Literature and postcolony

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How can postcolonial criticism be satisfactorily applied to contemporary writers who precisely try to avoid being put into categories? There are so many ambiguities involved…

Whilst the Mongo Betis, Henri Lopèses, Ken Buguls, Animata Sow Falls or Ahmadou Kouroumas are still writing, new names have emerged on the French and African literary scenes over the last ten years. Amongst them, young writers of African origin living and publishing in France have particularly caught the attention of the critics, to the extent that some have come to postulate the emergence of a veritable literary movement. For example, Bennetta Jules-Rosette, who refers in the book Black Paris, to a new « black Parisianism », the three major figures of which are said to be writers Yodi Karone, Simon Njami and Calixthe Beyala.1 Questioned by Françoise Cévaër in 1998 about the possible existence of literary movement, Calixthe Beyala answered: « Let’s say that today, people see me as something of a leader of a new literary movement. » And in answer to the following question: « Is it what one might call the literature of the post-colonial generation? », Beyala affirmed: « Yes, because most of the people involved were born after independence. There are still not many of us, it is very recent. All of us were born well after Independence or barely knew the colonists ».2
It is true that the generational difference, in the genealogical sense of the word, is commonly acknowledged. For the most part, the birth of these writers coincided with that of the African nations, in around 1960. Unlike their elders, therefore, these forty-somethings, or nearly, did not experience the politico-identity transition so propitious to African autobiography.
But, in addition to the notorious confusion between « generation » and « literary movement », these examples – « Parisianism » or « postcolonial generation » – reveal the pressing desire of the critics, and even the writers themselves, to put one label or another on what are, in fact, the highly diverse texts of the Nineties writers. The desire to try to account for a new and, in many respects, innovative production is legitimate. Yet, more so perhaps than their elders (once again, we need to question this filiation), the very position of authors such as Daniel Biyaoula, Florent Couao-Zotti, Kossi Efoui, Alain Mabanckou, and Abdourahman Waberi at the intersection of several geographic and intellectual territorialities, poses a challenge to literary historiography as it has been practiced up until now. Indeed, in addition to the diversification of writing and of publishing centres, is a blurring of national identity which favours a plurality of possible affiliations and origins. Today more than ever, it is increasingly problematic, and perhaps less and less pertinent, to try, come what may, to regroup isolated individuals and products in an ensemble which confines them to an exclusive identity.
But the question still remains, and the job of promoting/exploiting these texts still needs to be done, especially as the French critics generally take no interest in them. How, then, can this production be accounted for at the very moment in which the concepts of literary fields or national origin are regularly challenged by the crossing of borders, unexpected blends, and the refusal of particularism reiterated by the people concerned? How, in other words, can we inscribe this generation’s writing in a literary history to which they are related nolens volens, without denying their hybridity at the same time?
« Parisianism » is one of the answers, which requires a separate development. « Post-colonial » is another, and it is on this that I would like to dwell in what follows, starting out, in particular, from what Abdourahman Waberi proposes in an article entitled: « Les Enfants de la postcolonie. Esquisse d’une nouvelle génération d’écrivains francophones d’Afrique noire« , published in 1998.3 In this text, Waberi undertakes to « trace the contours » of what he identifies as the « fourth generation of writers of African origin« , that is, « twenty or so writers living in France. » As Waberi invites debate, I would quickly like to raise several points concerning the recourse to « postcolony » as a common denominator for the literary production of the Nineties which strike me as problematic. For all its seductiveness, the term generates a certain number of paradoxes and dangers.
The first criticism is of an epistemological order, and is related to the periodization of African literature. Waberi places « the children of the postcolony » in a continuity. « Postcolony » is thus posited as the (chrono)logical follow-on from the three preceding literary eras, namely: 1) that of the pioneers; 2) of negritude; 3) of disillusionment. To begin with, this division could not be more traditional, inherited as it is from the schema established by Africanist criticism of the Seventies. Suddenly, instead of being inscribed as breaking boundaries, the literary « postcolony » upholds and confirms a consensual historiography, which is not challenged. The main characteristic of this division is, however, that it ties literature’s evolution to a historico-political periodization: 1) the colonial era; 2) the anti-colonial era; 3) independence; 4) the postcolonial.
Pertinent in History, why should the notion of postcolony systematically be applied (and applicable) to all literary texts (or art works)? The recourse to the historic notion of « postcolony » to describe a literary production thus reproduces the arbitrary, and reductive, parallel between the reading of History and the reading of a literary body. In my opinion, this act immediately drains all that is innovative and autonomous in the new generation, who, just like its predecessors, also finds itself read in terms of the political evolution of the African continent.
The term « postcolonial » has been widely used and debated in relation to the English-language literatures. Numerous critics have warned of the implications of the recourse to « post ». Anne Mc Clintock, for example, has clearly demonstrated the ways in which invoking a « post » suggests a linear, even eschatological, type evolution, in which colonial history remains the central reference, the epistemological centre from which no production can escape.4 Similarly, baptizing a generation of writers the « children of the postcolony », boils down to confining them to a history-centred reading/identity, which, in my opinion, is refuted by the texts themselves.
The second criticism which the notion of « postcolony » raises specifically in terms of a literary presentation is linked to the first, but more particularly concerns the criteria by which the authors are regrouped. On closer inspection, what, in fact, do these « children of the postcolony » have in common as artists?
– Firstly, their biographies: place of birth, place of residence, path. It is thus a private identity which determines their affiliation to a cultural domain.
– next, the thematic recurrences: Paris, exile or migration.
The children of the postcolony do not escape determination of an ontological nature any more than « black » or « African writers » do. « Postcolony » ties them to the origin, which legitimizes regrouping them, as was the case for the preceding generations. The irony being, here too, that their very writing systematically deconstructs the questions of authenticity, of identity, of a single root.
The criteria invoked lead us into the trap of the old practices denounced by Locha Mateso in 1986, notably the insistence on the personality of the author, and the « theory of reflection », in which: « The works are… rarely dealt with in terms of their quality as an aesthetic object, in terms of their relation to the work of the author. The formal characteristics of the work are neglected. What counts above all is the explicit content of the works, and the incidence this has on a social, political, economic level« . Furthermore, the critics, on the whole, « refrain from analyzing the question of division and subversion, which the literature manages to imprint on reality. »5
Over fifteen years ago, Mateso deplored that the « theory of reflection » had emptied African criticism of references to the task of writing itself. That is to say, to the aesthetic. And, moreover, the call for the rehabilitation of the writer as a producer of an aesthetic product first and foremost, and for it to be analyzed as such, now emerges as a leitmotif in interviews with the writers.
Nowadays, a number of artists’ credo seems to be: « We want to be writers (filmmakers, painters, poets) full stop ».6 We might well answer them: But what is a writer « full stop »? Who, in History, from the Nobel to Goncourt prize winners, was ever a « writer full stop »? Can such an abstraction exist anywhere, other than in the fantasy of writers, African or not? A writer full stop, would, to put it simply, be a person who had reached the sacrosanct universal, free, as he or she would be, of social determinations, such as colour, origin, sex, age, collective or individual history. The person who it would be impossible to confine to any literary « ghetto », for whom there would only be qualities intrinsic to his or her art, and not, or no longer, an extra-textual realm.
So, between the strategy which consists of identifying movements (the postcolony, the postcolonial), and the « we are writers full stop », what position should we adopt? The artists themselves often give a paradoxical discourse: affirming the « full stop » on the one hand, and identifying with a movement on the other. According to Achille Mbembe, this tension between the universal and the particular is characteristic of « African writings of self » in the twentieth century.7 Whether we be a critic or a writer, in the Nineties, the tension remains entire.
For the critic, the only intellectually innovative position thus seems to be, not to try to resolve this tension, but to return to the texts, to the sites of construction of the imaginary, in order to localize the sites, forms and modes of expression of this tension. Where it manifests itself, how the hierarchies are assumed, or, on the contrary, repeated, what statuses are given to language, to narration, to sexuality, or to truth? What new aesthetics emerge, which boundaries are broken in the new systems of meaning? What new means are employed to express « hybridity » and the exploding of social determinations? This, for example, is the approach Jean-Marc Moura adopts in his recent Littératures francophones et théorie postcoloniale (P.U.F, 1999), which offers the foundations of a French-language postcolonial criticism which is conscious of its determinations and aporia.
In this respect only will « postcolonial » and « postcolony » be capable of claiming to resituate the question of difference in the convergence of imaginary realms no longer uniquely dominated by a central axe of interpretation, whether this be racial, historic or socio-political. In this respect only will it be possible for the literary critics to adopt postcolony to examine an ensemble of texts which precisely have innovation, indecisiveness, and the challenging of categories in common.

