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Reviewed by:
  • African Fiction and Joseph Conrad: Reading Postcolonial Intertextuality
  • Padmini Mongia
Byron Cam inero-Santangelo. African Fiction and Joseph Conrad: Reading Postcolonial Intertextuality. Albany: State U of New York P, 2005. X + 172pp.

"The Empire writes back," Salman Rushdie famously quipped, referring to the spate of books being published in the 1980s by writers based in Britain but whose origins, like Rushdie's own, lay in countries once colonized by Britain. The catchy and clever phrase continued (and continues) to have provenance within literary and scholarly communities. In 1989, the Australian critics Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin wrote a book for the Routledge New Accents series, where they used the same phrase as their title to explore "theory and practice in postcolonial literatures." Through the 1980s, along with the flurry of excitement that surrounded books by writers such as Rushdie, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Michael Ondaatje—writers who claimed belonging to both southern and metropolitan locations—a theoretical vocabulary was also being popularized by the work of postcolonial critics. As new cultural and theoretical maps were being drawn, Homi [End Page 634] Bhabha's work on cultural hybridity offered an alternate model for examining the colonial encounter and its theorization. Yet, despite the tremendous influence of Bhabha's work and the numerous calls urging postcolonial theory out of the binary oppositions in which it was often caught, Byron Caminero-Santangelo says that "the study of postcolonial hybridity remains tied to a typology which defines postcolonial cultures in terms of their oppositional relationship with the West" (1). In African Fiction and Joseph Conrad, he argues that many of the best-known and most influential African novels of the last fifty years "address different forms of colonial power and discourse generated by the history of national independence and the development of the postcolonial nation," even though these novels have often been read through the restrictive prism of writing back to dominant European colonial fictions (4). Caminero-Santangelo's readings of classic African novels go "beyond writing back" and offer a fresh perspective on the intertextual relationship between contemporary African novels and the colonial fictions, such as those by Joseph Conrad, which preceded and influenced them. A long Introduction, "Beyond Writing Back," lays out the theoretical concerns of Caminero-Santangelo's book; it is followed by individual chapters on single texts by Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Tayeb Salih, Nadine Gordimer, and Ama Ata Aidoo.

"Writing back," replete with the subversiveness inherent in the model, has become a standard way of understanding resistance in literatures by people of formerly colonized nations. Courses where the work of Conrad is coupled with that of Chinua Achebe (in particular) are numerous. Caminero-Santangelo's book rightly argues that the writing back model limits our interpretations of African texts. So much more than merely responses to Conrad's fictions, African fiction deals with issues and concerns stemming out of the contexts in which these fictions were produced and to which the authors are responding. While arguing against the limits of the "writing back" model of literary/critical analysis, Caminero-Santangelo examines the political necessities that made the model such a popular one. "Writing back" played a profound part in generating many of the works produced by native writers in the years immediately following decolonization. For many writers writing in the early years after decolonization, there was a grim necessity to decolonize the mind by challenging the fictions that had shaped Western (and even non-Western) perceptions of half-made societies, as Naipaul would call them. Achebe, for instance, as Caminero-Santangelo points out, credits his becoming a novelist with "a desire to counter the image of Africa that runs through British literature as exemplified by Heart of Darkness" (5). However, the prominence of works like Things Fall [End Page 635] Apart has "fueled and given legitimacy to the notion of a tradition which runs counter to a European literary tradition." The impetus to assert difference between a European and African literary tradition also came from critics and theorists interested in challenging the views of many European literary critics, heavily influenced by a colonial discourse that denied the "existence of African literary traditions" (6). Further...


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