Writing Spatiality in West Africa: Colonial Legacies in the Anglophone/Francophone Novel | A Review by John Masterson

2018 was a productive year for Madhu Krishnan. It saw the publication of Contingent Canons: African Literature and the Politics of Location, as well as Writing Spatiality in West Africa: Colonial Legacies in the Anglophone/Francophone novel. As Krishnan maintains with clarity and conviction in the latter stages of this timely intervention, her scholarship is written against the grain of the post-critical turn (175-176). Given her cognate research interests in, amongst other areas, small magazines, literary networks and activism from and on the continent, the materialist thrust of her approach is as robust as it is coherent. It provides a backbone to the monograph as a whole.

Divided into four lengthy central chapters, Writing Spatiality is buttressed by a contextually and conceptually thick introduction and speculative conclusion. This sketches out areas for further research, placing particular emphasis on digital and mediascapes in order to think through ‘the multi-scalarity of space’ (189). It dovetails with Krishnan’s approach throughout the book, focused as it is on emphasising how and why space functions across a range of texts, locations and periods, from Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-wine Drinkard to J.R. Essomba’s Le Paradis du nord via Mariama Ba’s Une si longue lettre, amongst others. She sets her discursive stall out early on, maintaining that ‘I attempt to explore the ways in which literary space, so often thought of simply as presence, functions as a dynamic rendering of the colonial experience and its afterlives, acting as the agent through which literature unfurls, and connecting the text with the material world beyond in a co-constitutive engagement’ (2). By foregrounding the dynamism of space from the off, Krishnan sets the tone for what follows. Just as crucially, as suggested in the study’s title, Writing Spatiality must also be seen in terms of a wider disciplinary push to ‘revitalise methods for comparative literary research, an area that has long been neglected in the primarily monolingual (and Anglophone-dominated) sphere of postcolonial studies’ (25). For her contribution to this, we owe Krishnan a debt of gratitude.
If spatial preoccupations determine the discursive terrain of this study, they serve to splice rather than split its cognate concerns. While we begin with Foucault and proceed through some of the most celebrated non-African thinkers of space, from Lefebvre to Soja via Fanon, these are more conceptual jumping-off points than colonising forces. As the reader navigates the study, the quality, quantity and range of research, both archival and contemporary, shines through, with African and diasporic figures, such as Achille Mbembe and Ifi Amadiume, playing more prominent roles. Heeding Mbembe’s invitation to ‘rethink spatiality in the African context’ (10), Krishnan opens up new interpretative possibilities for what she deems her touchstone texts (23). One example amongst many is her engagement with Sembene’s Xala, which ‘registers a spatial order that is far more mutable in its horizons and displays an elastic range of competing visions of spatial ecologies’ (80). As is the case with ‘dynamism’ and ‘dialectics,’ the final phrase of this line is a refrain throughout. Similarly, one of the rhetorical formulations that, for me, ran the risk of being overused at times was ‘and yet,’ which begins many of Krishnan’s sentences. Given her repeated emphasis on entanglements and ‘the multifocality through which the trilectics of space as lived, conceived and perceived emerge’ (23), this reliance is perhaps understandable. As she surveys the extant critical field in relation to a particular writer or text, Krishnan is always alive to how and why her work operates in the kind of supplementary spirit captured by Homi Bhabha in The Location of Culture. Indeed, by placing such emphasis on the qualifying ‘yet’ throughout, Krishnan attends to genealogical continuities and discontinuities when it comes to what some readers might feel to be peculiarly contemporary paradigms of space. Crucially, therefore, her careful archival work with colonial records and other context-specific documents, such as that on display through pp.45-55, to cite just one of many examples, adds enormous depth to her research.

With the above in mind, one of the distinctive merits of this book is the assured manner in which Krishnan almost code-switches from historical sources to sensitive close reading via theoretical frameworks. That she is able to sustain this across a range of quasi-canonised novels, as well as more contemporary texts on and/or from the continent is to her credit. Given the potentially intimidating nature of some of the conceptual scaffolds Krishnan is wrestling with throughout, I was consistently struck by the clarity of her prose. If this was sometimes hampered by the occasional typographical slip, I thought the sophistication with which she negotiates an array of discrete, if intersecting texts and contexts was a real highlight. A notable instance where attending to a seemingly negligible textual detail recalibrates the readerly experience comes as Krishnan attends to the editorial interventions to The Palm-Wine Drinkard, showing how and why they ‘result in a sea change in the passage’s spatial register’ (36). By refusing to sacrifice forensic attention to the texts themselves, Krishnan is able to suggest how and why they resist some of the more reductive tendencies in extant scholarship. This is aptly captured in a statement towards the end of chapter one. For me, it speaks to much that is most persuasive, not to mention prescient, about this study: ‘Far from serving as a mere container or backdrop for action … space in these … novels is alive, itself a shifting phenomenon and driver of subjective development and action. Space shapes and is shaped, as its rhythms, pulsations and the conflicts therein drive forward in an ever-changing movement’ (57).

