Show Less
Open access

Fictions of African Dictatorship

Cultural Representations of Postcolonial Power


Edited By Charlotte Baker and Hannah Grayson

Fictions of African Dictatorship examines the fictional representation of the African dictator and the performance of dictatorship across genres. The volume includes contributions focusing on literature, theatre and film, all of which examine the relationship between the fictional and the political. Among the questions the contributors ask: what are the implications of reading a novel for its historical content or accuracy? How does the dictator novel interrogate ideas of veracity? How is power performed and ridiculed? How do different writers reflect on questions of authority in the postcolony, and what are the effects on their stories and modes of narration? This volume untangles some of the intricate workings of dictatorial power in the postcolony, through twelve close readings of works of fiction. It interrogates the intersections between real and literary space, exploring censorship, political critique and creative resistance. Insights into a wide range of lesser known texts and contexts make this volume an original and insightful contribution to scholarship on representations of dictatorship.

Show Summary Details
Open access

9. ‘My characters, my plots, are under my pen’: Authority as dictatorship in King-Aribisala’s The Hangman’s Game (Madeleine Wilson)

← 174 | 175 →


9    ‘My characters, my plots, are under my pen’: Authority as dictatorship in King-Aribisala’s The Hangman’s Game

African dictator fiction places the body centre stage, spotlighting the despot as the manifestation of gross power. The dictator performs his authority through a body frequently imagined as expanding, corpulent, oversexed and, paradoxically, impotent. His is an economy of excess. This trope of the hyper-masculine dictator’s body, undergirded with the apparent contradiction of virility and impotence, is deployed time and again in the genre. Writers portray the dictator as an object of fear, with the raw power over life and death written into the vast terrain of his body; and yet, satirists insistently return to the inherent comedy of that same body. The dictator’s body sets him apart from lesser beings; however, it is the focus on the body that gives the genre its egalitarian impulse, for the body represents the shared experience of mortality, and thus exposes his vulnerability. The dictator rules not only through fear but also through propaganda, channelling a national script through official broadcasts, pamphleteering and the press. The national narrative sustains his power while at the same time mythologizing it.

The majority of African dictator fiction follows a real or imagined dictator in his political intrigues: prominent examples include Sony Labou Tansi’s La Vie et demi (1979), Ousmane Sembène’s Le dernier de L’Empire (1981), Henri Lopès’s Le Pleurer-rire (1982), Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah (1987), Ahmadou Kourouma’s En attendant le vote des bêtes sauvages (1998), and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow (2006; originally published in Gĩkũyũ as Murogi wa Kagogo, 2004). This chapter will discuss Karen King-Aribisala’s The Hangman’s Game (2007), a novel that, against the grain of the genre, fashions the dictator figure out of a ← 175 | 176 → woman’s body. This postmodern novel explores the theme of dictatorship largely through analogy, reimagining a dictator’s relationship with his citizens as that between an author and her creations. Through this lens, King-Aribisala highlights the deep structural implications of authoritarian power, and the narrative product of the law as restraining the characters as imagined citizens.

It is now common to describe governance in terms of bodily metaphor: we speak of the ‘head’ of the country, the ‘long arm’ of the law, and of the citizenry as the ‘body politic’. The dictator is the ‘head’ and he is also the first and most prominent body: constantly under surveillance, being broadcast, having his image stamped upon posters, newspapers and currency. It is through his body that the African ‘Big Man’ demonstrates his aesthetics of excess. Achille Mbembe explains:

To exercise authority is, […] for the male ruler, to demonstrate publicly a certain delight in eating and drinking well, and, […] in Labou Tansi’s words, to pass most of his time in ‘pumping grease and rust into the backsides of young girls.’ The male ruler’s pride in possessing an active penis has to be dramatized, through sexual rights over subordinates, the keeping of concubines, and so on.1

The body, however, simultaneously provides the point of affinity with the despot’s citizens: he exists not only as the ‘head’ of state, but also as one of the masses. It is this vulnerability that he seeks to cloak in endless parades of authoritarian power: it is a matter of urgency that he should project the appearance of solid immortality, denying any implications that he, like previous heads of state, may be toppled from command. Mbembe concludes that ‘one should not underestimate the violence that can be set in motion to protect the vocabulary used to denote or speak of the commandement, and to safeguard the official fictions that underwrite the apparatus of domination’.2

The figure of the African dictator (who rose to power, in some cases, on a wave of revolutionary hope – only to prove a source of disillusionment in ← 176 | 177 → the postcolonial state)3 took root in the cultural and administrative legacy of colonialism. In his introduction to Unmasking the African Dictator, Gĩchingiri Ndĩgĩrĩgĩ observes:

In centralized states the traditional rulers were shunted aside to make way for colonial governors who had enormous powers without corresponding accountability to the governed. The colonial state thus created the foundation for the centralized despotism of the colonial era.4

This ‘centralized despotism’ was shored up by the support of Western powers during the Cold War,5 and has resulted in ‘undermining the postcolonial compromise, emasculating the traditional instruments of state power, and bringing about a profound modification of social structures and cultural imaginations’.6 Under dictatorship, the ‘privatization of public violence’ is distilled into the sanctified body of the ruler, and his edicts comprise the ‘official fictions’ of the national script.7

The despot frequently renders himself through body language and in state-authorized texts as the ‘father figure’ of the nation, conflating the sphere of national politics with domestic space. In casting himself as the national father, the dictator adopts the ‘natural’ authority of the male head of the house,8 solidifying a narrative of kinship even while perpetuating ← 177 | 178 → violence against political opponents or ethnic others on a vast scale. ‘The process by which a national identity is consolidated and maintained,’ Mary Poovey advises, ‘is […] one of differentiation and displacement – the differentiation of the national us from the aliens within and without, and the displacement of other interests from consciousness’.9 The dictator controls the state of exception and may declare who is to be excommunicated from the national family. The sovereign’s body and speech are coterminous with the political space of the nation, gaining authority by association with the more local authority of the patriarchal family unit.

