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date: 30 September 2022

Postcolonial Avant-Garde Fictionfree

Postcolonial Avant-Garde Fictionfree

  • Adam SpanosAdam SpanosHumanities Collegiate Division, University of Chicago


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.


  • African Literatures
  • Asian Literatures
  • Latin American and Caribbean Literatures
  • West Asian Literatures, including Middle East
  • 20th and 21st Century (1900-present)
  • Literary Theory

Beyond the Historic Avant-Garde: Experimental Writing and the Postcolonial Difference

Postcolonial writers have turned to experimental fiction for a number of reasons. They have variously wished to emulate trends in European and especially French literary fashions, to reflect on philosophical questions in a literary idiom, to produce new hybrid genres that blend conventions of traditional and indigenous genres with those of the novel, to protest against the demand for legibility, or to propose new ways of thinking about or perceiving matters of collective concern. Plainly not every work of experimental fiction is an avant-garde one; some suggest a recuperative or rearguard action designed to shore up waning sources of authority.1 Conversely, however, not every postcolonial writer of aesthetically transformative and politically radical fiction wishes to be designated by the label “avant-garde” (or indeed as “postcolonial”). One of the main reasons for this resistance is the equivocal meaning of the term itself, not to mention the occasionally sordid involvements of its historical avatars. For the concept has an unmistakable affiliation with one of the central legitimating narratives of the liberal European empires. The spokespersons of these political formations identified the legitimacy of the imperial project with the need to ameliorate the purported backwardness—aesthetic, cultural, scientific, and spiritual—of non-European peoples. Likewise, the historic avant-gardes of Europe and the United States aimed to disrupt what they saw as enervated and decadent societies. Casting themselves as the saving remnant for a civilization in decline and an aesthetic domain that had been safely sequestered from other domains of political, economic, and social life, the historic avant-gardes—surrealism, expressionism, Dadaism, futurism, and related movements—aimed to use art to precipitate massive transformations in public consciousness not simply in order to sensitize their audiences to subtle ethical questions but to make them fundamentally rethink the organization and ends of collective life. Colonial and postcolonial artists with similar ambitions to remake cultural and political priorities have thus had to grapple with the quasi-imperial nature of the avant-garde gesture itself. They have done so by framing their works as interventions in the aesthetic, epistemological, and perceptual fields of both metropolitan and postcolonial lifeworlds. That is to say, they have sought not simply to deprecate their fellow postcolonials but to disclose the linkages between domestic maladies and foreign intervention. And they have done so not by devising cognitive mappings that depict the interrelations between disparate nodes in a world system, but by means of profoundly challenging works that undo understandings largely received from imperial rule.

For realism itself is no less compromised in its conceptual underpinnings than the avant-garde, despite the fact that postcolonial writers have made powerful use of representational art for the sake of depicting colonial brutality. But so overwhelming is the demand made on postcolonial writers by both fellow nationals and Western markets to produce art that reflects on their social and political realities that the Western derivation of that project is often taken for granted. Realism was the premier novelistic genre in the era of high imperialism and a privileged component of aesthetic education in the colonies. Moreover, it served the imperial project by naturalizing central components of Western life ranging from individualism to property to a particular conception of the family unit, all of which proved conducive to foreign exploitation and rule. Realism is of course not reducible to such ideologies, and postcolonial writers have understandably—often powerfully—taken up mimetic art in order to cast light on just those depredations or to verify the existence of peoples involved in incipient nationalist formations. Yet however creative those realist works invariably were, the functionalist accounts of realism offered by nationalists and Western readers seeking ethnographic information about exotic places reduced literature to a mere expression of a preexisting popular will and social structure. Postcolonial literature thus understood depreciates the imagination and ignores the signatures of the author’s creative powers. Still less does it acknowledge the aesthetic capacities of individual writers and cultural traditions or the distinct ways in which artists give determinate shape to worldly experience. This has in turn shaped the field imaginary of postcolonial studies, which has come to be dominated by a historicist methodology and thematic readings of literary works. These approaches, valuable as they are, miss the distinctly artistic qualities of the works they investigate. In doing so they inadvertently corroborate the dynamic of the colonial relationship itself, which reduced natives to objects—or at best informants—on whom various theories, from the preservation of native institutions to projects of development, could be tested.

It is true that the first generations of postcolonial scholars gravitated toward “literary” or “postmodernist” postcolonial fiction. As Simon Gikandi has shown in his study of early postcolonial theory, pioneering figures in the field were primarily concerned to challenge the legitimacy of both the nation-state and Western imperialism, and in pursuit of this project they invoked the historical witness of colonial and postcolonial writers whose anti-mimetic fictions, they thought, functioned as rejections of both realism and the realities made by colonial rule.2 Gikandi argues that postcolonial literary criticism was thus incapable of reckoning with the literatures of decolonization, which were eminently realist, or those of the immediately succeeding generation, which likewise depended on the referential function of language to depict the failures of the new nation-state. It is the interiorized consciousness of “high modernism,” Gikandi claims, and not the fragmented de-subjectivization of postmodernism, irony rather than allegory, that defined early postcolonial writing.3 Gikandi quite helpfully identifies the misprision of African and Asian literatures by a new academic field attempting to carve out a distinct place in Western academia, and his attention to the rhetorical figures of these fictions helps to distinguish them from their postmodernist counterparts. Yet Gikandi’s uncritical use of “high modernist” to characterize these novels raises more questions than it answers. In particular, what is the relationship between the social and historical circumstances that gave rise variously to European and postcolonial modernisms? Is this relationship one of homology, founded on subjection to decaying colonial structures (in which case we might treat Irish writing as paradigmatic of “high modernism”)? Is it one of analogy, such that the alienated consciousness produced by an intensifying capitalist climate in Western Europe and the United States might be compared to alienation from the promise of the new postcolonial nation-state? Is it based on a direct lineage of artistic influence and readership? Or does it depend on a vaguer formal resemblance, in which case the similarities would need to be explained anew in each instance?

These are fraught questions of periodization, influence, posteriority, aesthetic classification, and the universality or particularity of cultural forms. Yet the claim at the center of Gikandi’s essay, that postcolonial literature has stayed true to the “mimetic imperative,” is the focus in what follows. Even as it is clear that the vast majority of postcolonial writing, early and late, is not self-referential but about something other than itself—that it is worldly, in one of the senses that Edward Said ascribes to the term—there is nevertheless an extraordinary heterogeneity in these literatures, not only in terms of the contents of the reality represented but in their manner of engaging with it.4 Indeed, realism itself comes to seem like an insufficient term given this diversity.

The concept of the postcolonial avant-garde proves useful, in light of the foregoing account, in three ways. First, it brackets questions of periodization and group identity suggested by “high modernism” or “postmodernism” in favor of a differentiated account of the postcolonial literary field at any given moment in its history. The postcolonial avant-garde suggests instead the recurring possibility of keeping a distance from dominant cultural or aesthetic trends. Second, it foregrounds the artistic methods used by literary writers to grapple with the problems and questions they find relevant. The humanism presupposed by the concept of the avant-garde—implicit in the idea that artists are not simply the product of their material conditions but have the capacity to purposefully step outside them and produce differently than other, presumably less reflective, actors—acknowledges agency in the work of postcolonial artists and so avoids the pitfalls associated with studying postcolonial literature as a database of raw information. At the very least, the formal energies of these literatures indicate the active nature of minds at work, struggling to comprehend a historical situation and respond to it creatively. Finally, the concept of the postcolonial avant-garde demands a hermeneutic attentive to the problems for which art may be an answer. Because avant-garde artists are those who willfully distinguish themselves from dominant tendencies, however these are defined, and so open up a schism in the field of aesthetic production, they direct thinking both backward to the particular ways in which challenges are construed and forward to the solutions, invariably utopian in nature, that are proposed in response. Literary criticism attuned to the workings of an avant-garde therefore partially overlaps with a form of intellectual history concerned not to diagnose the objects on which it meditates as mere reflections but to understand them as efforts to reshape the perception, and ultimately the experience, of shared realities.

As should already be clear, the present article takes a conceptual rather than a strictly historical approach to the postcolonial avant-garde. Postcolonial literature is too diverse, too new, too contested to admit as yet of a properly literary-historical account, or at least of one that would situate in a single historical narrative the myriad developments in experimental writing from Central and South America, the Caribbean, sub-Saharan Africa and Arabophone North Africa, the Middle East, the former Soviet states of Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, East and Southeast Asia, and the Pacific islands. Yet it is important to establish from the outset the parameters of the survey offered here as well as the most important assumptions that guide it.

The first of these, which has already been suggested, is that the avant-garde can be understood as the possibility, immanent in any artistic conjuncture, of politicizing the aesthetic field and breaking with established ways of understanding what art is and how it relates to the broader social and political context of its moment. The concept of a postcolonial avant-garde cannot be sustained if it is understood on the model of the “historic avant-garde” of early 20th-century Europe. The narrative structure at work in such an understanding—that according to which historical novelty happens “first in Europe, and then elsewhere”—is not simply ethically unjustifiable but epistemologically flawed.5 The European avant-gardes had a historically contingent relation to the innovation for which they were responsible, and it is erroneous to construe them as originary or paradigmatic for the avant-garde as such. Second, and for related reasons, the avant-garde should be understood as a spatial term, in line with its original military connotation, which describes the position of one unit of an attacking army relative to its other component parts. The idea that some individual or group should be more advanced in a temporal or historical sense is itself a colonial fiction, predicated on a version of historicist logic and profoundly ignorant of the existential coevality of all the earth’s inhabitants.6 And while it is undoubtedly the case that any conjuncture is striated by the sediments of multiple histories, as various theorists including the late Marx, Trotsky, Ernst Bloch, Reinhart Koselleck, and Harry Harootunian have shown, it is a mistake to attribute normative value to this phenomenological fact.7 That people experience the present differently is one of the grounds of human plurality and the possibility of difference, including within the domain of artistic production.

On the other side of the ledger, the term “postcolonial” presents no less formidable problems. There is first of all the conceptual problem of the “post-,” widely explored in the first generation of postcolonial scholarship: does it mean canceling, superseding, informed by, or dialectically sublating coloniality and colonial relations? Second, there is the question—prompted by American-style “neocolonialism” or “imperialism without colonies”—of what constitutes a colony in a meaningful sense. This question has only grown more fraught with the opening of postcolonial studies to insights drawn from Ottoman, Japanese, and Soviet colonizing practices and as settler colonialism has come into sharper focus in the field. Third, is “the postcolonial” a periodizing term, a philosophy of history, a spatial determination, a literary-critical hermeneutic, an identity, or a state of consciousness achieved through historical and theoretical study? For present purposes, the postcolonial will be defined as the condition of any people bearing a relation of geopolitical subordination to another, more powerful group that claims privileged rights over the use of some particular territory and exercises those prerogatives through a supervening institutional structure such as a nation-state, an empire, a military, or a corporation. The most important aspect of this definition is the central relation of domination and subordination. A powerful state involved in the domination of others, no matter what its prior history, ought not to be considered a postcolonial nation: this rules out the US, once a colony of Great Britain but always a settler colonial nation and now an imperial power in its own right, and China, once subject to more and less overt practices of colonization by the UK, the US, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Belgium, Italy, Germany, Portugal, France, Russia, the USSR, and Japan, but, in the early 21st century, increasingly suspected of seeking to degrade the sovereignty of neighboring states and commercial partners. But another feature of this definition that needs to be highlighted is that it includes those peoples currently still subject to forms of settler colonial rule, including the original inhabitants of the Americas as well as those of Australia, New Zealand, and Palestine. These peoples, and the literatures they produce, might for other purposes be more profitably considered in a category of their own, since their primary aim is political rather than cultural or epistemological decolonization; but since settler colonialism has elicited experimental writing no less remarkable and important than that of formerly colonized states, the two may be considered in tandem here. Finally, this definition emphasizes the conjunctural nature of the postcolonial condition, in Stuart Hall’s sense of the term “conjuncture”: it indexes a set of forces and relations at work in a specific place and time. The postcolonial here does not refer only to a region of the world—it is not the “global South”—nor is it simply a periodizing term. Rather, it designates the specificity of circumstances in particular areas subject to existing or remembered forms of domination.

