- Transnational ComplicationsReimagining Oroonoko and Women’s Collective Politics in the Empire
New dialogic spaces of transhistorical feminist rethinking emerge when women writers from earlier colonial eras are brought into conversations with contemporary feminist critics, especially those with transnational and common-front visions around issues of social justice. Engaging Aphra Behn in conversation with Gayatri Spivak, Lata Mani, Rajeswari Sunder Rajan, Chandra Mohanty, Jenny Sharpe, Avery Gordon, and Stephanie Camp, this essay makes an argument for a more nuanced account of colonial power relations by reopening the question of women’s solidarity across political and cultural boundaries in Aphra Behn’s novella Oroonoko. It challenges a host of criticism invested in focusing on the differences between Behn’s female narrator and her female protagonist, Imoinda. Instead this essay recognizes the different social locations of the two and yet examines how a desire for a protofeminist transnational politics between the imperial woman writer-narrator and the colonial subject in the seventeenth century had the potential to rupture the narrative of slavery. Thus, the term protofeminist is used in this essay as aspirational to define a historical desire for a cross-racial feminist politics of the “trans” within the empire—of the transnational, the transgressive, and the transformative whose praxis cannot be realized within the precincts of seventeenth-century plantation slavery. Its praxis is merely discursive and representational since it deploys the aspirations of the protofeminist within a presentist and praxis-driven frame of the transnational—a post-1990 paradigm attentive to inequalities and differences across national boundaries as well as alliances across national boundaries. Such a reading reimagines women’s collective politics within the empire when the fictional narrator is an alter ego of the author Behn—both mediating the life history of Imoinda, who, in addition to being a fictional character, also stands for the millions of slave [End Page 33] women whose lives were unrecorded and banished out of existence. Such a critical move of cross-racial politics contests the essentialist spaces that much of postcolonial and ethnic studies have fallen into in the name of resistance to traveling theory and an insistence on an airtight internal logic of social, historical, and theoretical locations. Moreover, this move underlines the ability of border crossing trans work to reflect on specificities of oppression as well as connected centers of violence against women. It also enables an examination of cross-border solidarities across history in unlikely places to generate long-overdue dialogues. Such unbound feminism reimagines more empowered and dialogic feminist futures in the twenty-first century through the transgressive possibilities of transnational feminist work that brings a seventeenth-century canonical text into conversation with the engaged political criticism of contemporary thinkers.
Oroonoko, published in 1688, is one of the earliest literary works in English on the transnational slave trade. The “triangular trade” connecting the three corners of the Atlantic—Europe, Africa, and the New World of the Americas—constitutes the narrative scaffolding of the text.1 The novel recounts the story of a West African prince from Coramantien (contemporary Ghana) called Oroonoko and his beloved, Imoinda, who become slaves in the early 1660s on the Parham sugar plantation in Surinam on the northern coast of South America. The British founded the colony of Surinam in 1650 in a region whose indigenous inhabitants were the Arawak Indians and lost the colony to the Dutch in 1667. The novel is largely an eyewitness account by an English narrator on the Parham plantation about the lives of Oroonoko and Imoinda in Surinam. The narrator is the daughter of the newly appointed governor of Surinam, who died during the family’s voyage to the colony for his new position. However, the narrator also shares with the reader the lives of Oroonoko and Imoinda in Coramantien, before they arrived in Surinam as slaves. Oroonoko is the grandson of the hundred-year-old king of Coramantien, and Imoinda is the daughter of the Coramantien general and Oroonoko’s mentor, who died saving Oroonoko’s life in a battle. Imoinda is sold into slavery by the Coramantien king after Oroonoko breaks into the king’s harem on hearing that his grandfather has claimed Oroonoko...