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Recherche littéraire / Literary Research

Automne / Fall 2020


Edited By Marc Maufort

Julie K. Allen, Eugene L. Arva, Jean Bessière, Helena Carválho Buescu, Vanessa Byrnes, Chloé Chaudet, Yves Clavaron, Christophe Den Tandt, Catherine Depretto., Theo D’haen, Caius Dobrescu, Dong Yang, Brahim El Guabli, Nikki Fogle, Gerald Gillespie, Kathleen Gyssels, Oliver Harris, Sándor Hites, Michelle Keown, S Satish Kumar, Jacques Marx, Jessica Maufort, Marc Maufort, Jopi Nyman, David O'Donnell, Liedeke Plate, Judith Rauscher, Haun Saussy, Karen-Margrethe Simonsen, Chris Thurman, Anne Williams, Janet M. Wilson, Chantal Zabus, Gang Zhou

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Charlotte Baker and Hannah Grayson, eds. Fictions of African Dictatorship. Cultural Representations of Postcolonial Power. Oxford: Peter Lang, 2018. Pp. vii + 262. ISBN: 9781787076815. (Brahim El Guabli)

Charlotte Baker and Hannah Grayson, eds. Fictions of African Dictatorship. Cultural Representations of Postcolonial Power. Oxford: Peter Lang, 2018. Pp. vii + 262. ISBN: 9781787076815.

Brahim El Guabli

Williams College

Many postcolonial states, including in Africa, metamorphosed into dictatorial regimes, which diminished their benefits from the end of colonialism. Instead of delivering economic prosperity, social transformation, and liberation, as people anticipated, independence gave rise, in many cases, to disillusionment, defeat, and cynicism in different parts of the African continent. From Morocco to Zimbabwe and from Ghana to Sudan, the termination of direct imperialistic rule did not mean the end of surveillance, policing, arbitrary detention, discrimination, and repression. In fact, authority might have changed hands, but authoritarianism survived and drew on colonial practices to prolong its existence. This state of affairs has pushed scholars from a variety of disciplines, ranging from political science to anthropology, to propose theories as well as formulate answers as to why authoritarianism seems to find a fertile ground in independent African nation-states. The most recent example is the rise of autocratic regimes in the post-uprising Egypt, Libya, and Sudan. In addition to social sciences, the ubiquity of authoritarianism has had African cultural producers’ finger on the pulse about dictatorship for decades. African cultural producers, by which I mean creative writers, filmmakers, poets, painters, and musicians, have established a multidecade tradition of reflection on dictatorship’s multifaceted effects on their countries. Produced in both indigenous and formerly colonial languages, African literatures have not, however, adopted ←327 | 328→a uniform stance to or a one-size-fits-all approach in their treatment of the structural challenges dictatorship has posed to their communities and societies. In fact, African cultural producers have fictionalized, theatricalized, filmed (made films about), and even poeticized dictatorial rule in as many ways as there have been dictatorships on the African continent.

Charlotte Baker and Hannah Grayson’s edited book Fictions of African Dictatorship. Cultural Representations of Postcolonial Power does justice to this African cultural production’s sustained grappling with dictators. This collection of twelve incisive chapters puts an end to the lag the editors argue exists in the study of both “the African dictator novel” and “[f]ictional representations of dictatorship beyond the dictator novel,” (3) and fills the gap in scholarship about cultural production’s examination of dictators and the polities they put in place to ensure the durability of their power. Indeed, the twelve chapters draw on different media, including film, novel and short story, to offer trenchant analyses of the figure of the African dictator. The contributions clearly demonstrate that the dictator is a transcontinental phenomenon that transcends geographical, linguistic, tribal, and ethnic groups. Moreover, the book shows that both pro-US and pro-Soviet Union regimes transformed into dictatorships, thus making moot any argument that might attribute authoritarianism solely to either ideology. Additionally, the reader will notice that regardless of whether power was acquired through elections, legitimacy attained through struggle for independence or a coup d’état, several African regimes metamorphosed into autocratic states in which the president embodies the people, the state, and its institutions. As a result, Fictions of African Dictatorship is a crucial work that, while it dissects African cultural production’s depictions of the multidimensional ramifications of dictatorship in Africa, also gives a holistic view of the rise and fall of dictators on the continent.

The twelve chapters are organized into four sections. The first section entitled “Portrait of a Dictator” features three articles on the photography of Sékou Touré, the limits of “literary strategies in resisting authoritarianism” (38), effectuating political transformation in Bensalem Himmich’s Le calife de l’épouvante, and the satirical televizing of Paul Biya’s dictatorship in Cameroon. The combined examination of photography and memory, novel and language, and finally film and subversion in this section allows us to understand the extent to which dictators make themselves pivotal to their societies’ sociopolitical and ←328 | 329→cultural existence. The three chapters in the second section, which is entitled “Performances and Mythmaking,” continue the reflections put forward in the first section. One chapter examines satire and the carnivalesque’s undermining of dictatorship in Alain Mabanckou and in Koli Jean Bofane’s novels focusing on dictators’ bodies and sex; a second chapter probes the democratic potential in Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s uses of ritual and myth, and a final chapter investigates Ahmadou Kourouma’s novelization of dictators and their characteristics through animal myths. The dialog between section one and two is very deep. For instance, in order to understand the power of subversion and satire that are examined in the second section, one has to have read and grasped the centrality of the dictator’s figure in his people’s life and his domination of the public arena analyzed in the first section. Titled “Compromised Freedoms,” the third section offers three chapters that furnish insightful discussions of the connections between authorship, authority, editing, manipulation, and ultimately treason in dictator literature. The chapter on Gamal al-Ghitani’s al-Zayni Barakat, the one on “Sagila Semnikati,” a short story from Swaziland, and the contribution on The Hangman’s Game focus on the reader’s participation in authority and his navigation of the manipulative aspects of writing about dictatorship. Finally, the fourth section, entitled “Forms of Resistance,” furnishes, as its title explicitly states, three articles that tackle fictions of resistance to dictatorship in the Horn of Africa and Malawi. This section is dedicated to gendered responses to dictatorship’s discourses on women in Malawi and Somalia. The last article in this section is particularly interesting because of its investigation of the intergenerational narratives about dictatorship among Somali immigrants in Italy, albeit through the lens of the very problematic concept of minor literature.

