- Naturalizing Africa: Ecological Violence, Agency, and Postcolonial Resistance in African Literature by Cajetan Iheka
BY CAJETAN IHEKA
Cambridge UP, 2018.
xii + 211 pp. ISBN 9781107199170 cloth.
The astute quality and polemics of Cajetan Iheka's interventions in Naturalizing Africa make the book deserving of every critical acclaim it has received so far. The work belongs in the finest tradition of scholarly rigor in the environmental humanities, simultaneously precipitating and consolidating prior thinking about the intersectionality of the human/nonhuman binary in African studies and environmental discourses. What Iheka accomplishes in this book is the unmasking and foregrounding of the agential powers of the other-than-human forces that inform and inflect the contours of the human condition as represented in the literary texts he discusses. Iheka offers a deconstructive reading of these texts, as well as of the binaries he examines by decentering the hegemony of humans, showing how the relations and affinities that exist between humans and nonhumans have always privileged the former.
In stressing "the interactivity and spatial nearness of humans with other beings" (34), the book invites us to appreciate the nuanced and interlocking ways in which the human space of everyday life can be a decentered realm in which power differentials are unsettled by the presence of non-anthropocentric subjects. Iheka visualizes this interactive network of relations within a matrix of proximity that demands an ethical affirmation of its own aesthetics. Iheka's theory of proximity imagines, among other things, it as the "shared attributes or similarities that undermine or overwhelm clear distinctions between humans and nonhuman ecological constituents" (17). This idea is developed alongside other theories that deepen the conversations in the field of postcolonial ecocriticism and is made intelligible through discussions of texts as diverse as Amos Tutuola's The Palm-Wine Drinkard, Ben Okri's The Famished Road, and J. M. Coetzee Life & Times of Michael K. One of the major theories the book puts forward is what Iheka identifies as an aesthetic of proximity, defined as the processes by which African literary productions "depict the interconnectedness of human lives with Others in the environment" (23). This is profound for many reasons, including how it enables the author to uncover an important character of African literature that is relevant to postcolonial ecocriticism. Readers will find this useful, aside from the various chapters of Naturalizing Africa that signal the author's careful attention to demonstrating, through very solid analyses, the commitment of literary practice in Africa to ecological degradations and the inhumane displacement of the nonhuman.
Another significant accomplishment of Iheka's brilliant theorizing is that it expectedly compels other modes of thinking about the intersection of African cultural productions and the environment. For instance, and this is not meant to be a criticism of a well-written book in any sense, there is a certain promiscuous aesthetic of nature that comes to mind when thinking about Iheka's theory of proximity. This, [End Page 223] aside from affirming that nature and other life forms preponderate in different degrees around us, is something the author (perhaps in a follow-up publication) will need to address. By going beyond only literary artifacts and engaging more centrally with other domains of representations, such as traditional African performance and theatrical forms, some of the ideas espoused by Naturalizing Africa can find more grounding in what already exists in indigenous practices and thinking on nature. A promiscuous aesthetic of nature, at an ontological level, stresses a relational ecology in which Africans have always demonstrated close spiritual and geographical kinship with nonhuman entities, relating with them with both reverence and comradeship. Take the example of the votary virgin Arugba the Calabash carrier who is the central embodied agent of performance during the Osun Osogbo festival in southwest Nigeria. With a calabash on her head that signifies the ritual burdens and petitions of human worshippers, which the Arugba passes on to the Osun goddess, she marks the symbolic interaction of humans and the various life forms abounding in the river. Although the calabash may contain sacrifice materials to appease and worship the river or goddess...