PoCo Theory: The Theorization of Fiction

Two questions defined the night. One from a French journalist. The other from an audience member. Invited by France’s foreign ministry as guest of honour at the Institut Francais’s cultural event ‘La Nuit des Idées’ [basically, the Paris edition of the Night of Ideas], the French journalist, one Caroline Broue asked Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi-Adichie, if — and I quote — “There are any bookstores in Nigeria?” Crikey. Some question. Some nerve. Now, short of the cued cricket-sounds in the auditorium, the audience decided on a spine-chilling collective sigh of bewilderment. It was an obdurate line of journalistic interrogation. Downright hair-raising. Awkward, with a side of cringe-factor. The same vacillating reactions from the audience will ripple out the room, by word of mouth, through tweeting fingers, to organize into red tickertapes and trending hashtags on TV and social media. Naturally, Nigerians, who caught on too late were blinkered by the news cycle. And we were—for lack of a healthier sentiment—appropriately livid. How dare she?  How dare they? The library question was just that — arrant nonsense. Chimamanda is not the face of Africa, yet, it was a classic (if I ever saw one) case of western condescending.

Being Nigerian, my position on the issue is clear. I am also averse to sounding gossipy here, and so I will say this: Chimamanda’s response to that question was ultimately gracile. Maybe more so. Answered with ethereal calm. Where a lesser being would have taken offense, she answered with her imperceptive interrogator with her usual devious poise. So that in that moment, Chimamanda to us was a worthy ambassador of [insert your social movement here]. That moment was cause for national pride. Short-lived as it was. It should have made the 9PM NTA news in Lagos, Nigeria. Should have filled the cliquey conversations in classrooms from Alagbado to Kotonkarfe, as uniformed school children whispered to themselves [“Did you hear what Aunty Chimamanda said to that useless French woman?”]

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.”

Chimamanda, the 2008 MacArthur Genius Grant winning novelist would later take to Facebook, post-interview, post-contemplation, to add “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.”

Flash back to the tail end of the night in question. The night has gone on without any further drawbacks. Well past the ‘bookstore’ comment. Its Q&A time. A turtle-necked audience member finally gets hold of the mic, (perhaps another moot academic, come to show off by not showing off, or frankly hoping to raise the night’s uncritical discourse on the seriousness of ‘African literature’ to more than an anthropological sideshow). The turtle-necked man clears his throat. He tugs at his spectacles with a finger to balance it precariously on his nose. He commends Chimamanda on her presentation, and then asks the widely read novelist about her opinion [read: understanding], if he may, on the concept of ‘Post-Colonial Theory as it concerns her collective work.’ A sensible question. So the audience turns from him to her, in unison. Their bespectacled eyes scrutinizing the podium, like fireflies in the dark. “Great question.” Some academic types whispers. “Indeed,” they want to know. Many, unsure about what exactly the question is really asking. What the heck is Post-Colonial Theory? In a bind, one can guess. However, since she is the Chimamanda Ngozi-Adichie, she must have a most erudite explanation. Mind you, ignorance in academia (like imposter’s syndrome) is a self-hating dish best eaten in the dark, alone. And so, like most academic elites, they put on the best poker faces. Chimamanda pauses. Her response is measured, as usual. We anticipate the same stinging diplomacy. The same tutoring and sanctimonious aptitude. Instead, she says 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…”

Some oh-so-serious audience members shuffle in hot seats. There are murmurs. Scandalous. Shocking. Demeaning. Her stance is at once offending to the intellectual high-browing that holds sway among these types; “Did she really just…?” one erudite academic asks another. Where the night had just a while ago been near-glamorous, the faces of the audience ignited with admiration for her way with words, her authentic accent, the night, thanks to the special guest of honor, has now taken on an acerbic aftertaste. Chimamanda’s position — is suddenly personal, anti-academic, pro-oblivious, anti-this and that. IDGAF-ish. Some would say ‘politically comatose’. It is nothing short of provocative to a good few. “How dare she say postcolonialism is a made up thing? I mean, her entire literary genre is predicate on this concept, directly or otherwise.” “She writes, I think, historical fiction! In fact, the entirety of her postcolonial Nigerian and immigrant stories cannot be told without declaring the negative colonial aftershocks that still plague all former colonized countries (including Nigeria) till date.” There are perhaps others now asking — ‘and so?’ ‘What even is Post-Colonial Theory?’ And why must she be the arbiter for this knowing? What has she got against Professors? These are legitimate inquiries.

