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Black Narratives and Critical Theory:
Annie H. Gagiano. Achebe, Head, Marechera: On Power and Change in Africa. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2000. v + 307 pp.
Janice Lee Liddell and Yakini Belinda Kemp, eds. Arms Akimbo: Africana Women in Contemporary Literature. Gainesville: UP of Florida, 1999. xii + 268 pp.
As a new century unfolds, it is significant that some of the critical issues that defined the relationship between the so-called Third World and the West because of the colonial encounter from the late-nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries have remained topical. It is not for want of other issues that colonialism and its aftermath have retained such a major position in the critical discourse of both regions; instead, the continued discussions on colonialism are testimony to its overwhelming impact in defining much of the intellectual, cultural, economic, and political reality of the former colonies. Conversely, the discussions reveal how Western intellectual tradition and culture have been shaped by [End Page 461] the encounter. One field where the impact has become quite pronounced is postcolonial studies. The global ascendancy of postcolonial studies, 1 with perhaps even more prominence in Western academia than in the African continent, has created an arena for the examination of the intellectual "rules of engagement" between the two worlds. Africans and Diasporic Africans, especially those from the Caribbean, enter into the discourse wrestling with the dilemma of choosing between adopting the predominant critical voice of Western academia as passport to participation and devising new critical approaches for representing their historical reality on their own terms.
Two recent publications dealing with African and African Diasporic literature advance the discussion. Annie Gagiano's Achebe, Head, Marechera focuses on the literary representations of postcolonial societies in Africa in the works of three noted African novelists, while the other, Arms Akimbo, edited by Janice Lee Liddell and Yakini Belinda Kemp, articulates black feminist views through some seventeen essays discussing works by female writers from Africa, the Caribbean, and the United States. Both texts are similar in their unambiguous rejection of hegemonic theoretical paradigms (at least, that is the stated goal) in their analyses; however, Arms Akimbo not only rejects such paradigms, but also advances alternative models for reading African Diasporic women's texts. Yet the result of this rejection (Achebe, Head, Marechera)or propositioning of alternative paradigms (Arms Akimbo) also reveals the tension in black intellectual circles over the place of theory in literary studies.
Gagiano's work is premised on a pertinent ideological question that she poses at the outset of her work: judging the growing disparities in wealth among nations, she asks, "how are the perceived inequalities of the global system to be addressed?" (2) For one who declares in the second paragraph that she has "clearly partisan positions," the effort to offer an answer to this question is propelled by a rejection of paradigms that appear to reify those positions of dominance. As the subtitle suggests, Achebe, Head, Marechera, goes beyond defining the relationship between the affluent West and erstwhile colonized African countries; it explores the particular ways that the selected novelists have delineated the changing political and socio-economic landscapes of their various societies emerging from colonialism. From the historical view of Achebe's novels, to the tortured narrative consciousness of Marechera, to Head's [End Page 462] unflinching gaze on South Africa's racial tensions, Gagiano seems to be concerned more with the political thrust of the texts—and, by extension, their thematic preoccupations—than with constructing the texts as an arena for displaying theoretical jousting.
If the focus seems too "partisan," it is because of Gagiano's position—a position equally held by many African artists and critics—that art and criticism are essentially partisan. 2 And therein lies what may be regarded as the most provocative aspect of this work, for in her introductory chapter, Gagiano rejects the deployment of any particular theoretical framework in reading the three authors. For instance, she cites a particular reading of Achebe's Things Fall Apart...