Teeming with Detail: Historical and Narrative Specifity in (some, at least) Postcolonial Literature

Sage Wilson '98, English 27 (1997)

"Home" in Anthills of the Savannah, "Home, Sweet Home," and Slave Girl never refers to Africa as a whole. Rather, "home" -- like the smirk -- always relates to a specific place, a specific town thick with personal histories and complicated character relations. This specificity and ungeneralizability are the key features of the context of these three works, and I would further argue that the inability to write categorically is perhaps the only categorical feature of postcolonial literature. The geographic and historical contexts of Anthills of the Savannah seem at first to contradict my point here. After all, the country in which the novel is set, Kangan, does not exist. Rather, Achebe imagines Kangan, conjuring it from a mishmash of various African national histories. However, Anthills weaves a nuanced national story out of this material, constructs a detailed account of how the main characters got to be where the are, even imagines the pretention that the history of Kangan is the history of Chris, Ikem, and His Excellency. So the specific history of this country, while imaginary, is nonetheless vital to the novel. Even this imaginary place, then, has to be specific, has to be traced and retraced with history and context.

The Slave Girl similarly teems with historical specificity. Emecheta weaves an incredibly detailed account of Ojebeta's family history and early childhood. I call this detail incredible because in a way it pertains only to the story before the real story, only amounts to the exposition before the important action begins. And yet this pre-slave life of Ojebeta and her family consumes a good part of the novel -- not until page 64 (out of 179) has money exchanged hands in Ojebeta's sale. The logic here?: as any veteran of junior high english classes could tell you, Ojebeta must be a detailed, well-drawn character for the tragedy of slavery to come alive, and thus for the story to communicate its message effectively. The specific details of the story are also important in another way: the fact that a black woman owns Ojebeta, that the situation confounds simple moral judgments, that the institution of slavery can be defended, all of these represent major deviations from the "typical" slave narrative. To summarize somewhat reductively, Slave Girl possesses its power precise;u because of its detailed contexts, both that of Ojebeta's early life, and that of the particular brand of slavery involved.

Main Overview Nigeria Buchi Emecheta