The Autonomy of the Avant-Garde

Perhaps the most influential of the Western accounts of the avant-garde was given by Peter Bürger, who identified Dadaism, surrealism, early Soviet art, Italian futurism, and German expressionism as the key movements defining a new path for early 20th-century art.8 These movements were united, according to Bürger, in their rejection of the “institution of art”: the entire “social subsystem” that sustained art, including the various conduits for disseminating, displaying, and adjudicating works of art (museums, bookshops, magazines, etc.) as well as of the reigning ideologies about what art is and what its functions are within a shared social context.9 Among the latter, the theory of art’s autonomy from any social or political determinations was most relevant to the concerns of the early 20th-century avant-garde. With the rise of the bourgeoisie to cultural hegemony in the wake of the revolutionary era, art assumed a discrete position in the general division of labor, and the view that art should not be affiliated with any worldly cause became increasingly dominant.10 The avant-garde rebelled against this fixation of art, its reduction to a mere “portrayal of bourgeois self-understanding,” and demanded that the artwork be “reintegrated into life.”11 Targeting the attitudes of the art-consuming public as well as the infrastructures that elicited and sustained those views, avant-garde artists set out to “shock the bourgeoisie.” They did so through largely formalistic means, relying on fragmentation to violate bourgeois expectations about the organic nature of the artwork and call attention to its artificiality; or else they sought to disrupt assumptions about what constitutes an artwork or an appropriate space in which to view art.12 Bürger argues that the avant-garde was a specific historical project that could not be repeated—frequent references in scholarship to the neo-avant-garde notwithstanding—because the public for art eventually grew accustomed to provocation. This is tantamount to saying that the public had come to expect the unexpected, and that representatives of the various institutions of bourgeois art, although initially scandalized, quickly followed suit by incorporating the avant-garde into their canon.13 The problem, then, is what to make of Bürger’s historical narrative. For if it has the advantage of provincializing his theory of the avant-garde by locating the latter in a specific time and place, it preemptively dismisses the possibility of other avant-gardes, whether polygenetic or influenced in some measure by their European counterparts, without surveying distinct artistic terrains.

But the most pressing of the issues raised by Bürger concerns his claim that the “historic avant-garde” rejected the autonomy of art proposed by bourgeois artists. Here we must confront a distinction between the sociological contexts of European art and the contexts of art in the majority of the world’s postcolonies. In the West, the slogan and ideal of “art for art’s sake” provoked the ire of the avant-gardes because it seemed to ratify the social divisions that had severed art from other forms of labor and life and to represent a resignation to the impotence of art. The avant-gardes wanted to reintegrate art and life, to supply art with a new rationale and a new social role that would restore its capacity to shift public stances. The main obstacle to this transformation was the attitude of the art-consuming public, which had grown accustomed to thinking of art as a pastime. These circumstances do not uniformly pertain in the postcolonial world, however. For it is not simply the case that the postcolonial bourgeoisies remain relatively small—not to say underdeveloped—with respect to their European compeers, and have proven incapable of exerting the same kind of cultural hegemony that European bourgeoisies exerted in early 20th-century Germany, France, and England.14 It is also, and increasingly, true that authoritarian governments have reversed the calculus for postcolonial artists seeking to challenge art’s status and social function. In countries including Egypt and Turkey, South Africa and the Congo, Brazil and Argentina, India and South Korea, the intervention or threat of intervention by governments intent on eliciting social conformity has circumscribed the freedoms of artists and impeded even the attempt to separate art from other forms of labor. It is for this reason that some of the most experimental artists from these countries have publicly declared their commitment to artistic autonomy, for it is the absence of a protected social position—not the ineffectiveness of their words and images—that constitutes the gravest threat such artists face.

In Egypt, for example, writers at the forefront of the country’s aesthetic innovations have insisted on the absolute indispensability of artistic autonomy. Taha Husayn, the doyen of Arabic letters in the mid-20th century who was assailed (by Egyptian religious authorities rather than by the British colonial government) for writing a book on pre-Islamic poetry that was deemed heretical, took a stance against Sartrean literary commitment because it limited the function of art to its instrumental value in effecting social change. He instead argued that the meaning of writing lies in the freedom of the author it embodies.15 And while Husayn was a classicizer, seeking to develop modern Egyptian literature in relation to the premodern heritage of the Mediterranean world as a whole, his view on the necessity of autonomy was not entirely rejected by the avant-garde. Idwar al-Kharrat, responsible for some of the most experimental Egyptian writing, validated Husayn’s central argument when he warned that commitment must serve the end of the artist’s freedom, limited only by the “freedom of the other in dialogue.”16 For al-Kharrat, one must not be forced to choose between instrumental and autonomous conceptions of art. It is in fact only the freedom of artistic production that can really threaten the settled traditions of society.17

The inversion of the historic avant-garde’s logic effected by the postcolonial avant-garde can be observed in the novel Sirat al-’Aqrab alladhi yatasabbib ‘araqan (The Dance of the Deep-Blue Scorpion) by Palestinian writer Akram Musallam. The unnamed narrator aspires to write a narrative about his encounter with a mysterious woman in an Israeli dance-hall—a narrative devoid of the symbolism or allegory through which Palestinian life is normally represented. So, as the novel begins, he relates the story of his father, who lost his leg after an accident at the construction site where he worked, and insists the matter isn’t political: “there are naturally painful things that happen under occupation.”18 Then the Second Intifada breaks out, and a Palestinian man detonates a suicide bomb inside the dance hall, killing himself and thirty others and destroying the place where the narrator lives and writes. The narrative accordingly assumes a fugitive and fragmented quality, as the narrator searches for a new place to write. And even as it reserves its harshest judgment for the Israelis, it protests against the impingements upon authorial autonomy that emanate from both sides. In this context, then, and for many writers subject to censorship, state violence, or calls to maintain the façade of national unity, the demand for autonomy has a sharp political valence. Furthermore, artistic autonomy is not only a crucial desideratum for postcolonial writers but an aspiration that it often takes much courage to announce publicly.

Drawing on Bürger’s work, David Scott has distinguished between what he calls vernacular modernisms, defined by their “novelty, linguistic opacity, personal autonomy, and expressive radicalism,” and postcolonial avant-gardes, which would be defined less by “the style of their art than the target of their critique,” which is “the institution of art itself.”19 Scott offers the example of the Caribbean Artists Movement, a group of West Indian artists living in the United Kingdom during the brief period when the group was active, 1966–1972. Scott foregrounds the collective nature of their protest. In other words, it seems to matter to him not only that these artists protested against the institution of art but that they did so as a movement and “aimed to encourage . . . a participatory community of dialogue and reciprocity that would activate a sense of the relevance of art and the artist to the social worlds of Caribbean life.”20 There is certainly value in Scott’s proposal, but I would like to prize apart the question of whether the avant-garde is defined by its “style” or “target” from the question of its individual or collective composition. Although Scott is careful to distinguish “artistic independence” from the ideology of art’s autonomy, his definition of vernacular modernism suggests that the individual experimental artist is prone to personal expressivism and the idiosyncrasy of individual style and thus incapable of meaningfully transformative work. Here he follows Bürger, who also identifies the avant-garde with various movements without theorizing the relation between collaboration and institutional critique. Although it falls outside the ambit of the present article, there is a rich comparative and historical sociology waiting to be written about the various movements that brought together artists from the postcolonial world, and which would include Egypt’s Art et Liberté and Brazil’s Movimento Antropofágico and Tropicália.

As will be seen, the postcolonial avant-gardes are better understood in relation to the objects of their critique than the sociological qualities of their internal composition. This is because the anti-colonial struggle is not only a zero-sum battle over land but also an existential argument, conducted by and between colonized subjects, over the very nature of the subjectivity they have come to inhabit. For it is no small part of the ruse of liberal imperial rule that liberation, along with the idea of liberty and that of the free subject, comprise the horizon of colonial pedagogy; for this reason, to seize power is not to put an end to the functioning of that rule at the deepest levels of individual and collective self-understanding. As Frantz Fanon phrased this dilemma, “to take also means on several levels being taken.”21 While Fanon did not advocate for experimental writing, preferring instead “combat literature, revolutionary literature, national literature” and literature that depicts “a new reality in action,” he did recognize the importance of literature that would work on, transform, and create domestic audiences just as much as it would challenge colonial representations.22 Fanon indicates that breakthroughs in the arts baffle imperialists, “who become the defenders of indigenous style,” and they become a medium through which “the colonized subject restructures his own perception.”23 In spite of his aesthetic predilections, then, Fanon’s writings on national consciousness and national culture offer a formal template of sorts for the postcolonial avant-garde writer.

Antinomies of the Postcolonial Avant-Garde

If, for the Western avant-gardes, the bourgeoisie is responsible for organizing the institution of art and so a useful antagonist (if only by a metonymic leap), the postcolonial avant-gardes have had to confront a more complex disposition of forces. For in postcolonies the functional equivalent of the bourgeoisie, underdeveloped as it may be, wears the guise of the settler, the comprador merchant, the westernizing intellectual, the native informant, and the minoritarian white sustainer of apartheid rule; in many cases, too, it assumes the material and symbolic privileges vested in particular ethnic or religious groups favored by the former colonizers—groups such as the Maronites in Lebanon, the Tutsi in Rwanda and Burundi, the Arabs in the Sudan.24 In fact, the incomplete decolonization even of ostensibly independent countries suggests the ongoing mediation of all social facts in the postcolonial world by colonial institutions, policies, and discourses whether colonizers are still physically present or not. One way to think, then, about the challenge of a politics geared toward meaningful decolonization is that activists must fight a battle on two fronts, against both the traces of the colonial and the domestic factions that give it ongoing life.25 Any political project that fails to consider the former is likely to serve as an apology for empire, and any that ignores the latter risks capture by the state. A brief detour will illustrate this double bind.

