Literature, postcolonial studies

The Postcolonial African Genocide Novel: Quests for Meaningfulness

This Autumn sees the publication of Professor Chigbo Arthur Anyaduba’s book The Postcolonial African Genocide Novel: Quests for Meaningfulness. In this interview with Professor Andrew Burke from the University of Winnipeg, Professor Anyaduba discusses the novel’s key thoughts and focuses, and how it connects to his upcoming classes within the English Department, looking ahead towards his future projects.

First of all, congratulations. The Postcolonial African Genocide Novel: Quests for Meaningfulness is being published by Liverpool University Press on 1st October. I know that the book represents the culmination of years of work and extensive research. Could you tell us a bit about how you came to write the book? And how did the project develop from its initial formulation to the book it has become?

The Postcolonial African Genocide Novel, published by Liverpool University Press, with cover art by Victor Ekpuk

The Postcolonial African Genocide Novel derives from my doctoral dissertation research at the University of Manitoba. I began thinking seriously about the study during my master’s degree program at Obafemi Awolowo University in Nigeria in 2012. At the time, I got into some uncomfortable private and public arguments with some of my teachers and colleagues following a newspaper opinion piece I wrote to criticize Nigerian critics of Chinua Achebe’s Biafra memoirThere Was a Country. Achebe’s memoir had roused some troubled memories of a dark past that the Nigerian state has refused to confront. The bulk of the controversy at the time came mostly from a section of Achebe’s book that indicted Obafemi Awolowo and several other top officials of the Nigerian Federal Military Government for a genocide against the Igbo during the Biafra-Nigeria War (1967-1970). Awolowo was the first premier of the Western Region of Nigeria and well revered in Nigeria, especially among the Yoruba. The university where I did both of my bachelor’s and master’s degrees was built by him and is currently named after him.

I observed, however, that the debates then raging on different media platforms in the country over Achebe’s book and Awolowo were, in fact, not based on a reading of Achebe’s book given that the book wasn’t then available in Nigeria. Instead, most Nigerian-based critics of the book many of whom admitted publicly to not reading the book had based their criticisms on a culled paragraph from the book that was published by The Guardian UK. That was the section that indicted Awolowo and others for genocide.

Two things stood out importantly for me based on those exchanges: first was the power of cultural representation: the ways that framing or naming a book or an event could shape how we recognize and deal with it. Second, those exchanges made me more conscious of the deep-seated issues in Nigeria including the total lack of empathy and national reckoning of the indescribable agony that the state inflicted and has continued to inflict on the Igbo throughout the country’s colonial and postcolonial histories. In addition, I came to realize—a point Achebe also made in his memoir—that there has been and continues to be a deliberate state agenda to encourage national amnesia and to silence the atrocities that the state perpetrated against the Igbo between 1966 and 1970. Not for once at any level of my schooling in Nigeria was I introduced formally to the history or literature dealing with that past.

Beside official state silence, there was also another type of silence one encountered with survivors of atrocity. I believe this silence was what I encountered when I interviewed my grandma in 2013 to learn about her experience during the war. Except for stories of near-death encounters and escapes, she refused to say anything of substance and often glossed over harrowing and personal details. Same with my mum who lived through that time as a child. Same with many of my uncles and relatives. These were people who survived mass starvation and constantly had to flee from one place to another due to the military massive bombardment of Igbo civilian populations. Occasionally, one heard stories about that past told in vague fragments: about people who survived by eating corpses of dead Nigerian soldiers, about children of rape whom families rejected after the war, and so on. Given the level of contempt and indifference that greeted Achebe’s memoir, I understood why people weren’t publicly telling these kinds of stories. So, I wanted to know what those who did told and to what end. Particularly, I wanted to learn whether there are marked differences in narrative strategies and choices when writers set out to write stories about what they believed to be a genocide, as against atrocity stories that were not necessarily considered to be dealing with genocide.

Coincidentally, during this time in 2012-2013, I had taken an interest in the genocide of the Tutsi in Rwanda after I read Boubacar Boris Diop’s novel, Murambi, the Book of Bones. I was noticing some overlaps in the Igbo and the Tutsi experiences: not that the two cases were alike or historically similar. Instead, the overlaps occurred largely in the ways stories about the two cases were told in fictional and non-fictional narratives, the ways that writers who believed themselves to be writing about African genocides referenced the Holocaust for different reasons. So, I assumed that a comparative study of narratives based on the two contexts might illuminate something of each case that an exclusive focus on either case might not. I wasn’t entirely correct about this assumption because I discovered that more connected the stories written about the two cases—at least, at a deeper structural level—than diverged. But anyway, those were some of the impelling factors that culminated into the project of the book.

