Chinua Achebe, Eat, Pray, Love, and Nonwestern Exotification

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Reading Achebe’s “An Image of Africa” reminded me of the storm of criticism that occurred when Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestseller Eat, Pray, Love was turned into a film in 2010. (I admit I haven’t read the book or watched the movie.) 

Articles and blog posts (and their comment sections) were full of jokes and criticisms of how the protagonist in Eat, Pray, Love was a first-world, privileged woman simply using the people in India and Indonesia as accessories for a “canned spirituality” to gain “self-actualization” and “empowerment.” I found these insights to be very reminiscent of Achebe’s criticism of Conrad and his “fixation on blackness” (345). African “savagery” and eastern “meditative ethereality” are somehow made cooler and edgier in these works through setting without actually talking about these cultures and peoples. 

Both Heart of Darkness and Eat, Pray, Love have messages that are supposed to connect to a universal nature of some sort (I’m stretching for a similarity here), but they do so by depicting these developing and third-world countries as a first-world person’s playground. The meanings gained are how the first-world privileged are affected by their experiences rather than what the people in the countries they visited are really like (and treating them as actual people). While I don’t think it dilutes the meanings that Conrad and Gilbert were imparting in their works, being aware of this fact, I think, is important. 

Anyhow, it was a fun little similarity I found in Achebe’s essay that still seems to pop up in criticism today. (The picture above is from the past NBC show Outsourced, which I also have not seen.) 

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2 Responses to Chinua Achebe, Eat, Pray, Love, and Nonwestern Exotification

  1. jcm93pitt says:

    This post reminds me of another instance in the Wes Anderson film The Darleejing Limited, where three brothers venture to India to reunite with their mother who resides there. During there travel by train across the beautiful country’s environment, the three brothers have an alternative goal in mind – a spirit quest. However, in the film, the quest is sort of approached in a more satirical light, thus gaining little attention from press and angry bloggers unlike Eat, Pray, Love.
    However, one similarity that struck me between the two films was the presence of a privileged white woman going to a country for her own gain of empowerment. The mother portrayed in the film, played by Anjelica Huston, moves to India to run a Christian abbey in India. Though, this as well is presented fairly satirically, poking fun at the upper classes ability to drop everything and move to India on a spiritual journey.
    Anyway, just thought I’d mention this. Though it isn’t heavily criticized as Eat, Pray, Love was, I still thought it was relevant to mention that even slight instances of this sort of thing exist in all sorts of film, literature, and the like.

  2. elizabeth829 says:

    You’re right, it does remind me of the idea of Western citizens traveling to India or other countries to “find themselves.” However, I think it’s important that we understand that as harsh as it sounds we all see the world pretty selfishly. In other words, our world-view is generally based on how we are affected by our surroundings. I can’t speak for Eat, Pray, Love as I’ve never seen or read it either, and in the case of Heart of Darkness I understand Achebe’s argument but I think if we try to stretch Achebe’s argument here too far, we will just begin breaking down every “artistic interpretation” that exists. I don’t think that it’s bad when someone who is privileged travels to another country and has some sort of epiphany. I think the idea of going somewhere else, experiencing another culture, etc. etc. is important, especially for someone who generally lives in a comfortable ignorance. I think the issue comes when a person stop seeing another culture as simply different from his/her own and begins to see it as something less meaningful than his/her own (or in the case of the picture, something that should be taken less seriously I guess?). Regardless, there’s no way to be entirely objective when visiting another country, you’re going to form opinions based specifically on what happens to you.

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