Dunia Yao. Utopia/Dystopia in Swahili Fiction – Clarissa Vierke and Katharina Greven (Eds.) | A Review by Anja Oed

Recent years have seen a renewed scholarly interest in utopian and/or dystopian literary writing more generally. With regard to postcolonial and, most specifically, African literature, Keith Booker was one of the first to comment on the fact that “while “[p]ostcolonial writers, actively engaged in the construction of cultural identities for their new societies, often include strong utopian elements in their work … actual experience in the postcolonial world has been anything but utopian” (1995: 58). As he argued, “[i]t thus may not be entirely surprising that recent postcolonial literature has taken a powerfully dystopian turn”. Likewise, Ralph Pordzik, observed an “unexpected new departure” (my translation) for dystopian fiction since the beginning of the 1990s (2002: 10). According to Booker, “[t]his phenomenon is particularly pro­nounced in African fiction” (1995: 58). In the same vein, Abiola Irele noted that “the postcolonial condition has determined a strong dystopian current” in 21st century African novels, the objective of which is “a new discourse of dissidence […] aimed at uncovering the pa­tho­­logies of gov­ern­­­ance that have con­tri­buted so massively to the tragic unfolding of the post­co­lo­nial con­di­tion in Africa” (2009: 10).

The volume co-edited by Clarissa Vierke and Katharina Greven addresses a trend in Swahili literature and, most specifically, Swahili novels since the 1990s, which are often referred to as “new” or “experimental novels” and many of which resonate with aspects of utopian and/or dystopian writing. Dunia Yao, the 2006 novel by Said Ahmed Mohamed evoked in the volume’s title, represents, as the editors say, an “important example of the trend”, being set in a constructed, distant future world and offering “views on nightmarish sceneries of devastation and chaos”. However, the specific focus on utopia/dystopia in Swahili fiction, as indicated by the title of the book, is not shared by all authors who have contributed to the volume. This may partly be explained by the fact that the volume is based on a colloquium (Bayreuth, 2012) in honour of Said Ahmed Mohamed, to whom the book is also dedicated. His work appears to be identified with both the new, experimental novels and the dystopian trend in recent Swahili fiction to such a degree that any topic related to his work more generally might have seemed to naturally fall within the range of the focus of the book. The editors of the volume recognise Said Ahmed Mohamed as  “the most versatile contemporary Swahili writer” (p. 20) who, under the name of Said Khamis, was Professor of Literatures in African Languages at the University of Bayreuth in Germany for many years.

The volume is divided in three parts, preceded by an introduction. In the introduction, the editors highlight the current dystopian trend in contemporary Swahili fiction and delineate the aims of the book. Most specifically, the volume is concerned with the aesthetic as well as the sociocritical dimension of the new, experimental Swahili novels.

The first part of the volume is entitled “A ‘new’ trend: perspectives of literary history” and comprises three chapters. Lutz Diegner’s focus is on the overall achievement of Said Ahmed Mohamed as a “committed writer”, an “opulent rhetorician” and a “valiant artist” (p. 32), which he discusses with close reference to all of this writer’s eight novels published at the time the colloquium was held. Mikhail D. Gromov is concerned with the new Swahili novel and its distinctive features more generally, which, according to him, include “the traits inherent to dystopia as a literary genre” (68). Most specifically, he examines the ways in which the new Swahili novel in Kenya intertextually relates to but also differs from its counterpart and predecessor in Tanzania as well as works in Swahili by earlier Kenyan writers. He argues that one of the distinct features of Kenyan Swahili novels is that they “seem to stress more the dystopian nature of present-day political reality, rather than to give a general philosophical overview and perspective of human existence” (p. 68). The chapter by Clarissa Vierke is the only one in this section which specifically and coherently relates to the overall topic of the volume. Against the backdrop of “nightmarish” representations of cityscapes in 21st-century African literature more generally (p. 75), she explores Said Ahmed Mohamed’s 2001 novel Babu Alipofufuka as an example of the employment of “the unhomely city” as a literary figuration in more recent Swahili dystopian literature. Tracing this figuration back to earlier Swahili texts she claims that “[b]oth dystopia as a narrative pattern as well as the ‘unhomely’ city are part of a Swahili intellectual history” (p. 88).