The first self-professed avant-garde movements in formerly colonized countries emerged in the 1920s and 1930s in Latin America. The Brazilians Oswald de Andrade, Mário de Andrade, and Patrícia Rehder Galvão (Pagu); the Guatemalan Miguel Ángel Asturias; the Chilean Vicente Huidobro; the Peruvians Carlos Oquendo de Amat and José María Arguedas Altamirano; the Mexican Xavier Villaurrutia; and the Argentinians Roberto Arlt and Jorge Luis Borges—to name but a few of the earliest and most influential novelists, poets, and writers of manifestos—revolutionized Hispanophone and Lusophone literature by identifying new sources of collective identity and creative resolve in both pre- and postcolonial experience. They rejected the version of modernization propounded by Western theorists that assumed its European origin and outward diffusion, and, concomitantly, they were wary of drawing on artistic methods or aesthetic rationales elaborated in the former metropolitan centers.26 Instead, they sought to produce new hybrid or mestizaje models of identity, ones that allowed for the uptake of Western influences but which identified Latin America’s novelty in the specific mixtures these forged with indigenous, traditional, or national elements. Oswald de Andrade, in his Antropofágia manifesto, for example, called for the “absorption of the sacred enemy.”27 More interesting even than his calls for a synthesis of Brazilian and Portuguese, Tupi and European, elements and his rejection of mere imitation was the culinary, even cannibalistic, metaphor that he used. For it suggested an irreverence toward Portuguese claims to paternity in Brazil that bordered on violence, but it suggested at the same time a gustatory delight: “From carnal, it becomes elective and creates friendship. Affectionate, love.”28 In this way de Andrade holds together seemingly antinomic elements in service of an alternative cultural modernity. Yet for all their awareness of the bad faith with which the Portuguese and Spanish justified their foreign conquests, these early vanguard writers did not manage to escape the epistemological traps that have continued to roil the settler colonial republics of Latin America up to the present. As Aníbal Quijano has argued, contemporary forms of political and social control in the Americas express assumptions of geopolitical and racial hierarchy that can be traced back to the colonial period.29

In the realist novel Tungsten by the Peruvian César Vallejo, best known for his poetry, American financial interests bankroll a mine in rural Peru; when the First World War breaks out and the Americans need more tungsten for war matériel, they instruct their fixers to coerce the local Indians to provide the necessary labor. One indignant Indian, the blacksmith Servando Huanco, protests his treatment and convinces Léonidas Benites, an “intellectual” who works on the side of the capitalists, to seek reforms. It is not insignificant that Vallejo attributes this power to move Benites—whose white, settler status is not mentioned but is inferable from comments made by other characters—to an indigenous person, who is thereby also invested with a certain moral authority. But among the words that ring in the ears of the disillusioned Benites at the novel’s end—“labor, wages, workday, bosses, exploitation, industry”—there is no mention of the racialized nature of this mineral extraction or the settler colonial structures that have made it possible.30 Two years later, Patrícia Galvão, known as Pagu, published her avant-garde “proletarian novel” Industrial Park, which largely rejected the narrative conceit, represented in Valléjo’s novel, according to which the mounting abuse and hypocrisy of powerful foreign interests culminate in the self-recognition of settler and reader alike. The novel presents multiple snapshots of São Paulo’s working poor and very rich in a highly fragmented and non-sequential fashion. It rejects the linear narrative trajectory of Bildung and the sudden reversal of conscience. But even as the novel refuses realism at the level of narrative architecture, it veers toward naturalism in its depiction of racial relations. Both Vallejo and Pagu focus on the antagonism between rich and poor that structures bourgeois society, and Pagu arguably goes further in this respect by dramatizing, at the level of form, the incoherence of the world that capitalism has made. But the original inhabitants of these lands, as well as those brought against their will, are barely visible and hardly heard. The antagonism structuring these novels is limited by the colonial nature of power such that it can only be perceived along the single axis of class exploitation.

It is arguable that much of Latin America has never fully acknowledged its dependence on settler colonialism and slavery because the region has itself been subjected to US imperialism, neocolonialism, and other forms of subversive intervention. Yet in 1949 two foundational texts of the movement that would later be called magical realism were published, both of which issued powerful formal and thematic challenges to those disavowed pillars of Latin American life. Asturias published his Hombres de maíz (Men of Maize) about the encroachment of capitalist developers on an indigenous community, and the Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier published El reino de este mundo (The Kingdom of This World) about the Haitian Revolution and its aftermath. Both novels involve strong formal innovations: Asturias draws on ethnographic research as well as Mayan and Aztec myths, expounding upon them both thematically and at the level of narrative structure; and Carpentier draws on both the available historiography of the Haitian Revolution and his knowledge of vodou to create a world in which the Haitians can dominate the French not only in their struggles over slavery and independence but in a spiritual conflict over their respective claims to unite with and dominate nature.31 The styles of these two novels could not be further apart—Asturias’s novel is elaborate, rich with symbolism, and structured in a cyclical form, whereas Carpentier’s novel is sparsely narrated and draws on the temporal structure of historical chronicle—and yet they both locate the source of a transformative power in the beliefs or worldviews of an oppressed people. Inhabiting these structures of belief in their narrative creations, Asturias and Carpentier open up a frontier of contradiction between the disenchanted, skeptical, rationalistic, and instrumentalizing culture of Western modernity and the conciliatory, fideistic, and participatory reasoning they impute to American Indians and the descendants of slaves. Indeed, Carpentier, in a manifesto that precedes his novel, argues that recent European literary trends like surrealism ring false since they are not grounded in any investment in an alternative cosmology but merely conjured for show: “the marvelous invoked in disbelief . . . was nothing more than a literary ruse, as boring in its long life as certain ‘preconceived’ oneiric literature and certain exaltations of madness that are currently very much in vogue.”32 Without wanting to reduce the very real differences between these authors, we can nevertheless observe that their turn to myth or “magic” was a polemical gesture meant to contest the erasure of Black and Indigenous peoples from the memory of settler colonial states and to challenge the claim of Western reason to have a monopoly on the representation of reality. Of course, this is an equivocal move, insofar as it treads perilously close to the primitivist strain in Western aesthetics that borrows—while transvaluing them—colonial tropes about the foreignness of colonized peoples to modernity.

Settler colonialism is a particularly difficult object to grasp given the settler’s tendency to dissimulate his status and present himself as native, and it is perhaps for this reason that Latin American fiction has been so fecund.33 Indeed, we might say that it is the various epistemic challenges posed by disguised forms of colonialism that have been so vexing and yet so generative for postcolonial thought and for art more generally.34 The figure of the dictator or authoritarian leader, for example, presents a deceptively easy target for dissident or exilic writers. From a postcolonial perspective, however, the challenge is how to posit a critique that does not corroborate colonialist narratives, whether the thesis of an Oriental penchant for depots or the American position that leftist movements were uniquely susceptible to authoritarianism.35 Gabriel García Márquez, in El otoño del patriarca (The Autumn of the Patriarch), employed two formal mechanisms to suggest the specifically postcolonial nature of Latin American and Caribbean dictatorship. The first is the use of long, run-on sentences within sections that are themselves extended and without paragraph breaks. The second is the frequent shift in narrative voice so that it is impossible to identify this voice with a single character; instead, the narrative offers “the uncomfortable amalgam of multifarious voices.”36 Together these formal features precipitate readers’ disorientation with respect to time, subjectivity, and responsibility while simultaneously suggesting the permeability of all boundaries and perhaps even the pantheistic nature of dictatorial rule. Frequent allusions to American, British, French, and German intervention corroborate the sense of continuity between colonial and postcolonial periods and forms of rule. García Márquez thereby manages to de-exceptionalize the autocrat, to reduce him to one figure in a much larger historical arena while also insisting on the Euro-American powers behind the scenes. Responding to a similar problematic, Congolese writer Sony Labou Tansi developed alternative mechanisms for challenging both dictatorship and the fictions that occlude its imperial basis. His novel La vie et demie (Life and a Half) was motivated by his antipathy to Mobutu Sese Seko, whose corruption and political violence were sustained by US largesse. The brilliance of Tansi’s novel is that it looks beyond the anti-imperialism and appeals to “cultural authenticity” that were standard topoi of Mobutu’s speeches and characterizes the regime instead according to its penchant for excess.37 “Meat” refers to the “Providential Guide’s” penis but also to the countless people he kills; dictator kills dictator in successive chapters as the means of terror grow ever more extravagant and dangerous. The novel satirizes the dictators’ legitimization of cruelty through appeals to “tropicality,” a contrived figure of indigeneity, and invokes conventions of science fiction in its concluding section to demonstrate the exogenous—literally extraterrestrial—roots of domestic dictatorship. Ironically, it was the novel’s experimental prose that earned it the opprobrium of the Congolese reading public, who saw Tansi as having sold out to the tastes of the international market.38

To recapitulate the argument so far, the postcolonial avant-garde aims to challenge both domestic and foreign tendencies that have become sedimented in the collective imaginary and inhibited the efflorescence of collective creative powers. But there are two other dimensions of the antagonism toward such tendencies that need further attention: the mood or affective tenor of avant-garde polemic and the mode through which it conducts its critique. The question of mode is the most difficult—and arguably the most important—and will be developed in detail; for now it will suffice to acknowledge that the avant-gardes understand that a frontal assault is unavailing because of entrenched patterns of domination. New devices are needed, hence the experimentalism and formalist emphasis in all avant-garde work. “Mood,” by contrast, designates the emotional register in which the work delivers its polemic. Of course readers often detect mood through a reading of a literary mode, as when biting satire is understood as a signature of a narrator’s or author’s disdainful remove or barely contained anger. The issue should be flagged here and in advance of a discussion of literary forms and rhetoric, however, so as to highlight a crucial difference between the ethos of the postcolonial avant-gardes and that of their Western counterparts. The former have tended to adopt a less bombastic, more tentative and receptive tone in their writing than the self-styled prophets of the historic avant-garde. Dissimulating critique, not frontal assault, is the preferred manner of engagement with opponents. This difference can be partly explained by the dangers specific to speaking in authoritarian contexts or those in which a minority does not enjoy the same protections as the rights-bearing majority. In such contexts it may make more sense to couch one’s criticisms under veils of satire or irony. Moreover, the vitriolic and aggressive tone of so many of the European avant-gardes was a reaction to a specific form of impotence that resulted from the public’s habituation to thinking of art as a commodity. We should therefore treat the pugnacious tone of the historic avant-garde as a contingent one and remain sensitive to the possibility of alternative affects in postcolonial avant-garde speech.

Nothing makes this distinction clearer than the distinct status of the manifesto in Western and postcolonial contexts. According to Martin Puchner, the manifesto was not just a favored genre of the Western avant-gardes but the vehicle through which they effected their break with existing art forms.39 But the manifesto, while still a component of the attempts by postcolonial writers to break with established traditions, has neither the same centrality nor the same tone. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto, for instance, mirrors the aggression of the imperial tradition:

Poetry must be conceived as a violent assault launched against unknown forces to reduce them to submission under man . . . . It is from Italy that we are flinging this to the world, our manifesto of burning and overwhelming violence, with which we today establish “Futurism,” for we intend to free this nation from its fetid cancer of professors, archaeologists, tour guides, and antiquarians . . . . You raise objections? . . . Stop! Stop! We don’t want to listen!40

Like Marinetti, Borges claims an expansive domain for the Argentine writer and encourages his compatriots to forego the modesty that limits them to parochial themes. But his rhetoric is completely different:

I repeat that we should not be alarmed and that we should feel that our patrimony is the universe; we should essay all themes, and we cannot limit ourselves to purely Argentine subjects in order to be Argentine; for either being Argentine is an inescapable act of fate—and in that case we shall be so in all events—or being Argentine is a mere affectation, a mask.41

Whereas Marinetti deplores the decadence and antiquarianism of contemporary Italian society, Borges maintains that Argentines have a privileged perspective on Western culture by virtue of standing in an exogenous relationship to it. Identifying with European Jews and the Irish, Borges makes Argentina’s subordinate status into the condition of possibility for clairvoyant, rational, and creative engagement with tradition.42 Marinetti uses the manifesto to disabuse Italians of their pretensions to status and value, while Borges affirms that the lowliness of Argentinians in the global order is the secret of their possible success. It is as if Marinetti has grown not only exasperated but weary of his world. Borges, meanwhile, like many other postcolonial avant-garde writers, offers a patient and persuasive argument that indicates his confidence in the possibility that the world can yet be remade.


