Runaway Genres: On Slavery, Captivity, and Blackness Now

This essay is part of a symposium on Yogita Goyal’s Runaway Genres. All contributions to the symposium can be found here.

Yogita Goyal’s Runaway Genres: The Global Afterlives of Slavery examines the emergence of “slavery as the defining template through which current forms of human rights abuses are understood in order to rethink race in a global frame” (2). The book thus concerns itself with the implications of new definitions of slavery and Blackness for American publics. Specifically, Yogita Goyal rethinks current literary frameworks for understanding “black existence” by explaining the mutations and adaptations of the slave narrative in twenty-first-century life writing and fiction. Goyal attributes this recent proliferation of “the slave narrative” to contemporary population movements, the use of sentimentalism to relate trauma, and the inclination to interpret modern-day events as repetitions of past occurrences. The slave narrative has essentially become a malleable technology comprising components that include sentimental globalism, post-black satire, tropes of the gothic child and the talking book. Goyal explains the varying constellations in which these apparatuses are deployed.

Overall, the book enumerates how writers and literary activists reformulate the slave narrative and articulate new Black identities in relation to slavery in literature. Revisiting slavery reanimates the horizon of Civil Rights movements and claims about the quality of African American life and citizenship. African American novelists, revivifying the neo-slave narrative with post-racial satire and dark humor, interrogate attachments to slavery while also illuminating such attachments. Activists use slavery to publicize issues ranging from human trafficking to animal rights. New abolitionists working in African conflict zones resuscitate the slave narrative to market African child soldier narratives. In transnational circuits of the African diaspora, slavery animates narratives of cultural memory and identity.

Runaway Genres pivots on some preceding debates. Very early, Goyal mentions Stephen Best’s call to move beyond slavery as the key interpretative framework for African American relations to the past.[1] She extends that argument by showing how twenty-first-century cultural contact between the United States and Africa generates new narratives of slavery, Blackness, and trauma that destabilize the solitary hold of Atlantic slavery on the definitions of Black formative trauma in the United States. Runaway Genres also echoes Michael Rothberg’s critique of contestatory deployments of traumatic memories. These, he argues, are “defined by competition and the zero-sum-game” logic.[2] Memory cultures, he contends, are multidirectional and open to “negotiation, cross-referencing, and borrowing.”[3] Such multi-directionality and cross-referencing animate Goyal’s study. Although she does not dwell on Rothberg, she criticizes commentators who “fear that the newfound visibility of the African story somehow detracts from the African American one, as if diaspora were some kind of zero-sum-game” (176). Goyal is most directly invested in narrative genres and forms and not memory or its animus per se.

Goyal’s chapters reward readers with outstanding insights into aesthetic formalisms and innovations. Her choice of less studied texts—like the pairing of Toni Morrison’s Desdemona with Caryl Phillips’s Othello narrative —directs readers to neglected vantage points and will generate critical debate. Her reading of the child soldier, in African literature, as a figuration of the gothic child is equally evocative and illuminating: it crosshatches accounts of “the gothic child” with elaborations of the postcolonial gothic and the studies of the child in African literatures.[4] Gothic traditions have long existed in South African literatures, but they are increasingly appearing in African fiction within the process Glennis Byron describes as its “globalization.”[5] Here, Goyal argues that the use of gothic conventions curtails sentimentalism and foster an analytical narrative stance in response to epistemological dilemmas. Allusions to gothic texts and imperial romances certainly appear in African fiction; however, the gothic may better characterize aspects of other recent novels—such as Teju Cole’s Open City— rather than child soldier novels.

Nobody can quarrel with Goyal’s instructive observations, but linking histories of slavery to literary expressions of Black identities can be complicated. If African writers—based in the United States—seem to “move” beyond Atlantic slavery, it may be because it cannot ‘matter’ to contemporary African identities—with some exceptions—as urgently as it does to longstanding African American communities. African novelists refer to Atlantic slavery in order to situate African experiences of slavery and colonialism as events that stand in relation to the Atlantic world. Mentioning slavery and the slave trade has always evoked varying meanings across time and space; with the abolition of legal slavery, slavery became unmoored from its previous historical specificities and its components reutilized. Thus, child soldier autobiographical narratives construct their subject’s journey around the freedom plots of famous American ex-slaves to emphasize what they think they will become.[6]

In a similar vein, I appreciate Goyal’s critique of sentimentality and her extension of the gothic to African autobiographies simulating slave narratives, but I wonder if epistemological conundrums in life writing are not better elaborated through the broader category of the uncanny that unsettles established epistemological frameworks. Thinking about life writing conventions, beyond the slave narrative, would be useful as certain features of emerging African autobiographies about captivity utilize features of testimonial narratives. Consequently, they cannot be conclusively read through the optic of the slave narrative alone.

