Magical Realism in West African Fiction
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Magical Realism in West African Fiction

Brenda Cooper

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Magical Realism in West African Fiction

Brenda Cooper

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This study contextualizes magical realism within current debates and theories of postcoloniality and examines the fiction of three of its West African pioneers: Syl Cheney-Coker of Sierra Leone, Ben Okri of Nigeria and Kojo Laing of Ghana. Brenda Cooper explores the distinct elements of the genre in a West African context, and in relation to:
* a range of global expressions of magical realism, from the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez to that of Salman Rushdie
* wider contemporary trends in African writing, with particular attention to how the realism of authors such as Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka has been connected with nationalist agendas.
This is a fascinating and important work for all those working on African literature, magical realism, or postcoloniality.

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In this book I focus on three magical realist writers of West Africa: Syl Cheney– Coker (Sierra Leone), Ben Okri (Nigeria) and Kojo Laing (Ghana). I argue that their fictions are characterized by the powerful, restless reincarnations of myth into magic and history into the universal. They are writers on the margins, inhabiting borders.
Why ‘seeing with a third eye’?
Magical realism strives, with greater or lesser success, to capture the paradox of the unity of opposites; it contests polarities such as history versus magic, the precolonial past versus the post–industrial present and life versus death. Capturing such boundaries between spaces is to exist in a third space, in the fertile interstices between these extremes of time or space:
And then suddenly, out of the centre of my forehead, an eye opened, and I saw this light to be the brightest, most beautiful thing in the world
(Ben Okri, The Famished Road)1
But there is also a third space of another kind, a theoretical position that might be called a ‘reconstituted Marxism’ a middle ground, between Marxism and postmodernist theory. This is a space that retains the central recognition that power relations underlie texts, and from which one can continue to ask materialist questions such as ‘who benefits?’ ‘In whose interests does this tale work or this device operate?’ But it is also a space in which the problem of reducing everything to class issues is acknowledged; it accepts that metaphors such as ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’ are too rigid when attempting to construct the complex and global cultural networks into which we are all woven. This approach re–examines the concept of humanism and its relationship to power and oppression. It is a position that recognizes individuals as gendered, racially constituted, unevenly privileged subjects, playing out many–layered lives that are both structurally determined and also idiosyncratically forged. Such a project can ‘reintegrate’ the postmodern concern for ‘liminality, diversity, multivalency’, with the ‘historical explanatory force of Marxism’.2 The middle ground between the two, however, cannot be some nebulous compromise, but must rather be holistic, seeking totalities, recognizing that global social, political and economic forces fundamentally affect human lives and creativity, but retaining the humility to accept that knowledge of those structures and systems is always mediated, debatable and partial.
Holistic explanations have, rather, gone out of fashion. A champion of the totality is Fredric Jameson, who in his Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, declares war on the ‘war on totality’, on the ‘so many people’ who are ‘scandalized’ by his attempts to ‘map a totality’. He insists that
the positing of global characterizations and hypotheses, the abstraction from the ‘blooming, buzzing confusion’ of immediacy, was always a radical intervention in the here and now and the promise of resistance to its blind fatalities.3
Jameson undertakes a Marxist analysis of postmodernism, which he understands as having emerged at a particular stage of capitalism, and to be logically the nature of culture at that moment of late capitalism. In Chapter 3, I enlarge on his analysis of this moment; here I wish to emphasize his retention of the notion of ‘mode of production’ within his attempts to celebrate some of postmodernism'snew freedoms. Jameson insists uncompromisingly that:
Despite the delirium of some of [postmodernism’s] celebrants and apologists
a truly new culture could only emerge through the collective struggle to create a new social system.4
Homi Bhabha resolutely refuses Jameson's‘third space of representation’, refuses the possibility of a Marxism which forges a new position, which is neither the old, reductionist Marxism, nor freewheeling postmodernism. He dismisses this enterprise:
We have, by now, learnt that this appeal to a ‘thirdness’ in the structure of dialectical thought is both an acknowledgment of the disjunctive cultural ‘signs’ of these (postmodern) times, and a symptom of Jameson'sinability to move beyond the binary dialectic of inside and outside, base and superstructure.5
Bhabha sees Jameson as ‘constrained’ by ‘the concept of class’.6 But is it not Bhabha who is constrained and limited in his refusal to acknowledge the global and systemic historical realities which motivate his political and intellectual stance?
