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Reviewed by:
John Cullen Gruesser. White on Black: Contemporary Literature about Africa. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1992. xiii + 181 pp. $29.95.

During the past few decades, the study of literature has become increasingly interested in discursive formations and increasingly aware of the way in which literary accounts and accounts of literature participate in the formation of discourse(s). Announcing itself as a product of this interest and awareness, Gruesser's study of fiction and travel literature about Africa by non-black writers since 1945 argues that whereas twentieth-century traditions of writing about Africa are "imbued with the basic gestures of Africanist discourse," several recent works by non-black outsiders manage to circumvent the "stultifying and hegemonic influences" of such discourse and hereby perhaps mark the beginning of a new, "post-Afrlcanist," era of writing about Africa.

Gruesser's study takes significant steps towards the advent of the post-Africanist era it promotes and in which it seeks critically to participate, most notably by commenting in some detail on recent work by Jonathan Raban, Maria Thomas, William Boyd, T. Coraghessan Boyle and others who to varying degrees subvert established traditions of writing about Africa. The theoretical framework upon which the often interesting readings of individual works are predicated, however, seems insufficient here, at least in application, for the task of renewal Gruesser recognizes as necessary and desirable. [End Page 419]

The Africanist discourse Gruesser takes as antagonist, illustrating some of its antic conventions from Winston Churchill's My African Journey (for Gruesser an exemplary instance of the political assessment or travel book tradition), Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (expatriate or going-native tradition), and Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan of the Apes (fantasy tradition), is described (acknowledging Foucault and Said) as part of a discursive system, and therefore of a polity, that is "at heart violent" and "at odds with itself." The triumvirate of Africanist writing traditions, coupled with what Gruesser takes to be its three basic gestures ("binary oppositions, image projection, and evolutionary language"), perspicuously governs the argument that traces the persistence of these three traditions and gestures through three generations of postwar authors on Africa. Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Saul Bellow and other first-generation writers "rely heavily on the established traditions and largely or totally ignore the political realites [sic] of Africa." While Paul Theroux, V. S. Naipaul, John Updike and other second-generation writers begin to recognize that "language itself can subjugate Africans," they nevertheless "fail to acknowledge the extent to which their own works perpetuate this process." Exhibiting an increasingly sensitive meta-consciousness in their writing, Jonathan Raban, Maria Thomas, J. G. Ballard and other members of the third generation who "openly acknowledge or actively subvert the traditions they utilize" frequently "make language a subject of their works, illustrating the ways in which words themselves can objectify people." This practice culminates in a "fourth category" of third-generation writers—including T. Coraghessan Boyle, Peter Dickinson, and William Duggan—who produce works that "engage in Foucauldian genealogy, seeking to reverse Africanist discourse by focusing on events that belie its continuity."

Gruesser's three-fold ordering contributes to the clarity of his argument, but does not appear sufficiently conscious of itself fully to exploit its appropriateness as a means of parodying the habitual classification of Africa as a third element between Europe and the Orient. Nor is the threefold set of threefold categories Gruesser employs—three Africanist traditions, three "basic gestures," and three generations of outside writers, the last of which spills over into a crucial fourth category—consistently capable of avoiding the discursive violence Gruesser condemns in that Africanist discourse so "at odds with itself." [End Page 420]

Brian Macaskill
Jonn Carroll University
...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-658X
Print ISSN
0026-7724
Pages
pp. 419-420
Launched on MUSE
2009-01-01
Open Access
No
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