May 14, 2008

How To Use Allusions

One of the questions that I am asked by my students in creative writing workshops is "How do I use allusions in my work?" The first thing that I try to explain is that the use of allusions is not confined to literary work--they are parts of language and life and extensions of our linguistic imagination. Eavesdrop on any conversation (this is what writers do) on any street corner anywhere in Jamaica, and you will hear people making all kinds of allusions to the Bible, proverbs, and folktales. Sometimes they even spice up their storytelling with metaphors when they are telling jokes with sexual content. Songs such as "Ketchy Shuby" by Peter Tosh and "Stir it up" by Bob Marley are not just about children's games and cooking. In other words, allusions like any other literary device such as symbolism grow organically out of language and the writer uses these devices to heighten the effect of the work.

Most writers use allusions when they realize the similarity in theme or tone between the poem, short story, or novel that they are working on with another writer's work within a literary tradition. For example, the wandering of Leopold Bloom through the streets of Dublin in Ulysses by James Joyce is a direct allusion to the wandering of Ulysses in Homer's Odyssey. Several episodes such as Nausicaa and Calypso have given literary scholars enough material to keep them "busy for three hundred years."

In my own work as I was going through the pre-writing of the novel, Benjamin, my son, I realized that both my personal situation and the subject of my work mirrored that of Dante Alighieri. At the time of composition, I realized several parallels between my life and Dante's: we were in the "middle of life's journey" and because of the war between the "Whites" and the "Blacks," we were living in exile and remembering the moral outrages that plagued our homelands--the direct causes of the war. The situation seemed tailor-made for what was I was writing about--the purgatorial experiences of Jamaicans--and like Dante, I assigned several types of people, based on the moral universe of the Seven Deadly Sins, to a circle in my Jamaican hell.

As a cautionary note, I always stress with my students that the telling of the poem, short story or poem comes first. The Art of Fiction by John Gardner calls this "the creation of a vivid and continuous dream." The poem, short story, or novel must first adhere to the inherent craft of the genre and the dumping of metaphors or allusions into the text will not make them "better." I also remind them that the writer always has the option of playing with the allusion. In the case of Ulysses, Bloom is Jewish and Joyce is making a reference to the myth of the "wandering Jew." In Benjamin, my son, Virgil becomes the dreadlocked Rastafari, Papa Legba, drawn from the Vodoun pantheon, and whose antecedent is Eleggua or as we know him in Jamaica--Anancy.

Allusions, symbolism, and metaphors when used correctly expand the meaning of a literary work and depending on the reader's ability to understand these devices, adds depth to the story. It's not just a one time reading. The reader, engaging the text by thinking about the plausibility of the action, examining the complex patterns, making comparisons and contrasts to his or her life, and evaluating the text to determine if all elements come together seamlessly, keeps coming back for more. Think about songs by Bob Marley such as "I Shot the Sheriff" or the poem, "Mass Man" by Derek Walcott and you get an idea of what makes a work approach literary immortality. Every time you reread the story, you gain a greater understanding to the work, yourself, and how much you have grown with respect to the work and your understanding or yourself. It's a recursive activity hat not only adds richness to reading, but to life itself.


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Professor Zero said...

So, this is one I'd post to Facebook.
Yes, yes, there are faculty who say it is weird to be on Facebook, but I say it's practical - students really read the links you post. More closely than what you post to the class website!

Geoffrey Philp said...

Thanks, Professor Zero.

The links on my "official" faculty web site are for composition classes that I teach.

This post and many others are from the fiction workshops that I teach--usually at the request of other institutions than where I work.


Unknown said...

Hello Geoffrey.

Thanks for this lesson. I am teaching Master Harold and the Boys by Athol Fugard this semester and it is rich with allusions. I spent several days on the concept with my students. What they have discovered is that allusions can really connect worlds.

Walk good.


Geoffrey Philp said...

Glad to be of service, Andrene.