- Romance, Diaspora, and Black Atlantic Literature by Yogita Goyal
In the twenty years since Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic opened up an exciting new approach to transnational literary and cultural investigation, many scholars have worked to refine the concepts of “diaspora” and “black Atlantic.” Yogita Goyal’s Romance, Diaspora, and Black Atlantic Literature is a recent contribution to this effort, sharing some of the ambitions of works like Sibylle Fischer’s Modernity Disavowed: Haiti and the Cultures of Slavery in the Age of Revolution and Ifeoma Kiddoe Nwankwo’s Black Cosmopolitanism: Racial Consciousness and Transnational Identity in the Nineteenth-Century Americas. Like Fischer and Nwankwo, Goyal is uncomfortable with positioning “modernity” as a Western phenomenon which the disinherited from outside the West must either embrace or reject. She treats the Black Atlantic not as a bastion of “countermoderntiy,” but rather as one of the cauldrons from which modernity (or new forms of modernity) arose. Goyal’s ambitious project traces the relationships among literary genres, political theory, and anti- and postcolonial efforts in the work of Black Atlantic writers and thinkers spanning the twentieth century. One of the primary strengths of Goyal’s book is that it brings together a wide range of texts, approaches, and concepts, thereby opening up some new and often fruitful areas of interdisciplinary investigation.
Goyal’s specific approach to the big questions of diaspora and modernity is to explore the uneasy interplay of the modes of realism and romance in figurations of Africa and the African diaspora. She sees diaspora as fraught by a tension between, on the one hand, a tendency to treat African identity or origins in a mythical, abstracted fashion (typifying romance) and, on the other, a need for pragmatic measures to help promote social and political justice (typifying realism). She argues that it is this tension that has made the concepts of the diaspora and the Black Atlantic so generative for intellectual and creative activity. In her introduction, Goyal juxtaposes two towering figures from Black Atlantic history, Marcus Garvey and Frantz Fanon, to illuminate the poles of romance (in Garvey’s grand colonizing schemes) and realism (in Fanon’s carefully historicized revolutionary activity), while also noting significant degrees of overlap between these two poles. Crucially, Goyal uses “romance” and “realism” not only as particular literary genres, but also as ways of thinking and knowing, and in this way she brings her literary emphasis in dialogue with a wide [End Page 665] array of social and political concerns. While “romance” and “realism” are the driving conceptual poles behind its project, Romance, Diaspora, and Black Atlantic Literature also takes on the complexities of a number of other key terms and concepts, particularly “diaspora,” “internationalism,” and “nationalism.” Indeed, one of the more striking and fruitful elements of the project is its effort to bring together discussions of internationalism and nationalism, which are often set unnecessarily at odds with one another in many accounts of black Atlantic literature (with internationalism or diaspora as a kind of antidote to a supposedly parochial nationalism).
One of the most compelling common threads of Goyal’s book is its insistence on historicizing the many uses of “Africa” (as both a literal geopolitical space and as an often fantastical mental construct) in different times and places. As she aptly notes, Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic, and many of the works that followed its lead, put little emphasis on Africa itself. At worst, “Africa exists as the ‘dark continent’ in conceptual constructions of the Black Atlantic or is relegated to some timeless past as a mythic origin for a diasporic culture” (7). As the chapters of Goyal’s book illustrate, however, conceptions of Africa (by those within Africa and those throughout the diaspora) play a central role in the intellectual work that brings about the distinctive forms of “black modernity” (7). A further scholarly corollary of this investment in the idea of Africa is Goyal’s useful suggestion that fields such as American studies, African studies, African American studies, and postcolonial studies have a great deal to learn from one...