- Subject and History in Selected Works by Abdulrazak Gurnah, Yvonne Vera, and David Dabydeen
Distinguished from the dark background only by their glossy texture, sinuous lines entwine each other on the cover of Subject and History. This illustrates a central notion in Erik Falk’s book: entanglement. In his analysis of literary writing by David Dabydeen, Abdulrazak Gurnah, and Yvonne Vera, Falk draws heavily on Achille Mbembe’s articulation of the multiple layers of time that make up the postcolony and on Edouard Glissant’s notion of “relation” in Caribbean “non-history.” Instead of the flawed yet popular conception of postcolonial writing as simply a “writing back” to the imperial center, Falk insists on how these writers engage with the conflictual and open-ended layering of temporalities and subjectivities in their respective postcolonial contexts.
In his reading of Gurnah—which deserves placing this neglected writer on the academic map—Falk distills a finely nuanced conception of exile, antinationalism, and familial relations from the novels Admiring Silence, By the Sea, and Desertion. Edward Said’s Reflections on Exile and Homi Bhabha’s theorization of migrant in-betweenness supply some of the terms of Falk’s analysis, but both theorists are found wanting: Gurnah’s unsentimental narration of the subject’s entanglement in Zanzibari history and transcontinental migration questions Said’s residually nostalgic view of exile, whereas Bhabha’s focus on national (un-)belonging elides other, notably familial, registers of belonging.
If Gurnah’s fiction is constitutively cosmopolitan, then Falk reads Vera within and against the constricted national context of Zimbabwe. The novels Without a Name, Butterfly Burning, and The Stone Virgins are seen as challenges to nationalist, “patriotic” history imposed by the ZANU-PF regime. Falk argues that the hypostasized anticolonial binaries and enforced silences of official history are displaced by a poetics of bodily movement and becoming in Vera’s narratives. As other critics have observed, this poetics is deeply marked by the plight of women as victims and products of gendered violence.
In the chapters on Dabydeen, finally, Falk looks at this writer’s strategic and ironic reshuffling of an historical archive of dispossession and slavery in the Caribbean. History is in Dabydeen’s work all about loss, but—Falk argues—in a profoundly ambivalent sense: loss “results in the lack of a stable identity but holds a potential for cultural—and perhaps social—renewal and reinvention” (105). Hence, Dabydeen’s call for “creative amnesia,” which is traced in great detail in readings of Disappearance, A Harlot’s Progress, and Turner. [End Page 161]
Falk’s study is elegantly written, meticulous in its formal aspects, and offers fresh perspectives on above all Gurnah, but also on Vera and Dabydeen. Its deployment of theory (of a postcolonial/poststructuralist inclination) is precise and appropriate, at times innovative. What I find lacking is a more thorough motivation for this particular combination of writers. Falk is careful to situate each writer in his or her respective context, but nowhere does he offer a sustained reflection on the conditions of possibility for his own critical practice. A metacritical perspective on traveling theory and literature in circulation as the enabling condition of “postcolonial studies” in Northern Europe would have added further to his work.