A dialogical reading of the different articles included in the volume demonstrates the depth and the breadth of African cultural production’s investigation of dictatorship, which the editors rightly suggest has not received the scholarly attention it deserves. The book shows that African writers, filmmakers, thespians, and photographers have been sensitized to the abnormalcy of the exercise of power in several African countries and have directed their creative energies to both document and critique it. The editors’ commendable effort to solicit contributions that cover the entire continent, both North and sub-Saharan Africa as well as East and West Africa, has all the more confirmed that dictatorship and its representations are a generalized phenomenon that preoccupies ←329 | 330→cultural producers all over the continent. The inclusion of two chapters about Morocco and Egypt is also a choice that transcends the usual colonial divisions of the continent into compartmentalized parts by separating North Africa from the rest of the continent. In addition to emphasizing the fact that African cultural producers, independently of their locations on the continent, are concerned with dictatorship, this holistic approach to representations of autocracy, which weaves North African literary depictions of political repression and authority in the larger African context, reincorporates North Africa into its African space and consolidates the book’s premise that dictatorship literature requires a wider approach to probe its complexity.

An important takeaway from the book is the interpenetration of power, performance and cultural production. Dictatorship uses cultural production to entrench itself. Dictators understand that power has to be performed, and cultural production is a crucial locus for this performance through cultural memory. Hence, the attention that dictators pay to rewriting history, overcrowding their people’s collective memory with their achievements, and establishing commemoration practices that place them at the center of history draw heavily on culture. However, the dictator’s need for a cultural base to sustain his rule is a double-edged sword, since the detractors of dictatorship also invest cultural production in order to subvert the dictator’s cultural and political authority. Therefore, on the one hand, dictators use cultural production nomenclatures to consolidate their power, but, on the other hand, cultural production is a hotbed for resistance to authority and its manipulative practices. This turns fiction and film into a dialectic space in which play out the designs of the dictator and the will of creative producers. In the absence of other avenues in which freedom of speech could be exercised, literature and film offer the possibility to critique without bearing the backlash that might ensue from criticism. This is also probably why some of the contributors raised questions about the efficiency of cultural production in making change or whether it could substitute political action on the ground.

Fictions of African Dictatorship also makes crucial interventions in terms of the connection between the local and the global in representations of authoritarian rule in different countries. Instead of looking for a foreign savior, who would have mostly exacerbated the situation at hand, the editors of the book and the contributors focus on local African literatures without losing sight of the multiple layers of Africanness that exist in the world. In drawing from works by younger generations of African writers ←330 | 331→in the Caribbean, Europe and United States, the book points to the fact that African cultural producers carry the African burdens regardless of the geographic location they inhabit in the diaspora.

In addition to paying attention to the intricacies of literary representation, the book draws on four important theoretical works: Roberto González Echevarría’s The Voice of the Masters: Writing and Authority in Modern Latin American Literature on the Latin American dictator novel, several of Michel Foucault’s works, Giorgio Agamben’s State of Exception as well as Achille Mbembe’s now classic On the Postcolony. These theoretical works illustrate how power works, is perverted, but also resisted and subverted. While Echevarría’s, Agamben’s, and Mbembe’s works could be said to be the theoretical backbone of the book, other theoretical frameworks are drawn from to enrich the authors’ compelling analyses of power and its subversion in African literatures. In fact, the space occupied by Mbembe’s theory in Fictions of African Dictatorship. Cultural Representations of Postcolonial Power is also a successful example of how theory can be Africanized without overlooking South-South or South-North theoretical dialogs. This said, Mbembe’s seminal work is not, however, challenged or critically engaged by the contributors. It is mainly used as a hermeneutical tool, which limits its productive potential in this context.

The success at presenting a wide range of analyses of African fictions of dictatorship does not, however, mean that this study is flawless. The book displays three limitations: First, the non-inclusion of fictionalizations of testimonial works that recount their author’s direct experiences of dictatorship. Moreover, imprisonment experiences are foundational to any theorization of dictatorship and its literary depiction. Yet, they are not included. For instance, Jack Mapanj’s work could have been a most welcome addition to the volume. Second, an adumbration to the cultural and economic cost of dictatorship in the texts under study would have broadened the chapters’ analysis of the effects authoritarianism has on these societies’ cultural and economic potential. Third, although the book is an important addition to our understanding of cultural production’s rendering of dictatorship, contributors rarely attempt to explain why dictatorships have taken root in these specific places under study. As a result, African local histories of struggle are elided and rarely foregrounded in the analyses.

Nonetheless, Baker and Grayson have made available an important volume that many scholars and lay readers will find both engaging ←331 | 332→and informative. Reading against the grain of essentialist and cliché explanations of African dictatorship, Fictions of African Dictatorship is a testament to the fact that Africans are neither oblivious nor acclimatized to autocratic rule. In a sense, Baker, Grayson and their contributors are also rehabilitating African people’s agency in the face of both volatile rulers and reductive readings of African literature. Therefore, this book is a must-read and a crucial companion to critical studies on African literatures.

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