Once Upon A Time BY Gabriel Okara

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By 2017-07-19

BY Minnelle Doole

'Once Upon a Time' is a poem by Nigerian writer Gabriel Okara which expresses concern for the influence of the Western world on age-old African customs, in which he laments the lost innocence of youth. In it he condemns the hypocrisy of adults – hemmed in and constrained by rules and conventions – adopting masks for different occasions: for lying, cheating and betraying – whereas childhood is portrayed as a time of honest laughter, and spontaneity.

Once Upon a Time
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.

In "Once Upon a Time," an author is asked to write a children's story. She rejects this idea, but when a sound wakes her up one night, she starts telling herself a "bedtime story" about a couple who scramble to protect themselves from people of colour, only to inadvertently kill their son.

In the frame story, a successful writer is asked to produce a children's story. She refuses, insisting on her artistic freedom.

Nevertheless, she starts telling herself a "bedtime story" after a strange sound wakes her up in the middle of the night.

The bedtime story is told in the third person. In it, a married couple lives in a walled off suburb determined to keep people of colour out. The neighbourhood watch installs signs warning intruders not to scale the brick wall around their neighbourhood.

Following riots on the outside, the couple becomes afraid. They build their section of the brick wall higher and install barbed wire on the top. One day, their son tries to climb over the wall and is torn apart by the barbed wire.

The major themes given in the poem are:

a). Appearance versus reality (Fake affection)
b). Change that comes through exposure to other cultures
c). Adaptation to new ways of life
d). Innocent childhood versus adulthood

Literary Techniques Slow Paced

The poem moves at a slow pace. The poem uses repetition and quotations to maintain a sense of deliberateness throughout the poem.
Personal monologue explaining personal experiences

The entire poem has the man talking to his son. The son remains mute throughout the entire poem. The man explains to his son about the change that has taken place in African society and asks him to help him to change himself.

First Person Narrative

The poem is in the first person narrative and the poet uses the word 'I' to depict an autobiographical narration by the man.

Begins on a negative tone and ends with a positive one. The man complains and laments on the change he sees in his culture as well as himself. But at the end, he still sees the 'ray of light' in his son, who has not been affected by this negative change and asks him to help him to regain his child-like innocence once again.

Analysis of the title

The title of the poem, 'Once Upon A Time', has special relevance to the beginning of every fairy tale, like Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Snow White, Rapunzel, and others. It was probably chosen by Okara, as the man in the poem expresses his desire to go, 'back in time' and regain, his child-like innocence.


Whom does the poet symbolize through (a) The earlier person he was

( b) The person he is now, having undergone a change, influenced by society and

(c) Through whose help, does the poet want to become genuine and sincere again?

• Think of your own experience as an adolescent. Reflect on what affected you most in life (parents/ family/ peers/ society/ media)




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