It is precisely this association of the paternal dictator’s body with the nation that renders it an attractive target for writers. The body has long been harnessed for national allegory in African fiction,10 and almost universally this national body has been gendered as male. While ‘[t]he female body form, […] that most fetishized and silent of body symbols, figures prominently in early nationalist/postcolonial representations’,11 it has most often been equated with fertility and general expressions of nature, home, ethnicity, tradition and, more recently in the burgeoning field of postcolonial ecocriticism, environment. Women’s bodies have been seen as the communal ground on which the masculine structures of governance may rest, whereas the authority invested in the male body has lent itself as a symbol for state-based political criticism. This position has been revised in recent decades with writers’ invitations to read national symbolism in women’s bodies, such as in Nuruddin Farah’s Maps (1986), and increasingly by women writers, as in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions (1988), Yvonne Vera’s The Stone Virgins (2002), and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s ← 178 | 179 → Purple Hibiscus (2003). In her compelling study of African women writers’ representations of nation, Susan Andrade argues that ‘earlier female writers’ representations of national politics become most sharply visible through allegorical readings of familial structures and institutions’ but that, ‘over time, female writers have changed their writing style and now represent the national imaginary more directly’.12

Nonetheless, it has remained the case that the majority of African dictator fiction discussed by critics has been generated by male writers. This chapter will address an unusual contribution to the genre written by a woman. The novel aligns representations of dictatorship with structures of authority, and humorously revises the dictator’s problematic body in fiction.

The Hangman’s Game

The theme of postcolonial dictatorship is foregrounded in Guyanese–Nigerian writer Karen King-Aribisala’s novel The Hangman’s Game, regional winner of the 2008 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. Uppermost in this novel is the constant struggle for ‘control’, as emphasized in the titular ‘hangman’s game’. ‘This is how the game is played,’ (35) the unnamed narrator explains to her opponent, a young woman:

‘Listen carefully. Each blank represents a letter in the alphabet and the letters together make a word.’

‘What word?’

‘I’m the one who knows the word.’

In spite of my pain, I somehow feel strong.

‘I think I’ve heard of this game, Madam, but …’

‘It’s my game!’ I shriek, noting her pouting lips which are curved ever so prettily. (35–6)

‘The hangman’s game’ refers to the children’s game of the same title, in which the opponent is required to guess a word from a sequence of dashes on the paper, each incorrect guess resulting in a detail added to the body of ← 179 | 180 → a stick-figure hanged man. The game is lost when the hanged man’s portrait is complete and the spectacle of a public death is etched out in miniature. ‘The public execution,’ Foucault contends, ‘has a juridico-political function. It is a ceremonial by which a momentarily injured sovereignty is reconstituted’: an act which ‘did not re-establish justice’ but ‘reactivated power’.13 The narrator’s chosen solution to the game – that she plays against her live-in nurse, whom she jealously suspects of trying to seduce her husband – is, appropriately, ‘control’. The narrator threatens to sack the girl if she does not take part in, and win, the hangman’s game, activating political struggle along the lines of labour, social class, and gender.

The hanged man represents powerlessness at the hands of the sovereign whose authority is performed through the ‘“political economy” of the body’.14 Images of hanging proliferate throughout the novel, most notably in the death of the narrator’s friend: a writer modelled on Ogoni political activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. Saro-Wiwa was arraigned before a special military tribunal and executed by hanging under Abacha’s military dictatorship in 1995 (his death contributing to economic sanctions against Nigeria and its suspension from the Commonwealth). The reference to Saro-Wiwa’s death paints a backdrop of authoritarian oppression and resistance in the novel, and spotlights the very real dangers for writers who criticize authoritarian governments.

In the novel, Butcher Boy is the authoritarian leader of a junta that has wrested control of Nigeria and become its president. He embodies overt themes of dictatorship. Just as the hanged writer is modelled on Saro-Wiwa, Butcher Boy is designed to resemble former Nigerian president General Sani Abacha (in power 1993–98). Butcher Boy’s reign is marked by terror and lavish excess; he self-mythologizes to the populace that: ‘Salvation, the nation’s freedom, came from him and him alone’ (19). Much of the novel follows the coups and counter-coups planned to topple him from power. Ultimately, however, the president dies under salacious circumstances – reminiscent of the rumours surrounding Abacha’s death – in a bed full of ← 180 | 181 → prostitutes on the night of a grand party. An effigy of the dead dictator is then paraded and burned through the streets as the citizens exult in the abjection of the former sovereign’s sacred body.