If this suggests that attention to the richness of historical archives, in terms of the colonial discourse engaged throughout or insightful close readings, elevate the overall experience, I was repeatedly struck by the manner in which Krishnan urges us to consider the sites, texts and contextual specificities under discussion alongside their enduring prescience in our historical present. If she alludes to the Nigeria-Biafra war as an inherently spatial conflict, she is also alive to the ways in which spatial negotiations inform current geo-politics: ‘It is surely no coincidence that the post-structural adjustment era has seen a startling rise in the presence of fundamentalisms and secession movements on the continent, as well as a renewed force of international intrusion in the name of intervention’ (22). It is at this juncture that she wrestles with the implications of Chinese economic and cultural power on the continent, something she returns to in the conclusion. This testifies to the coherence of her approach throughout. When framing her discussion of Cole’s Open City, for instance, she makes a compelling case for the ways in which a more finely grained appreciation of the particularities of the Nigerian economy in the wake of structural adjustment opens new ways of grappling with the novel, rather than forcing it into an interpretative straitjacket (147). I also appreciated the manner in which Krishnan deployed her texts to read against the grain of some theoretical big beasts. This is notable, for instance, when she recalibrates Frederic Jameson through Xala. While conceding that a surface reading of the text might permit a Manichean binary between capitalism and ‘older collective life,’ Krishnan reads more interrogatively. In doing so, she suggests the text represents ‘a relationship of interdependency between these seemingly discrete spatialities that gives lie to the allegedly benign claims at the heart of these visions of ‘modernity’ and ‘tradition’’ (88). This echoes her earlier consideration of Armah’s seminal ‘novel of disillusionment,’ The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born. Krishnan illustrates how and why it resists the kinds of spatial, liberatory prescriptions imagined in something like Michel de Certeau’s reflections on walking (70). If I was a little surprised by the lack of engagement with Lazarus’ reading of Armah in Resistance in Postcolonial African Fiction (1990), I found Krishnan’s own analysis of the knottier, more dialogic relationship between text and theory both engaged and engaging.

Given the materialist orientations of the monograph as a whole, the decision to dedicate a chapter to ‘Women’s Writing and Contested Hegemonies’ was critical. By frontloading the section with theory, from Susan Andrade, Maria Mies and bell hooks, amongst others, Krishnan amplifies strains that resonate across the preceding stages of her argument. As she does in her introductory chapter, where she sets out the poetics and politics behind her textual selection (23), the author suggests that her chosen novels, amongst them Aidoo’s Changes: A Love Story and Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood ‘each registers a series of anxieties around the interpenetration of incongruent spatial ecologies in the era of decolonisation and independence’ (110). This most directly gendered of sections is, therefore, very much a part of, rather than apart from the cumulative, discursive logic of the study seen in the round. Having established the ways in which ‘the imposition of the colonial order marked a fossilisation of possibility for women through their systematic marginalisation’ (103), for instance, by way of Mies’ paradigm of Housewifization, Krishnan illuminates the oppositional qualities of the fiction under consideration. This culminates in another representative reflection, this time on Emecheta. When seen in terms of earlier arguments, it develops the central thesis of Writing Spatiality: ‘Rather than reinforcing any dichotomous or totalised view of space … Joys develops a nuanced critique of the longue duree of entanglements which produced its setting and which continue to define its context of production. The colonial period thus functions less as a break with than as part of a larger, multifaceted and complex process of spatial production’ (130). With the familiar privileging of ‘entanglements,’ in both conceptual and more methodological senses, Krishnan once more answers Mbembe’s call to reimagine space in the kinds of generative terms that break away from as they challenge more static, quasi-arrested development discourses.
With the above in mind, a particular highlight for me was the gynocentric revisioning of the conclusion to The Wretched of the Earth. In what senses do the texts under consideration in this third chapter suggest the creation of new woman, rather than the new man imagined by Fanon (124)? With a rhetorical flourish that anticipates the study’s finale, Krishnan invites her readers to consider how and why the texts under discussion, in this section and throughout, reveal a host of different, more dynamic spatial logics (135).

