Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Fragile Modernities - History and Historiography in Contemporary African Fiction

Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Fragile Modernities - History and Historiography in Contemporary African Fiction

Article excerpt

Literature and historiography share a close, at times even intimate relationship in the history of African letters. When, during the mid-twentieth century struggles against colonialism, African writers began to explore the potential of modem literature for challenging the long tradition of skewed images and misrepresentations of Africa established by European colonial discourse, history became a favourite arena for literary engagements with that discourse. Chinua Achebe, who famously demanded that African literature should help Africans to find out "where the rain began to beat us,"1 embarked on a project of fictional recuperation of African history in his first novel Things Fall Apart (1958) that contrasted the arrogant colonial dismissal of African cultures, societies, and histories with a portrayal of the complex inner life of an African village community before and after the colonial incursion. Achebe's classic suturing of precolonial history and modem literature became a major landmark for the newly developing field of anglophone African writing, but it also became supplemented and eventually challenged by other writing projects that looked at precolonial history in a much more critical mode (such as Wole Soyinka's i960 play A Dance of the Forests) and that began to confront the realities of post-independence Africa and its contemporary history.

The present essay examines articulations between historiography and literature in two contemporary African novels that explicitly focus on the paral- lels between writing fiction and writing history: The Stone Virgins by the Zimbabwean writer Yvonne Vera, published in 2002, and Measuring Time by the Nigerian author Helon Habila, published in 2007. Both novels not only engage with contemporary history but, in their own (and very different) ways, also reflect on the challenges involved in writing history in contemporary Africa.

A major problem in this respect lies in the changing political and ideological functions of anticolonialism, which in many post-independence societies in Africa has transmuted from an ideology of liberation into an ideology of repression. While an older generation of African writers could base their engagement with African history on a relatively secure normative framework generated by the antagonism of colonialism versus anticolonialism (or European versions of African history versus African versions of African history), more recent African writing has seen itself confronted with complex trajectories of contemporary (post-independence) history and perplexing political and ideological landscapes where yesterday's invocations of anticolonial solidarity have often turned into today's affirmations of authoritarian oppression. As Evan Mwangi has argued, African literature has responded to this challenge by becoming "markedly self-reflexive" and by increasingly focusing its gaze "on local forms of oppression that are seen to parallel classical colonialism."2

This creative engagement with new historical, social, and ideological constellations in post-independence Africa stands in marked contrast to the critical routines that continue to inform literary scholarship. Much contemporary literary criticism, particularly that generated within so-called 'postcolonial studies,' seems signally ill-equipped to follow contemporary African literature onto the contested terrain of post-independence self-reflexivity. All too often, 'postcolonial' critical energies are expended on rediscovering conflicts between colonizers and colonized or on deconstructing 'European' or 'Western' discourses of power, because these are the problematics on which 'postcolonial' theoretical and methodological resources that privilege the colonial as the prior reference point for contemporary literature and culture can most convincingly (and, we should admit, most easily) be brought to bear - and because many, particularly younger, researchers often seem to have no other resources at hand to guide their critical labours. …

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