Runaway Genres maps multifaceted transnational dialogues about slavery, but I wonder if the author could have distinguished more sharply (1) the topographies, tropologies, and temporalities of the older American slavery in its interdigitation with the Civil Rights Movement from (2) the twenty-first-century Africa-related articulations of war and captivity.[7] While representations of American slavery are probably the most familiar historical referents for slavery globally, their prominence is paradoxically also a sign of America’s visibility and global power. Thus, extending America’s definition of slavery beyond the United States may actually simplify what slavery means elsewhere. I must clarify that the author is concerned with a host of subjects that multiple parties signal strategically through reference to Atlantic slavery. These include the persistence of wars, human rights violations, population displacements, and experiences of racial discrimination. For some scholars, contemporary forms of captivity, enforced transportation and labor, as well as sexual exploitation echo constituent processes in the Atlantic slave trade—hence Stephanie Li suggests these new narratives signify upon the slave narrative.[8] I am tempted to ask if there may be material institutional processes in the publishing world that could explain the recurrence of such references in twenty-first-century narratives.

The literary camps surveyed in Runaway Genres occupy distinct but related arenas of criticism and cultural debate. Because Atlantic slavery ramifies with migration, captivity, abolitionist human rights campaigns, interpretations of modernity, historicizations of the Black diaspora, Black internationalisms, and constructions of Black masculinity and femininity, its overdetermined multivalence creates surplus significations that simply appear everywhere. One way to make sense of the proliferations of slavery in literature is to not read them as concerns with historical Atlantic slavery as such but as indexes to entangled histories of dispossession, captivity, and human fungibility from which contemporary narratives begin projects of differentiation and situated genealogies: that history is perhaps reductively signified with slavery in the United States.

To explain the resonance of slavery and the slave narrative globally, we may have to think about the connections between abolitionism as the first major human rights campaign in the modern world and its use of the slave narrative as a vector of its campaigns. In that case, the slave narrative signifies a clutch of concerns and the mechanisms for expressing them. To reference the American slave narrative is thus to tap into a highly expressive but also simplifying template that imposes coherence on disparate and multilayered histories, narratives, and concerns. American slavery is so paradigmatic because of its foundational contradiction in the sense that a nation founded upon the notion of liberty for all also enshrined the enslavement of others into its constitutional fiber. It also outlasted British slavery and was only abolished through a civil war. Then the emergence of the Jim Crow era and institutionalized racism inaugurated the long afterlife of American slavery.

The final chapter of the book, which moves into the terrains of new African migration novels, clarifies Goyal’s approach to African writing. American critics seem to extend the American significance of Atlantic slavery to African immigrant writing which they position as Black writing. Goyal’s insistence that African writers write beyond slavery corrects those narrow assumptions. But even in that corrective mode, the “global afterlives of slavery” perpetually return to the United States. The limits of American and Atlantic diasporic paradigms emerge in that chapter on new African writers. I daresay that references to slavery or its emblematic figures surface in their fiction because their novels present new immigrants navigating the meanings of race in America. It is only to be expected that ideas of diaspora in the fiction of NoViolet Bulawayo and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie diverge sharply from those in, for example, Caryl Phillips.

Encounters with slavery and race in recent African writing serve varied purposes: they trace the immigrant subject’s acculturation, ironize fantasies projected upon America, and undercut the sentimentalism that risks positioning America as the uncomplicated site of refuge. Or, as Goyal puts it, the sentimentalism of the new slave narratives risks presenting America’s past as Africa’s present as if the slave past was long forgotten. Goyal notes of these writers that “their emphasis on the varied routes of migration that have generated the new diaspora helpfully counters the hegemony of any singular genealogy of blackness” (16). It becomes apparent in this concluding chapter that Goyal writes against the hegemony of any Atlantic paradigm that does not include recent African narratives written by axial writers such as Teju Cole. Some scholars may object that those are primarily novels of migration that register the beginnings of newer diasporic formations—after all, the concerned populations remain in contact with real homelands and some subjects shuttle between sites or even return home. As such, any reading fixated on the Atlantic paradigm will be parochial.

The shift to African migration novels dramatically changes the book’s trajectory and its observations about slavery and the slave narrative. Given that these novels will a priori relegate Atlantic slavery and the slave narrative to the background, I attribute the decision to examine them to a pedagogical imperative that is only obvious in the epilogue. That is, the author wonders how these new novels can be positioned as American literature. Although Goyal rightly insists that emerging African novels submit new reflections on older diasporic formations and Black immigrant subjectivities, it may be prudent to qualify claims that they “unhook diaspora from slavery and take us beyond the assimilation mandated by the immigrant plot” for the simple reason that slavery and diaspora just about never figured or mattered much in the African novel—outside South Africa—until the twenty-first century (208). Colonialism and state collapse have always functioned as the cornerstones of collective trauma in African writing. I suspect these writers do not set out to diversify race as much as narrate new discoveries of race that entail reckonings with the history of slavery, abolition, and civil rights in the United States. If slavery cedes place to race in this chapter, it is because it does so in the African migration novels.