Artistic autonomy, however much it may have been desired, was beyond the reach of artists living in authoritarian contexts or as second-class citizens in settler colonial polities. Colonial and postcolonial artists were additionally compelled by nationalist movements to produce art in service of the liberation movement or state-building effort. Both of these factors counseled writers to practice socially conscious realist writing and to eschew metafiction, abstraction, apolitical prose, or anything that suggested defeatism. Moreover, a scandal of global proportions convinced many writers that only realist writing was politically and ethically justifiable. In 1967, a report in the American magazine Ramparts revealed that the US Central Intelligence Agency had been covertly funding cultural initiatives across the world, including the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the 1962 Makerere College Conference for writers, various regional artistic centers, and a host of journals including the Uganda-based Transition, the Nigerian Black Orpheus, and the Lebanese al-Ḥiwār. The conditions of this funding were relatively loose but historians agree that CIA handlers promoted a politically detached, modernist style, largely as a reaction to the Soviet promotion, through their own cultural institutions, of socialist realism.43 In the wake of this disclosure, and following on the sense of betrayal that it fostered, the politics of African and Asian literature shifted away from modernist style, broadly speaking, toward a more insistently realist and socially committed style. Ngugi wa Thiong’o, for instance, rewrote his A Grain of Wheat (1967, revised edition 1986), removing “part of the novel’s ambiguity and the characters’ complexity—hallmarks of a modernist text—in favor of a clearer political message.”44

And yet realism remains a fraught issue, not only because some writers perceived the Soviet Union as an imperial power just as dangerous as the United States, but also because the tenets of representation at stake in realism played an integral role in colonial thought and discourse. For European colonizers claimed to have a better hold on reality than the peoples they colonized by virtue of their secular reasoning, even as they proceeded to make new facts on the ground and to dismiss critics of their activities as enthralled to superstition. Representation was itself weaponized in the effort to render colonized subjects legible to administrators and subject to forms of disciplinary control. Moreover, and as has already been suggested, the boundary between realism, which ostensibly makes no claims about the future, and naturalism, which implies a force outside human control directing individuals inexorably toward its ends, is not always clear. Certainly colonial fictions tended to represent native peoples as if their realities were naturally predetermined. To write in a realist mode is thus to risk corroborating the worldview, inherent in realism, that informed colonization itself.

One strategy for negotiating this perilous terrain is to pursue realism while stretching or abandoning certain of its conceits.45 Eleni Coundouriotis observes, for example, the significance of improbable figures in otherwise realist African fiction such as Zakes Mda’s Ways of Dying, Nuruddin Farah’s Crossbones, and Uwem Akpan’s “Fattening for Gabon.” An individual who breaks type relativizes the framing narrative of suffering or insecurity; he or she introduces “a space of critique” and suggests that even seemingly overwhelming historical forces cannot completely eliminate the possibility of “reasoned action” or of contingencies that open up other possible futures.46 Related to this impulse, but extending it in ways that call into question the very meaning of the real, is the literary movement known as magical realism. Magical realism is divided, as Christopher Warnes has convincingly argued, between an ontological form, predicated on various belief systems of non-Western peoples and evident in the work of Asturias, Carpentier, Ben Okri, and others, and a kindred, “discursive” or epistemological form—found especially in Salman Rushdie but also in Borges—that is less credulous and more ironic in tone.47 Ontological claims about the reality of supernatural or inexplicable phenomena at work in the real world inhabited by human beings are at odds with modern cultures of scientific reason, and in this sense the texts that work in this mode are only tacitly polemical, whereas its epistemological counterpart more directly confronts the disenchanted perception of moderns. But both forms suggest that the world is less susceptible to the scrutinizing analysis of scientific inquiry than a widely shared Western assumption about the human capacity to master nature would allow; as the vital surplus of an ineffable, subterranean, or transcendent force eclipses merely human powers of comprehension, the significance of mystery or simply of contingency gains additional significance. Moreover, because ontological magical realism allows for the coexistence of orders of being that in the dominant Western (and colonial) conception are irreconcilable, it forces readers educated in that tradition to reconsider their presuppositions about the boundaries between spheres and the rules of relation that govern them.48 From one vantage point, then, it is possible to say that ontological magical realism simply redescribes reality to include all kinds of “religious,” “mythic,” “spiritual,” or traditionally recognized phenomena, but from another, postcolonial perspective, it undertakes an argument with a certain dogmatic version of modern secular reason. What is distinctly avant-garde about it is the postulation of worlds in which scientific and colonial schemes—both of which aim to “lay bare” their respective domains—are foiled by potencies that they cannot fathom, let alone dominate.49

Some of the most celebrated works of magical realism are those of Latin America and the Caribbean: Carpentier’s Kingdom, Borges’s early stories, Gabriel García Márquez’s Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude), Isabel Allende’s La casa de los espíritus (The House of the Spirits), René Depestres’s Hadriana dans tous mes rêves (Hadriana in All My Dreams). But the trend quickly spread across the world, providing a template for writers as varied as Salman Rushdie and Toni Morrison, Mo Yan and Haruki Murakami, Ben Okri and Syl Cheney-Coker. The politics of magic in these novels is naturally quite varied. Okri’s The Famished Road, for example, represents a sempiternal battle between the titular road and the river atop which, according to legend, it was built. The road is an overdetermined symbol in the novel: it is not only an outlet for domination but for curiosity; it represents time and the possibility of becoming as well as a spatial fact.50 Thus we may say that for Okri one political function of magical realism is to subvert the stability of discrete essences, bounded oppositions, and the unitary voice of reason. For the Indonesian writer Eka Kurniawan, on the other hand, magic seems to trouble the erasures of national and imperial historiography. His novel begins with the return to life, twenty-one years after her death, of Dewi Ayu, the illegitimate child of a Dutch man, born of his incestuous relationship to his half-Indonesian half-sister. Like the history of colonialism in the Netherlands, Dewi Ayu is forgotten and abandoned. Other magical elements reveal similar caesuras in Indonesian national memory, as for example the mass slaughter of communists in 1965–1966, which is represented by the ghosts of the murdered who haunt the warlord Shodancho. Formally speaking, however, the most interesting dimension of this narrative is the repeated use of analepses for etiological purposes: to explain how some present condition came to pass. This device, along with the nesting of narratives within narratives, suggests the convoluted nature of history as Kurniawan understands it: history is not simply nonlinear but digressive. And this suggests in turn that, for Kurniawan, “magic” is akin to a narratological function rather than a component part of reality, as it is for Okri.

Postcolonial writers have developed other strategies to challenge the priority of mimesis. One of the most interesting of these strategies is a narrative that is told from a perspective of or proximate to madness. Examples include Dominican-British writer Jean Rhys’s The Wide Sargasso Sea, South African-Botswanan novelist Bessie Head’s A Question of Power, Brazilian novelist Clarice Lispector’s A paixão segundo G. H. (The Passion According to G. H.) and Moroccan novelist Ahmed Bouanani’s L’hôpital (The Hospital). Samuel Beckett’s Murphy, published a decade and a half after the independence of the Irish Free State from British rule, is an especially radical instance of this type insofar as it transposes madness from an object of representation to something like a formal logic. At the same time, Beckett’s novel is recognizably postcolonial in more ways than one, ranging from its brutal satire of the independent state’s adoption of the imperial predilection for censorship policies and identitarian reverence for a mythic past to its insistence on English racism against Irish migrant workers.51 But the key intuition of the novel is that, under conditions of oppression, the normative status of madness and reason are inverted: it is in fact reasonable to become detached from a reality organized around the principle of one’s negation, while adjustment to such a debased order indicates, conversely, one’s dehumanization. The exceptionally idiosyncratic nature of Beckett’s protagonist, then, suggests his refusal to reconcile himself to a world structured by the abysmal choice between the pseudo-traditions of Ireland and the alienated modernity of late-imperial England. When Murphy is finally forced to get a job, it is no coincidence that he ends up at a sanatorium, nor is it accidental that he instantly excels at this work and communes in an almost preternatural way with its inmates. Murphy’s idiom even approximates that of the mad, so that his partner Celia

felt, as she felt so often with Murphy, spattered with words that went dead as soon as they sounded; each word obliterated, before it had time to make sense, by the word that came next; so that in the end she did not know what had been said. It was like difficult music heard for the first time.52

Murphy’s Dadaist drawl has conjured, for many readers, the problematization of language common to several varieties of modernist (and post-modernist) European art and thought, but it should also be acknowledged that his difficult or even incomprehensible speech is a protest against the semantic order of his incompletely decolonized world.

Avant-Garde Form

The postcolonial avant-garde stakes out an antagonistic position toward both an exterior colonial power and those domestic forces that serve, mediate, or otherwise fail to challenge it; realism is both insufficient to the political aspirations of the avant-garde and a privileged object of its polemics. This section will provide a more detailed description of the alternatives to realist narratives developed by postcolonial writers in an attempt to substantiate the mode of antagonism already described. Necessarily this account will be the most empirical part of the article, since the possibilities available for experimentation with literary form are innumerable. Although it is not possible to supply representative coverage of all the kinds of formal innovation at work, the present aim is to supplement the negative account already given of the questions or problems that motivate avant-garde interventions with some instances of the formal solutions they have offered in response. Among other things, this procedure demonstrates that there is a meaningful rather than merely contingent relationship between postcolonial writing and the avant-garde. In other words, it is because they live the postcolonial condition—dispersion by the slave trade and indentured labor, dispossession and attendant loss of various sources of well-being to settler colonialism, distortion of once-vital collective self-understandings by colonial education, but also the emergence of a new sense of possibility engendered by perpetual movement and betweenness—that writers have undertaken the sort of formal experimentation that readers encounter in grappling with postcolonial texts.53 (For the distinctions between avant-garde and other postcolonial writing, see “The Politics of the Postcolonial Avant-Garde.”)

