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Postcolonial Avant-Garde Fiction  

Adam Spanos

Postcolonial novelists face a difficult double bind. On one hand, they are expected to produce fiction that accurately represents the political and social circumstances of the nations to which they belong. Yet realism came to them as an inheritance of imperial rule, and as such it served as a tool for organizing colonial understandings of time, social relations, and interior experience. On the other hand, experiments in novelistic form that would break with the tenets of realism are often understood as frivolous capitulations to Western fashions or as bitter attacks on cherished traditional aesthetics. For if literary experiments are conducted with the intention of transforming popular tastes, they may very well be taken as analogues of the imperial civilizing mission, which claims to be justified in forcing cultural transformations on colonized populations by virtue of their purported indolence and backwardness. Evidently there is no position that a postcolonial writer can adopt that does not involve some kind of complicity with imperial interests or mimicry of its aesthetic forms. Yet the postcolonial avant-garde can be defined by its refusal of the binary choice between colonial-national and metropolitan-imperial imperatives. Its aesthetic innovations are defined by the intention of challenging not simply the realities created by empires but the very social imaginary, often uncritically adopted by colonial or postcolonial populations, on which the imperial project rests. Writers working in this tendency develop non-, pseudo-, or para-mimetic narratives to force readers to entertain the possibility of realities existing outside the terms of the real as this has been prescribed by dominant agencies, including imperial ones; alternatively, they turn their prose to ends other than representation in order to demonstrate the embeddedness of ordinary language in imperial discourses and to indicate other possible usages of a shared tongue. Magical realism, most influentially and spectacularly, began as a challenge to the disenchanted and positivist nature of the Western gaze: writers like Alejo Carpentier, Gabriel García Márquez, and Ben Okri reveal the everyday power of forces not recognized by modern secular reason. Other writers, like Samuel Beckett and Clarice Lispector, disclose the relation between realist literary representation and the very order of rationality that consigns heterogeneous or dissident elements to the status of madness. Postcolonial avant-garde fiction is thus distinguished intellectually from realist writing by its assault on the presuppositions or unconscious preconditions of imperial domination as these have been taken up among colonized populations. Insofar as imperialism, in its liberal varieties at least, works through an epistemological register to transform the ways in which colonized populations think, avant-garde artists must direct their polemical energies against both foreign and domestic audiences simultaneously. The obscurity and difficulty of postcolonial avant-garde fiction is thus the result not only of the novel narrative and descriptive strategies it employs but also of the tenuous and often untenable situation of the avant-garde writer in the postcolony, a gadfly to all implied readers. The formal innovations developed by postcolonial avant-garde writers are vast, but all serve the project of offering new modes of perception that cannot be contained by either imperial or nationalist worldviews. In this sense the avant-garde is a democratizing agency, opposing consensual fictions and opening up multiple possible avenues for experiencing and responding to the problems and potentials of postcolonial existence.