26 – November 2020

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Decolonizing English Literature

Editor: Stef Craps

© Vincent Vanderveken, BrusselsPictures.com

Decolonization is back: that much is clear to anyone who has not been hiding under a rock in recent years. But what is it exactly? Why has it gained new currency? And what does English literature have to do with it?

While its meaning has been contested ever since its inception, it seems fair to say that decolonization has shifted from a primarily political and economic process to a largely cultural one, and that it is no longer focused on European colonies seeking independence but taking place also – and perhaps even especially – inside the borders of the former colonial powers, which have yet to come to terms with the legacies of colonialism.

After the First World War, European colonizers began to envisage the gradual transformation of colonies into independent countries modelled on European states under their auspices. In the middle of the twentieth century, however, anti-colonial activists demanded immediate independence and rejected the European model of statehood. The end of empire and the creation of nation-states out of its ashes were achieved across much of the global South within a time span of roughly three decades following the Second World War, when struggles for independence were won throughout Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, and numerous former colonies joined the United Nations (most European colonies in Latin America had already obtained their independence in the early nineteenth century). It is during this core period of decolonization, in the mid-1950s, that the term “decolonization” – which originated in the bureaucratic vocabulary of European political elites confident of maintaining control over this historical process – first began to be used with any significant frequency.

Crucial though shaking off colonial rule was, the mid-twentieth-century wave of decolonization did little to address the mindset that underpinned colonialism. Many prominent voices in postcolonial studies – which emerged as an academic field in the wake of the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) – have criticized the premature and obfuscatory celebration of the “post” in postcolonial, a concept that seems to imply that colonialism is now a matter of the past and, therefore, over and done with. In recent years, contestations over the enduring legacies of European colonialism have begun to coalesce around calls to “decolonize” public spaces, institutions (such as museums and universities), curricula, and forms of knowledge. Decolonization is understood here as a process of challenging the cultural and material forces that had helped maintain the colonial system and that remain even after the formal end of colonial rule. It involves a complex range of practices that seek to grapple with the consequences of colonial encounter. Decolonization requires serious engagement with the fundamental structures that organize our lives and a deep investment in making the world a more just place for all.

Decolonization re-entered the public imagination thanks to the Rhodes Must Fall movement at the University of Cape Town in 2015, which quickly spread to other campuses in South Africa and subsequently to Oxford University. Moreover, it was invoked by Indigenous demonstrators and their allies aiming to shut down the Dakota Access pipeline at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota in the spring and summer of 2016. It was once again thrust into the spotlight in June 2020 as protests over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis went global, forcing a reckoning with the racial histories of the US and many other countries. Protestors sought the removal of public statues and street names honouring Confederate generals, slave traders, and colonialists, which were seen to sanitize the brutal realities of racism and to glorify and perpetuate white supremacy.

English departments have been a frequent target of decolonization protests in recent years, with students at universities such as Cambridge and Yale urging faculty to diversify the English literature curriculum in highly publicized campaigns. In September 2020, Cornell University’s English department became the first in the US to change its name from “English Literature” to “Literatures in English,” a shift away from a predominant focus on England that was meant to reflect the global diversity of those writing in English. English literature, and indeed the English language, are seen as yoked to an oppressive history of conquest, enslavement, and imperialism. The discipline played a key role in Britain’s “civilizing mission,” a stain that arguably marks it to this day. The aforementioned recent protest actions should be seen in the light of a longer history of attempts to subvert the centrality of English literature at universities across the formerly colonized world, starting in East Africa in the 1960s and spearheaded by the Kenyan writer and academic Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, whose seminal essay “On the Abolition of the English Department” (1972) became a touchstone text in these debates. (Incidentally, the proposal to rename Cornell’s English department was co-sponsored by Ngũgĩ’s son Mukoma wa Ngũgĩ, who is a professor there.)

However, efforts to decolonize English literature have undeniably gathered pace in the last few years. In a roundtable titled “The State of the Discipline: English Studies,” published in Times Higher Education in May 2019, English literature professors from every corner of the English-speaking world gave their views on where their discipline is headed. Strikingly, two thirds of the contributions explicitly mentioned “decolonization” as a major trend. This trend was no less apparent at English: Shared Futures, a high-profile conference for UK-based academics in English literature, language, and creative writing that took place (online) in June 2020. Decolonization dominated the discussion in a panel devoted to “The Discipline in 2020,” which featured the formal launch of the “Decolonising the Discipline” working group, a collaborative initiative of the English Association, the Institute of English Studies, the University of East Anglia, the Postcolonial Studies Association, and University English. On its website, the working group expresses its solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and notes that the urgency of its mission is underlined by the killing of George Floyd and others in the US and the inequalities that the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted in the UK. As further evidence of the timeliness of and interest in this topic, English, the long-established journal of the English Association, is currently preparing a special issue on “Decolonising English Studies.”