The second part presents “Readings of the novel beyond realism” and also comprises three chapters. Elena Bertoncini more generally discusses postmodern characteristics in Swahili fiction and drama “instead of discussing fictional dystopias” (p. 105), wanting to avoid overlaps with what either she or others have said elsewhere. She points out that the works she examines “employ a postmodernist approach to draw a nightmarish future of destruction for African societies” (p. 105) and notes that “utopia/dystopia and heterotopia” are among “the features associated with postmodernism”, which she exemplifies with regard to at least some of the texts she discusses (p. 107). Alena Rettová’s chapter is concerned with “departures from literary realism” in more recent Swahili fiction as well as their philosophical, ethical, political and economic implications (p. 113). While her discussion of mimesis on the one hand and magical realism on the other has a strong theoretical orientation relevant beyond the Swahili context, her analysis focuses, most specifically, on Said Ahmed Mohamed’s Baba Alipofufuka.

Peter Simatei, in turn, explicitly relates the association of Baba Alipofufuka with magical realism to what he calls the novel’s “utopian/dystopian impulses”. He argues that the novel “construct[s] a dystopia that Tanzania and other African countries have, or would become, as a result of unfettered globalisation”, and “imagines the utopic foundations of such a world” (p. 147).

The third part of the volume – the only whose title explicitly relates to the topic of utopia/utopia – is headed “Utopia as socially committed narrative” and comprises four chapters. Abdilatif Abdalla and Geoffrey Kitula King’ei, whose chapters are written in Swahili and for information on which I have had to rely on the editors’ introduction, both “concentrate on realist writing, to expand the view on the novel beyond the ‘new’ trend, offering a base for comparison but also to challenge the neat dichotomy between realist and magic-realist writing” (p. 18). Abdilatif Abdalla highlights “the sociopolitical dimension of the realist Swahili novel”. He suggests that its ability to “offer a panoramic view of society […] is an important means to change it” (p. 18). Geoffrey Kitula King’ei, in turn, examines “the utopian aspect in Said Ahmed Mohamed”, stressing the responsibility of writers “to critically react to social dismay” in but also beyond their own society (p. 18). Most specifically, he analyses Said Ahmed Mohamed’s “particular use of language and imagery” in ‘Sikate Tamaa (p. 19), an anthology of poetry.

Magdalina N. Wafula’s chapter relates the concepts of utopia and dystopia to the theme of generational conflict in Said Ahmed Mohamed’s Dunia Yao. She concludes that “[b]y envisioning a utopian past and contrasting it with the dystopian present, the [novel’s] ‘implied author’ attempts to come to terms with the marked differences between the colonial, postcolonial and postmodern realities in most […] African countries” (p. 198). Her chapter also contains a longer section on magical realism with regard to Dunia Yao, which, as she suggests, “has been utilized to depict the utopia/dystopia dichotomy manifested in the generational conflicts” in the novel (p. 206). Ken Walibora Waliaula, whose chapter also focuses on Dunia Yao, takes up the riddle posed by the novel’s title, “Their World”, asking which and whose world is meant and whether there is “an antithesis to this dunia yao” (p. 211). His analysis is playfully staged as “unravelling the mystery of Dunia Yao” (p. 224). He concludes that the household of Ndi, the novel’s protagonist, should be perceived “as a national allegory of a nation imagining itself as ‘developing’, whether it is Zanzibar, where the author was born, or any other African country” (p. 224). In his final sentence, he suggests that in a sense, Dunia Yao might even “be said to be the autobiography of Mohamed, his world and our world” (p. 225). In a way, this seems a fitting conclusion to this volume as a whole, whose first chapter represents an “Appraisal of Said Ahmed Mohamed’s novels” and all of whose chapters – as the editors highlight in the introduction – “focus on at least one of his writings”, or even exclusively on one or more of his works (p. 20).