The body of the sovereign is suspended in balance with that of the prisoner, the balance created by the authority of the law. Foucault explains the eighteenth-century reasoning that any crime, in addition to ‘its immediate victim’, ‘attacks the sovereign: it attacks him personally, since the law represents the will of the sovereign; it attacks him physically, since the force of the law is the force of the prince’.15 This is compounded exponentially in cases of regicide which, in some respect, is doomed always to fail. Ernst Kantorowicz explores the ‘dual’ body of the medieval king in political theology in The King’s Two Bodies (1957), for ‘the king is immortal because legally he can never die’: he is a ‘superhuman’ immortal who, at the very moment of his death, lives on through the title’s transfer to his heir.16 In contemporary terms, the corrupt structures of governance may live on even after the dictator’s death, as the mantle of authority passes to another.

While foregrounding the theme of dictatorship in the novel, Butcher Boy forms merely one stream of its political commentary. The novel also features a covert dictator figure, but one who is key to King-Aribisala’s critique of authoritarian power structures: and that is the narrator herself. In addition to the frame narrative recounting her own life, the narrator also intersperses text from a novel she is, diegetically, writing: Three Blind Mice. This novel-within-a-novel forms a piece of historical fiction set in Guyana (the birthplace both of the narrator and of King-Aribisala herself) during the lead-up to the Demerara slave rebellion of 1823. King-Aribisala underscores the connection between the slave revolt and 1990s Nigerian politics in order to foreground homologies around oppression and agency. Each of the characters in Three Blind Mice forms a counterpart to someone in the narrator’s life: she sees herself in ‘Mary … my poor Mary mine’ (157) who is ‘rattling away in her half-demented nursery-rhyme, fairy-tale style […] longing to gain control of her life and her husband’ (8), while her husband ← 181 | 182 → is likewise reflected in Mary’s husband, John, and the nurse echoed in their beautiful servant Rosita. The narrator’s deliberate mirroring of people in her novel reveals her desire for control: unhappy with her degree of influence in ‘real life’, she places the people around her into a fictional universe in which she is God. This is complicated by King-Aribisala’s constant frame-breaking allusions to the fact that The Hangman’s Game, like the Three Blind Mice text it contains like a nesting doll, is fiction; this neat barrier between fictive and real is in turn disturbed by the many pointed similarities between the narrator’s life story and King-Aribisala’s own history. She reiterates her obsession with control throughout the narrative:

‘I must learn to be in control’ (33);

‘As God is my witness, I was going to be in control’ (13);

‘They will not take me out of control of myself’ (13);

‘I must not be blind as to what will happen if I do not control them’ (14);

‘I even had Auntie Lou kill the Governor by remote control’ (176);

‘I’m eye-focused conscious and eye-blind unconscious, out of control and in control all at the same time’ (69);

and so forth. However, in a strange twist, her mania for control is held in counterpoint with her paranoia that her characters in the fictional world of Three Blind Mice are trying to kill her:

All of them – Mary, Rosita, John, the Governor, Quamina and Aunty Lou and Captain McTurkeyen – wanted me dead, and would have gotten away with it if I hadn’t been able to control their words, their thoughts and actions. Had I not done so I would have been dead, hanged by the neck in their hangman’s game. (8)

The narrative is peppered with accusations against the characters, Iago-like muttered asides and vows for punishment. The narrator is a bully, both over her subjects in the novel and to her household staff; her erratic demands are born of feelings of helplessness both in her personal relationships and in the unstable political climate. She writes sullenly of her husband: ‘I need control. He has the control’ (51). Throughout the novel she displaces her own feelings of subjection and powerlessness by bullying others. Her obsession with control manifests in fantasies of dominance over those ← 182 | 183 → around her, usually by choking or hanging – notably, a form of corporal punishment that inhibits speech. Just as a dictator’s performances of power mask a deep-rooted fear of assassination, so the narrator’s own fear of ‘a hanging death’ (7) is reproduced throughout the novel. She takes the greatest pleasure in planning pain for Rosita, the fictional counterpart of her child’s nurse and object of her jealousy. She decides: ‘I will hang her first’ (35), preparing to choke her in ‘a slow death with that rope of long black hair before she goes too far’ (13). Her victimization of Rosita/the nurse, apparently the least empowered in both narrative levels, commences with mind games before advancing to an affront on the body.

It is not only the dictator’s body that holds political significance, but also that of the citizen. The citizen’s body is ground zero for human rights and political expression. ‘The body,’ as Robyn Longhurst insists, ‘is as “political” as the nation-state’.17 It is against the body that crimes to torture or silence are exercised. In West Africa in recent decades, voters have been intimidated and attacked if suspected of voting for the ‘wrong’ party; in Sierra Leone in the 1990s voters’ hands were notoriously amputated by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). Amputations, rape and other forms of torture have been used by militia as weapons against the citizen. ‘[T]he body itself,’ Tony Ballantyne and Antoinette Burton remind us,

has been and remains a zone of management, containment, regulation, conformity, and resistance as well as of contact tout court. Under a variety of social, economic, and political constraints it has exhibited a remarkable flexibility and resilience as both a category and as the matériel of history, even while it has also been the site of suffering, the subject of humanitarian intervention and military invasion, and the object of violence and trauma.18 ← 183 | 184 →

It is the narrator’s encroachments upon the nurse’s body that fan the flames of her rebellion. Threatened by her young employee’s beauty, the narrator has her fictional counterpart in Three Blind Mice shorn of her hair. Mary, the narrator’s equivalent, forces Rosita (her slave) to remove her clothes. Mary is a white English foreigner to Guyana, whereas the narrator, her counterpart, is a black immigrant from Guyana to Nigeria. When Rosita asks if she has incurred her displeasure, Mary responds, ‘Your body is your offence’ (111). In a pointed power play,