Partition is one of the most visible and painful consequences of colonial rule in territories such as Ireland, Greece and Turkey, the Korean peninsula, the Indian subcontinent, historical Palestine, Cyprus, and the Sudan, and as such it has given rise to a powerful archive of postcolonial fiction that represents partition and all that it entails by way of dispossession, loss of community, immiseration, increased sectarian tension, and the excision of putatively foreign linguistic and cultural elements. Related traumas include the imposition of boundaries to advance European prerogatives or create ethnically or linguistically unified states; the “mutual exclusion” of “native” and “European” sectors in the “compartmentalized world” of the settler colony; the differentiation between native and migrant among “subject” populations, often based on tendentious racial or mythological evidence; the use of Bantustans and reservations to warehouse unwanted indigenous populations; and the contractualization of individual property rights among communal landholders to facilitate their dispossession.54 For the facts of colonial and postcolonial land policy are subtended by several antecedent developments that range from the divide-and-rule strategies of modern European empires all the way back to the institution of property laws through which, one might say, a social imaginary organized around the exclusionary principle of identity and difference was established and gradually disseminated throughout much of the world. The regime of property yielded a much broader framework through which to allocate matter, bodies, language, and beliefs to a “proper” place and to assert relations of reciprocal exclusivity. Avant-garde writers have taken up these themes, but it is their attention to the preconditions of such traumas that distinguishes their contributions. Because of the indirection and even abstraction that necessarily informs their interrogations, it is not always easy to recognize the specific political orientations of their work. For these writers what is at stake is not merely the new cartographies of postcolonial nation-states but the entire social imaginary on which they are predicated.

In the domain of literary form, genre fulfills the function of property insofar as it establishes conventions of readerly expectation through which relations of mutual exclusion between bodies of texts can be posited and defended.55 Genre has irritated creative writers everywhere, but it has been especially vexing for postcolonial writers whose reputations, both at home and abroad, depend on their ability to produce recognizably postcolonial writing: narrations with local color that contribute to the nation-building effort. It is for this reason that genre has been an especially important object of avant-garde critique. In Egypt, the critic and novelist Idwar al-Kharrat identified a tendency that he called “trans-generic writing” (al-kitāba ‘abra al-naw’iyya)—one of the constituent features of the broader “new sensibility” in Arabic writing—exemplified, in his view by the “story-poem.”56 His own novels serve as examples of this kind of writing, crossing as they do between a kind of representational writing and “paeans, visions, nightmares, or daydreams that . . . usually erupt epiphany-like, only seemingly unconnected to what precedes or succeeds them, into the narrative,” often to articulate “a powerful solidarity with ‘the wretched of the earth.’”57 The Cameroonian writer Werewere Liking similarly employs both narrative and poetic modes in her work. Her novel Elle sera de jaspe et de corail (It Shall Be of Jasper and Coral) takes the form of a journal kept by a “misovire,” a man-hating woman, who records, using stage directions, the frequently inane dialogue of two men as well as, in her own voice, her contempt for the young African who “no longer knows how to dance, no longer even dares to dance and becomes a spectator even when faced with the convulsions of someone at death’s door.”58 Liking here alludes to what is arguably the greatest postcolonial poem-story, Aimé Césaire’s Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (Journal of a Homecoming), in which he warns himself against “crossing your arms in the sterile pose of a spectator . . . for a screaming human being is not a dancing bear.”59 Liking’s text, even more than Césaire’s, radically upsets the taxonomy of aesthetic forms. But like Césaire and al-Kharrat, Liking blurs generic boundaries for the sake of imagining new internationalisms, undoing the borders between aesthetic and political formations alike.

A related formal innovation in some experimental postcolonial writing concerns the violation of syntactical rules associated with normative (prosaic) uses of language and a certain kind of semantic disfiguration. Postcolonial writers have made extraordinary contributions to both a critical understanding of empire’s enduringly corrosive touch and the construction of new possibilities for their communities’ relations to languages degraded by misuse. The Tunisian writer Abdelwahab Meddeb in his novel Talismano uses anastrophe to reflect the sentence structure of Arabic within his French prose, he fails to use appropriate articles and prepositions, and he constructs sentences with only gerunds or long strings of nouns.60 Scholars have interpreted the intent of Meddeb’s extraordinarily difficult prose in various ways. Dina al-Kassim reads the politics of Meddeb’s use of language as an attempt to open up a space of “difference and nonknowledge” within the spaces spoken for by orthodox Islam and the postcolonial state, both of which insist on forms of absolute legibility and sense.61 Hoda El Shakry identifies a Sufi practice of self-annihilation in the text’s meditations on and formal resemblance to calligraphy, which represents “both an excess and a loss of meaning” and effectively challenges the logocentrism of state and religion.62 Like other Francophone Maghrebi writers including Assia Djebar, Abdelkebir Khatibi, and Rachid Boudjedra, Meddeb invests the French language with Arabic structures and Islamic concepts in order to perform a critique of both French colonialism and its echoes in post-independence political discourse.

Within narrative, metalepsis performs a similarly subversive role. In the narrow sense, metalepsis involves a passage between diegetic levels or logically distinct worlds, as for example when a character in a story exits the frame of that story to address its narrator. Korean novelist Bae Suah’s Untold Night and Day (2013) employs this figure in especially radical ways and to such an extent that the notion of a controlling diegetic level or normative world increasingly loses its tenability. A white bus that nearly hits a pedestrian initially passes the protagonist Ayami as she walks along the street and later appears, turned over after a crash, in a photograph that Ayami sees in an exhibition and discusses with the photographer; the bus’s metaleptic shift from a subject in her field of experience to the object of ecphrastic description has its counterpart in the metonymic leap the photographer makes from the violence he has depicted to his memories of the Korean War. Again, Ayami observes herself on the television screen, a guest on a talk show, as she eats in Burger King with an acquaintance; the host proceeds to cut to footage from a “performance film” in which Ayami starred, and which depicts her sitting in Burger King with her acquaintance.63 The simultaneity and permeability of multiple possible worlds reaches its abyssal and most supernatural when Ayami picks up a pebble and sees into a hole where another version of herself is living, simultaneously, in another reality.64 Metalepsis, besides disturbing readers and forcing them to attend to the artifice of the literary construction, issues a challenge to the hierarchy of worlds in diegetic construction, according to which the frame story has more authority than any stories told within it. For a Korean writer like Bae, metalepsis perhaps offers the possibility of symbolically travestying the prerogative, held by a former colonial occupier and the two powers that, in assuming dominance in the Cold War, conquered (Korea), of reducing Korea to a story nested in their own negotiations. Not only the 38th parallel itself but the fiction that sustained it are transgressed according to the logic by which storytellers and characters trade places.

The Untimeliness of Postcolonial Literature: Belated, Prescient, Nonsynchronous

In different ways, the concepts of the postcolonial, the avant-garde, and narrative all share a preoccupation with time and temporality. Yet their assumptions about time do not easily hang together. One prevalent concept of the avant-garde turns on a claim to historical priority, to firstness or anteriority in the development of aesthetic forms; and behind this claim lies the assumption that historical time is singular and homogeneous and that precedence conveys some kind of privilege.65 This is also the understanding of historical time that was deployed by all the major European imperial powers to justify their right, or even duty, to colonize “subject races” and contribute to their historical “development.” Naturally, then, the postcolonial writer who wants to do more than merely invert the terms of the colonial relationship will be suspicious of adopting the term avant-garde; the original martial connotation of the term, although suggesting a spatial rather than temporal orientation, may well arouse suspicions for similar reasons. Furthermore, as Hans Magnus Enzensberger observed, the avant-garde can only be determined in retrospect, since by definition it proceeds into uncharted aesthetic territories, the viability of which remain unknown in advance.66 It is thus only meaningful as a historical category, a fact that, at the very least, opens the term up to the mystifications produced by the historiography of the victors. Meanwhile narrative—the bedrock concept of literary fiction, whether one is dealing with the novel, novella, or short story—is distinguished by its relation to time: narrative is, as Paul Ricoeur argues, the means through which humans make time their own and invest it with meaning.67 One way to redescribe the contradiction between the historic avant-garde and the postcolonial is that they offer discrepant narratives about cultural change. Whereas the concept of the avant-garde, at least in its traditional European acceptation, suggests that cultures change through the work of a minority group of confrontational provocateurs that shock conservative elements and force them to accommodate new possibilities, the postcolonial—at least in one influential tendency—emphasizes that “newness enters the world” in between sites already spoken for by “ready-made names” through a process of hybridization that speaks to the real needs of people in the present.68 Not all postcolonial thinkers share this suspicion of origin ex nihilo and associated metaphysical concepts, but a foundational insight of the field is that everything we call modern has been elaborated through the avaricious, bloody, and yet creative strife at play in the myriad encounters precipitated by colonialism. Questions of originative power and cultural agency are thus devalued within postcolonial thought in favor of inquiries into aftermaths and the unpredictable, ramifying effects of actions that exceed the intentions of their actors.69

Yet alongside the interest in aftermaths lurks the ever-vexing and ambivalent question of cultural heritage and the various projects to recover or revitalize it. Such efforts do not necessarily contradict the modernist injunction, famously issued by Ezra Pound, to “make it new.” Yet “it”—the substance of a still vital tradition that can be called forth and rearticulated—is not available to postcolonial writers in the way that Homer, Dante, and Jefferson were present for Ezra Pound. The issue is not the absence of written archives—although these too have not infrequently been targeted for destruction—but rather the epistemic violence carried out by colonizers against the cultural memory and historiographical modes of the colonized. Colonialism, as Fanon said, “turns its attention to the past of the colonized people and distorts it, disfigures it, and destroys it.”70 For this reason the incentives to retrieve this dispossessed history are immense. Yet nothing guarantees that this project will be possible, let alone that it will facilitate emancipatory possibilities in the present. Everything depends on how this material is mobilized, to what ends, and with what intentions.

This point can be demonstrated through an examination of postcolonial engagements with myth, one of the most important manifestations of this concern. At one level, myth may serve a conservative function insofar as it secures a national identity that in turn justifies policies removed from collective arbitration. In Murphy, Beckett profanes a statue of the legendary Irish hero Cuchulain as a symbolic act of violence against just this sort of maneuver by Ireland’s head of state Éamon de Valera, who sought to defend an insular and agrarian understanding of Ireland through appeal to mythological icons that stood in for the true and unquestionable essence of the people. Yet myth has also been deployed sincerely within literature, and for purposes quite contrary to those targeted by Beckett, as a form of democratic contestation of this risible tendency in postcolonial polities. Qurratulain Hyder, for example, in Aag ka Darya (River of Fire) challenges dominant Hindutva narratives of India’s premodern past as well as official Pakistani insistence on the inevitability of national separation. Hyder, from Uttar Pradesh in contemporary India, was born into a Muslim family, with whom she fled to Pakistan during the Partition of 1947, before returning to India years later. Turning the Indian tradition of anti-Muslim popular legend on its head, Hyder draws on the historiographical mode of the Hindu Puranas—which blend myth and history seamlessly—to redescribe greater India’s past as one of intercommunal tolerance and even syncretism.71 Across the two thousand years of history that the novel takes in, central characters reappear in new guises, and tragic events recur. The novel thus reworks Hindu and Buddhist notions of the circle of time as a formal principle of composition. The Guyanese writer Wilson Harris turns to myth for a related but distinct reason. The first novel of his Guyana Quartet, Palace of the Peacock (1960), is a recondite tale of a journey upriver by the ruthless colonial figure Donne and the motley crew that he assembles to secure labor for his coastal plantation. The novel culminates in a mythic and mystical vision that short-circuits the monadic subjectivity associated with Donne’s colonial metaphysics, the rugged individual fundamentally separated from others and capable of instrumentalizing them at will. The polemical edge of this concluding vision targets the imaginary divisions that the colonial project has instituted and which effectively immure people from each other and from a more meaningful experience of the possibilities of human life.72 Myth for Harris, as for Hyder, thus sustains a transnational, “cross-cultural” ethic.73