The book tackles difficult subject matter and, in doing so, asks immensely important questions about the relationship between literature and history, how a fiction makes sense of something like genocide that, as you suggest, “resists meaningfulness.” What were your key discoveries as you examined these novels that sought to represent the seemingly un-representable?

Professor Chigbo Arthur Anyaduba at the University of Winnipeg with his new publication, The Postcolonial African Genocide Novel

The notion of un-representability of genocide has been central in the discourse on Holocaust literatures. Curiously, the writers of the primary novels I discussed in the book did not appear to accept the idea that genocide was un-representable even though they made several references to the Holocaust and even compared the Igbo and Tutsi experiences to those of Jewish people during the Holocaust. Yet these writers showed clearly in their novels that one of the most devastating aspects of genocides occurring in African contexts and elsewhere is its attack on the structures of meaning, its capacity to destroy the signifying power of language. This understanding is based crucially on the recognition that, e.g., foundational or transcendental concepts underpinning every society’s ethical and meaning-making system—concepts such truth, justice, etc.—become indeterminate and rendered meaningless following genocides. Often, these very same concepts provided impetus for perpetrators who killed in the name of, e.g., truth and justice. Yet the very same concepts of truth and justice that perpetrators used to rationalize their pernicious acts are often the only concepts available to survivors to articulate their experience and seek redress following genocides. So, these writers understand that genocide has contaminated language and deprived it of its capacity to signify. And this contamination is perhaps mostly evident in the domain of art and literature. Genocides wouldn’t even be possible without some high degree of artfulness, some quality poetry, and, of course, lots of fiction. Arts and literature often work to provide what the Igbo philosopher Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze has called the epistemic conditions for genocide – those ideas that grant legitimacy to genocidal ideologies and acts. Yet arts and literature are some of the most powerful cultural forms undercutting the project of genocide.

This situation leads to an aporia and to the fragmentation of meaning. This is what the writers had to confront in different ways whether in the attempt to rehumanize those who have been dehumanized, anonymized, and discarded in mass graves, or those who have been zombified and deprived of speech by their exposure to genocide. The question is: what happens when there is no sure ground upon which to stand and comprehend or articulate meaning? What is the purpose or meaning of the mass graves of history confronting the writer? In the stories I discussed in the study, this genocidal situation is represented as a hell-on-earth that the writer must confront in the form of a quest for meaning. All the writers refused to allow the hell of genocide to be the triumphant determiner of meaning, which is to say, meaninglessness. And so, they attempted to excavate the mass graves for something to hold on to, something of an appeasement to the dead, as the Ivorian writer Veronique Tadjo puts it, “to agree to give the living another chance.” So, these writers offered different visions of meaning while at the same time encouraging a kind of vigilance towards language. 

flags on green grass field near brown concrete building during daytime
United Nations, Geneva, Switzerland. Unsplash.

The insistence on meaning is to be understood as a reparative artistic project addressed to redressing the manifold ruptures produced by genocide. Yet the impulse to ascribe meaning and purpose to genocide or to find answers to what Elie Wiesel has called “the metaphysical why” has significant implications, as I argued in the book, for how we are responding to genocides in Africa and elsewhere in the world. To be sure, such attempts to find or restore meaning following a genocide have often resulted in social and political changes: e.g., the formation of new nations, different UN conventions and declarations concerning genocide and human rights, establishment of TRCs, and different forms of critical conversations about human wrongs. Yet such quests tend to emphasize visions of redemption and atonement or as we have it in Canada today, healing and reconciliation. These visions are usually quasi-theological in nature and largely addressed to reforming individuals but not the systems and structures that produced genocides. It encourages us to think about genocide as individual or group coming to terms with horror or as a symptom of social identity crisis and so ignores other important aspects of the tragedy that allow it to be understood as the violent expression of a political crisis so severe that it requires a new kind of political solution that is distinct from those we have now become accustomed to such as TRCs.

You have taught the material – novels, but also memoirs, films, theory, examples from the visual arts – featured in The Postcolonial African Genocide Novel in your courses over the past few years. How did that process help in shaping the book? Are there specific works that have been particularly useful in showing students what is at stake in asking the key questions you pose in the book? Questions about the representation of genocidal violence and question about what work literature, and art more generally, can do before, during and after the experience of genocide?