Mary moved closer to Rosita, still holding the scissors. Then with quiet deliberation she pointed them at Rosita’s neck. The girl screamed as the beaks of silver touched her skin, then the blades were opened and were grinding and snipping through the girl’s tresses. (111)

Although a stated motivation for the narrator writing her novel is to reflect on the horrors of slavery, in this scene she appears to take pleasure from describing Rosita’s symbolic castration. She describes the ‘grinding’ act with almost sexual pleasure, as though co-opting the imagined sexual mastery of her husband. The success of this fictional show of authority gives her the confidence to have the same degradation inflicted in real life, wheedling with the nurse’s fiancé: ‘It’s essential to my life, to my emotional well-being … actually it’s spiritual … You are more or less married to her. Tell her she’s got lice … anything’ (118). After exacting his promise, she returns to the nurse and takes ‘a long look at her head, which I have no doubt whatsoever will soon be quite shaved. I almost begin to like her’ (118). The narrator imagines the head shorn of hair and physically marked as a prisoner: she has transformed the nurse’s body into her own territory. After the nurse’s hair has been hacked off, the narrator sits in front of her and brushes her own hair ‘till it gleams’, musing with satisfaction on ‘its blackness, its silky sheen’ (126).

However, the narrator has lulled herself into a false sense of security in her relationship with those around her, mistaking agents in her life for those in her book. The narrator repeatedly refers to characters by the wrong names: that is, confusing characters at different narrative levels. The nurse responds to her provocation not with compliance, but by threatening the narrator with scissors – suggestively, also a weapon that could destroy the ← 184 | 185 → narrator’s unfinished novel, which the nurse has discovered and started reading. ‘Did you really think,” the nurse asks in rage, “I am one of the characters in your book, Madam? Did you really believe that you can continue to terrorize me? You piece of shit”’(127). Shocked, the narrator is:

so frightened I cannot speak. I cannot even pretend courage when I see the malice in her eyes.

‘It isn’t a game when the shoe is placed on the other foot is it, Madam?’

‘Shoe?’ I repeat stupidly. (127)

The narrator is rendered mute by the nurse’s act of terrorism, reduced to ‘stupidly’ repeating one whom she regards as her own creature, having confused her with her fictional counterpart. The nurse concludes the ordeal by spitting: ‘“Madam, I am not a character in your book”’ (129). She denies the narrator’s authority over her, claiming her status as a real rather than imagined citizen. This insubordination reminds the narrator that she is not outside society but in it. Like the dictator, she has perpetuated the myth of sovereign exception, in which ‘the sovereign, having the legal power to suspend the validity of the law, legally places himself outside the law’.19 The dictator pretends to be immortal but is made vulnerable by his body. In the same way the narrator has imagined herself as being outside of the narrative, and is therefore staggered when the nurse makes clear that she is not exempt from the physics contained in that narrative frame, over which she enjoys less control than she had imagined. This episode fans the narrator’s ever escalating paranoia.

Despite her preoccupation with control, the novel showcases the narrator gradually losing the plot. Her loss of control is signalled first in the release of information. Descriptions and events shift from appearing first in the frame narrative and then in Three Blind Mice, to appearing first in the actions and mouths of her characters and then as an echo in her own life. For example, at the funeral of the hanged writer, the narrator observes ‘the coffin, roughly hacked and put together with bright round tops of nails on ← 185 | 186 → the planks’ (16). Later, in the Three Blind Mice narrative, she consciously harvests that description for John’s coffin, writing that it was ‘a rectangular wooden box of planks hurriedly hammered together with bright nails. The tops of the nails are round silver disks which shine in the darkness’ (22). She also puts her own words into the mouths of the characters, such as the first words of the novel, ‘They wanted me dead’ (7), being reproduced as the first words of Three Blind Mice in Mary’s speech: ‘They wanted my John hanged. They wanted to see him dead’ (21). As the narrative progresses the temporal causality becomes broken, with control of the timeline originating in the ‘embedded narrative’ rather than with the narrator.20 Instead of writing the script of the characters, it appears as though the imagined citizens are controlling her. Mélanie Joseph-Vilain points out that ‘the polysemous verb “plot” is explicitly used: “Only God knows what they are plotting for me” (41) – as if she was being written by her novel instead of writing it’.21 Further, rather than a clean schism between the Three Blind Mice narrative and the frame narrative, the novel-within-a-novel starts to bleed into her own narration as well as she extends the embedded narrative’s events within her own story frame. The narrator starts to fetishize the act of writing itself as a means of controlling her own universe, increasingly viewing the text of Three Blind Mice as a semi-autonomous parallel world to which she is in thrall. Fearing a political coup at an event she is to attend, she scrawls hurriedly: ‘IF I HAVE WRITTEN ANYTHING ABOUT THE GOVERNOR BEING MURDERED AT DINNER, I HEREBY EXPUNGE IT’ (131) on her way out of the house.