Bhabha, however, also wishes to participate in social reconstruction. In The Location of Culture, he insists that ‘the interest in postmodernism’ should not be simply negative, restricted to the exposure of the interests motivating the stories that powerful white, imperialist men have peddled as universal. It should not, in his words, be ‘limited to a celebration of the fragmentation of the “grand narratives” of postenlightenment rationalism’.7 For Bhabha, the ‘wider significance of the postmodern condition’ lies in the spaces that open up when the limits of ethnocentric ideas are exposed, spaces that can be seized by ‘a range of other dissonant, even dissident histories and voices–women, the colonized, minority groups, the bearers of policed sexualities’.8 Such spaces may be border interstices, the ‘micropolitics’ to which Jameson himself refers when he describes ‘the emergence of this whole range of small–group, nonclass political practices’ as a ‘profoundly postmodern phenomenon’.9
It is true that within these rich and diverse spaces that have opened up, the once–colonized have re–written history in ways that will become clear in the chapters that follow. However, I think that it is also true that these new, interstitial spaces that have emerged in postmodernity can only be fully conceptualized within an understanding of oppression, of interests and of the social totality. ‘Seeing with a third eye’ is my attempt to grasp these totalities, without reducing political or artistic complexities. It is the belief that systems of oppression continue to determine history and also that life is complex and paradoxical, mysterious and idiosyncratic; it is the certainty that if life is thus, art is doubly so.
If seeing the nature of systems of oppression is retained as a goal, then the ethical drive to transform those systems comes into play. Furthermore, I believe these ethics are based on a philosophy of humanism. Michele Barrett suggests that the assumption that ‘“humanist” is a derogatory term
is historically a great injustice, in that it ignores the immensely progressive role that humanism
has played’. Barrett provides examples of this progressive role, such as opposition to religious fundamentalism or resistance to anti–abortion campaigns in the USA. Specifically, in regard to apartheid South Africa, she questions:
How does one apply an anti–humanist position to South African politics, where the strongest card the black majority has to play, in the politicomoral arena, is an argument based on ‘human rights’ and ‘equality’ and other equally liberal humanist ideas?10
These examples link the brand of humanism that Barrett is excavating to an ethics that enable it to be progressive, and which distinguish it from the Eurocentric, liberal humanism that sought to universalize, and thereby to justify the dominant interests of white men and Western capital. Rather, Barrett'sethics are based on the perception of power and how power operates, and on the moral purpose of human intervention. Postmodernism has emphasized the inextricable relationship between knowledge and power while rejecting humanism. This leads to the question as to how, for example, Foucault can maintain an anti–humanistic position–seeking to define and expose the operation of power in terms of its own neutral, self–activating dynamics–when his subject matter is oppressed and marginalized groups. Foucault'sseminal works on those defined as insane or criminal surely depend on ‘the reader'sfamiliarity with and commitment to the modern ideals of autonomy, reciprocity, dignity and human rights’.11
If I am someone who is attempting to make an intervention within the arena of cultural politics, by trying to discern the complex grids of power and oppression, then who am I? If postmodernism has taught us anything, it has been to interrogate the positioning of the commentator; to be self–aware about what is refracted, reflected and rejected by our particular eyes, when we speak, read or write.
In general, white women do not fare well in African fiction.12 In Chinua Achebe's Anthills of the Savannah, one of the main characters had in his past been married to a white woman. The marriage was never consummated in the six months it lasted. The cause of this unnatural situation is unambiguously represented as the white woman'spsychological deficiencies. Such a depiction in literature is never merely idiosyncratic. Achebe is writing here in the tradition of Ayi Kwei Armah, building on the motif of white female sexuality as frigid, white women as dangerous and destructive to black men. Negative depictions of white women abound in African writing. This is the milieu within which I have to write.
Most black writers assert the beauty and dignity of their cultural heritage’s, in opposition to the corrosive, distorting racism that has permeated Western culture. Alice Walker writes from her ‘Mother'sGardens’13 and Kwame Anthony Appiah in his ‘Father'sHouse’14. My childhood and schooling in the parochial small town mediocrity of white, Jewish Port Elizabeth were typical of the mean, racist society at large. I cannot write a beautiful book ‘From the Balcony of my Parents’ Flat’, overlooking a segregated beach. But I do have a story to tell which is also the story of realization and resistance which is common to many white South Africans; a refusal to accept white fascists as ‘my’ people and to assume the responsibility for them that guilt assumes; at the same time, I accept the fact that I am privileged and have gained from apartheid'sbounty reserved for ‘whites only’.