Such was the richness of this reading experience that it feels a little churlish to pick out areas for improvement. That said, I did feel the actual presentation of the argument itself might have benefited from greater editorial oversight, particularly on the proofing front. While the chapters operated as generative and generous wholes, I thought the author could and perhaps should have made more judicious use of sub-headings. This would have allowed the reader to take stock as they navigate through an overwhelmingly compelling argument. Having noted that, there were a series of rather overwhelming paragraphs (see p.129, for example). These threatened to lose the reader. While I appreciate the necessity to focus rather exclusively on the novel as pre-eminent genre, I also felt that, perhaps in the prospective conclusion, more might have been made of the potential application of Krishnan’s method across different genres, from visual and digital art to poetry, performance and film. There were also one or two moments where I felt a particularly salient point might have been developed further. The rather tokenistic gesture to Beyala (134) is a case in point. Looked at another way, of course, these minor quibbles are more backhanded compliments. But for the limitations of time and our old friend space, I could happily have read more of this penetrating study.

In the final substantive chapter, which focuses on the paradigmatic holy trinity of ‘Cosmopolitanism, Migration and Neoliberalism in the Wake of Structural Adjustment,’ Krishnan turns her attention to more contemporary ‘African’ texts, stretching from Open City to Ndibe’s Foreign Gods, Inc. via Diome’s Le Ventre de l’Atlantique and Essomba’s Le Paradis du nord. If earlier sections demonstrate the author’s adept handling of archival, invariably colonial material when it comes to spaces as discrete as Nigeria, Cameroon and Senegal, this is extended here into the realm of World Bank reports and ODI papers. As I found to be the case throughout, however, these are grappled with in the service of a more contextually rich and conceptually generative appreciation of the primary texts themselves. Ndibe’s novel, for instance, isn’t drowned out by the white noise of economists. Rather, the energy provided by the titular trilectics of this chapter is used to power Krishnan’s interpretation. In so doing, she is able to demonstrate how and why these peculiarly twenty-first century texts are bound up in longer histories of cultural and economic entanglement (139). She therefore complements the work of other scholars committed to opening up the various genealogies of globalization, rather than settling for deeply flawed because deeply ahistorical formulations. In this vein, Krishnan revisits a text she has written about elsewhere, Open City, to consider how and why ‘the dialectic of territorialisation and deterritorialisation allows for a more robust reckoning with the dynamics of connectivity, symbolisation and isolation that have long defined the African continent’s relationship with and in the world’ (140). By thinking through these ‘multiaxial spatial networks’, Krishnan shows what can be gained from an analytical approach that places ‘the spatial deconstruction of the novel in dialogue with the larger movements of neoliberal capital, developmentalism and financialisation that dominate the production of space of its time’ (141). This sets the tone for chapter four which, in the main, delivers on textual, contextual and conceptual fronts.

As I started this review with a citation from the end of Krishnan’s insightful book, it is fitting to close with one taken from its introduction. If opening sections set up a series of expectations in readers’ minds, the only way to measure its discursive success is to consider how well they have been realised. As all scholars must, particularly in an increasingly saturated critical marketplace, Krishnan makes a claim for the distinction, not to mention timeliness of Writing Spatiality. While acknowledging the vital contributions of texts such as Nixon’s Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor and Quayson’s Oxford Street, Accra: City Life and the Itineraries of Transnationalism, Krishnan pitches hers as a study of ‘space as a holistic system … and an emphasis on fine-grained specificity’ (12). She goes on to make a claim for the singularity of literary discourse in a manner quite different to Derek Attridge, claiming that it ‘functions as a living archive of spatiality, both enlivening its workings and enlivened by its study, as part of a larger and interconnected system of representation, production, administration and constitution’ (12). As I hope to have suggested above, many of these terms (‘living,’ ‘enlivened’ and ‘interconnected,’ amongst them), serve as co-ordinates for both reader and writer alike. There is refreshing humility in this book, as well as appropriately pitched ambition. This emerges when, in her introduction, Krishnan pins her materialist colours to the mast while simultaneously setting herself the task of thinking beyond and through ‘a holistic account of postcolonial spatiality’ (25). When she returns to this towards the text’s close, she provides us with one of the most satisfying, because methodologically insightful sentences of all: ‘Far from freezing out the aesthetic, … my interest has been in how an attentiveness to the aesthetic, as a form of mediation, placed in dialogue with carefully contextualised readings of the works under study, opens the text to the world and vice versa’ (176). I took a great deal from my encounter with Writing Spatiality in West Africa, which made me reconsider alternatively touchstone ‘African’ texts, from authors ranging from Amos Tutuola to Buchi Emecheta via Teju Cole. There is a liveliness to the prose and a robust dedication to materialist cultural study that does justice to the dynamism Krishnan sees at work in her chosen authors. As such, her latest book lives up to its early promises, and then some.

Madhu Krishnan, Writing Spatiality in West Africa: Colonial Legacies in the Anglophone/Francophone Novel, James Currey Publishers, 225p, 2018.

Dr. John Masterson
Lecturer in World Literatures in English
School of English, University of Sussex

This article was published in: Africa Book Link, Spring 2019