagiarizing what early writers have written about? Obviously not. It would be a misinterpretation of the context of intertextuality if one comes to that conclusion.
We know that the basic definition of plagiarism is taking another person’s work as if it is your own. This is very different from what intertextuality entails altogether. You can very well write a story that hasn’t been written by another person; but such a story would have its inspiration from another literary text to which it is serving as a response or simply a continuation of an earlier written text. Therefore, the basic concept is that you cannot claim your work of literature to come out of a vacuum. This is one of the major arguments of structuralism which is equally in line with Kristeva’s assertion and theory of intertextuality.
I intend to make references to certain books to show the intertextual relation and how the stories complement each other. Starting with a trilogy authored by one of the most prolific writers in the history of the Gambia, Baaba Sillah, we can see how Mr. Sillah made use of the theory of intertextuality in all his three books namely ‘When the Monkey Talks’, ‘Dabala Gi’, and ‘Dreams of the Island’. This trilogy is practically the same story with similar themes and they complement each other.
From an intertextual or structuralist point of view, we would conclude that Sillah’s ‘Dabala Gi’ wasn’t created out of a vacuum. It was merely a continuation of Sillah’s earlier story which is ‘When the Monkey Talks’. As a result, an intertextual relationship is manifested in these works of literature. Therefore, you cannot understand ‘Dabala Gi’ without reading ‘When the Monkey Talks’ first because the latter is the beginning of the story while the former was just a continuation of the same story.
Similarly, you cannot also understand ‘Dreams of the Island’ adequately without reading ‘Dabala Gi‘ first because the former in this case is a continuation of the latter. So in essence, each of the stories has derived their inspirations from another text – this is what the theory of intertextuality argues. In this case, Baaba Sillah cannot claim that either ‘Dalaba Gi’ or Dreams of the Island’ exists out of a vacuum. At this point, let us once again reflect on Kristeva’s definition of intertextuality – a literal and effective presence of a text in another text. This is clearly manifested in Baaba Sillah’s trilogy since the literal presence of ‘When the Monkey Talks’ is seen in ‘Dabala Gi’ as well as in ‘Dreams of the Island’.
This is the same case with the trilogy I am currently working on in the titles of ‘The Age of Regression’, ‘A Blinding Light’, and ‘Dawn of a New Age’. The intertextual relation in these texts is almost the same with the intertextual relation with Sillah’s trilogy. In my trilogy, ‘The Age of Regression’ is the beginning of the story; ‘A Blinding Light’ is a continuation. For you to understand ‘A Blinding Light’, you must first read ‘The Age of Regression’. Similarly, you cannot understand ‘Dawn of a New Age’ without first reading ‘The Age of Regression’, then ‘A Blinding Light’, and then ‘Dawn of a New Age’.
Basically, the intertextual relation in the two examples I have given is that of continuation. Now, let us see intertextuality in terms of response to a text by two different authors. In 1902, a Polish-British writer in the person of Joseph Conrad published a book he titled ‘Heart of Darkness’ in which he portrayed Africa as a dark continent devoid of culture and civilization. He described Africa as a ‘cultureless’ continent, primitive, and socially backward. So in 1959, Chinua Achebe published his most celebrated novel ‘Things Fall Apart’ as a response to Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’. Achebe argued that before the Europeans came to Africa, we had our own cultures, religions and languages; that it was in fact the white man who stripped Africans of their much-respected cultures and values. They came to Africa and demeaned our cultures and religion; introduced their own religion and fooled the unsuspecting African at the time.
Chinua Achebe in his debut ‘Things Fall Apart’, portrayed the real Africa that the white men failed to see. The beauty of the African culture; the peacefulness of Africans (remember The Week of Peace in Things Fall Apart). You must read and understand Things Fall Apart in order to understand my point here. He also portrayed that before the coming of the white men, Africans had their own form of education completely different from western education, and that Africans used this form of education to impart cultures, values, and morals in the younger generation.
He further argued that Africans had their own leaders who steered the affairs of the people (remember the likes of Okonkwo, Oberikeh and other elders of Umofia in ‘Things Fall Apart’). Joseph Conrad and many other white writers claimed that Africa was socially disorganized, but Chinua Achebe responded by arguing that we had our elders who steered our affairs, settled disputes, and made unbiased judgments between people. This is the beauty of intertextuality for Africans. It afforded them the opportunity to respond to the afro-pessimists who tried to mock Africans and their cultures. The objective of this response was to show the white men that it was them who came to Africa and corrupted the continent. And when they succeeded in corrupting the minds of the unsuspecting Africans, things started falling apart in Africa.
We can see the intertextual relation between Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ and Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart’. Both intertextuality and structuralism would argue that Things Fall Apart was not created out of a vacuum; that it was a response to the white men’s description of Africa and its people. Even though these two books were written by completely different authors with different literary orientation, that textual relationship is manifested in both of their books.
Also, another important component of intertextuality is the retelling of stories, plays etc. When you talk about intertextuality in relation to plays, a notable example that comes to mind is the relationship between ‘Oedipus the King’ by Sophocles and ‘The Gods Are Not to Blame’ by Ola Rotimi. ‘The Gods Are Not to Blame’ is a retelling or adoption of ‘Oedipus the King‘ which is the original story, in which a child is fated to kill his own father and marry his own mother.
