Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Representations of history in African diasporic literatures and the politics of postmodernism
by Niemi, Minna Johanna, Ph.D., State University of New York at Buffalo, 2011, 227; 3475354
Abstract (Summary)

“Representations of History in African Diasporic Literatures and the Politics of Postmodernism” examines four novels published by African American and African authors in late 1970s and early 1980s. Literary criticism set narrow terms for literary production during these politically urgent times on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, and it remains my argument that all of these novelists, via the usage of postmodern narrative forms, criticize the particular literary and cultural establishments of their time as they broaden the ways in which contested pasts are represented in fiction. In addition, all of the novels examined in this study crucially link the examination of a violent past to their contemporary political, cultural and social situations, marked and haunted by the same past. I argue that, particularly by utilizing non-linear narrative forms, they are better equipped to illustrate the ways in which the present intersects with the past it often seeks to avoid.

The first part of the dissertation discusses how, in the context of African liberation movements in late 1970s and early 1980s, Somali author Nuruddin Farah and South-African author J. M. Coetzee examine the ways in which the history of colonialism keeps informing the present. Farah’s Maps refuses to clearly distinguish between the earlier colonial destruction and the contemporary Somali nationalist will for territorial expansion. Instead the novel—in its fragmented, postmodern narrative form—clearly illustrates how a disruptive colonial history haunts present-day society via the territorial wars, including the Ogaden war, it depicts. Coetzee’s essays, as well as his novel Waiting for the Barbarians, are examined in the context of Theodor Adorno’s reading of the notion of autonomous art vs. politically committed art. He refuses to straightforwardly reflect society in his work, even if resistance literature was expected to do so in the context of apartheid politics. Instead, his work takes distance from this depiction of reality in order to further examine the relationship between art and politics.

The second part of the dissertation examines representations of the past in the context of postmodern African American literature published in the 1970s and early 1980s. Both Ishmael Reed and Andrea Lee criticize the too-narrow expectations set for literature written at the time. Reed’s Flight to Canada relates its examination of chattel slavery to the critique of contemporary commodity culture, as it draws parallels between the two and shows how the history of slavery haunts the present. In so doing, he, contra to his earlier works and challenges the Afrocentric approach to literature, which, in its examination of history, creates mythologized notion of the past rather than examining the ways in which the violent past remains to inform the present. Lee’s Sarah Phillips criticizes the narrow expectations set for black women’s writing in the context of black feminist criticism of the 1970s and 1980s. Lee’s novel draws from earlier traditions—African American modernism and particularly Nella Larsen’s work—as Lee revives earlier modernist traditions as well as broadening the ways in which black women’s history is narrated in 1980s.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Holstun, Jim
Commitee: Irlam, Shaun, Young, Hershini
School: State University of New York at Buffalo
Department: English
School Location: United States -- New York
Source: DAI-A 73/01, Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Modern literature, African literature, American literature
Keywords: Coetzee, J. M., Diasporic literature, Farah, Nuruddin, History, Lee, Andrea, Postmodernism, Reed, Ishmael, Somalia, South Africa
Publication Number: 3475354
ISBN: 9781124935249
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