A field of daffodils may assist in creating an image for my refusal of self–hatred as well as the recognition of the cruel and exploitative reality of cultural imperialism and of racism that I am trying to describe. The following is an extract from Jamaica Kincaid'snovel, Lucy:
Mariah, mistaking what was happening to me for joy at seeing daffodils for the first time, reached out to hug me, but I moved away, and in doing that I seemed to get my voice back. I said, ‘Mariah, do you realize that at ten years of age I had to learn by heart a long poem about some flowers I would not see in real life until I was nineteen?’
As soon as I said this, I felt sorry that I had cast her beloved daffodils in a scene she had never considered, a scene of conquered and conquests; a scene of brutes masquerading as angels and angels portrayed as brutes. This woman who hardly knew me loved me, and she wanted me to love this thing–a grove brimming over with daffodils in bloom–that she loved also. Her eyes sank back in her head as if they were protecting themselves, as if they were taking a rest after some unexpected hard work. It wasn'ther fault. It wasn'tmy fault. But nothing could change the fact that where she saw beautiful flowers I saw sorrow and bitterness. The same thing could cause us to shed tears, but those tears would not taste the same. We walked home in silence. I was glad to have at last seen what a wretched daffodil looked like.15
Through the passionate voice of Lucy, the young West Indian au pair to the white American Mariah, Kincaid captures the imperialist gaze that denigrates local landscapes and substitutes absurd images of European climes, meadows, lambkins and daffodils, thereby undermining the dignity and self–respect of colonized people. These are the selfsame daffodils that Ngugi wa Thiong'odecries in a place far from Lucy'sgrove.16 His tears taste the same.
Kincaid is writing her resistance to the imagery. Lucy is no passive victim of her history; the daffodils have shrivelled under her gaze as surely as if she had indeed fulfilled her fantasy of killing them with ‘an enormous scythe’.17 However– and here I wish to liberate my own repressed emotions with an observation that I would have retained a guilty silence about, were I writing this still from the balcony of the Port Elizabeth flat–Kincaid has linked her articulate resistance to domination with an image of the white woman as gauche and uncomprehending, loving the black girl she hardly knows, stupidly showing off a torture chamber as if it were a field of beauty, structurally incapable of perception of suffering. And again, Mariah is not an idiosyncratic creation of an individual author. She is another wax model in the infamous hall, along with Aidoo'sMarija, Armah'sAimee and Achebe'sLou Cranford.
Kincaid constructs Mariah out of the tensions that have arisen between white, Western feminism and black women. The accusation from some black, Third World women is that ‘Western feminism’ is merely a particular and quite selfindulgent interest. Chandra Talpade Mohanty has highlighted the erroneous assumption that all women are
an already constituted and coherent group with identical interests and desires, regardless of class, ethnic or racial location, [implying] a notion of gender or sexual difference or even patriarchy
can be applied universally and cross–culturally.18
This critique is valid. In a ‘world system dominated by the West’ this distorted universalization leads to licence on the part of some Western feminists to produce ‘a composite, singular “third–world woman”–an image which appears arbitrarily constructed but nevertheless carries with it the authorizing signature of western humanist discourse’.19
However, the false universalizing assumptions of ‘Western feminism’ have also been recognized by a great number of feminists working within First World contexts. Thus Barrett and Phillips point to ‘the gulf between feminist theory of the 1970s and the 1990s’.20 Likewise, Mohanty later recognizes that:
Since the 1970s, there have been key paradigm shifts in western feminist theory. These shifts can be traced to political, historical, methodological and philosophical developments in our understanding of questions of power, struggle and social transformation.21
In short, 1970s feminism has been contested ‘by a politics of difference (the charge that the specificity of black women'sexperience and the racism of white feminists had been ignored)’.22
However, a generalized Western feminism, defined as culturally imperialistic, survives, not least of all because Western women guiltily accept and reinforce the universalized stereotype. Here, for example, is Julia Watson'shighly questionable concurrence with Buchi Emecheta'sequally essentializing and generalizing categories of Western and African women as homogeneous wholes:
For Emecheta, colonization, and particularly the neocolonization of African countries, creates macropolitical issues that are obscured or distorted by a preoccupation with sexual politics at the micropolitical level. While indifference to social responsibility might be entertained by educated Western women, African women, situated in networks of family responsibility, must resist it.23
While few would deny the fundamental priority of the struggles for food, shel...