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The last decade has witnessed renewed scholarly interest in non-Western literatures and traditions. There is a distinct aspect to this new tide of interest having to do with methodological turns in literary studies and global developments beyond academia. The methodological turns I have in mind include the naturalization—some will say domestication—of postcolonial studies, feminism, and Western Marxism, while the global historical development is the post-9/11 heightening of anxieties over terrorism, international conflicts, and the perceived clash of cultures. One sign of these developments is the currency of cosmopolitanism, transnationalism, and world literature in contemporary literary and cultural criticism. As labels of methodological alignment or ethical-political vision, these terms are fashionable in a good way: potentially, they may yield new ways of affiliating and understanding the texts of culture.
And yet, under the sign of cosmopolitanism and world literature, the gains in theoretical sharpness are often attenuated by losses in historical grounding and attention to the local complexities of these literatures as sites of humanistic knowledge. Susan Z. Andrade’s The Nation Writ Small: African Fictions and Feminisms, 1958–1988 is best appreciated if it is located against this background. The book contributes to transnational literary studies by bringing the evidence of African fiction to the table. The Nation Writ Small scores high points on two ends of the playing field, so to speak. On the one hand, it contributes to African studies by bringing theoretical insights from feminism, postcolonial theory, and Marxism, thereby compelling a rethinking of some of the clichés of the field. At the same time, the [End Page 547] book contributes to transnational literary studies by leavening broad conceptual issues with fine-tuned readings of African “fictions and feminisms.”
The Nation Writ Small is divided into a substantial introduction and four chapters devoted, respectively, to Flora Nwapa and Buchi Emecheta; Ousmane Sembène, Mariama Ba, and Sow Fall; Tsitsi Dangarembga and Nuruddin Farah; and Assia Djebar. Andrade’s introduction frames the book’s analytical procedure by carefully navigating around what might be called the image-analysis of Florence Stratton’s Contemporary African Literature and the Politics of Gender (1994) and the “anti-reflectionist” stance of Olakunle George’s Relocating Agency: Modernity and African Letters (2003). Andrade argues that Stratton’s feminist book is one-dimensional, restricted as it is to analyses of images in terms of accuracies or distortions. Andrade rejects the schematism and tautology of Stratton’s critique of male writers, whereby ideological limitations are accounted for simply on the basis of sexism or writers’ identities as male subjects. For Andrade, “Stratton seems to assume that there is a single, correct way to represent men and women … and that the measure of a work lies in the truthfulness of its representation” (14). Moving beyond this, Andrade’s strategy is to consider the interplay of form and content, as well as the complex work of culture that representations perform. Turning to Relocating Agency, Andrade faults George for being “too committed to exposing the gap between the social and the representative to engage the relation of the aesthetic to the cognitive” (16). The cost is that George ends up giving short shrift to content. I take this to mean that a covert formalism, or worse, weak aestheticism, results from George’s hostility to reflectionist criticism. Full disclosure: as the author of Relocating Agency, I sometimes do not recognize the book’s arguments in Andrade’s claims about its polemical excesses. But my (non-neutral) reservation aside, the construal of mimesis-representation that she elicits is sound: “Once something has been represented in words or visual images, the world has been altered or transformed, for now the object exists alongside the representation, the object, and some form of itself that is also not itself” (17).
Given the promise she sees in Georg Lukács’s approach to realism, it makes sense that she finds Fredric Jameson’s “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism” useful. Andrade makes a strong case for rehabilitating Jameson’s...