The narrator also appears increasingly ignorant of what her characters are ‘up to’ (101), interrupting her own narration to question:

What’s John up to in my novel? The runaway slave has been caught by McTurkeyen. Mary and Gruegel and Parsons are making their way back to Georgetown and from there they’ll go to their respective plantations. But what has John been doing with himself? (101) ← 186 | 187 →

By airing the narrator’s obsessions and fears alongside the career of Butcher Boy, King-Aribisala invites us to read her narrator as a dictatorial figure, drawing confidently on the structural analogy between authorship and authoritarianism. The author-narrator is functionally a dictator in this postmodern narrative, writing a script to which she expects her characters to conform. Narrative takes the place of the law, and the rebelling citizens who diverge from her script may expect to be punished by hanging – the capital punishment of which the narrator is so fond. Foucault observes that ‘by breaking the law’ – that is, by contradicting the sovereign’s will – ‘the offender has touched the very person of the prince’.22 The narrator’s urge to violence against those who she views as transgressing the ‘law’ of her narrative constitutes ‘the reply of the sovereign to those who attacked his will, his law, or his person’.23 Authorship in this context is cast as ontological violence against imagined citizens. Drawing on Benedict Anderson’s formulation of ‘imagined communities’, the concept of ‘imagined citizens’ must have implications for citizens living under dictatorial regimes. The term implies that such citizens are not ‘real’ in the sense of being flesh and blood: they are the subjects of an authority that imagines them to be disposable, whose lives may be written or overwritten (or expunged) with a magisterial decree or an amendment to the law. These citizens are merely characters in the national narrative, and remain imagined because the dictator, who writes the script that runs their lives, is unlikely to meet his ‘subjects’ in the flesh: theirs is always a compromised freedom.24 In this narrative, characters fill the function of imagined citizens while the narrator is determined to exert her authority at all costs: ‘The plot was mine but my characters were intent on out-plotting me. As God is my witness, ← 187 | 188 → I was going to be in control whether they liked it or not – or kill them off’ (King-Aribisala 13). Her rambling, repetitive prose returns obsessively to the problem of mastery and the divine right of her rulership. Just as the sovereign’s body is coterminous with the nation-state, so too is it overlayed with the narrative product of the law that both creates the space and conditions of statehood and sustains it with fictions (harmless or otherwise). The sovereign’s ‘embodied equivalence with the country extends beyond the semantic to the rhetorical register as well’.25 ‘The address to nation as narration,’ Homi Bhabha writes, ‘stresses the insistence of political power and cultural authority in what Derrida describes as the “irreducible excess of the syntactic over the semantic”’.26

In The Hangman’s Game, the text itself is imagined as a body that bleeds, leaks and becomes increasingly deformed in its narrative coherence. The text is both held up as powerful and sacred, while at the same time articulating deep ambivalence about the authority with which it is invested – interrogating authority while also perpetuating it. The implications of this conceptual movement are suggested in, but never quite confronted by, the actual sacred text in the novel, the Bible. The conclusion of the novel leaves ‘control’ in the hands of God. Operating as a literal deus ex machina, the narrator’s reliance upon religious salvation reads as allegorical postmodern comedy until the author’s statements in interview are taken into account. In interview with Ronnie Uzoigwe, King-Aribisala has declared her own perception of Nigerian politics as constituting a ‘spiritual problem’ to be reconciled through ‘[p]rayer and just giving the control back to God, to handle it’, suggesting a passivity that tends to undermine the struggle for postcolonial power articulated in the novel.27 The text raises the spectre of ← 188 | 189 → this extra rung of authority, but never fully mobilizes the allegory – across the extra leap between character, narrator, dictator, deity – suggested by the plentiful Christian religious allusions in the text.

Ultimately, the narrator proves impotent as a dictator, unable to control the characters who are her subjects (in both senses of the word). The characters as unwilling citizens resist her authority by erupting through the borders of the postmodernist frame narrative and behaving in unexpected ways, acting outside of the total jurisdiction she had sought to claim over their lives. We can read the characters’ refusal to be contained alongside the rioting in the streets following Butcher Boy’s death. Their success over the failed dictator may be read as a politically activated ‘saturation of content in form’,28 because the collective impulse has wrested control and agency from the singular sovereign, contributing to the recent drive towards what Bill Ashcroft has described as ‘the emerging genre of post-colonial utopianism’.29

The elision of boundaries is also facilitated by the conscious similarities between the narrator and King-Aribisala, reflecting the postmodernist affection for destabilizing reality. Both are female writers originally from Guyana having settled in Nigeria after marrying a Nigerian citizen.30 ← 189 | 190 → Furthermore, King-Aribisala has stated in interview of the texts she has written that ‘all of them are like my children’ and that she writes in order to ‘get some control over my existence and of the things that happen around me’.31 As Joseph-Vilain has described it:

The relationship between reality and fiction in The Hangman’s Game is all the more complex as the ‘real’ Nigeria is itself fictional, while the ‘fictional’ facts in Three Blind Mice are based on historical events, which means that the novel does not stage the resurgence of fiction into reality, but the resurgence of fiction into (realistic, historically-based) fiction.32

Throughout, the narrator refers to herself not only as the ‘author’ of the characters but also as their ‘mother’:

Indeed, in a way, the seven are all my children, deviant as they are. I must be firm. I must make them do what I want. I must not be blind as to what will happen if I do not control them. (13–14)

Her self-positioning as the mother of the characters who are, in every sense, her subjects provides an interesting twist on the dictator-as-patriarch trope. She assumes a local analogy of authority. King-Aribisala replaces the paternal dictator with the (increasingly unstable) mother’s body, providing the unusual analogy of the pregnant narrator as dictator.33 Throughout the novel there is a strong triangulation between the unborn child, the unfinished novel, and the dream of a democratic Nigeria imagined as a foetus to be born: ‘Their stories I birthed with my own words’ (13). The pregnant body exceeds its bounds, is generative, and promises future hope and citizenship; the woman’s body becomes the fertile ground of the nation. ← 190 | 191 →