As a scholar with a strong research interest in African-language literatures I emphatically welcome book-length studies as well as edited volumes on topics in literary criticism on creative writing in specific African languages and I am, therefore, most delighted to see the publication of this volume. I have a minor issue with the fact that the editors substantiate the relevance of its thematic focus by claiming that African-language literatures have not “been described in terms of their utopian/dystopian perspectives” (p. 8). On the one hand, this may well be true, especially in view of the fact that research on this topic in African literatures more generally (i.e., including literature in the former colonial languages) has likewise been rare. On the other hand, as research on African-language literatures might very well be produced in an African language, scholars would, in my opinion, be well advised to avoid claims like this. Apart from inadvertently marginalising literary criticism conducted in African languages such claims seem to imply that research on a topic in literature in one specific African language is not a valid enough project in itself but somehow requires to be made more widely relevant with reference to literatures in other, or even all, African languages. In fact, the volume itself, with two of ten chapters written in Swahili, serves as an excellent reminder of the fact that literary research produced in the same African language as the object of study is not always the exception and may even be a preferred option, co-existing with research in internationally more accessible languages such as English or French.

English- or French-language literary criticism on literatures in African languages obviously plays a significant role in increasing the latters’ international visibility and enhancing their accessibility as well as the possibility of comparative analyses. While access to literary criticism of works written in a particular African language does not, of course, render it unnecessary to read those works for oneself, preferably even in the original language, it may afford international literary scholars a more balanced and sophisticated view of African literature and the numerous and extremely diverse literary traditions assembled under its umbrella. As English- and French-language criticism on African-language literatures implies a (most welcome) invitation to wider, international scholarly readerships, an edited volume should clearly indicate which language/s it is written in, regardless of how natural, legitimate and desirable literary criticism in African languages in principle is. While the publishers’ website does specify that the book comprises contributions written in English as well as Swahili neither the book’s title nor its back blurb indicate this fact. Once again, this is, of course, a very minor issue. Also, the “Overview of the content” section in the editors’ introduction does include a few sentences on the two chapters written in Swahili. Additionally, it might have been helpful to provide English-language abstracts of these chapters to allow readers not familiar with the Swahili language a more detailed insight into the two authors’ lines of argument.

All in all, the volume represents an important and valuable contribution to a growing body of book-length critical studies of topics in Swahili literary discourse. By focusing on more recent developments in Swahili literary history, it provides a fascinating perspective on aspects of, as well as critical discourse on, the aesthetics and sociocritical concerns of contemporary Swahili literature. This makes it relevant not only to scholars of Swahili literature but of African literatures more generally. To international scholars primarily interested in utopia/dystopia research, the volume may be of more limited interest, as not all chapters (including some of the otherwise most profound ones) specifically address this topic or do so only indirectly or in passing (Diegner, Rettová, Abdalla, Waliaula). Some chapters approach it from a much wider perspective, as only one among several aspects of the “new” or postmodern Swahili novel/literature (Gromov, Bertoncini). The chapters which do explicitly focus on specific aspects of Swahili literature in relation to the utopia/dystopia theme vary in terms of theoretical foundation and analytical depth. Even so, however, the volume fills a major gap, drawing attention to the perhaps obvious, but sometimes underestimated fact that African-language literatures partake of and creatively interact with global discourses and paradigms in multiple ways. In this respect, it enhances future comparative research.

Works cited:

Booker, M. Keith, 1995: “African literature and the world system: dystopian fiction, collective experience, and the postcolonial condition”. In: Research in African Literatures 26, 4, 58-75.

Irele, F. Abiola, 2009: “Introduction: perspectives on the African novel”. In: F. Abiola Irele (ed.): The Cambridge Companion to the African Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1-14.

Pordzik, Ralph, 2002: “Utopischer und post-utopischer Diskurs in den neuen englisch­spra­chi­gen Literaturen”. In: Ralph Pordzik and Hans Ulrich Seeber (eds.): Utopie und Dystopie in den neuen englischen Literaturen. Heidelberg: Winter, 9-26.

Clarissa Vierke and Katharina Greven (Eds.), Dunia Yao. Utopia/Dystopia in Swahili Fiction, Cologne: Rüdiger Köppe, 2016, ISBN: 978-3-89645-736-3, 232 pp.

This book review was published in: Africa Book Link, Winter 2016-2017