- Artificial Africas: Colonial Images in the Times of Globalization
Trickery and translation, fashioning and refashioning colonial styles and idioms in narrative, cinema, and popular culture keep the dark heart of colonialism beating in today's supposedly postcolonial world, as Ruth Mayer demonstrates so convincingly in Artificial Africas. Drawing upon the central insight of V. Y. Mudimbe's The Invention of Africa (1989), Mayer considers the very notion of a self-contained cultural entity called "Africa" a colonial aberration. Specialists in African studies will cheer her on as she explodes the myth that a continent of such incredible cultural and linguistic richness could ever fit the limitations of "artificial Africas." Mayer then coins a term—Africanity—before undertaking her archaeology of colonial "trick translations."
The term recalls early attempts by Négritude writers to define "Africanité"; Mayer, however, uses the term to remind us that essentialist definitions of identity are always artifices in the end. The Africanity that Mayer analyzes takes Euro-American problems as reference points, rather than Africans' experiences of colonialism. In a bold move, she links the figure of the trickster, well-known to students of myth and folklore, to the artifices of the colonizer and to those of the colonized. Given that the landgrabs of the colonial era depended on ruse, one could argue that trick translation was the foundational strategy of the scramble for Africa. Certainly European nations did not have the means to subjugate all of these faraway nations through force; indeed, the greatest surprise of all is that uprisings (and there were many) did not spread and end modern empires long before decolonization in the 1960s. Trickery, as Mayer writes, explains in part the success of European imperialism. [End Page 530]
If manipulation and deceit are the undoing of Africans in the colonial narrative, however, the trickster's tongue is also a double-edged sword. So is his/her gender. Mayer's readings of Haggard, Burroughs, Crichton, and filmic versions of She, King Solomon's Mines, Tarzan,and Congo bring together many strands of contemporary cultural and postcolonial studies, adding significant insights drawn from careful study of the issue of gender. Although few readers will be surprised by the argument that Western characters seek their masculinity in exotic, dangerous locales, Mayer's careful delineation of the historical transformations of this colonial quest-narrative breaks important new ground in this area. If Great White Hunters sometimes become prey, as she tells us, "female trick translators, it seems, easily get entangled in their own manipulations" (150). Comparing different gendered self-fashionings, Mayer also offers a new category: "the global girl." Unlike Isak Dinesen's "Goddess in khaki," the global girls of fictions such as Francesca Marciano's novel Rules of the Wild (1998) revel in their postcolonial hybridity and their unsettled, cosmopolitan lives. Her analyses of these and other sites of trickery show that self-control, as well as control over "the natives," is the true point of these manipulations.
Heart of Darkness offers the perfect counterpoint to the analysis of these self-absorbed, globe-trotting consumers. Here Mayer fractures a term widely used in African studies—Afro-pessimism. The pessimists are outsiders who wish to believe in Africa, but end up either leaving in disgust, as the African-American journalist Keith Richburg does, or by recommending genocide, as the mad Kurtz does. (It is worth remembering that an Italian journalist was in fact part of the group of people who used the radio in Rwanda in order to promote hatred and genocide. Kurtz is not a merely fictional character—he haunts the western psyche.) The evil within is also a counterpoint to the deadly virus in the film Outbreak! discussed in an earlier part of the book. However, the trope of the virus becomes something quite different in Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo or in Afro-futuristic novels. In these narratives, racial difference becomes a virus that attacks and transforms the colonizers through trickery. Yet a virus that makes people dance and have fun can hardly be called a menace.