In 2006, Kenyan literary scholar Simon Gikandi sat for a conversation with the University of British Columbia’s David Jefferess. Published in Postcolonial Text, the conversation focused on postcolonial literature and its nuances.
One of the most respected literary and postcolonial scholars globally, Professor Gikandi’s work focuses on the history of the novel with specialty in postcolonial literature from Africa, the Caribbean and India. He is the author of Reading the African Novel (1987); Reading Chinua Achebe (1991) in which he suggests metaphorically that Achebe might have invented African literature; Writing in Limbo: Modernism and Caribbean Literature (1992); Maps of Englishness: Writing Identity in the Culture of Colonialism (1996); Ngugi wa Thiong’o (2000); The Columbia Guide to East African Literatures in English Since World War II (2007); and most recently, the multi-awarded Slavery and the Culture of Taste (2011). One of his most famous books is The Cambridge History of African and Caribbean Literature which he co-edited with Abiola Irele. He is currently editing Vol. 11 of The Oxford History of the Novel in English: The Novel in Africa and the Atlantic World.
Gikandi is currently professor of English at Princeton, and was recently honored with the university’s Howard T. Behrman Award for Distinguished Achievement in the Humanities. He is also affiliated with the departments of African American Studies and Comparative Literature, and the programs in African Studies and Urban Studies.
Read an excerpt from the conversation below.
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Simon Gikandi: When I made those definitions, or distinctions, I was trying to differentiate postcolonialism from what used to be called neo-colonialism, because I wanted to argue that postcoloniality was not just the continuation of colonial structures of power, economics, relationships that had been defined in the 70s by people doing work in neo-colonialism. I wanted to argue that postcolonialism represents both a change and a lack of change. The lack of change was the fact that the institutions of colonial rule and power, of course, had been inherited by the postcolonial elite and continued to define what the postcolonial landscape was, but at the same time I wanted to call attention to certain important changes which had taken place — changes especially on the level of cultural expression. Because I had noted that even the people who were most involved in perpetuating colonial structures would be offended by the suggestion that their project was a colonial project. So I wanted to think a little about how questions of culture, of even feelings — what Raymond Williams calls “structures of feeling” — become important sites of change and transformation. So I was interested in that tension, and the fact that on one level there were very obvious continuous colonial structures but on another level there was a kind of change in people’s epistemological attitudes and so on. I called it a site of transition, in fact, because I wanted to see that play between the continuation of colonial structures and the transformation of structures of feeling as something that would lead to something else — that inevitably there would be a resolution.
In terms of where my thinking has changed: it has changed in a number of ways. The most obvious of course is that postcolonialism or a postcolonial paradigm has become quite dominant within institutions of interpretation, so that no longer can it be seen as a tentative attempt to understand a condition in transition. In North American and European institutions there is something now called “postcolonial.” I’m not exactly sure that that’s the kind of postcolonial phenomena most of us were thinking about ten years ago. In that sense, the institutions of interpretation have appropriated postcolonialism as a code word for something else. What that something else is we can talk about. But quite often, in having conversations with outsiders to postcolonial studies, you do have a sense that postcolonialism has become a mark of difference, whether it’s another word for the Third World or the Commonwealth, it’s still now a descriptive figure of the other in ways which we were trying to challenge ten or fifteen years ago.
SG: I would say that terms such as globalization are inevitably going to lead us to possibilities, but also some problems. The possibility, which is quite important, is that one of the things that has happened in maybe the last fifteen or twenty years in really powerful ways, and it kind of surprises me, is the emergence, at a cultural level, of something one could call a global cultural phenomenon, especially in terms of the traffic in cultural objects, whether it is music or cinema. When I travel in Africa, the shock these days is how a certain kind of idiom has been appropriated or borrowed, and occasionally transformed. Rap music, for example, hip hop: you’ll find it in the major urban centres in Africa. So in that sense you could say that the young people in Africa are involved in the same modes of cultural production and consumption as the young people in the West.
Having said that, that possibility is one which brings us back to the terms of cultural exchange: it’s Stuart Hall, I think, who defined postmodernism at one point as the Americanization of the world; this Americanization of the world continues to take place under the cover of globalization. So the question is to what extent is what we are calling a global culture actually the infiltration of western cultural institutions into these other spaces, or postcolonial spaces? And that is an important question, because almost without exception if you ask cultural producers in Africa what are the consequences of globalization, they will tell you that what globalization has also done is marginalize their own cultural production. Television stations, like other institutions of cultural production, now find it much cheaper to buy, let’s say, television programming from abroad, and they can do so because sometimes, in fact, they are subsidiaries of the same companies in America or Britain producing these programmes. So it is not unusual to see soap operas from America dominate programming in Africa. So, cultural producers feel marginalized in that sense.