Analepsis is only one of the figures studied by narratologists like Gérard Genette under the heading of narrative “order” and more specifically of anachrony.74 While a fuller account of narratological innovation would attend to experimentation with Genette’s other temporal categories—duration, frequency, and speed—brief mention must be made here of two other influential forms of literary anachrony. Carlos Fuentes’s La muerte de Artemio Cruz (The Death of Artemio Cruz, 1962) exemplifies the use of memory to scramble a standard linear emplotment. In this novel, Artemio Cruz, a former revolutionary who has become a corrupt politician and businessman, recalls his past as he lies on his deathbed. This work stands in a proximate relation to the tradition of dictatorship novels, but the innovation specific to this novel is its representation of the disintegration of progressive revolutionary temporality from the standpoint of the debased leader himself. Beyond this, the novel’s problematization of memory presaged a broader disillusionment with the official manner and tenor of historical writing, a development which influenced a turn to individual and collective memory in both historiography and fiction. If the radicalism of that gesture seems implausible today in a world steeped in the culture of memory, the narrative strategy of Argentinian writer Julio Cortázar in Rayuela (Hopscotch, 1963) is likely to seem like gratuitous postmodern fun, if not a gimmick. But Cortázar’s decision to preface his novel with a “Table of Instructions,” in which he suggested that the novel could be read in a determinate non-linear sequence or only as far as the fifty-sixth chapter, suggests the possibility of a bifurcated readership that perfectly mirrors the divide between Latin America and Paris that he represents in the novel. Less the description of a game than of a body in perpetual transit, the novel’s title suggests the impossibility of landing comfortably in either complacent Paris or philistine Argentina.

The Politics of the Postcolonial Avant-Garde

The perils of taking the concept of the avant-garde and applying it, in unreconstructed form, to the postcolonial world should now be clear. It is worth pointing out that “avant-garde,” originally a French term, is rendered in many of the world’s languages as an untranslatable, a transliteration, a phonetic matching term, or a calque. As such, these various renderings foreground the avant-garde’s European origins along with its various connotations that include militarism, conquest, inter-imperial conflict, and temporal priority, along with aggressive cultural programs for renewal in the face of perceived civilizational decline. Even beyond such semantic issues, the very idea of applying a theoretical concept—and one with such a dense body of Western scholarship associated with it—to the postcolonial world is reason enough to give us pause. Indeed, the notion of a postcolonial avant-garde is situated at exactly the site where decolonial studies has made its secession from the broader field of postcolonial studies in which it germinated, and so it raises many of the questions that scholars in these fields debate today. Whereas decolonial scholarship and activism seek, among other things, exterior vantage points from which to rebuild a world that colonialism destroyed, postcolonialism recognizes the irreducibility of the world that empires have made and seeks to develop emancipatory projects from within those horizons. It seems clear enough that, for a growing section of the decolonial wing of this project, the concept of the avant-garde cannot pass muster.

Still, in spite of the evident pitfalls of the term, there is an important case for the concept’s utility to the ongoing project of postcolonial criticism. For what the works examined here make plain is the difficult double bind of the postcolonial artist, torn between the need to challenge imperial remains while at the same time refusing the instrumentalization of such challenges by those seeking to preserve unequal distributions of resources and recognition. One of the remarkable achievements of national liberation movements was, of course, the unification of peoples for the sake of a common political project in spite of sectarian, ethnic, and other affiliative differences. Yet the demands of national unity have, in more than a few instances, resulted in the coercion of heterogeneous national elements, whether among minorities or those with distinct visions of social, economic, and political well-being—principally those on the Left.75 In Syria and Lebanon, for example, the regime of Bashar al-Assad and his allies in Hezbollah have invoked their anti-imperialist credentials in resisting American and Israeli policies to justify their campaigns against regional democratic movements.76 In other words, the call for national unity becomes a kind of blackmail, justified by the need to resist imperial incursions, to use against dissident elements. In such circumstances, the avant-garde assumes a special importance as a political subjectivity capable of agitating for meaningful transformations close to home while at the same time resisting the trappings of liberal imperialism.

In aesthetic terms, this often requires resisting domestic taste just as much as the lure of the Western (and especially Anglophone) book industry. On one hand, the avant-garde can be seen as the democratizing element in any national or popular movement, introducing, to use Jacques Rancière’s terms, a measure of dissensus and a challenge to existing regimes of perception, and so opening up the possibility of more than one collective future.77 On the other hand, the postcolonial avant-garde cannot be assimilated into world literature on definitional grounds: whereas the latter assumes a smooth space of transnational flows and facile literary appreciation, the former entails withering, existential, and absolute—because formally embodied—critique of reigning aesthetic and political norms. Moreover, the avant-garde, for all its transgressiveness, is bound to some idea of territory. This is not to say that those migrant artists who make their living by publishing in New York or London have nothing important to offer or are precluded from writing experimental and challenging works. Nor is it to condemn those who, through no fault of their own, are forced to seek refuge outside their countries of origin: many of the writers discussed here were sent into exile or imprisoned at one point or another, most often because of their writing. Yet it is to say that the politics of the avant-garde can only be determined in relation to the specific historical and political context that some particular artist or movement addresses, a context that may very well be transnational or located in a Western metropole. For example, not every work that includes magic has the polemical purpose that many magical realist works do. Some merely transcribe ways of understanding the world that reflect modes of reasoning other than those inflected by scientific notions of causation or founded on empirical observation. This suggests that magical realism only participates in the postcolonial avant-garde tendency I have described if it directly responds to the horizon of colonial modernity as this manifests at some specific time and place. Deciding whether or not a text belongs to the postcolonial avant-garde therefore requires a sensitivity to the text’s conjuncture. What is avant-garde in one moment may not be in the next.78 A postcolonial avant-garde artist, movement, or work is thus necessarily responsive to some specific configuration of forces, whether this be anti-immigrant sentiment in Paris or Los Angeles, authoritarian rule in Jakarta or Cairo, dismissive and condescending secular reason in Haiti, or a patriarchal system in Cameroon. For the postcolonial artist who wishes to hold such a system to account, the challenge is to find a point of proximity that allows her to reach the relevant audience while simultaneously avoiding either cooptation or expulsion: to be a part of, yet apart from, the social or political order that elicits her critique.

The final issue to resolve is the distinction between postcolonial avant-garde fiction and the varieties of non-avant-garde fiction that fill bookshelves alongside it. It has already been established that the avant-garde is defined by its search for new historical logics and associated forms of emplotment through which to organize the historical experience of colonized or formerly colonized peoples in clear opposition to both metropolitan and domestic “comprador” representations of that experience. Insofar as the latter are responsible for establishing the dominant conception of what counts as real, the avant-gardes will pursue an anti-real, surrealist, or hyperreal aesthetic.79 But this aesthetic is in service of a distinct epistemological claim about reality. Paradoxically, the opacity and difficulty of postcolonial avant-garde fiction serves the end of understanding, even if this sometimes takes the form of determining that certain phenomena are, contrary to scientific reason, unknowable. The epistemological function of avant-garde literature is thus to facilitate the unlearning of imperial habits of mind as these have become sedimented in the social imaginary and have come to be articulated with other forms of exploitative, dominative, and dispossessive discourse. If European avant-garde literature is aristocratic, and much realist postcolonial literature is populist, postcolonial avant-garde writing is democratizing.80 It opens up a frontier of difference within an otherwise closed area of consensus, allowing for the recognition of hitherto obscured claims. By altering the very mechanics of perception through which the inheritances of imperial rule are recognized and adjudicated, postcolonial avant-garde fiction at least fosters the possibility of both meaningful decolonization and a shared democratic ethos.

Discussion of the Literature

No book-length study of postcolonial avant-garde fiction currently exists, principally because synoptic studies of postcolonial literatures, which were important for the first generation of scholarship, have given way to studies focused by nation, region, language, or thematic comparison. Two collections, Diasporic Avant-Gardes: Experimental Poetics and Cultural Displacement, edited by Carrie Noland and Barrett Watten, and Decentring the Avant-Garde, edited by Per Bäckström and Benedikt Hjartarson, are exceptional in this regard.81 There is a voluminous body of work on Latin American avant-gardes which includes monographs by Vicky Unruh, Fernando Rosenberg, and Gorica Majstorovic; a helpful companion on manifestos and critical texts has been compiled by Jorge Schwartz.82 The literatures of the Arab Middle East, both Francophone and Arabic-speaking, have also been the subject of a rich and growing body of critical scholarship, including monographs by Stefan Meyer, Muhsin al-Musawi, Andrea Flores Khalil, Elisabeth Kendall, and Fabio Caiani.83 Within Caribbean studies, much good work has been done on experimental poetry, most of it attentive to individual poets like Aimé Césaire or Kamau Brathwaite; in addition, there is a substantial body of scholarship on the influence of surrealism.84 African literary studies approaches the set of questions associated with the avant-garde from a particular angle, emphasizing the indigenous, precolonial grounds of innovation and the dialectic of new and old; in this field, the imperative of thinking outside the parameters of the European/African binary—which fixes the latter in a relationship of reaction and leaves Eurocentrism unquestioned—has a special salience and urgency.85 Yet there is a constant stream of new books in the field describing recent developments in the African novel or a regional variant.86 Studies of minority writers from the US who work in a self-identified avant-garde framework are also crucial resources.87

The burgeoning field of global modernisms, although distinct from postcolonial avant-garde studies in the sense that it is primarily concerned with international traffic and representations of the foreign, offers useful insights for thinking about the kinds of formal innovations that emerge through cross-cultural contact of various sorts. This kind of project arguably has its roots in earlier postcolonial challenges to the model of literary diffusion and dissemination: books like Simon Gikandi’s Writing in Limbo: Modernism and Caribbean Literature and Priya Joshi’s In Another Country: Colonialism, Culture, and the English Novel in India were concerned to show how colonial and postcolonial writers made literary forms responsive to domestic interests and needs.88 But while those works were sharply attuned to the antagonisms within and between metropole and colony that motivated the specific forms of modernist experimentation in the Caribbean and India, works falling under the rubric of global modernism are, so far at least, mostly concerned with theoretical questions about the definition of modernism in an expanded frame, as well as the ethical consequences of this reframing. Indeed, much of this work gives the impression of establishing parameters for a new field, attempting to define the key terms for study and resituate debates previously conducted within modernist studies.89 Jessica Berman’s Modernist Commitments: Ethics, Politics, and Transnational Modernism, for instance, identifies modernism as a varied and recurring “set of relationships, practices, problematics, and cultural engagements with modernity rather than a static canon of works, a given set of formal devices, or a specific range of beliefs.”90 Susan Stanford Friedman’s Planetary Modernisms attempts to dismantle the diffusionist model of modernist aesthetics, emphasizing instead the “co-production” of multiple modernities and modernisms over the longue durée.91 The volume Modernism, Postcolonialism, and Globalism: Anglophone Literature, 1950 to the Present includes essays that reflect on the importance of European modernist literary forms for foundational postcolonial writers ranging from Chinua Achebe to Michael Ondaatje.92 A New Vocabulary for Global Modernism thematizes this traffic through essays on topics including “war,” “tradition,” and “alienation,” while The Oxford Handbook of Global Modernisms includes several essays that pertain to postcolonial countries and contains a section on “Comparative Avant-Gardes” (with essays on Cuban and Vietnamese artists).93