In this case, there’s a sense of deviation from the norm which is either a response or a continuation, but notwithstanding, the similarities and differences in the two texts do exist. Intertextuality here is neither a response nor a continuation, but a retelling of the same story, so that each book can be understood without the other. A reader can understand ‘The Gods Are Not to blame’ without reading ‘Oedipus the King’, but that doesn’t mean the former was created out of a vacuum. If anything, it is merely a retelling of the original text by the Greek playwright, and thus there’s absence of originality and uniqueness in Ola Rotimi’s ‘The Gods Are Not to Blame’.
I have mentioned in the beginning that intertextuality does not just focus only on the response or continuation of texts, but also explores the similarities in different texts by different authors. The intertextual relation in such a case would mainly focus on the major themes reflected in given literary texts – this is called co-thematic texts. For instance, when you read Dayo Foster’s ‘Reading The Ceiling’ and Ramatoulie Kinteh’s ‘Rebellion’, you would realize that the central theme of these books is that of women empowerment – giving women the right to make decisions, campaigning for the emancipation of women etc. So here, the intertextual relation between these texts is the central theme that is reflected in both texts – women empowerment.
Similarly, reading Nana Grey-Johnson’s ‘I of Ebony’ and Alex Haley’s ‘Roots’ will make you understand that the central theme of each of these books is slavery. As a result, there is that co-thematic relationship between the two books and thus intertextuality in terms of similarities is manifested. This co-thematic relationship between books can happen in different ways. It can happen by writers reading each other’s literary works, or it can also happen coincidentally. Whatever the case may be, co-thematic relationship is rampant in different texts by different writers, some even unconscious of this reality.
I have done some research in my quest to finding out a co-thematic relationship between my book ‘Sins of a Father’ and another literary work. I have read several books all of which have betrayal as a major theme and I will cite one or two examples. To start with, there’s a co-thematic relationship between ‘Sins of a Father’ and Wuyeh Drammeh’s ‘This Way from America’, since both books displays the theme of betrayal as a central theme. Talking about betrayal in ‘Sins of a Father’, the attitude of Keekotoo comes to mind – how he betrayed the trust of his wife by impregnating another woman, how he divorced his first wife for having a clash with second. Betrayal in my book resides around Keekotoo’s treatment of his first wife. In ‘This Way from America’ by Wuyeh Drammeh, talking about betrayal will take your mind back to Taph the taxi driver, who lived in the US and built a mansion in the Gambia under the supervision of his brother. Taph later lost this house when his brother decided to cling on what rightfully belongs to Taph. So here, even though the circumstances are different in these two texts, the basic theme both books explore here is that of betrayal and its ramifications. You cannot imagine a ‘samester’ from US coming to the Gambia to be a taxi driver. This happened as a result of betrayal from a trusted fellow.
Furthermore, intertextuality equally looks at the relationship between the author and the society. It’s common knowledge that every literary text is inspired by situations and circumstances, and the society plays a very important role in inspiring a writer to write about contemporary societal defects. If you ask Wuyeh Drammeh what inspired him to write ‘This Way from America’, he would tell you that certain societal problems and indiscipline compelled him to come up with such a work of literature. Similarly, if you ask me what inspired me to write ‘Sins of a Father’, I would tell you the same thing – that how my society treats women does not go down well with me.
So basically, the society has a great influence on what we write. That is why it would be very awkward to write about a place that you have never been to, or writing about a society that is alien to your consciousness. What you write is typically a reflection of your reading or experience and as a result, you cannot write about a particular culture that you are not familiar with. So as far as intertextuality is concerned, society influences a great deal of writers. For instance, if you ask me about society’s influence in relation to ‘Sins of a father’, one argument I can bring is the fact that divorce is becoming very rampant in our societies. And we are witnessing this almost every day in our various communities, and sometimes, it’s not the fault of the women. This argument can be supported by the issue between Keekotoo and his first wife in ‘Sins of a Father’, where all the blame will be directed to Keekoto.
Literally, it would be impossible to exhaust the intertextual relation between different literary texts. By now, I hope you are also convinced that no literary texts exist out of a vacuum – that every work of literature has its inspiration from somewhere. Aside from the examples I have given here, there are thousands of book that have textual relationships. It would not be possible to bring all of them but at least from the examples given, you can see the point that Kristeva was trying to make.
So in conclusion, no text is an island. A particular work of literature would have to come from another work of literature. This is a major significance of reading for writers of today’s generation, because as far as writing is concerned, themes are exhausted. There is no theme you can write about which early writers have not already written about. As a result, the only thing you can do is to read other people’s stories and then create your own. This is what writers have been doing over the years and this resulted to co-thematic relationships between different literary materials. When you read a particular text and draw your inspiration to write your own, there must be some similarities between the text you read and the one you are going to write. And when that happens, then intertextuality will be manifested. This is why it would be correct to say that modern works of literature cannot be understood in isolation; there must be a connection between modern texts and their sources of inspiration.
Ismaila Saidybah is a final year student at the University of the Gambia, reading English language and Development Studies. He is a writer and an established author. His first novel was launch in January 2020.