The other aspect of globalization that is a mixed blessing is, of course, that in many cases globalization has created a space where postcolonial experiences can circulate and move in interesting ways. I am intrigued by the success of Vassanji, for example, whose novel, The In-Between World of Vikram Lall (2003), is set in Kenya in the 1950s during the Mau Mau conflict in the same terrain as Ngugi’s novels. Now, what makes this an interesting phenomenon? The fact is, this book has been a bestseller in the United States precisely because it’s produced by a Canadian novelist, a migrant novelist, a member of the Asian diaspora in Canada, and seems to fit into a certain global idea of fiction. In that sense, globalization enables it to have a force, a resonance that it wouldn’t have, if, let’s say, it had been produced in Africa. So, globalization creates all of these opportunities for novelists and writers; but at the same time, of course, again the more complex issue revolves around the terms of that globalization. Some people could argue, including myself, that in order for these fictions to become global, they have had to be involved in a fascinating and sometimes disturbing act of cultural translation because their audiences are no longer located in their sites of referent. Let me put it this way: there is a split between the object of representation, and the people who read it. Vassanji’s works are set in East Africa but his readers are North American, and in that sense it would be interesting to ask what kinds of transactions have taken place so that these African fictions can succeed in a global scene. So the global scene, and globalization in general, are transforming the terms of cultural contact, but also transforming the forms of fiction, in this case.
So it opens up possibilities, but it also forecloses other possibilities, and one of the things that seems to me to be foreclosed, very powerfully, is a kind of specific, historical engagement with culture, because that kind of historical engagement with a culture in a place that appears to be alien and far away doesn’t engage us the same way when it is globalized. Globalization, in that sense, becomes a form of allegorization.
SG: I think there is a tension between those two ways of understanding the work that literature does. What kind of literature produced in, or about, the postcolonial space seems to be most successful? To answer that question you just need a list of the most successful novelists. Coetzee, for example, has won every literary award you can imagine. Why is it that certain postcolonial literature should appeal to the Booker prize committee? The simplistic answer is, of course, this is the kind of literature that has been able to allegorize those experiences and to turn them into experiences which we, as Western readers, can identify with, and the question then is what is lost in that act of transaction and translation. In that sense, literature could appear to be the process by which those other experiences are transformed into things that are not threatening to us. Hence, the act of reading becomes the act of consumption.
The second part of it, and I think this is where Spivak is coming from, is really not so much about the literature itself but how it is taught and read, hence, the role of the critic. I think Spivak might argue that the role of the critic is to make literature the medium of problematization. It problematizes experiences which might appear to us to be easily accessible and consumable. So, instead of us teaching these texts in analogical terms where we say “their experiences of genocide are like our experiences of something else,” our task might be to see how the text becomes a site of resisting those kinds of readings. I think both positions — the analogical and the resistant — are plausible; however, my suspicion is that what we do depends not so much on the choices we make but the institutions in which we function. Hence I have tended to emphasize the emergence of literature or English as an institutional practice and to see that institutional practice as tied quite closely not only to colonial power in the past, but also to, perhaps, what one may call the way the First World relates to the Second World, the North relates to the South; because, whether we like it or not, literature is one of the most powerful media by which those other places or localities become accessible to us. Now cynics might say that literature makes other experiences accessible to us in ways that other disciplines don’t, partly because of its emphasis on the imagination, and so on; in other words literature is not tied to certain historical specificities, and hence makes that place we name postcolonial something familiar.
In terms of the relationship between literature and social science, my anxieties have come from two directions. One is the discovery that quite often postcolonial literatures thrive most institutionally in the social sciences where they are cited often as “evidence” of particular places, and I have expressed some strong reservations about the use of literature as evidence. I don’t think it is enough to say that all you need to do to understand the history of apartheid in South Africa is to read apartheid novels. I think apartheid novels are engaged with that experience but they are not that experience. So in that sense I would argue that when we use literature as evidence, we have to be aware of its limitations and see writers as just native informants coming from different perspectives. The reason why postcolonial literature appeals to social scientists, perhaps, is because it is easier to access than having to engage with more complicated documentary evidence. It’s much easier to talk about those experiences as they are represented in fiction, in a way. So, in that sense I am concerned about the use of literature, not so much with the reading of novels; social scientists should read novels, they are part of that evidence, but just part of it.
Indeed, one of the points I have been arguing in more recent work is the ways in which literature as an imaginary experience sometimes provides postcolonial subjects with models for organizing their own lives. If you look at the idiom of politics in Africa, you’d be astounded to discover how often it relies on fictional constructs. One of the most popular idioms in Africa, when it comes to the national redistribution of resources, is the division of the national cake, which is a phrase often used by Chinua Achebe in A Man of the People(1966). So, we have cases quite often where literature has not only enlarged experiences, but also provided a language for mediating them. In that sense, literature is important. But at the same time, it is just one of many things happening in Africa. And sometimes also I’m worried that we over-privilege literature, because I think it is fair to say that it is not the dominant mode of cultural production in those places. It just happens to be a mode that is privileged because of where we are institutionally.