Finally, those wishing to pursue further research in specific postcolonial avant-garde literatures will want to consult largely overlooked studies of postcolonial formalisms. The edited volume Narratology and Ideology: Negotiating Context, Form, and Theory in Postcolonial Narratives provides several useful leads.94 Katharine Burkitt’s Literary Form as Postcolonial Critique, although engaging with an idiosyncratic selection of texts, contains valuable insights about the generic transformations of postcolonial writing.95 Celia Britton’s Language and Literary Form in French Caribbean Writing offers theoretically sophisticated formalist readings of postcolonial writing from the Caribbean.96

Further Reading

  • al-Musawi, Muhsin Jassim. The Postcolonial Arabic Novel: Debating Ambivalence. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2003.
  • Bäckström, Per, and Benedikt Hjartarson, eds. Decentring the Avant-Garde. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2014.
  • Berman, Jessica. Modernist Commitments: Ethics, Politics, and Transnational Modernism. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.
  • Brough-Evans, Vivienne. Sacred Surrealism, Dissidence and International Avant-Garde Prose. London: Routledge, 2016.
  • Cooper, Brenda. Magical Realism in West African Fiction: Seeing with a Third Eye. London: Routledge, 1998.
  • Eatough, Matt, and Mark Wollaeger, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Global Modernisms. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
  • Friedman, Susan Stanford. Planetary Modernisms: Provocations on Modernity across Time. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015.
  • Hanna, Kifah. Feminism and Avant-Garde Aesthetics in the Levantine Novel. New York: Palgrave, 2016.
  • Hayot, Eric, and Rebecca L. Walkowitz. A New Vocabulary for Global Modernism. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016.
  • Khalil, Andrea Flores. The Arab Avant-Garde: Experiments in North African Art and Literature. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003.
  • Mackey, Nathaniel. Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality and Experimental Writing. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
  • Majstorovic, Gorica. Global South Modernities: Modernist Literature and the Avant-Garde in Latin America. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2021.
  • Meyer, Stefan G. The Experimental Arabic Novel: Postcolonial Literary Modernism in the Levant. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.
  • Mwangi, Evan Maina. Africa Writes Back to Self: Metafiction, Gender, Sexuality. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009.
  • Noland, Carrie, and Barrett Watten, eds. Diasporic Avant-Gardes: Experimental Poetics and Cultural Displacement. New York: Palgrave, 2009.
  • Renouf, Magali. Surréalisme africain et surréalisme français. Paris: L’Harmattan, 2015.
  • Richardson, Michael, ed., Refusal of the Shadow: Surrealism and the Caribbean. Translated by Krzysztof Fijałowski and Michael Richardson. London: Verso, 1996.
  • Rosenberg, Fernando J. The Avant-Garde and Geopolitics in Latin America. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006.
  • Sell, Mike. The Avant-Garde: Race, Religion, War. London: Seagull, 2012.
  • Unruh, Vicky. Latin American Vanguards: The Art of Contentious Encounters. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.


  • 1. Mike Sell, The Avant-Garde: Race, Religion, War (London: Seagull Books, 2011).

  • 2. Simon Gikandi, “Theory after Postcolonial Theory: Rethinking the Work of Mimesis,” in Theory after “Theory, ed. Jane Elliott and Derek Attridge (London: Routledge, 2011), 165.

  • 3. Gikandi, “Theory after Postcolonial Theory,” 174.

  • 4. Edward W. Said, The World, the Text and the Critic (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983).

  • 5. Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), 6.

  • 6. Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).

  • 7. Teodor Shanin, Late Marx and the Russian Road: Marx and “the Peripheries of Capitalism” (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983); Ernst Bloch, “Summary Transition: Non-contemporaneity and Obligation to Its Dialectic,” in Heritage of Our Times, ed. Ernst Bloch, trans. Neville Plaice and Stephen Plaice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 97–148; Leon Trotsky, “Peculiarities of Russia’s Development,” in History of the Russian Revolution (1930; repr., London: Penguin, 2017), 22–34; Michael Löwy, The Politics of Combined and Uneven Development: The Theory of Permanent Revolution (1981; repr., Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2010); Reinhart Koselleck, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time, trans. Keith Tribe (1979; repr., New York: Columbia University Press, 2004); and Harry Harootunian, Marx after Marx: History and Time in the Expansion of Capitalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015).

  • 8. Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Michael Shaw (1980; repr., Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 109n4.

  • 9. Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde, 12, 22.

  • 10. Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde, 32.

  • 11. Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde, 48, 50.

  • 12. Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde, 72, 52.

  • 13. Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde, 81.

  • 14. The classic argument with respect to India was made by Ranajit Guha, Dominance without Hegemony: History and Power in Colonial India (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997).

  • 15. Taha Husayn, “Al-Adib Yaktub li-l-Khassa” [The Author Writes for the Select Few], al-Adab 3, no. 5 (Beirut, Lebanon: May 1955): 2–8.

  • 16. Idwar al-Kharrat, “Kull mina Multazim,” [All of Us Are Committed], in Tahawwulat Mafhum al-Iltizam fi al-Adab al-’Arabi al-Hadith [Transformations in the Concept of Commitment in Modern Arabic Literature], ed. Muhammad Barada (Damascus, Syria: Dar al-Fikr, 2003), 73.

  • 17. al-Kharrat, “Kull mina Multazim,” 75.

  • 18. Akram Musallam, The Dance of the Deep-Blue Scorpion, trans. Sawad Hussain (2008; repr., London: Seagull Books, 2021), 11–12.

  • 19. David Scott, “Preface: A Postcolonial Avant-Garde?,” small axe 64 (March 2021), viii–ix.

  • 20. Scott, “Preface,” x.

  • 21. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Richard Philcox (1961; repr., New York: Grove Press, 2021), 163.

  • 22. Fanon, Wretched of the Earth, 159.

  • 23. Fanon, Wretched of the Earth, 175, 176.

  • 24. See Mahmood Mamdani, Neither Settler nor Native: The Making and Unmaking of Permanent Minorities (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2020), 208, on the colonial use of the “Hamitic hypothesis” to justify the permanent domination by a purportedly foreign group over those supposed to be natives in Ethiopia, Rwanda, and the Sudan.

  • 25. Cf. Andrea Flores Khalil, The Arab Avant-Garde: Experiments in North African Art and Literature (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003), xxii.

  • 26. Fernando J. Rosenberg, The Avant-Garde and Geopolitics in Latin America (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006), 16.

  • 27. Oswald de Andrade, “Anthropophagite Manifesto (1928),” trans. Adriano Pedrosa and Veronica Cordeiro. Originally published in Revista de Antropofagia 1 (May 1928).

  • 28. Andrade, “Anthropophagite Manifesto.”

  • 29. Aníbal Quijano, “Coloniality of Power, Eurocentrism, and Latin America,” Nepantla: Views from South 1, no. 3 (2000): 533–580. For a useful survey of the Latin Americanist debates about postcolonial studies, see Mabel Moraña, Enrique Dussel, and Carlos A. Jáuregui, eds., Coloniality at Large: Latin America and the Postcolonial Debate (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008).

  • 30. César Vallejo, Tungsten, trans. Robert Mezey (1931; repr., Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1988), 125.

  • 31. Gerald Martin, “Introduction,” in Men of Maize, ed. Miguel Ángel Asturias (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1993), xxiii–xxiv.

  • 32. Alejo Carpentier, The Kingdom of This World, trans. Pablo Medina (1949; repr., New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017), xvii.

  • 33. Patrick Wolfe, Settler Colonialism and the Transformation of Anthropology: The Politics of an Ethnographic Event (London: Cassell, 1999); and Patrick Wolfe, Traces of History: Elementary Structures of Race (London: Verso, 2016).

  • 34. Fredric Jameson, Allegory and Ideology (London: Verso, 2019), 159–215.

  • 35. Jini Kim Watson, Cold War Reckonings: Authoritarianism and the Genres of Decolonization (New York: Fordham University Press, 2021).

  • 36. Paul Stephen Hyland, “Dictation and Narration: A Genettian Study of Gabriel García Márquez’s El otoño del patriarca,” Modern Languages Open (October 22, 2015): 4.

  • 37. On the excessive nature of postcolonial autocracy, see Achille Mbembe, On the Postcolony (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).

  • 38. Phyllis Taoua, “Performing Identity: Nations, Cultures and African Experimental Novels,” Journal of African Cultural Studies 14, no. 2 (December 2001): 194–195.

  • 39. Martin Puchner, Poetry of the Revolution: Marx, Manifestos, and the Avant-Gardes (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006), 71.

  • 40. Filippo T. Marinetti, “The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism,” in Futurism: An Anthology, ed. Lawrence Rainey, Christine Poggi, and Laura Wittman (1909; repr., New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), 52–53.

  • 41. Jorge Luis Borges, “The Argentine Writer and Tradition,” in Labyrinths, trans. James E. Irby (1962; repr., New York: New Directions, 2007), 185.

  • 42. Borges, “The Argentine Writer and Tradition,” 184.

  • 43. Frances Stonor Saunders, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters (1999; repr., New York: New Press, 2013); Andrew Rubin, Archives of Authority: Empire, Culture, and the Cold War (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012); Elizabeth Holt, “‘Bread or Freedom’: The Congress for Cultural Freedom, the CIA, and the Arabic Literary Journal Hiwār (1962–67),” Journal of Arabic Literature 44, no. 1 (2013): 83–102; Peter Kalliney, “Modernism, African Literature, and the Cold War,” Modern Language Quarterly 76, no. 3 (September 2015): 333–368; Greg Barnhisel, Cold War Modernists: Art, Literature, and American Cultural Diplomacy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015); and Monica Popescu, At Penpoint: African Literatures, Postcolonial Studies, and the Cold War (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020).

  • 44. Popescu, At Penpoint, 96. Popescu draws on the work of Evan Maina Mwangi, African Writes Back to Self: Metafiction, Gender, Sexuality (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009).

  • 45. Two special issues of prominent journals have upended the realism debates and have special relevance for postcolonial studies: Jed Esty and Colleen Lye, eds., “Peripheral Realisms Now,” special issue, Modern Language Quarterly 73, no. 3 (September 2012): 255–485; and Lauren M. E. Goodlad, ed., “Worlding Realisms Now,” special issue, Novel: A Forum on Fiction 49, no. 2 (Autumn 2016): 183–357.

  • 46. Eleni Condouriotis, “Improbable Figures: Realist Fictions of Insecurity in Contemporary African Fiction,” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 49, no. 2 (Autumn 2016): 238, 254.

  • 47. Christopher Warnes, Magical Realism and the Postcolonial Novel: Between Faith and Irreverence (New York: Palgrave, 2009).