However, the pregnant body is also placed in a history of representation that conceives of women as objects. Longhurst explains that while men ‘are often understood to have secure (autonomous) bodily boundaries – bodies that are “in control”’, women by contrast ‘are often understood to be in possession of insecure (leaking, seeping) bodily boundaries […] not to be trusted in the public spheres of Rational Man’.34 This is compounded in the case of pregnant bodies, which

can be seen to occupy a borderline state that disturbs identity, system and order by not respecting borders, positions and rules. […] It is a body that is considered dangerous and to be feared. It is also considered to be a body that needs to be controlled.35

It is precisely these ‘leaking, seeping’ boundaries – between levels of narration, between the text and the connected bodies of mother and unborn child, between narrative and the law, between King-Aribisala and her narrator, and so on – that have been deployed in this narrative. Pregnancy, which highlights and exaggerates the physical differences between men and women, at times serves as a catalyst to renew discourses around man as a rational creature and woman as flesh.36 King-Aribisala exploits these associations through her pregnant narrator’s utter loss of control. Her madness and hospitalisation are marked as being triggered by her pregnancy, and her increasingly erratic behaviour is blamed on the conveniently pseudo-scientific understanding that her ‘pregnancy hormones are skidaddling all over the place’ (68–9). Such a construction relies on age-old renditions of the female body as having control over the weak female mind.37 King-Aribisala ← 191 | 192 → has replaced the paranoia of the dictator, who sees a coup around every corner, with the paranoid woman who believes fictional characters are out to kill her and that a member of her household staff is trying to ‘steal’ her husband. Despite her clear attempt to reframe women as possessing a subversive agency through the characters of Mary, Rosita, Aunty Lou and the Deaconness, King-Aribisala’s project is marred by her reliance on a gendered madness that positions the female mind as in thrall to its extravagant, border-destabilizing body. In so doing she tacitly authorizes representations of authority that see men as in control of the power they wield, but women as merely cracked vessels into which power is poured.

Despite these concerns, the use of the narrator as a formal dictator represents an fascinating inversion for dictator fiction. Where most novels in the genre address dictatorship thematically, King-Aribisala’s novel also activates a merger between content and form. However, recent criticism leans away from the academy’s privileging of ‘what we might call pomo-postcolonialist reading (“pomo” as in “postmodernist”)’.38 Neil Lazarus states his ‘conviction that we ought, today, to begin to redress a long-standing imbalance in postcolonial studies by focusing anew on realist writing’, while Eli Park Sorensen similarly rankles under what he views ‘as a “tacit”, allegorizing leap, and by which I refer to the uncritical assumption that a set ← 192 | 193 → of politically subversive concepts corresponds to formal disruption, meta-fictive strategies and labyrinths of narrative structures’.39 While Deepika Bahri similarly argues against the reactive labelling of postmodernist strategies as political, she nonetheless argues for ‘a reanimation of the aesthetic dimension as a crucial category in the assessment of the social content of postcolonial literature’, suggesting that we may construe ‘the aesthetic as political and moral without surrendering it to a transparent and reductive purpose’.40 While I agree with those arguing for a renewed critical interest in the social and literary project of realism, in this case I argue that the subversive aesthetics in King-Aribisala’s novel are politically motivated, flagged by her consistent interrogation of dictatorship and economies of power. King-Aribisala’s novel is an example of ‘the postcolonial text that imagines justice through aesthetic modes more fictional than functional’.41

The Hangman’s Game allies the postmodernist focus on destabilizing narrative with postcolonialism’s rejection of authoritarian power. In this highly self-referential work, King-Aribisala highlights the structural analogy between authorship and authoritarianism by linking the nation, the narrative, and the body. King-Aribisala ascribes hope to the future of Nigeria even while criticizing the devastating effects of authoritarian control. Ndĩgĩrĩgĩ has identified work that is ‘devoted specifically to the interrogation of the ways women writers have fictionalized dictatorships [as] a gap that future scholarship should attempt to fill’.42 King-Aribisala’s fictionalizing of dictatorship through the formal relationship between an author and her imagined characters renders this a text worthy of study. Despite its troubling reliance upon irrational womanhood, the charting of political space across the pregnant narrator’s expanding body and the focus on nationhood as a script through which characters burst forth in a regenerative claiming of agency secures The Hangman’s Game as a provocative addition to the corpus. ← 193 | 194 →


Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi, Purple Hibiscus (London: Harper Perennial–Harper Collins Publishers, 2005).

Agamben, Giorgio, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Homo Sacer: Il Potere Sovrano E La Nuda Vita), trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998).

Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (Verso, 2006).

Andrade, Susan Z., ‘Adichie’s Genealogies: National and Feminine Novels’, Research in African Literatures 42/2 (2011), 91–101.

Ashcroft, Bill, ‘Post-Colonial Utopianism: The Utility of Hope’, in Walter Goebel and Saskia Schabio, eds, Locating Postcolonial Narrative Genres (New York: Routledge Research in Postcolonial Literatures, 2013), 27–43.

Bahri, Deepika, Native Intelligence: Aesthetics, Politics, and Postcolonial Literature (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003).

Ballantyne, Tony, and Antoinette Burton, ‘Postscript: Bodies, Genders, Empires: Reimagining World Histories’, in Tony Ballantyne and Antoinette Burton, eds, Bodies in Contact: Rethinking Colonial Encounters in World History (Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2005), 405–23.

