PoCo Theory: The Theorization of Fiction

Invited by France’s foreign ministry to appear as guest of honor at the Institut Francais’s cultural event La Nuit des Idées [basically, the Paris edition of the Night of Ideas], French journalist Caroline Broue asked Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi-Adichie, if — quote — “There are any bookstores in Nigeria?” Thus raising hell, in the form of an earth-chilling, collective, sigh of bewilderment from the audience and social media.

Being Nigerian myself, Adichie’s response, gracile, with calm and devious poise was a cause for national pride. It should have made the 9PM NTA news, should have filled the classrooms as uniformed students whispered to themselves [“Did you hear what Aunty Chimamanda said in France?”] Her response was this: “You know I think it reflects very poorly on French people that you’ve had to ask me that question. I really do. Because I think, surely it’s 2018. I mean, come on. My books are read in Nigeria. They’re studied in schools, not just in Nigeria but across Africa and it means a lot to me”

The 2008 MacArthur Genius Grant winning novelist would later take to Facebook, post-contemplation, to add a rejoinder: “But the question, ‘Are there bookshops in Nigeria?’ was not about that. It was about giving legitimacy to a deliberate, entitled, tiresome, sweeping, base ignorance about Africa… I now know that she was trying to be ironic, to enlighten by ‘impersonating the ignorant,’ but because she had not exhibited any irony until then, I didn’t recognize it. Hers was a genuine, if flat, attempt at irony and I wish she would not be publicly pilloried.”

Before the night was done, a member of the audience got hold of the mic, (perhaps another moot academic, come to show off, or frankly hoping to raise discourse on ‘African literature’ to more than an anthropological sideshow) he asked the widely-read novelist about her opinion [read: understanding] on ‘Post-Colonial Theory regarding her collective work.’ Her response was this: “…Postcolonial theory? I don’t know what it means. I think it is something that professors made up because they needed to get jobs…” Her position — personal, anti-academic, pro-oblivious, IDGAF-ish, some would say ‘politically naive’ — was nothing short of provocative to a good few (yours truly included), and perhaps, predictable to a majority others asking — ‘and so?’

These ones should read till the end.

Now as a black immigrant, doctoral candidate, a nascent novelist, and Adichie-enthusiast, the following phrases ‘cringe-worthy’, ‘mortal ambivalence’ come to mind. And while Chimamanda, whose parents were both academics, has the luxuriant privilege of now stubbing her nose to academia, having also grown up in a university community (its magic used up), I find myself, the son of a preacher positively infuriated by Christianity and its accompanying religiosity. So to an extent, I understand the method to her madness. I even dig it. Rebel away.

However, here’s what I know:

Genres of fiction abound. It’s a complex space. But one that is evolving into a space of rightly directed answerability, not to the powers of meta-narratives and the old lords of colonialism, but to us, the observing reader seeking to understand our place in the state of affairs. Academics/intellectuals usually hanker to interrogate fiction writers, especially when said writer climbs onto the spot-lit podium, dressed in some indigenous garb, with a well-known bent for historical fiction — among other thematic polishes or narrative formats of fiction, (for example with the likes of Allende, Diaz, Adichie, Walcott, etc.) Because, well, oppositional dissent fascinates. Academics come to such gatherings with genre expectations, near-salivating.

Academics (like the rest of us) naturally expect that said writers occupy several scholastic spaces: e.g. the theory-proficient historical fiction (HF) writer as ‘technician’ of decolonizing narratives. Who must be conducted by a series of memorized postmodernist and critical theories learned in an MFA classroom. Because it is expected that our favorite HF writers, the ones who kept us up that night, fired our bones, watered our eyes, who gesticulated like they knew whats up, who spoke for the voiceless — must — should — organically occupy an oppositional consciousness too (not akin to walking around back in the days with clenched fist Afro picks in well-trimmed Afros as a sign of your wokeness). These are not altogether ridiculous expectations. It is expected that these HF writers serve as chisels in the deconstruction of arrangements of oppression and colonization, from their own little corners, no more. Case in point, Adichie’s intentional or (Jesus take the wheel! ‘Accidental?’) Feminist/Critical theories in Americanah, or Juno Diaz and the hermeneutics of love and post-colonial erotica in his short stories, etc.) Fiction writing is not for its own sake, a past-time, as taking a knee before a game is not for a flattering camera angle. What good are you if your writing, in 2018, does not upset the digestion of the hegemony?