Now, if you are wondering what Post-Colonial Theory aka PoCo Theory is, and hoping to discuss it over Sunday brunch mimosas, let me explain—Post-Colonial Theory is: “A theoretical approach to analyzing the literature produced in countries that were once colonies, especially of European powers such as Britain, France, and Spain. Postcolonial theory also looks at the broader interactions between European nations and the societies they colonized by dealing with issues such as identity (including gender, race, and class), language, representation, and history.” (Original source). If you Googled some more, this is what you would find: 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).”

Chimamanda’s is a classic (not curious) case of academia-fixated rebellion. A product of the revamping waves of the late 60s, and early 70s. An era of social reawakening and hybridity in America, and consequently the developing world (not so much for Europe, an already forward-thinking force). When Academia became the wellspring of social justice advocacy, for the Vietnam war, for LGBTQ rights, for the HIV/AIDS legislation, for civil rights movements, for the feminist crusade, for immigrants. A time teeming with weeklong malarial protests. When famous drunks turned philosophers in cafés, and vice versa. When sensible debates ended in brush-fire fisticuffs. Peaceful sit-ins turned bloody crime scenes. A time of revamps. Conscientious vandalism. Mental sweeps. Paradigm shifts. Bloody noses. Wide-spreading pluralism. Human rights was front and center. Before now, intellectual elites used to frown at this sort of thing. Academia used to be a moralizing and stringent institution. But the mid-century changed all that. Enter: Chimamanda Ngozi-Adichie. She may not have been explicitly seeking to do harm. But her viewpoint? Clear as day. Dissent till the end. Did they not know it was the intricacies in her fiction? Writing excellently about big-letter issues, in that patriarchal neck of the woods, called Nigeria. Daring, as she did, to write/discourse about feminism and LGBTQ rights in an uber-conservative country like Nigeria (where gays get 14 years in a dungeon for sexual transgressions). Chimamanda was intent on shattering every predictable normative glass ceiling there was. And she did! She dropped out of medicine and pharmacy program at the University of Nigeria and would later write fiction. In fact, I subscribed to the refreshing brat-pack mentality she streamlined into her literature. Stick it to the Man. Whomever that may be. A toppling of middle-class hegemony. Question it all. Even if it the opposition was a fraternity of professors. A bold stance seeing that both her parents were robust academics. Her father was a professor of statistics and one-time Deputy Vice-Chancellor of his University, where his wife, her mother, was the first female registrar. In a way, Chimamanda was fed up with that unbending and untouchable life of elite academia. Therefore, she chose to indecorously avoid the hubris. Where some Nigerians thought she was ‘doing the most’ with her bold stories, American scholars celebrated her dissention and her female protagonists. Which may have given her the luxuriant reinforcement she needed to finally stub her nose at the same trado-institutional academia, having also grown up in a university community herself (its magic now lost on her). There is nothing unusual with the deviance of it. In fact, the best works of fiction are often mold-breaking, the old ways thrown out the window. In many ways, this cultural resurgence she touted was contagious. Simultaneously, the African fashion industry was on the rise globally (African Americans pliably and joyfully identifying with a history they once disparaged). Nigeria just passed a Not Too Young to Run bill, encouraging the infusion of fresh blood (so to speak) in a political macroclimate hardened by dictatorial malignances, and despots that still rule many African countries till date. It was all changing. For example, I found myself, too, the son of a preacher positively infuriated by aspects of Christianity (especially, its accompanying sanctimonious religiosity). Perhaps because as with most folks my age, dissent can be sexy. However, being a black immigrant, doctoral candidate, as well as, an elbow novelist (and Adichie-enthusiast) living in Trump’s America, I frowned at her answer. The immunity of ignorance can only protect so far, and after a point you become only as powerful as the knowledge you have at your fingertips. Enter: Postcolonial Theory. Aka PoCo Theory. A phenomenon we need to grasp (even if informally) because it is the bane of today’s society, the cancer that keeps on giving. It is the reason from everything from colorism to covert microaggressions, to overt anti-immigrant sentiments. Which explains why the phrases: ‘cringe-worthy’, and ‘mortal ambivalence’ were used to describe her answer. To an extent, I understand the method to her madness. I even dig it.

