McClintock and the African Novel as Allegory

One of the motivating principles in our treatment of African literature is Jullien’s assertion that the African novel is always allegorical. This reading is significant in that it calls attention to the colonial power relations, which undergird the hierarchy of a given text. However, as we found in Petals of Blood and Nervous Conditions, not all characters fit neatly into the allegory of colonization/de-colonization. Female characters especially are often reduced beyond recognition as a reflection of African society. She is complete in her submission or else complete in her transgression; in either case, her agency is secondary to male authority. This dichotomy is useful in an allegory of colonization as it underscores the particularly dangerous features of economic oppression that plague societies both pre and post-colonization. However, as McClintock points out, this does not adequately recognize the agency of female bodies in colonial and postcolonial societies. Further, the female body as the metaphorical site for colonial oppression is problematic in nationalist narratives overwritten by the “familial” allegory. In this allegory, the men are represented metonymically as the “progressive thrust” of the state, while women are characterized as the “conservative reciprocity” of national identity (378). Women are vessels for invented national histories rather than active participants in the making of history. To write a further metaphor for oppression over this historically/nationally gendered body further undermines her autonomy.

The consequence of the slippage between these metaphors is particularly visible in the characters of Wanja and Nysha. Both characters demonstrate extreme expressions of autonomy in response to restriction and abuse from the patriarchy. However, as we discussed in class, this is not a specifically “African” patriarchy. The abuse Nysha and Wanja suffer is facilitated by systemic economic inequality perpetuated by the colonial legacy in Africa. Similarly, we cannot call the economic corruption present in these texts the product of a strictly “Western” economy. To do so undermines the agency and autonomy of African political bodies and disguises the cultural/familial values unique to African nations that drive state and local economies. When we try to read these characters as an allegory for colonization, the complex relationship between sexism, racism, and economic oppression becomes blurred and confused.



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