There is also the other space: the la-di-da fiction writer as Novelist (not a simple position, but simple enough), protected by the fine sheen of commercialization to be bothered by literary criticisms, so that when invited to share their sagacity all they discuss is their most recent book, their rituals (“how many cups of coffees make one New York Times bestseller?”) Nothing wrong with this literary animal, celebrity writery is in vogue, and there will always be a reader for every material. In fact, if you can milk the system, I say, milk away. It is however, a class of writery that Chimamanda transcends (a novelist who has seriously mainstreamed African writery) whether she knows/accepts this or not. If I am being honest, my audacity to begin to compose African narratives was in part sourced from her audacity.

Now, I can see how Adichie can be categorized as a ‘technician of fiction’, her MFA and all — master’s degree in creative writing at Johns Hopkins University. MA in African studies from Yale, the list goes on — so much so that some dude in the audience could ask her viewpoint on PoCo theory, specifically, and expect a pluralistic answer. Indeed, maybe like some of us, the dude just learned the concept, deciding to take it out for a spin — where two or three are gathered.

Now, if you are wondering what PoCo is, and hoping to discuss it over Sunday brunch mimosas with your manchis then you should know that according to Purdue OWL: “Specifically, post-colonial critics are concerned with literature produced by colonial powers and works produced by those who were/are colonized. Post-colonial theory looks at issues of power, economics, politics, religion, and culture and how these elements work in relation to colonial hegemony (western colonizers controlling the colonized).”

Still, as a budding novelist, Nigerian, AND Adichie-enthusiast, I do fervently expect — no, hope — that Adichie knows the tectonical foundations of say, her beloved novel, Half of a Yellow Sun. Which, in my opinion, qualifies as a pivotal book in Nigeria’s pre- and post-colonial history based largely on — you guessed it — PoCo theory; even though, she claims to be, unpretentiously, a storyteller, not a scholar or academic. Fine and well. Time and time again, we have seen humility can come across as arrogance, context permitting.

On the other hand, novelists like Juno Diaz and Zadie Smith (both on my current reading list, for different sins), for example, are nothing without an attending series of critical thought (postcolonial, postmodern, post-structural, post-British, post-Trujillo, post-this, post-that — ) encapsulated like seeds in the poetics of their storytelling.

Still — still — still, while I don’t think a writer has to pick any one side — A tough thing to admit — since political cognition among book-buying, Kindle-reading, millennials is on the rise and fiction writing and reading is speedily evolving to cater to an attention-corrupted readership. I also don’t think African and Pan-African writers, need explain with embryonic passive aggression what the vestiges of colonialism and neo-oppression smells like in today’s societal bouillabaisse of systematic discrimination. Indeed the scalding radiation of colonialism abounds, still.

Time was when in finding my artistic voice, I, inaccurately, studied ONLY white writers (foreign, to me) by candle light, all night, the brat-pack bunch of the golden age, dogs and gods, you choose: This line-up included the likes of Charles Bukowski, F.S. Fitzgerald, Vonnegut, Nabokov, Jack Kerouac Tama Janowitz, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, all the Apostles of the Bible, etc. Most of them armed with the allure of transgressive fiction (where today, writers are ambiguously PC-focused). Back then the cold cuddle of blue-collar poverty made writing at its best seem frosty cool, hip, down-to-earth, even bourgeoisie. So it was with the fraternity of titular rebellion and dissent that magnetized drunks and daemons alike to writing fiction, many of them demonized for their peripheral campaigns— from housewives to literary critics — while these writers, dead by daytime, tried to reach some usefulness in publishing with some gloss house. Even these ones somehow knew the immensity of their work. Now enter the league of Pan-African writers, Achebe, Obioma Nnaemeka, Walcott, Okri, Soyinka, etc. who paved the way for postcolonial deconstructionism as we know it today, changing the meta-narrative of the oppressed and colonized one oeuvre at a time. Such that, writers of today (contemporaneous, postmodernists?) can not — dare not afford to blissfully attend the duty of fiction writing (especially, if historical) with anything but the mindset of an atomic scientist and the calculated risk of a bomb detector.

According to Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (1990), “The real task here is to displace and undo that killing opposition between the text narrowly conceived as the verbal text and activism narrowly conceived as some sort of mindless engagement.”

In concluding, I think contemporaneous writers, like Adichie & Company, are too powerful a voice not to appreciate and leverage the decolonizing influence of their words (enter: all of Adichie’s works till date).

That being said, I think its okay to say ‘I don’t know all that’ too (Roxanne Gay’s Bad Feminist comes to mind). Ignorance is not criminal (hence it makes sense for Adichie to ask, as she did: “Post-colonial theory? I don’t know what it means.”). On the other hand, Ignorance is no longer bliss (Hence the problem in Adichie saying, as she did: “I think it’s something that professors made up because they needed to get jobs.”) Not cool.

And yes, the library question was just that — arrant nonsense.

Easter Egg: [Read Chela Sandoval’s Methodology of Oppression, for hope restored].

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