This is an ambitious and ingenious book that can be set in productive dialogue with recent studies of Black literary transnationalism.[9] While reading it, I sometimes longed for forays into archives less yoked to the American experience and for a more diversified take on writers deploying tropes of captivity. Examples could be narratives of forced labor, forced marriage, and sexual captivity that have emerged from multiple countries. Goyal does point to these other archives in her epilogue—I suspect they would have distracted from her focus on the U.S.-Africa axis. She mentions Amitav Ghosh’s The Sea of Poppies that links the United States to the Indian Ocean and Indian indentureship in the Caribbean, but she does not dwell upon it. Similarly, I wonder how Caribbean novels—such as The Book of Night Women or The Long Song—might illuminate the historical and contemporary animus entangled with histories of slavery and migration. Ventures into such archives could show up the particular Americanness of sentimentalism and the gothic and underscore the programming rules for narratives emerging from American publishers. Those other archives could also significantly expand the meanings of and cultural politics around slavery and abolition while serving as a bridge to African novelists. Since the abolition of slavery in Africa and the Caribbean was succeeded by formal colonization, Caribbean and African narratives readily show up the continuities between enslavement and colonizing practices, and even hint—anachronistically—at the imminent failure of the postcolonial state.

Runaway Genres nurtures a strong pedagogical focus on America prompted by interrogations of how African immigrant writing has impacted African American literature in the twenty-first century. Put thus, I think a study of travel essays and memoirs written by Black writers visiting Africa in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries constitutes the missing chapter to this study. For example, Caryl Phillips’s travel memoirs amply delineate the divergent interpretations of slavery, diaspora, and postcolonial conditions. In fact, Atlantic Sound and A New World Order trace diaspora’s disruptions and the absence of common grounds. It is in that genre that African American writers and intellectuals have been articulating transformations in the meanings of Blackness and slavery in relation to Africa. The formation of diasporic African literature calls for projects of literary and intellectual history and this book is a provocative contribution to the field.[10]

NOTES

[1] Stephen Best, “On Failing to Make the Past Present,” Modern Language Quarterly 73, no. 3 (September 2012): 453–74.

[2] Michael Rothberg, Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2009), xviii.

[3] Ibid., 3.

[4] Three studies are important in this regard. Georgieva codifies the early conventions of the gothic child, Duncan explains the functions of the gothic in South African literature, and Ouma discusses the representations of unconventional childhoods and “sublimated connections” in representations of the child in diasporic African writing. Margarita Georgieva, The Gothic Child (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013); Rebecca Duncan, South African Gothic: Anxiety and Creative Dissent in the Post-apartheid Imagination and Beyond (Wales: University of Wales Press, 2018); and, Christopher Ouma, Childhood in Contemporary Diasporic African Literature: Memories and Futures Past, African Histories and Modernities (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).

[5] Glennis Byron, “Global Gothic,” in A New Companion to the Gothic, ed. David Punter (Malden, Mass.: John Wiley & Sons, 2012), 369–78.

[6] For related arguments on the child solider or war captive memoir as a slave narrative, see chapter one in Stephanie Li’s Pan-African Literature: Signifyin(g) Immigrants in the 21st Century (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2018), and chapter three in Laura Murphy’s The New Slave Narrative: The Battle over Representations of Contemporary Slavery (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019).

[7] See Markus Nehl, Transnational Black Dialogues: Re-Imagining Slavery in the Twenty-First Century (Transcript Verlag, 2016).

[8] Li, Pan-African Literature, 31.

[9] See Stephan Robolin’s Grounds of Engagement: Apartheid-Era African American and South African Writing (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015), and the aforementioned books: Li, Pan-African Literature; Nehl, Transnational Black Dialogues; and Laura Murphy, The New Slave Narrative.

[10] See, for example, Taiwo Adetunji Osinubi, “An Intellectual History of African Literary Studies?” Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry 4, no. 2 (2017): 296–306; and, Taiwo Adetunji Osinubi and Olakunle George, “African Literature and Social Change: Tribe Nation, Race/Author’s Response,” Journal of the African Literature Association 13, no. 3 (2019): 338–34.

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About Taiwo Adetunji Osinubi

Taiwo Adetunji Osinubi is associate professor of English Studies at Western University. His research areas are African literatures, queer studies, life writing, and the theoretical humanities with a primary orientation towards the African diaspora.


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