- Legba's Crossing: Narratology in the African Atlantic
Heather Russell’s study begins with a salutary reminder that authors’ formal choices always carry ideological significance, asserting that her aim, in turn, is to counter what she identifies as the tendency of African diasporic literary criticism to emphasize “theme, content, and meaning over formal analysis” (1). Although Russell never explicitly engages in narratology, the type of technical literary analysis named in her book’s subtitle, she seeks to affirm the significance of literary form in a select sample of texts by writers from the United States and the Anglophone Caribbean. This regional grouping, which Russell terms African Atlantic, pointedly alters the usual scholarly transatlantic trade routes between North America and Great Britain. The book’s title—Legba’s Crossing—is similarly revisionist, a self-conscious rhetorical decision to evoke a nebulous but insistent “tug of West Africa” (7) informing the aesthetics of New World artists. Ultimately, the book seeks to exemplify a formalist reading strategy attuned to specifically African Atlantic textual practices that “produce liberating spaces, creating multivocal quiltings for new national, global, and diasporic possibilities” (4).
Flanked by an introduction and a short concluding chapter, the main body of the book is divided into three sections: “Interruptions,” which examines James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man and Audre Lorde’s Zami, A New Spelling of My Name; “Disruptions,” which treats the Trinidadian writer Earl Lovelace’s Salt and the Jamaican American writer Michelle Cliff ’s No Telephone to Heaven; and “Eruptions,” which concentrates on John Edgar Wideman’s The Cattle Killing. Although these three concepts officially structure the book, only the faintest distinction is made between them, and the form the section headings take—a dictionary definition of the relevant term followed by a long list of synonyms—signals the book’s preference for interpretive fluidity over any stable taxonomy of form. Indeed, the book’s introduction enacts what it characterizes as Legba’s operating logic of polymorphous interpretive praxis, invoking a wide-ranging, seemingly discontinuous assemblage of critical concepts (including Paget Henry’s “Great Time,” Vèvè Clark’s “diaspora literacy,” the “quilting structure” of Carole Boyce Davies and Elaine Savory Fido, Houston A. Baker, Jr.’s “crossroads” trope, the Yoruban concept of àshe, Wilson Harris’s “limbo imagination,” and the “single History” of Edouard Glissant, among others) that undergird the book’s interpretive practice. Despite the book’s many gestures toward the material world, the Legba Principle it seeks to establish ultimately remains ineffable and protean, more rhetorical than concrete. If the principle proves resistant to any stable description as discursive practice, however, it has [End Page 313] the advantage of opening up the book’s hermeneutic strategies to surprising, potentially productive influences.
True to Russell’s chosen form of analysis, the book’s individual chapters roam freely and with some caprice through historical exegesis, textual criticism, and literary critical debates occasioned by the books under discussion. The use of previous literary criticism is strategic and eclectic, rather than comprehensive, and the book’s own readings typically stay at a general level of form throughout. The first chapter, on Johnson’s fictional autobiography, is perhaps the least persuasive. Although insightfully placing Johnson’s book into a nuanced historical and literary context of post-Civil War political disappointment, the chapter seems short on the textual evidence needed to be convincing in its claim that Johnson’s rather conventional form of narrative satire is explicitly “interruptive.” The second chapter is on much firmer footing, as Zami, Audre Lorde’s self-described “biomythography,” explicitly undertakes “the self-conscious act of destabilizing . . . conventional dictates” (60) that Russell champions. The chapter’s historicizing efforts—noting Zami’s publication just before the U. S. invaded Grenada and carefully reading Lorde’s later writings about the island—help address charges that Lorde’s book exoticizes the Caribbean from a privileged space, and the presentation of Lorde’s self-avowed poetics of resistance effectively illustrates the general contours of the Legba Principle.
The following chapter aligns well...