Political Intuition and African Autobiographies of Childhood
Sow, Alioune, Biography
Que viendrait faire, dans lenorme vacarme torture du monde, ce mince gemissement sur des difficultes etroitement limitees et individuelles? What is the use, in the world's excruciating uproar, of this faint moan over such narrowly limited and individual problems?
--Michel Leiris, L'age d'homme 11 / Manhood' 153
This essay reexamines and provides an alternative reading of Camara Laye's L'enfant noir (1953) and Wole Soyinka's Ake: The Years of Childhood (1981), two texts that have generated a problematique of African autobiographies of childhood, and contributed to broadening critical discourses related to it. Both L'enfant noir and Ake share not only a similar narrative configuration, and a certain ideological and historical coherence--their authors grew up in tune with the idea of postcoloniality, and chronicle the closing stages of the colonial period--but also a highly contested reception. I read these works as examples of a literary form and practice characterized by quasi-similar protocols of representation of childhood, and defined by a distinctive engagement with historical moments as well as by intricate autobiographical determinations and motives.
A straightforward observation motivates this study. Among the narratives of the self offered by African writers, there is an ever expanding body of texts entirely dedicated to childhood memories and experience: Mapate Diagne's Les trois volontes de Malic (1913), Amadou Hampate Ba's Amkoullel l'enfant peul (1991), Athol Fugard's Cousins (1994), J. M. Coetzee's Boyhood (1997), Amanda Fuller's Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight (2001), and Ishmael Beah's A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier (2007), to note just a few. The proliferation of these narratives signals a "permanence" of childhood (Escarpit 24) in African letters, an idea problematized, however, by an autobiographical practice profoundly situated in historical transformations, and therefore subject to expectations, codifications, and a passionate critical reception concerned with the ethics and politics of self-representation. (1) In African literatures, autobiographical childhood narratives are typically associated with emergencies--disenfranchisement, to echo Spivak--crisis, and trauma, and as with other life narratives, are constantly reshaped by the continent's "social and political movements" (Gilmore 16). Childhood autobiographical narratives are regularly seen as responsive to historical junctures, and as exploring a repressive situation, or racial, gender, and/or class prejudice, recalling the drama of early life and character formation. It is a genre perceived as emblematic, a symbolic literary form, which has called for narrative codifications, ideological expectations and determinations, categorization, and often exclusion (Coe 226; Austen 2). (2)
At the same time, several important texts--including L'enfant noir and Ake--are not constructed around these dominant patterns. By their difference, they remind us of the diversity and plurality of African childhood experiences according to societies, places, political contexts, and historical moments. By their structure, they confirm the existence of multiple narrative modalities that have often been overlooked when commenting on African accounts of childhood. By revisiting these two texts, I want to demonstrate that, when it comes to narratives situated in the colonial period, Camara Laye and Wole Soyinka have provided alternative engagements with colonialism, adding nuance to the literary representations and accounts of childhood in African letters.
Central to my critical inquiry is an emphasis on the context in which the two childhoods take place. L 'enfant noir and Ake chronicle the closing stages of colonization in West Africa, a time of emerging political instability and challenges to colonial policies and authorities. Analyzing Camara Laye's and Wole Soyinka's texts in this light reveals exacting childhoods distant from the ideal ones often commented on by critics. …