This leads me to the part of your question that deals with cultural studies. Your former department has shifted from literary to cultural studies. It would be interesting to find out why that’s the case and one way of thinking about it is to reflect about the continuous tension between cultural studies and English. In Britain and the United States, people have retreated into literature as a way of escaping from what they thought cultural studies was. Cultural studies was seen as the site in which literature was being “politicized” and, if that’s the case, for institutions that are interested in the political work of literature, then I think it makes sense to focus on cultural studies. Also it is appropriate to focus on cultural studies because, as I said earlier, it is the reality, especially in relation to postcolonial studies and experiences; literature is just one of many media in which culture is produced. There’s music and popular culture and television, and they are all important, and in some cases I would say quite important. So naming it cultural studies is a way of opening it up to all these other works of art.
But having said that, there is a caveat. I do get worried that the notion of cultural studies has come to be seen in a very specific and limited way. I have noticed that one of the differences between the way cultural studies has been consumed and constructed in North America and Britain is this: in North America, if you go to a book store, the cultural studies section will tend to emphasize the media, and media studies, and sometimes popular culture and exclude, in this case, literary studies. Literature is in its different section. In Britain, I was astounded to discover that in bookstores cultural studies is race studies. In both cases I have reservations, because if you limit cultural studies to race — where cultural studies emerges as a way of questioning constructions of race and class, etc. — then that’s limiting. But, by the same token, if you limit cultural studies to the study of popular cultural forms, you are at the same time, perhaps unwittingly, sustaining that old division between high and low culture. So cultural studies becomes the study of low culture, which is concerned with certain marginal experiences; whereas there are other fields like English, or literature, and philosophy and art which deal with higher forms. And since my concern is how to overcome these boundaries, I do worry about that.
SG: I think the first thing we need to interrogate carefully and seriously is the notion of what we think literature is supposed to do. One of the things that the study of the culture of colonialism, and especially, the emergence of the study of literature both in Britain and in the colonial world — one of the major contributions that kind of study can make, and has made — is to show us the work literature did in relation to the institutions of colonial rule. So, that’s very important because it will go a long way to demystifying the idea of literature as autonomous, as pure, as doing a kind of humanistic work, which other genres or modes contaminate. I think there is a powerful mythology of literature circulating in the institution, but it’s a fairly recent phenomenon, because if you look at how literature emerges and the work it does, quite often it was a work that was part of a larger political project. In that sense, literature did emerge sometimes in relation to other disciplines, and sometimes counter to those disciplines. So, the most convincing case to be made for interdisciplinarity, or at least a bringing together of different disciplines, is to recognize the different work the disciplines do, within specific political historical moments.
In colonial culture, in Britain itself, and I suspect even in the United States or in Canada, disciplines have occupied a certain position and were asked to do certain kinds of work. It’s not, hence, unusual to see that in different countries different disciplines are privileged in different ways. For example, philosophy in France, sociology in post-war Germany, history in Britain, and English too: these were usually projects which were connected to what one may call, for lack of a better term, a national project. In Britain, continuously there is an obsession not with English but with history and heritage and Britishness, and English, as you know, only became a powerful project in relation to colonialism, because it was seen as part of the program of educating that small elite who were going to be produced as, you know, English men and women who were not quite English. So English studies has a power in the colonies that it doesn’t have in Britain, where history and heritage, all the way from the 19th century to Thatcherism, occupied a special position. So my tendency is not to see the literary as this site that is pure, but as part of a larger political project that emerges at a very specific moment.
Now, what I would not want to do is to concede the literary to those who want to use it to retreat from questions of culture. In fact, my feeling at the moment is that the more people want to fall back on the literary, in order to retain a space of autonomy, the more the literary needs to be drawn back to its conditions of possibility. It’s not a simple question of “politicizing literature” which is the way it was seen at one point, but it’s a question of accepting the fact that literature has a certain kind of power, and that power depends on its connections to people’s lives and experiences. Now, whether those lives and experiences are political or moral or aesthetic, that is okay. But, it’s again — and this is where Edward Said’s work was so important — it’s that idea of literature in the world; that’s where it functions, that’s where it was important, and that’s where it continues to be important. Now, if we want to retreat to an idea of the literary in order to maintain our distinctiveness from other fields, I think that’s okay, because we are trained in the literary field, and I don’t want to dismiss disciplinary specializations because they are important. Even when we agree on the terms of a discourse, the first thing we are going to notice is that the way we have been trained does determine the way we go about our business. And that’s important. But I’m saying, at the same time, that literature functions, takes place in the world and we have to accept that world, or that notion of the world, as a larger category, and not one limited to the text. Texts are connected to other movements in life.
Read the full conversation HERE.