Academic journal article Genders

Romance as Political Aesthetic in Ahdaf Soueif's the Map of Love

Academic journal article Genders

Romance as Political Aesthetic in Ahdaf Soueif's the Map of Love

Article excerpt

[1] Romance has, to put it mildly, a sketchy political history. On the one hand, its focus on interpersonal dramas within the feminized private sphere, from aristocratic liaisons in the chivalric epics of the Middle Ages to the novels of Jane Austen to the tawdry delights of Harlequin, Mills and Boon, and the romantic comedy film, seem ill fitted to grand statements about social and political concerns. In this sense, the romance's very identity depends on being defined against a masculinized realism and its weighty problems. At the same time, as scholars such as Anne McClintock and Laura Chrisman note, the romance's tradition of male questers seems to lend itself all too well to narratives of imperialism as grand adventure, as evidenced by classics such as Ryder Haggard's King Solomon's Mines (1885) and Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan of the Apes: A Romance of the Jungle (1912). With their trademark depictions of exotic colonial subjects as alluringly available, primitively threatening, or often a combination of both, these colonial romances express the fears and fantasies of Western publics about their empires.

[2] If romance proved well suited to the xenophobic nationalism of the colonial project, it has been taken up equally enthusiastically as a vehicle for postcolonial nation-building. In Foundational Fictions: The National Romances of Latin America, Doris Sommer describes how the genre of the "national romance" that dominated postcolonial Latin American literary production in the late nineteenth century functioned to reconcile diverse national populations with each other and with the goals of new national governments and their accompanying civil societies (12). The motif of lovers struggling to come together across barriers, whether of race, class, or religion, provided a "narrative formula" for gestures of conciliation between groups that had been positioned antagonistically within colonial hierarchies (15). Because the romances that are the object of Sommer's study serve to unify the nation through a fantasy of reconciliation often at odds with the economic, gendered, and racial discrepancies of new Latin American states, she concludes that they are ultimately a "pacifying project" (12, 29). The bourgeois ideal of the nuclear family, married to the national ideal of the unified populace, produces a revisionist historical narrative that contains dissent in the service of national unity.

[3] But what happens when postcolonial writers take up the romance to the opposite effect? That is, rather than harnessing the affective force of the love story to justify the ends of empire like the colonial romance or to suture national inequalities like the national romance, what if one yoked the romance's emotional power to a critique of the exclusionary violence of both? Diasporic Egyptian writer and journalist Ahdaf Soueif's The Map of Love works against the political failings of both the colonial romance and the postcolonial national romance even as she appropriates some of the key tropes of both sub-genres. Like the colonial romance, Soueif's romance serves primarily to bring into contact colonial subjects and members of the populations they rule rather than disparate elements of the postcolonial nation. As with the national romance, the novel adopts the romance as a vehicle through which to represent problematic divisions within the nation-state. However, I argue that this particular redeployment of the romance functions to dramatize not the utopian desire for national unity represented in the Latin American novels, but the failure of nationalism as an ideological construct under the weight of postcolonial corruption and global capitalism. Instead of bridging gaps to bolster the precarious state, the romance here evokes transnational coalitions--significantly, of women&--and unearths genealogies of their resistance in order to critique and transform the postcolonial state and to comment upon the international balance of power in the wake of British imperialism. …

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