1. Jules-Rosette, Bennetta. Black Paris. The African Writers’ Landscape. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1998.
2. Interview with Françoise Cévaër in Ces écrivains d’Afrique noire. Silex/Nouvelles du Sud, 1998. p 47.
3. A. Waberi. « Les enfants de la postcolonie. Esquisse d’une nouvelle génération d’écrivains francophones d’Afrique noire. » Notre Librairie 135, sept/dec 1998, p. 8-15.
4. Cf Anne Mc Clintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest. New York: Routledge, 1995. Cited in Bruce King, ed. New National and Post-colonial Literatures. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
5. Locha Mateso. La littérature africaine et sa critique. Paris: Karthala, 1986, p. 199.
6. Cf, amongst others, the interviews compiled by Françoise Cévaër in Ces Ecrivains d’Afrique noire, and the first issue of Africultures, La Critique en questions, oct. 97.
7. « A propos des écritures africaines de soi ». Bulletin du Codesria, nº 1, 2000, p. 4-19.
Lydie Moudileno is a lecturer in Francophone literature (Africa, Caribbean) at the University of Pennsylvania (USA). She has published articles on Aimé Césaire, Edouard Glissant, Maryse Condé, Daniel Maximin, surrealism, créolité writers (Confiant, Chamoiseau), and, in 1997, L’écrivan antillais au miroir de sa littérature (Editions Karthala). She is currently working on two essays, on Henri Lopès and Maryse Condé’s work.
///Article N° : 5446

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