  • 48. Lois Parkinson Zamora and Wendy B. Faris. “Introduction: Daiquiri Birds and Flaubertian Parrot(ie)s,” in Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995), 6.

  • 49. It is worth recalling as a caveat, however, Frantz Fanon’s argument that belief in “magical, supernatural powers prove[s] to be surprisingly ego boosting. The colonist’s powers are infinitely shrunk . . . the mythical structures contain far more terrifying adversaries . . . . [O]rganized seances of possession and dispossession . . . pla[y] a key regulating role in ensuring the stability of the colonized world” (see Fanon, Wretched of the Earth, 19–20).

  • 50. Brenda Cooper, Magical Realism in West African Fiction: Seeing with a Third Eye (London: Routledge, 1998), 80.

  • 51. Patrick Bixby, Samuel Beckett and the Postcolonial Novel (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 84–118; and Ato Quayson, Tragedy and Postcolonial Literature (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2021), 264–297.

  • 52. Samuel Beckett, Murphy (1939; repr., New York: Grove Press, 1957), 25.

  • 53. Evan Mwangi, “Experimental Fictions,” in The Novel in Africa and the Caribbean since 1950, ed. Simon Gikandi (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 445.

  • 54. Fanon, Wretched of the Earth, 4–5; On comparative partitions, see Arie M. Dubnov and Laura Robson, eds., Partitions: A Transnational History of Twentieth-Century Territorial Separatism (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2019). A useful study of comparative settler colonial land policy is Brenna Bhandar, Colonial Lives of Property: Law, Land, and Racial Regimes of Ownership (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018). For a study of the application of the exclusionary logic of property to human populations, see Nandita Sharma, Home Rule: National Sovereignty and the Separation of Natives and Migrants (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020). Robert Nichols has argued convincingly that it was through the dispossession of Indigenous peoples by settler colonial rule that Indigenous peoples came to be recognized as the original holders of a land they were now legally barred from using: see Robert Nichols, Theft is Property! Dispossession and Critical Theory (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020).

  • 55. My reading here is influenced by Jacques Derrida, “The Law of Genre,” in Acts of Literature, ed. Derek Attridge and Jacques Derrida trans. Avital Ronell (New York: Routledge, 1992), 221–252.

  • 56. Idwar al-Kharrat, al-Kitaba ‘abra al-Naw‘iyya: Maqalat fi Zahira «al-Qissa—al-Qasida» wa Nusus Mukhtara [Transgeneric Writing: Essays on the Phenomenon of the “Story-Poem” and Selected Texts] (Cairo, Egypt: Dar Sharqiyyat, 1994).

  • 57. Hala Halim, “The Pre-postcolonial and Its Enduring Relevance: Afro-Asian Variations in Edwar al-Kharrat’s Texts,” in Postcolonialism Cross-Examined: Multidirectional Perspectives on Imperial and Colonial Pasts and the Neocolonial Present, ed. Monika Albrecht (New York: Routledge, 2020), 87.

  • 58. Werewere Liking, It Shall Be of Jasper and Coral and Love-across-a Hundred-Lives, trans. Marjolijn de Jager (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2000), 32–33.

  • 59. Aimé Césaire, Journal of a Homecoming / Cahier d’un retour au pays natal, trans. N. Gregson Davis (1956; repr., Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017), 95.

  • 60. Hoda El Shakry, The Literary Qur’an: Narrative Aesthetics in the Maghreb (New York: Fordham University Press, 2020), 62; and Jane Kuntz, “Translator’s Introduction,” in Talismano, ed. Abdelwahhab Meddeb (1987; repr., Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 2011), xi.

  • 61. Dina Al-Kassim, On Pain of Speech: Fantasies of the First Order and the Literary Rant (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), 224.

  • 62. El Shakry, The Literary Qur’an, 78.

  • 63. Bae Suah, Untold Night and Day, trans. Deborah Smith (New York: Overlook Press, 2020), 129.

  • 64. Bae, Untold Night and Day, 50.

  • 65. Laura Winkiel, “Postcolonial Avant-Gardes and the World System of Modernity/ Coloniality,” in Decentring the Avant-Garde, ed. Per Bäckström and Benedikt Hjartarson (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2014).

  • 66. Hans Magnus Enzensberger, “The Aporias of the Avant-Garde,” trans. John Simon, in Modern Occasions, ed. Philip Rahv (1962; repr., New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966), 85.

  • 67. Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, vol. 1, trans. Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer (1983; repr., Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 3 and passim.

  • 68. Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture (1994; repr., London: Routledge, 2004), 325. The title of the chapter in which this quotation appears is taken from Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, which Bhabha discusses at length.

  • 69. See David Scott, Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004).

  • 70. Franz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Richard Philcox (1961; repr., New York: Grove Press, 2004), 149.

  • 71. Swaralipi Nandi, “Reconstructing the Contested Past: Reading Qurratulain Hyder’s River of Fire against the Rhetoric of Radical Hindu Nationalism,” Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies 1, no. 2 (2012): 286.

  • 72. Hena Maes-Jelinek, The Labyrinth of Universality: Wilson Harris’s Visionary Art of Fiction (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2006), 47.

  • 73. Peter Hitchcock, The Long Space: Transnationalism and Postcolonial Form (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010), 49.

  • 74. Gérard Genette, Narrative Discourse: An Essay on Method, trans. Jane E. Levin (1972; repr., Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1980), 33–85.

  • 75. See the classic study on India by Partha Chatterjee, The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993).

  • 76. Fadi A. Bardawil has reflected astutely on the dangers of uncritical anti-imperialism in Revolution and Disenchantment: Arab Marxism and the Binds of Emancipation (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020).

  • 77. Jacques Rancière, Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics, trans. Steven Corcoran (London: Bloomsbury, 2010).

  • 78. As Michael Denning has observed, magical realism has today become the “aesthetic of globalization”: see Michael Denning, Culture in the Age of Three Worlds (London: Verso, 2004), 5. See also Sherae Deckard, “Peripheral Realism, Millennial Capitalism, and Roberto Bolaño’s 2666,” Modern Language Quarterly 73, no. 3 (September 2012): 353.

  • 79. By “hyperreal” I mean a tendency to compensate for a deficiency in the powers of representation (perhaps caused by a degradation of language under the pressures of a colonizer’s abuse) through, for example, appeal to an excessive description that serves no narrative purpose. For examples of this practice, see Christopher P. Hanscom, The Real Modern: Literary Modernism and the Crisis of Representation in Colonial Korea (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013).

  • 80. Renato Poggioli, The Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Gerald Fitzgerald (1962; repr., Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968), 39.

  • 81. Carrie Noland and Barrett Watten, eds., Diasporic Avant-Gardes: Experimental Poetics and Cultural Displacement (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009); and Bäckström and Hjartarson, Decentring the Avant-Garde.

  • 82. Vicky Unruh, Latin American Vanguards: The Art of Contentious Encounters (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994); Rosenberg, Avant-Garde and Geopolitics in Latin America; Gorica Majstorovic, Global South Modernities: Modernist Literature and the Avant-Garde in Latin America (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2021); Jorge Schwartz, Las vanguardias latinoamericanas: Textos programáticos y críticos (Mexico City: Fondo Cultura Económica, 2002); and George Yúdice, “Rethinking the Theory of the Avant-Garde from the Periphery,” in Modernism and Its Margins: Reinscribing Cultural Modernity from Spain and Latin America, ed. Anthony L. Geist and José B. Monléon (New York: Garland, 1999).

  • 83. Stefan G. Meyer, The Experimental Arabic Novel: Postcolonial Literary Modernism in the Levant (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001); Khalil, The Arab Avant-Garde; Muhsin Jassim al-Musawi, The Postcolonial Arabic Novel: Debating Ambivalence (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2003); Elisabeth Kendall, Literature, Journalism and the Avant-Garde: Intersection in Egypt (London: Routledge, 2006); and Fabio Caiani, Contemporary Arab Fiction: Innovation from Rama to Yalu (London: Routledge, 2007).

  • 84. See, for instance, Nathaniel Mackey, Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality and Experimental Writing (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993); and Phyllis Taoua, Forms of Protest: Anti-Colonialism and Avant-Gardes in Africa, the Caribbean, and France (Paris: Heinemann, 2002). For a study of Francophone African and Caribbean surrealist writing, see Magali Renouf, Surréalisme africain et surréalisme français (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2015). On Carpentier and surrealism, see Vivienne Brough-Evans, Sacred Surrealism, Dissidence and International Avant-Garde Prose (London: Routledge, 2016), 43–92. For a helpful collection of documents and analysis of Caribbean surrealism, see Michael Richardson, ed., Refusal of the Shadow: Surrealism and the Caribbean, trans. Krzysztof Fijałowski and Michael Richardson (London: Verso, 1996).

  • 85. See Mwangi, Africa Writes Back to Self; Cooper, Magical Realism in West African Fiction; Gerald Gaylard, After Colonialism: African Postmodernism and Magical Realism (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2005); and Alena Rettová, “Writing in the Swing? Neo-Realism in Post-Experimental Swahili Fiction,” Research in African Literatures 47, no. 3 (Fall 2016): 15–31.

  • 86. This literature is enormous and ranges from Dabla Sewanou, Nouvelles écritures africaines: Romanciers de la seconde generation (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1986) to Shola Adenekan, African Literature in the Digital Age: Class and Sexual Politics in New Writing from Nigeria and Kenya (Woodbridge, UK: Boydell & Brewer, 2021).

  • 87. See for example, Steven S. Lee, The Ethnic Avant-Garde: Minority Cultures and World Revolution (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015); Timothy Yu, Race and the Avant-Garde: Experimental and Asian American Poetry since 1965 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013); and Fionnghuala Sweeney and Kate Marsh, eds., Afromodernisms: Paris, Harlem and the Avant-Garde (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013).

  • 88. Simon Gikandi, Writing in Limbo: Modernism and Caribbean Literature (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992); and Priya Joshi, In Another Country: Colonialism, Culture, and the English Novel in India (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).

  • 89. For a useful introduction, see Peter Kalliney, Modernism in a Global Context (London: Bloomsbury, 2016).

  • 90. Jessica Berman, Modernist Commitments: Ethics, Politics, and Transnational Modernism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 7.

  • 91. Susan Stanford Friedman, Planetary Modernisms: Provocations on Modernity across Time (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015).

  • 92. Richard Begam and Michael Valdez Moses, eds., Modernism, Postcolonialism, and Globalism: Anglophone Literature, 1950 to the Present (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019).

  • 93. Eric Hayot and Rebecca L. Walkowitz, eds., A New Vocabulary for Global Modernism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016); and Matt Eatough and Mark Wollaeger, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Global Modernisms (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

  • 94. Divya Dwivedi, Henrik Skov Nielsen, and Richard Walsh, eds., Narratology and Ideology: Negotiating Context, Form, and Theory in Postcolonial Narratives (Columbia: The Ohio State University Press, 2018).

  • 95. Katharine Burkitt, Literary Form as Postcolonial Critique: Epic Proportions (London: Routledge, 2012).

  • 96. Celia Britton, Language and Literary Form in French Caribbean Writing (Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, 2014).