Bhabha, Homi K., ‘Introduction: Narrating the Nation’, in Homi K. Bhabha, ed., Nation and Narration (London and New York: Routledge, 1990), 1–7.

Boehmer, Elleke, ‘Transfiguring: Colonial Body into Postcolonial Narrative’, NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction 26/3 (1993), 268–77.

Colson, Robert L., ‘Diagnosing Dictatorship: Illness, Medicine, and the Critique of Sovereignty in Wizard of the Crow’, in Gĩchingiri Ndĩgĩrĩgĩ, ed., Unmasking the African Dictator: Essays on Postcolonial African Literature (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2014), 167–81.

Dangarembga, Tsitsi, Nervous Conditions (Emeryville, CA: Seal Press, 2004).

Farah, Nuruddin, Maps (London: Pan Books, 1986).

Fludernik, Monika, Towards a Natural Narratology (London: Routledge, 1996).

Foucault, Michel, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (London: Penguin, 1977).

——The History of Sexuality Volume 1: The Will to Knowledge, trans. Robert Hurley (London: Penguin, 1990).

Huggan, Graham, The Postcolonial Exotic: Marketing the Margins (London and New York: Routledge, 2001). ← 194 | 195 →

Huggan, Graham, and Helen Tiffin, Postcolonial Ecocriticism: Literature, Animals, Environment (Hoboken, NJ: Taylor and Francis, 2009).

Jameson, Fredric, ‘Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism’, Social Text 15 (1986), 65–88.

Joseph-Vilain, Mélanie, ‘“The Hangman’s Game”: Karen King-Aribisala’s “Diary of Creation”’. Commonwealth Essays and Studies 31.1 (2008), [80]–92.

Kantorowicz, Ernst Hartwig, The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997).

King-Aribisala, Karen, ‘Conversation with Karen Ann King-Aribisala’, by Ronnie Uzoigwe, Nigerians in America. Nigerians in America, 2003. Web. 4 March 2014.

——, The Hangman’s Game (Leeds, England: Peepal Tree, 2007).

——, ‘What Is Africa to Me Now?: The Sweet, the Bitter ….’ Research in African Literatures 46/4 (2015), 15–25.

Lazarus, Neil, The Postcolonial Unconscious (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

Longhurst, Robyn, Bodies: Exploring Fluid Boundaries (London and New York: Routledge, 2001).

Mbembe, Achille, On the Postcolony (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).

Ndĩgĩrĩgĩ, Gĩchingiri, Unmasking the African Dictator: Essays on Postcolonial African Literature (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2014).

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Wizard of the Crow (London: Vintage Books, 2007).

Poovey, Mary, Making a Social Body: British Cultural Formation, 1830–1864 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995).

Schatzberg, Michael, The Dialectics of Oppression in Zaire (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991).

Sorensen, Eli Park, Postcolonial Studies and the Literary: Theory, Interpretation and the Novel (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).

Vera, Yvonne, The Stone Virgins (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003). ← 195 | 196 →

1 Achille Mbembe, On the Postcolony (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 110.

2 Mbembe, On the Postcolony, 111.

3 In examples such as Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, Guinean Sékou Touré, Libyan Colonal Gaddafi and Malawian Hastings Banda. Such leaders’ reputations often remain in dispute within and outside their country as violence is frequently perpetrated against ethnic minorities. Positive features of their government and opposition to foreign imperialism also renders criticism to their reigns contentious; criticism may be further complicated after western powers’ retractions of support after the cessation of Cold War hostilities.

4 Gĩchingiri Ndĩgĩrĩgĩ, Unmasking the African Dictator: Essays on Postcolonial African Literature (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2014), xix.

5 Ndĩgĩrĩgĩ, Unmasking the African Dictator, xxi.

6 Mbembe, On the Postcolony, 57.

7 Mbembe, On the Postcolony, 66.

8 Michael Schatzberg, The Dialectics of Oppression in Zaire (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991); Graham Huggan and Helen Tiffin, Postcolonial Ecocriticism: Literature, Animals, Environment (Hoboken, NJ: Taylor and Francis, 2009).

9 Mary Poovey, Making a Social Body: British Cultural Formation, 1830–1864 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 55–6.

10 Here I do not mean to second Fredric Jameson’s now-infamous statement that: ‘All third-world texts are necessarily […] national allegories, even when, or perhaps I should say, particularly when their forms develop out of predominantly western machineries of representation, such as the novel’ (Jameson 69). However, even refuting this claim, it is my view that the history of the use of national allegory in relation to the body in African literatures remains a subject demanding further study.

11 Elleke Boehmer, ‘Transfiguring: Colonial Body into Postcolonial Narrative’, NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction 26/3 (1993), 268–77 (273).

12 Susan Z. Andrade, ‘Adichie’s Genealogies: National and Feminine Novels’, Research in African Literatures 42/2 (2011), 91–101 (92).

13 Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1977), 48–9.

14 Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 25.

15 Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 47.

16 Ernst Hartwig Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), 4–5.

17 Robyn Longhurst, Bodies: Exploring Fluid Boundaries (London and New York: Routledge, 2001), 134.

18 Tony Ballantyne and Antoinette Burton, ‘Postscript: Bodies, Genders, Empires: Reimagining World Histories’, in Tony Ballantyne and Antoinette Burton, eds, Bodies in Contact: Rethinking Colonial Encounters in World History (Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2005), 405–23 (407).

