A Graphological Interpretation Of Helon Habila’s Oil On Water

Oil on water

By Dooyum Haako
Writers have many ways of passing across their messages to readers and this is done through language which is a divine gift to mankind. The effective use of language is characterized by the choices that are made from a pool of options available to the writer. Whatever choice a writer makes, it is expected that there should be a level of comprehensibility. This is because without man comprehending one another, there would be total chaos. The art of making language comprehensible takes different forms because language is dynamic and it is this dynamism that writers exploit in their various discourses to put across their intended meanings. This is also to say that writers have different methods of putting across their messages and these mark their distinctive styles. A close look at a writer’s style is what is called stylistics. There are therefore certain stylistic devices through which writers encode their messages and thrust them to their readers and one of such devices is graphology. As a paralinguistic device, graphology deals with handwriting used to interpret texts. Ebi Yeibo and Comfort Akerele capture it as a device which ”helps writers to capture particular pragmatic senses in texts and aids readability, comprehension and interpretation of linguistic forms in a given situation” (9). Graphology therefore concerns such matters as spelling, capitalization, text’s layout, font, choice, lists, italicization, paragraphing, colour, hyphenation and general appearance of writing on paper. Halliday puts the subject down to ”orthography, punctuation and anything that is concerned with showing how language uses its graphic resources to carry its grammatical and lexical patters” (50).
Through a graphological analysis of a given text, meanings which may not seem easily decipherable may become so for easier understanding.
Habila’s Oil on Water is a tale which depicts the daily lives of the people of the Niger-delta region of Nigeria. Below is an attempt at an interpretation of Habila’s Oil on Water.
The front cover of the text has some graphic designs which look quite vague against a dark background. The shapes are vague because they seem not to make any meaningful appearance. While certain shapes appear to have human like features, others appear to have bird-like features with others looking more like trees.
The said phenomenon above even look nightmarish without a clearly cut shape. This leaves the reader quite puzzled as to what Habila is actually trying to portray with the images. The presented puzzle represents the nightmarish environmental setting of the people in question; the environmental condition is aptly captured by the Guardian UK at the back of the text thus:
As they struggle up the river in a canoe, guided by an old man and a young boy, the reporters encounter nightmarish scenes of devastation: dead birds draped over tree branches, their outstretched wings black and slick with oil, dead fishes bobbed white- bellied between tree roots. By the flickering light of oil flare, they find some villages abandoned, their fields and water contaminated; others scrape a miserable existence on the frontline of a civil war between the army and anti-government guerillas.
Vividly captured above is one of the nightmarish scenes encountered when one traverses the terrain of the Niger-Delta. The paradoxical lives these people live are quite puzzling. They sit on the wealth of the country but live in abject poverty without life saving amenities. This is what the author has presented to us in his vague and puzzling but thought provoking graphics.
Habila has used other graphic designs too in his text which are meant to infer meaning. One of such is the artistic design of the cover page which shows water dripping from the three words that make up the title of the text. This shows that the text has a connection with water. Furthermore, the dripping water from the three words look like blood dripping from a murder weapon or a weapon used in committing crime which involves the shedding of blood. By this, Habila is trying to show to the world the murdered hope or livelihood of the people of the Niger-Delta. Their hope is said to be murdered because with the discovery of oil, the people believed that the commodity will be used to better their lot but it seems their condition got worse, thus their murdered hope. Another interpretation is that what seems to be dripping from the words of the title of the text is actually oil being wasted. This shows the improper utilization of the oil found in the area. The utilization of the oil is improper in the sense that it is not used in improving the lot of the inhabitants.
Similarly the text is divided into two parts with the words ” part one” and ”part two” both underlined with a river-looking graphic thereby conveying the message that both parts have a lot to do with water or the setting of the text is in a riverine area.Hyphenation
Punctuation marks are vital in conveying the desired meaning in every discourse and writers use them to pass their desired messages and Habila is not left out. One prominent punctuation mark used by Habila in Oil on Water skillfully to convey hidden meaning is the hyphen. Habila has stylistically deviated from using quotation marks to characterize dialogues in his text and has resorted to the use of the hyphen. Examples can be seen on page 11 of the text thus:
Under normal circumstances, conversations are opened and closed with quotation marks but Habila has used the hyphen to open conversations in his text and has left them open at the end. By this deviation Habila is telling the world how abnormal the lives of the people are. Everything about the people is abnormal. A cursory look at the lives of the people shows the abnormality as can be seen from the quote above. Furthermore, by leaving conversations open at the end, Habila is trying to portray the uncertainty attached to the lives of the people. He seems to be asking the question: The beginning of these people we know, but what does their future hold? This explains the hyphenated beginning of dialogues and their open endedness.
Capitalization, Bold words and italicization.
Capital lettered and bold words come from the beginning of chapters and sub-chapters before giving way to normal print in Oil on Water. The interpretation of this phenomenon is that Habila is trying to show to us how the people’s lives started on a bright note, full of hope with the knowledge that oil will be exploited in their domain and by extension their lives will be bettered but how their high expectations and hopes have been shattered with the reality on ground. When sentences begin in chapters and subchapters of the text, they are either capitalized or emboldened. This depicts the hope and high expectations of the people at the commencement of oil exploitation. However, these capital lettered and emboldened words are peters out as soon as they start and this also depicts the short-lived nature of the people’s hopes. For soon after oil exploitation, their lives took a downward turn. Their waters become contaminated that they can no longer drink, their hitherto means of livelihood which had been fishing could not strive again because of the contaminated water; and worst of all the government that exploits the oil puts nothing in place to assuage their sufferings. Therefore the abrupt end of capitalized and emboldened words show the abrupt end of the peoples hopes leaving them impoverished, malnourished and diseased. The persistent use of these two graphological elements (Capitalized and emboldened words) shows how persistent the people are in trying to raise their hope or better their lot. Conversely, the petering out of the two devices as soon as they start shows how equally often they have failed to achieve their desires.
The italicized words, despite appearing abnormal among normal print words, convey meaning nevertheless and without them, the text will not be complete. By implication, the people of the Niger-Delta, despite their being unable to live life to the fullest just like people from other parts of the country do, are still Nigerians and thus very important to the survival of the country. They should therefore not be despised.
We have succeeded in making an attempt at the interpretation of Habilas Oil on Water using graphology as a stylistic device. We hope that this interpretation helps in making the text more explicit to the reader.

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