By Alexis Teyie
In October last year, Marlon James won the Man Booker Prize for his novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings. He is the first Jamaican-born author to win “Britain’s most prestigious literary award.” Earlier in 2015, Zambian writer, Namwali Serpell, won the Caine Prize – described as Africa’s leading literary award – for her short story, “The Sack,” though she explicitly disagrees with the structure of the Prize.
I am a bit anxious about reading James’s work. The violence, a need to like what has been branded Good, a fear of already missing out all make me fear I am already biased before reading. But Serpell’s story I read before the furore, before others’ admonitions and praises told me what to think about it. I lifted the sack, shook it out, and still wasn’t sure what exactly I was supposed to find – perhaps a metaphor about race or gender? This is Serpell’s gift to us: to reveal that what we place and find in the sack is up to us; if the story resists categorization, it reveals the world we bring to the text. This is both radically liberating and immensely terrifying. My project was simple: examine the connections between Caribbean and African writing. However, I kept returning to these Prizes, both linked to the UK, and to this wonderful pair of writers, both based outside of the Caribbean and Africa.
The first question should be a basic one: is there a connection between Caribbean and African literature? Instinctively, I am quick to insist, yes, of course. When prodded further, I am not certain what I mean. Am I saying there is such a thing as a distinctively black aesthetic? That is a rather crude homogenization, and the racializing feels like a colonial hang-up. History, then. A shared historical memory. Yes, this must be it. However, I am reluctant to claim that Caribbean and African literatures are united only by their link to a tragic history, a history of aggression and repression. That their relation is one of absence, of threads of loss which have proven impossible to cut. Even when I narrow it down to the Atlantic Ocean, the ship that my mind conjures is a slave ship. This possibility is unpalatable. And yet, there is a literary history of interconnections, of overlaps, of collisions and elisions. What of the legacy of the Négritude movement? The writings of Martinican Aimé Césaire, Senegalese Léopold Sédar Senghor and Léon Damas of French Guiana suggest the connection is that of a revolutionary vision. Of Césaire’s audacity. A throbbing newness, vital and reverberating back and forth across the Atlantic – recollecting scattered truths, and fashioning a radical future from the remembered past.
Years later, in A Small Place, Jamaica Kincaid asks: “Do you ever try to understand why people like me cannot get over the past, cannot forgive and cannot forget?” And from that point, perhaps one too easily slips into nostalgia. In “The Muse of History” the poet Derek Walcott disapproves: “This shame and awe of history possess poets of the Third World who think of language as enslavement and who, in a rage for identity, respect only incoherence or nostalgia.” I place into Serpell’s sack my own nostalgia, the kind that comes with reading through adult eyes what I first read as a child. As a product of my personal history and education, my understanding of (primarily Anglophone) Caribbean and African writing is necessarily partial and these two categories are also similarly provisional. But what I am trying to answer is this: what unites Teju Cole’s Open City and Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s Kintu – apart from the fact that they’re both novels? What links Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God and V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr Biswas? Are there any discernible parallels between Olive Senior’s poetry and the work of Tchicaya U Tam’si?
Let’s go back to James and Serpell. Marlon James now lives in Minneapolis and teaches at Macalester College. Namwali Serpell moved from Zambia to Baltimore, USA when she was nine and now teaches at UC Berkeley. They are not alone in currently living outside their countries of birth and the setting of much of their work. Edwidge Danticat, Claude McKay, V.S. Naipaul, Jamaica Kincaid, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, J.M. Coetzee, Calixthe Beyala, Leila Sebbar, etc. have lived outside their countries of origin either permanently or for a significant length of time. One of my favourite Caribbean authors is Jean Rhys (1890-1979) who was born and grew up in Dominica but moved to England, and what I think is her best book, Good Morning, Midnight, is set in Paris and London. Like many, I devoured Chimamanda’s Americanah – set largely in the USA. Nigerian-American Teju Cole’s Open City moves between the US, Belgium and the Nigeria of its protagonist’s memory; but further, it’s about traversing inner landscapes. Many contemporary African and Caribbean writers’ identities have prefixes, and their works, often written through the migratory subject or from a position of exile, mirror that complexity and ambivalent relationship to former colonial powers and the US in subject and setting.
We can attribute this phenomenon to the colonial histories of both regions, the general rise in mass migrations. Or perhaps it is tied to the (warped) nature of global/ western publishing, despite the emergence of more publishers based on the continent. Might it be as George Lamming lamented in 1960 that there is no market for literature written by Caribbean (or African) peoples, in the Caribbean (/Africa)? Quite a few of my friends often tell me that, “Kenyans don’t read,” “You have to leave to get published,” etc. Whichever the case, I get the feeling Caribbean and African writers seem less directly involved in each other’s work as in Césaire’s time, but both share a corresponding ambivalent relationship to the West. This brings me back to the beginning – a triangle in which the Caribbean and Africa are only linked by their mutual association with “the West.” Hopefully from a less depressing angle this time. My aim is not to restate the perhaps now tedious argument about whether African and Caribbean literatures are derivative, too involved with colonial memory, and not truly original, or essential. This is not to police authors’ identities either (you’re not really Tunisian etc.).
My point is quite the opposite actually. I am here to affirm that of most authors, few are betting on language as those of “minor literatures.” Who has engaged with Englishes so variously and in such depth compared to Anglophone Caribbean and African writers? There is a fullness, an expansiveness that informs those experiments, that continued commitment to language despite a long complicated historical memory of its weaponization. This is to insist that Caribbean and African writers, regardless of where they are based or what they select as their subject, are not simply homeless, both literally and literarily. They are not only transnational, but post-national, bridging spaces across the Atlantic, certainly, but also globally. If there are charges of nostalgia that can be placed upon them, their critics fail to recognize a yearning for rest, coherence, home that characterizes my experience, for instance, as a Kenyan, and now a Kenyan abroad, which finds expression in our literatures. What are Caribbean and African literatures, then? Two monoliths that, when prodded, dissolve? I hold on to them because through these categories, I am able to express gratitude for a wide range of authors, such as the altogether brilliant Assia Djebar (Fatima-Zohra Imalayen) who passed away last February. These categories allow me to choose my intellectual ancestors and to thank them however best I know how – slowly and with tenderness.