Response to Runaway Genres

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

In its dynamic charting of the American slave narrative’s multi-pronged evolution, Runaway Genres could easily expand in any number of further directions. Most would pursue American and markedly “global” modes of expression; writing, that is, that bears a clear transatlantic imprint, even where it is best described as sidestepping or rejecting transatlanticism’s primacy in thinking through Black self-formations. As Goyal’s book shows, the sheer magnitude of harm, displacement, and moral compulsion that the Atlantic slave trade represents makes it both trans-contextually adaptable and perceived as a thematic limitation by many Black writers. Giving voice to the latter position, she quotes Mat Johnson’s confession that he is “bored with the topic of Atlantic slavery…because so many boring people have talked about it” (24). Even so pronounced a refutation, though, defines itself against the world-altering event from which it seeks distance. The chapter of Runaway Genres that comes closest to moving “beyond” the Atlantic paradigm in its subjects’ orientation is the chapter on what is often called the “new” African or Afropolitan diaspora. As Goyal writes, “their emphasis on the varied routes of migration that have generated the new diaspora helpfully counters the hegemony of any single genealogy of blackness,” instead “[creating] a diaspora that intercuts here and there, with no final passage, no river to cross and never look back” (173, 32).

There are a number of pejorative associations that any such move to disentangle African writing from Atlantic slavery must contend with off the bat. These include the image of elite African condescension to Black Americans, often linked to the culpability of Africans in the slave trade (both of which, as Goyal notes, feature in Chimamanda Adichie’s novel Americanah), as well as common complaints that West Africans in particular are not aware enough of their own transatlantic histories. On the other side of the ocean, and as Runaway Genres likewise points out, there is a justified skepticism among many Africans of the heritage tourism industry. All of these points have some validity (though would demand considerable nuancing to have force), but they are not the focus of this response. I am interested, rather, in how Runaway Genres’ grappling with the residual linearity and definition of the slave narrative template—its emphasis on “the fugitive slave’s journey from slavery to freedom”—begins the work of thinking about servitude and indenture as comparatively unshaped and banal phenomena (16). By this I mean not just imagining Atlantic slavery in ways that defy the horrific, epic quality of so many Middle Passage imaginaries (captured, for example, by Derek Walcott’s classic poem “The Sea is History”), but thinking about how other scales of servitude amplify one of the central challenges posed by Goyal’s discussion of neo-slave narratives: how to maintain moral and narrative force as moral ambiguity increases. Ironically, pulling back from her book’s transatlantic frame is one way to build on its contributions. The “new diasporic” African writers she addresses—mainly Adichie, Dinaw Mengestu, Chris Abani, NoViolet Bulawayo, and Teju Cole—weight their ethical and representational scales with the United States on one side and an African locale on the other. But the fact is that most Africans’ self-formation and sense of what “African” means, as well as their encounters with difference and power along with their impulses to justice and transformation, are intra-African affairs. This is not just a point of empirical or historical interest, but a key question of genre and form on the order of Runaway Genres’ investments.

One of the novels that Goyal discusses, Bulawayo’s We Need New Names, is a good and well-known example of this disjuncture between a transatlantic moral difficulty that looms large, and an intra-African one that is trickier to parse. Runaway Genres makes a compelling case for the purposefully extreme nature of how the novel represents African trauma before Western eyes, reading it not as so-called “poverty porn” but “as symptomatic of the accelerated pace of life and the compressed attention span of contemporary consumers of culture” (184). To this end, Goyal rightly finds purpose in the novel’s structure—specifically, in the jarring break between its Zimbabwean and American settings—where other critics have often found formal failure. And yet even as We Need New Names innovates by juxtaposing two, transatlantic versions of economic precarity in lieu of crafting an upwardly mobile immigrant tale, the more representative labor concerns are left, quickly eclipsed, on the African continent. No critic that I’m aware of has remarked on the significance of neighboring South Africa to the book’s larger themes of displacement and disenchantment, such as its reference to a family relation who “had been eaten by a crocodile as he tried to cross the Limpopo River” (205), or the main character Darling’s recollection that “Mother had not wanted Father to leave for South Africa to begin with, but it was at that time when everybody was going to South Africa and other countries, some near, some far, some very, very far” (93).