19 Agamben, Giorgio, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Homo Sacer: Il Potere Sovrano E La Nuda Vita), trans. Heller-Roazen, Daniel (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998), 15.

20 Monika Fludernik, Towards a Natural Narratology (London: Routledge, 1996).

21 Mélanie Joseph-Vilain, ‘“The Hangman’s Game”: Karen King-Aribisala’s “Diary of Creation”’. Commonwealth Essays and Studies 31.1 (2008), 80–92 (85).

22 Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 49.

23 Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality Volume 1: The Will to Knowledge, trans. Robert Hurley (London: Penguin, 1990), 137–8.

24 Obviously the difference between ontological violence against fictional characters and the very real violence levelled against political dissidents today is total. By suggesting that King-Aribisala has mobilized a political agenda through this structural allegory using ‘imagined citizens’, I have no desire to diminish the real effects of politically motivated violence as some kind of ‘imagined suffering’.

25 Robert L. Colson, ‘Diagnosing Dictatorship: Illness, Medicine, and the Critique of Sovereignty in Wizard of the Crow’, in Gĩchingiri Ndĩgĩrĩgĩ, ed., Unmasking the African Dictator: Essays on Postcolonial African Literature (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2014), 167–81 (168).

26 Homi K. Bhabha, ‘Introduction: Narrating the Nation’, in Homi K. Bhabha, ed., Nation and Narration (London and New York: Routledge, 1990), 1–7 (4).

27 Karen King-Aribisala, ‘Conversation with Karen Ann King-Aribisala’, by Ronnie Uzoigwe, Nigerians in America. Nigerians in America, 2003. Web. 4 March 2014.

28 Deepika Bahri, Native Intelligence: Aesthetics, Politics, and Postcolonial Literature (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 124.

29 Ashcroft contends that the genre is ‘nearly always at least an implicit critique of state oppression of one kind or another’ despite its different forms. He goes on to conclude that ‘for most contemporary utopian theory Utopia is no longer a place but the spirit of hope itself.’ Bill Ashcroft, ‘Post-Colonial Utopianism: The Utility of Hope’, in Walter Goebel and Saskia Schabio, eds, Locating Postcolonial Narrative Genres (New York: Routledge Research in Postcolonial Literatures, 2013), 27–43 (28–9).

30 King-Aribisala has written in a recent article that she felt claimed by Nigeria after her collection of short stories was published:

‘I was now a bona fide African representing Africa, even though I was Guyanese; an individual had represented a group, a continent, and this particular irony was not lost on me. I was moved by the Nigerian reception of this collection of stories – some stories caustic in their appraisal of Nigeria, bitter, some not. In a sense, through my writings I had “come home.” I had become in a way “wedded,” “married” to Africa in a more profound manner than ever before, even more so than my actual marriage to Femi.’ Karen King-Aribisala ‘What is Africa to Me Now?: The Sweet, The Bitter …’ Research in African Literatures 46/4 (2015), 15–25 (17).

31 King-Aribisala, ‘Conversation’.

32 Joseph-Vilain, ‘The Hangman’s Game’, 86.

33 King-Aribisala’s novel was interestingly published closely after Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiongo’s English translation of Murogi wa Kagogo (Wizard of the Crow), also featuring a pregnant dictator – albeit a male one, whose performances of masculine power are destabilized by his increasingly feminine body.

34 Longhurst, Bodies, 2.

35 Longhurst, Bodies, 6 (my emphasis).

36 In popular culture a pregnant woman’s tiredness is commonly interpreted as ‘baby brain’ (eerily similar to bygone medical linkages between ‘hysteria’ and ‘wandering womb’), while bodily impulses and cravings are seen to suggest that women’s minds are controlled by the demands of their bodies.

37 Men have been traditionally aligned with the mind and the imperial, whereas women, as has been endlessly shown, have been equated with the bodily sphere and colonized space. Huggan and Tiffin explain that:

‘Indeed, it is now commonplace to suggest that women and colonized subjects have been identified with the body and the animalistic, while the “natural” supremacy of men – and, by extension, male colonisers – is evidenced by their apparent transcendence of the body.’ Graham Huggan, and Helen Tiffin, Postcolonial Ecocriticism: Literature, Animals, Environment (Hoboken, NJ: Taylor and Francis, 2009), 158.

38 Neil Lazarus, The Postcolonial Unconscious (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 25. Strong arguments against the general privileging of the ‘pomo-postcolonialist’ texts include that it is to the detriment of the real political work of realist and social realist texts, that it creates and sustains a parasitic market based on one style of writing, that it misreads any aesthetic moves towards hybridity as political, that it is blindly critical of the national, and that it feeds a fetish for ‘the postcolonial exotic’ (Huggan). There are also sensitivities around reading the postmodern postcolonial text as political tout court. ‘The anxieties about authenticity and resistance that surround the postcolonial text,’ Bahri explains, ‘arise from an awareness of its commodity value in the global information loop where Western control of the technologies of representation is still seen as dominant.’ Deepika Bahri, Native Intelligence: Aesthetics, Politics, and Postcolonial Literature (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 160.

39 Lazarus, The Postcolonial Unconscious, 82; Sorensen, 10.

40 Bahri, 6; 4.

41 Bahri, Native Intelligence, 99.

42 Ndĩgĩrĩgĩ, Unmasking, xxii–xxiii.