Claiming History: Colonialism, Ethnography, and the Novel

Claiming History: Colonialism, Ethnography, and the Novel

Claiming History: Colonialism, Ethnography, and the Novel

Claiming History: Colonialism, Ethnography, and the Novel

Synopsis

Although postcolonial studies has explored the historical influences and connections among literatures throughout the world, it has considered African writing unique. By looking at African novels--written in both French and English--of the colonial and postcolonial periods, Claiming History places African literature in its proper context within this field. Eleni Coundouriotis shows how historical narration not only "answers back" to Europe's colonialist legacy, but also serves as a complex form of dissent among Africans themselves.Exploring subjects such as human sacrifice as portrayed in the historical novels of Ren Maran, Chinua Achebe, Paul Hazoum , Yambo Ouolguem, and Ben Okri, Coundouriotis argues that these authors are part of a tradition of dissent, shattering the myth of national unity. Rather than focusing on resistance to Europe--the outsider--these works reflect a variety of voices among Africans. Through their historical narratives, African novelists seek to break down and re-create their communities. Novels such as Things Fall Apart and The Famine Road have traditionally been read as ethnographies, authentically depicting the everyday life of Africans. But the emphasis on "authenticity" decontextualizes these books and neglects the ways they grapple with history. Since literature of dissent resists any single or absolute authority, it is in both colonialist and ultranationalist interests to silence it. By exploring the dialogue between literature and history, this book gives voice to African novelists' defiance of colonialism and nationalist ideology, and adds significantly to our understanding of a body of work that has long been ignored or misunderstood.

Excerpt

When Yambo Ouologuem’s Le Devoir de violence appeared in 1968, the reviewer for Le Monde hailed the novel as “the first African novel worthy of the name” (quoted in Miller, Blank Darkness 219). Nineteen sixty-eight seems a rather late date to be making such a claim, yet Ouologuem’s reviewer was reflecting a pervasive attitude in the reception of African literature. It has become a critical commonplace to inaugurate the African novel repeatedly as a means of identifying the “authentically” African.

A more recent example is Ben Okri’s The Famished Road (1991). the novel first received mixed reviews. Charles Johnson, writing for the Times Literary Supplement, complained about a novel “padded out with descriptive passages that slow it down” (tls, April 19, 1991). However, when The Famished Road . . .

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