- Precarious Passages: The Diasporic Imagination in Contemporary Black Anglophone Fiction by Tuire Valkeakari
Tuire Valkeakari’s Precarious Passages provides a compelling and generative source for scholars and students of myriad fields, as she finds a way to speak beyond the usual constraints of national identity and periodization. To speak to the ongoing “representations of black diasporic identity formation” (viii), Valkeakari brings black diaspora and Anglophone literatures into conversation with each other through connected histories that ultimately begin with the Middle Passage. Her extensive treatment of the primary novels benefits through thoughtful contributions from critical race, Atlantic, gender, trauma, and memory studies.
As no universal consensus on the definition of “diaspora” exists, Valkeakari preempts possible confusion and gives several definitions of the term and other concepts throughout her book. Contemporary black diasporas, while not all originating with the Middle Passage, are connected through racism within the Anglophone worlds of the Americas, the Caribbean, and Great Britain. Valkeakari makes four overarching claims with this book: first, through their fictive works, Charles Johnson, Lawrence Hill, Toni Morrison, Caryl Phillips, George Lamming, Andrea Levy, Cecil Foster, and Edwidge Danticat have actually influenced the shaping of transnational black diasporic identity; second, by representing slavery and colonial modernity, these novelists examine the oppressive legacy of those institutions on the black diaspora; third, black displacement can be excavated from unexpected experiences, and a twofold focus on depictions of dislocation and representations of diaspora is important to understanding the complexities of “transnationalism, national identity, and other modes of belonging” (6); fourth, though fictive, these novels represent a “‘diasporic double consciousness,’” and the characters are often “caught, legally or emotionally, in no-man’s land between diasporic identification and national identity” (7).
Through impeccably detailed analysis, Valkeakari addresses “eleven historically informed novels written by eight contemporary novelists of African or African [End Page 575] Caribbean descent” (2) to showcase the varying outcomes of migration on the black diaspora. Thus, the Middle Passage and slavery, along with concepts of ur-trauma, home, belonging, and unbelonging for black bodies take a central position in the five chapters. These chapters are organized by the chronology of the novels’ settings, and Valkeakari includes close readings of the novels that support the argument that she has established at the beginning of each chapter. Most useful are the chapter conclusions, where she gives a summary of that chapter’s contribution to her overall argument and connects it with the ensuing chapter’s arguments and themes. Homing in on the existential journey of Rutherford Calhoun in Middle Passage by Charles Johnson, chapter one “laments the suffering that the Atlantic slave trade inflicted on its victims” (60). The most compelling argument of this chapter is the reading of a “Buddhist storyline” (44) into Calhoun’s journey, and Valkeakari proves that Johnson was interested in the “Eastern philosophical perspective on possessions” that “effectively displaces the slaveholding United States’ understanding of ownership” (45). By doing a close reading of Middle Passage in connection to Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno,” Valkeakari offers robust counters to the notion of blackness as static and unmalleable.
Chapter two examines Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes and the power of narrating “black diasporic subjectivity into being” (98). Hill’s book is situated in a more traditional historical context than the philosophical Middle Passage. The voluntary and forced travels of Aminata showcase the constant movement and reconfiguration of black diaspora identity through a female character who possesses remarkable intelligence, a notion of returning “home,” an unexpected sense of agency, and resourcefulness in spite of ongoing sufferings. Aminata’s experience as a Muslim slave who makes the Middle Passage to the United States, joins the Black Loyalists in the Revolutionary War period, and is relocated to Nova Scotia before going back to the African continent to settle Freetown in Sierra Leone demonstrates the copious integration of non-fiction research into this story. By exposing these forgotten black peoples, whose individual identities have become lost, through Aminata’s story Hill “highlights the link between black diaspora memory and identity” (31...