- Body, Sexuality, and Gender: Versions and Subversions in African Literature, Volume 1
Body, Sexuality, and Gender, volume 1 of Versions and Subversions in African Literatures, is truly one of the most original collections of writings about African literatures I have read in a long time. The volume is bold and imaginative, and certainly thought provoking. Indeed the editors make bold claims for themselves in their finely thought out introduction, and their boasts are not idle. The opening paragraph declares that the series:
aims at laying out new trails for the pursuit of African Literature, to get away from outdated inscriptions and debates. It is time to undo the canonical order of literary texts to be studied and to question the supremacy that certain issues have held in theoretical discussions. Our starting point is that there is not one version of African Literature; rather there are many versions, and even more subversions. There is not one way to look at this literature; there are many. Needless to say, this position challenges the notion of authoritative, uniform truth; it opposes any hegemonic and monolithic political or theoretical discourse.(ix)
The papers in the volume clearly are a testament to that intent. The collection comes out of a conference on "Versions and Subversions in African Literature," held in Berlin in May 2003, and true to the claims of the editors, the papers do illustrate the many different angles from which issues of the body are both imaginatively depicted and critically assessed. The conference itself was a bold step, and bringing together the papers, drawn out of the themes presented on that occasion, allows for interesting reflections on the changing nature of African Literature and African literary studies.
The very title of the collection hints of the breaking of taboos, which is always a challenge. This volume breaks several. Like the conference that inspired it, it tackles subjects that in many African societies are still taboo, notably, speaking of [End Page 195] the body directly rather than through metaphor or euphuism, and more important, speaking of what bodies do, including speaking of sex and sexuality, including homosexuality. As is pointed out in the introduction, in the context in which the conference was staged, the public discussion of homosexuality in an "African" context had become politically fraught, and thus any open espousal of homosexuality as a subject of debate could be seen as a radical act.
Though introductions to volumes are generally important, this one, "Lifting the Veil of Secrecy," is particularly so, for it lays out the terrain, the field of battle, out of which the selected essays arise. After reminding us of the political maelstrom caused by President Robert Mugabe's homophobic remarks at the 1995 International Book Fair in Harare, the editors lay out the ways in which the selected papers enter the terrain of secret taboo and unsafe subjects around sex and sexuality. They are justly proud of the diversity of the volume, a diversity that is reflected not only in their choice of subject matter, but also in the approaches to and strategies of reading the literature, and even in the diversity of the presenters, the editors having made a conscious effort to showcase scholars from different continents, language groups, and generations. These decisions are richly rewarding. What binds the selections is that they are all in some way engaged with the nature and meaning of transgression, either because they are speaking of transgressive literatures or because in upholding such literature they are performing essentially transgressive acts.
The organization of the volume is superb, an unfolding held by its own internal logic. We move from essays on gendered bodies to those on queered bodies, to tainted bodies and finally to violated bodies (though, of course, what the discrete articles make clear is that such categories are never mutually exclusive but rather overlap in a complex process of social mappings of affiliation and rejection). The essays in the first two sections were selected to...