However, certain truths are evident. Various genres of fiction abound [even emergent ones like Instagram Fiction]. Making fiction writing a complex cultural and sociopolitical space. One evolving steadily into a platform of directed answerability, not to the powers of meta-narratives and the old lords of colonialism, or the vanguards of semicolons and oxford commas, but to us. The observant reader seeking to understand our contextual place in the state of affairs. Serious writing cannot afford to be apolitical, even when fictional. Still there is the tussle between the old and new, between town and gown. Academics (some, intellectuals) hanker to interrogate fiction writers. They broach literary gatherings with stoical expectations, near-salivating, brimming with intelligent questions. Especially when an invited writer — an unruly child from one of those bumbling developing postcolonist parts of the world — proposes to have a well-known bent for writing their own version of historical fiction (too harsh?). Telling indigenous and human stories without regards for the thematic polishes or traditional narrative formats of fiction — writers of the ilk of Isabel Allende, Juno Diaz, Zadie Smith, Chimamanda Adichie, Walcott, etc. Because, well, oppositional dissent fascinates. How dare they? Academics have wielded this same pliant weapon of dissent against the semi- and uneducated, 20th century brat-pack writers in their own ranks (the likes of Hemingway, Bukowski, Joyce, Fitzgerald, Stein, Nabokov). I know. I am an academic by day, writer by night, concealing both faculties from one another. Even though, some in English Departments of prominent writing program believe there is no conflict, more so now, in the age of celebrity writery.

Academics (like the rest of us) naturally have certain expectations. Including that, said writers occupy some manner of scholastic spaces: e.g. the theory-proficient historical fiction (HF) writer as ‘technician’ of decolonizing narratives. Shepherded, as this writer must be, by a series of memorized postmodernist and critical theories learned in an MFA classroom. Because it is expected that our favorite HF writer, the one who kept us up by night, fired our bones by day, watered our eyes, gesticulated like they knew the big answers, who spoke for the voiceless — must — should — organically occupy an oppositional consciousness too. These are not altogether ridiculous expectations. And where we can allow the likes of J.K. Rowling and Stephen King and E.L. James get away with what has been termed ‘ escapist genre fiction’ or easy reads, it is expected that HF writers serve as both hammer and chisel in the deconstruction of arrangements of oppression and colonization, from their own little corners, no more. A lofty obligation, but doable. Case in point, Adichie’s intentional (or Jesus take the wheel! ‘Accidental?’) Feminist/Critical theories in Americanah, or Juno Diaz and his 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 writing 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. Not that I can decide this for her. Every serious writer finally decides. If I am being honest, my audacity to begin to compose African narratives is in part sourced from her audacity. I write, because she wrote. Now, I can see how Adichie can be categorized as a ‘technician’ of decolonizing narratives. Her MFA and all — master’s degree in creative writing at Johns Hopkins University. MA in African studies from Yale, the list goes on — which could explain why some dude in the audience could ask her viewpoint on PoCo theory 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.

Still, we can be hard on those we love. 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) are nothing without an attending series of critical thoughts (postcolonial, postmodern, poststructural, 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 — political cognition among Kindle-reading millennials is on the rise. Fiction (poetry and prose) is speedily evolving to cater to an attention-corrupted readership. I also don’t think Pan-African writers need explain the manifestations of colonialism. Or what neo-oppression smells like in today’s populist bouillabaisse of overt discrimination. Indeed the scalding radiation of colonialism abounds.  However, they can help capture the attention of an entire generation. They can try to know and to impact that knowing.

Time was when in finding my artistic voice, I, inaccurately, studied mostly white writers (foreigners, to me) by candle light. Through tattered and dog-eared book, I walked the street of NYC with the brat-pack bunch of the golden age, dogs and gods, the lot of them. The likes of Charles Bukowski, F.S. Fitzgerald, Vonnegut, Nabokov, Jack Kerouac Tama Janowitz, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, etc. Most of them armed with broadly hated genre of transgressive fiction (where today, writers are unambiguously out to please). Back then, the cold cuddle of blue-collar poverty made writing at its best seem frosty cool, authentic, hip, down-to-earth, even bourgeoisie. The possibility of titular rebellion and dissent magnetized a fraternity of drunks and daemons to writing fiction. Many of them widely demonized for their ungodly campaigns. Hated equally by all, from homemakers to literary critics; even as they tried to make something of themselves, frantic about publishing with some glass house editors-in-chief. Only a few found later-life fame, some other swallowed the better part of a rifle. Still, they somehow knew the immensity of their work. In Africa, there was also the league of Pan-African writers, Achebe, Obioma Nnaemeka, Walcott, Okri, Soyinka, etc. at a time when writing was not as glamorous, who paved the way for postcolonial deconstructionism as we know it today, changing the metanarrative of the oppressed and colonized one oeuvre at a time. Such that, writers of today (contemporaneous, postmodernists?) like Chimamanda should 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.” I think contemporaneous writers, Adichie & Company, are too powerful a voice not to appreciate and leverage the decolonizing, generation-altering influence of their words. That being said, I think if I had the mic on that stage. My answer would have been simpler. “I do not know, what do you thing?” Its okay not to know. 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.

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

 

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