Absolutely. There are several works including Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, which insists on a powerful feminist reading and understanding of genocidal atrocities. There is also the work of the Ivorian writer I cited earlier Veronique Tadjo whose Rwandan travel memoir, The Shadow of Imana, often provoked deep questions and insights in my classes. One particularly powerful story Tajdo tells in the book concerns a Rwandan woman who marries a neighbour who participated during the genocide in slaughtering the woman’s husband and children and in raping and infecting her with HIV. The story seems to ask us to make sense of what this woman has done. Is her marriage to this man a result of love, reconciliation, a condition of indescribable trauma, or exactly what? What are we supposed to do with this story?

Yet I’d think that Boubacar Diop’s Murambi, the Book of Bones has been the most influential in my classes. The book brings so many things into unique perspectives including questions about the ethics of representing genocide, about the limits of representation, about the work of literature before, during, and after genocides. Diop was one of the writers sponsored to Rwanda in 1998 to write about the genocide as a duty to memory. He said that when he arrived in Rwanda survivors who learnt about his mission to write a novel about the genocide pleaded with him not to write fiction about their experience. These survivors knew too well the dangers of fiction having barely survived the grand fiction that enabled the attempted extermination of the Tutsi in Rwanda. They asked the writer to write facts instead. The survivors had feared that fictionalizing an experience that appears overly unbelievable could potentially trivialize it further. However, Diop refused to heed the survivors’ pleas and went ahead to produce fiction about the genocide. So, questions about the ethics of representation, about agency and about the ownership of atrocity stories often arose. What I also found equally remarkable was that several students—many of whom I believe have been weaned on the popular tropes of the Canadian TRC—would probe Diop’s novel for visions of truth, reconciliation, and healing. To be sure, Diop’s novel deals importantly with these themes but not exactly in the ways that I found students framing the question. I’d think that Diop’s handling of these themes is guided by a vision of decolonization that is based on what the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o has described as the decolonization of the African mind—an epistemic act aiming to dismantle the structures of colonialist racist violence informing how one comes to know about and be oneself. So, Diop’s novel always presented the occasion to reflect on and trouble these themes. In particular, our discussions mostly centred on the “truth” of genocide and what it could mean for different peoples. Why (if at all) do we need this truth (that passeth all understanding, as it’s often been framed)? What’s the relation of this truth to ideas about reconciliation and healing? Those discussions pushed me to question the moralistic and quasi-theological politics of Diop’s and the others’ novels that I referred to in my earlier response.

Would you be able to tell us a bit about what you are working on now? Given the richness and importance of the questions you ask in The Postcolonial African Genocide Novel, do your current projects pick up on or expand on ideas that derived from the process of writing the book? Or does your current work pose a different set of questions?

My current projects are in two broad strands, and I wouldn’t say they pose a different set of questions because I didn’t and couldn’t have exhausted the questions that led to The Postcolonial African Genocide Novel. The first expands on the queries of my book. However, this body of work is taking me deeper into Biafran archives. My initial thought was that I’d expand my attention to other African contexts and attempt a more encompassing and comprehensive comparative study. But I am now realising that I have deeper investments in Biafra stories that stand in my way of looking up, around, and beyond.

The second strand of work I am currently doing, while still centred on the question of genocide, is a creative writing project. I do not think that The Postcolonial African Genocide Novel came close enough to doing justice to the feelings that I described in the beginning as impelling my interest in the subject. In fact, the book doesn’t even attempt to reproduce those feelings at all. There are family secrets and troubled memories that a scholarly work of this kind could not handle. It was quite clear to me while writing the book that its form was inadequate for this other project. Yet I had to write The Postcolonial African Genocide Novel to be able to write a novel that has haunted my mind since 2012. I didn’t understand this until I read William Stafford’s poem, ‘Travelling Through the Dark.’ The poem, which is based on the poet’s own experience of ethical dilemma, concerns a man who driving on the narrow Wilson River Road comes upon a dead deer that has been hit by another car. It’s getting very dark and the man realizes the danger that the heap of the dead deer on the road might cause other drivers. So, he stops, walks over to toss the deer into the river, and only then realizes that it’s a pregnant deer. The fawn is still alive, awaiting its birth. The man on finding himself in this ethical dilemma remarks: “I thought hard for us all – my only swerving –, / then pushed her over the edge into the river.” Like Stafford’s poet-persona, I must write The Postcolonial African Genocide Novel (a work, sadly, of pushing a dead pregnant doe with a living fawn into the river) if only to be able to figure out my way in the dark and write my family’s experiences into a novel.

The Postcolonial African Genocide Novel by Professor Chigbo Arthur Anyaduba is now available on the Liverpool University Press website.


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