It is not surprising here that South Africa is the only place actually named among a range of possible destinations: though reliable data are scarce, it is often estimated that between two and three million Zimbabweans out of a total population of about 14 million now live and work at least part-time in South Africa. Take a taxi or go to a restaurant in Johannesburg or Cape Town, and you are sure to hear Shona speakers. As We Need New Names also suggests, this essential and largely unofficial workforce is widely exploited and abused. “All I know is that I’m certainly not clamoring to go across the borders to live where I’m called a kwerekwere” (94), says a Zimbabwean woman in the novel to her husband upon his return from working in South Africa to die of AIDS. The point here is not to detract from or somehow one-up the book’s significant transatlantic concerns, to which its readers have gravitated for a reason. It is, rather, to say that a book about Zimbabweans’ labor in South Africa—which, at its worst, does in fact border on servitude—would lend itself less readily to, even if complicating the linear movement and comparatively clear power divisions of the slave narrative. It is thus worth thinking about what sorts of narrative structures would be adequate to reckon with this more frequently “intercutting,” back-and-forth, and often elusive kind of intra-continental mobility, which now affects many more people than transatlantic migration does.

Foregrounding and forming transatlantic analogies is in some ways a perversely easier task. I take part of Runaway Genres’ objective to be coming to terms with this: that is, with how Atlantic slavery can be at once a tool of deep reflection or moral avoidance. In her book’s introduction, Goyal quotes the South African politician and former African Union president Nokosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s rebuke to the United States that “the very country to which many of our people were taken as slaves during the transatlantic slave trade has now decided to ban refugees from some of our countries” (8). This quote sounds righteous and right, and it does a superb job of illustrating the persistence of slavery as a point of transnational political and moral reference. Building on Runaway Genres’ work here might then also introduce the South African and African context to Dlamini-Zuma’s invocation of slavery in order to appreciate its hypocrisies. As NoViolet Bulawayo’s reference to the derogatory term for African foreigners kwerekwere indicates, the South African state, too, has a troubled (at best) relationship with Africans from beyond its borders. Dlamini-Zuma has been widely criticized as an absent and disinterested leader of the AU; she misappropriated funds designated for HIV/AIDS treatment and awareness as Nelson Mandela’s Minister of Health, and then lied about it; and she openly discouraged public protest against South Africa’s outrageously misogynistic and corrupt former president (and her ex-husband) Jacob Zuma. None of this is to say that Dlamini-Zuma’s own failings automatically invalidate her criticism of the United States. It is to suggest, however, that this is an instance of where a transatlantic emphasis obscures as much as it reveals, and that this is a common challenge of creating one framework from many.

The fresh challenges wrought by adjusting our scale of concern with servitude, exploitation, and devalued African lives applies elsewhere, too. There is now a visible tradition of Ghanaian writing about Atlantic slavery, as well as its intersection with pre-existing African slave trades. Ayi Kwei Armah’s grandiose and poetic Two Thousand Seasons from 1979 succeeds non-fiction and hybrid writing on the subject by early-twentieth-century Gold Coast  intellectuals including J.E. Casely Hayford, and more recently, Ayesha Harrunah Attah’s The Hundred Wells of Salaga (on the continent) and Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing (in the diaspora) take up this mantle. But here again, the dominant forms of labor and exploitation are more regional and mostly unseen in the literary sphere. Middle-class to elite Ghanaian lives in and around Accra are heavily reliant for their comforts on cheap, and often undocumented labor from the ethnically and linguistically heterogeneous Northern Region of the country. To narratively capture these relationships—which run a wide gamut in terms of accord, arrangement, and compensation—demands a more quotidian register. There is no clearly repugnant “event” from which a greater sense of moral ambiguity evolves through seemingly endless re-interpretation, as per Goyal’s fine-grained genealogy of the slave narrative; there is only a fraught set of intra-racial, intra-national, and inter-ethnic considerations to contend with in determining where to draw one’s moral lines. A similar set of divisions obtains in Nigeria, some of whose most fearless writers have begun to prioritize genres beyond “big” realism as their means of its exploration. Here I am thinking of a book like Elnathan John’s trenchant satire Becoming Nigerian: A Guide from 2020, which tackles, among other things, the modern-day and profusely rationalized enslavement of young women and girls by well-to-do families.

Runaway Genres is a timely but historically and geographically far-reaching effort to braid together generic affordances and occlusions. At the same time as it underscores the pliability of the American slave narrative, it suggests its limitations in the face of present particularities around the world. In this way, it is a book that seeks expansion and not correction, a broader set of locational interlocutors instead of rigid cultural oppositions. As African literature reinvents itself to reflect global centrality and not marginality, it is a crucial place to look in rising to the task that Goyal has admirably set forth. Many of the continent’s best writers now seek forms that capture the everyday kinds of servitude and de-valuing that are easier, there and elsewhere, to overlook. Runaway Genres demonstrates the importance of refusing to do so.

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