Picking up on this trend, the Belgian Association of Anglicists in Higher Education (BAAHE) invited papers exploring issues of decolonization in relation to English literature as a subject and discipline for the literary studies stream of its 2019 annual conference. Three of the four contributions to this cluster derive from papers delivered at that event, which took place in Ghent on 19 December 2019. Canonization processes and the reshaping of the literary canon are perhaps the first things that come to mind when one thinks of this topic, and they are of course vitally important, but the conference organizers deliberately adopted a broader perspective: we also solicited papers reflecting on the development of decolonizing reading practices, on questions of diversity and equity addressed in specific literary texts, on the contemporary resonance of key theoretical works such as Ngũgĩ’s Decolonising the Mind (1986), and the pedagogical implications of taking a decolonizing stance in the literature classroom. Moreover, we encouraged presenters to consider the significance and relevance of the Belgian historical and educational contexts in their papers. After all, Belgium has a colonial past of its own as well as a multilingual academic culture: we were curious as to whether and how these contextual factors might affect the way scholars of English literature based in this country engage with decolonization. We were very pleased with the response to our call for papers, not least because it turned out that people did indeed choose to approach the topic from many different angles, which made for interesting discussions throughout the day.

Much of that variety and abundance is also reflected in this cluster, which, moreover, is coming out at a time when decolonization in Belgium appears to be proceeding with leaps and bounds after years of virtual stagnation. If the 2018 reopening of the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren – widely known as the last colonial museum in the world – after a years-long renovation had already triggered intense polemics about whether the attempt to decolonize the institution had gone far enough, and the Flemish cultural magazine rekto:verso had placed decolonization squarely on the agenda by devoting a much-discussed special issue to the topic in the same year, it was the Black Lives Matter demonstrations of June 2020 that led to some major breakthroughs. Inspired and galvanized by the worldwide anti-racist protests over George Floyd’s death, activists defaced or toppled statues of King Leopold II throughout the country (Leopold – whose Congo atrocities were immortalized by Joseph Conrad in his novella Heart of Darkness (1902) – Must Fall too), the city of Ghent moved to take down a bust of the controversial monarch in a municipal park, King Philippe issued an unprecedented statement expressing his “deepest regrets” for acts of violence and brutality inflicted during his country’s rule over Congo, and the federal parliament set up a parliamentary commission – modelled on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission – to examine Belgium’s colonial past and advise on restitutive measures such as reparations and a formal apology.

Our hope for this cluster is that it will help clarify the terms and stakes of the decolonization debate, which – both inside and outside English departments around the world and not least in Belgium – shows no sign of abating anytime soon.


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Delayed Decodings

Ankhi Mukherjee

Joseph Conrad’s writing involved sensation and interpretation, acts of both presenting and representing. As the oft-cited passage from Heart of Darkness goes, the meaning of an episode lies “not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze.”1 The inside of the tale is not an essence; the relationship of the outside and inside is not reducible to that of surface and corresponding depth. Meaning cloys to the tale as a haze, waiting for the search light of the critic or the belated reader to unravel its dark life. In his “Preface to Youth,” Conrad seems to ask readers to make a categorical distinction between “sincere colouring” and “another art altogether,” that of interpretation and analysis, and the anti-mimetic impetus that gives the novel’s theme “a sinister resonance, a tonality of its own, a continued vibration.”2 He seems to be saying that, as a novelist, it is not his task to faithfully represent the evident but give visibility and voice also to the unapparent, and to unheard resonances, ensuring that these continue to vibrate in the minds of the reader after the relay. Ian Watt has famously called this literary device and critical method “delayed decoding,” which is the interpretive gap between impression and understanding whereby an outcome is depicted before the cause of that outcome is satisfactorily presented. As he further explains:

It served mainly to put the reader in the position of being an immediate witness to each step in the process whereby the semantic gap between the sensation aroused in the individual by an object or event, and their actual cause or meaning, was slowly closed in his consciousness.3

Ian Watt is writing about impressionist literary technique here, and the way in which it reflected the general ideological crisis of the late nineteenth century. Sense impression and meaning are brought together at a lag: Conrad withholds naming the perception or explaining its meaning until later. Delayed decoding is thus about slower reflexive processes accompanying the fast and forward temporal progression of the mind. When Marlow’s boat is attacked just below Kurtz’s station, for instance, inexplicable actions surrounding him – the poleman stretching himself “flat on the deck without even taking the trouble to haul his pole in” or the fireman ducking his head – seem to be related to “sticks, little sticks ... flying about, thick.”4 It is only when Marlow has finished attending to his duty as captain, and negotiated the next snag, that he can finally decode the little sticks: “Arrows, by Jove! We were being shot at!” It is not just the fictional characters who process reality through delayed decoding: Conrad’s readers are made to adopt this interpretive method too. As Michael Gorra observes, this temporality also marked Conrad’s creative process: every one of the major novels “began as a story, a story forced into length by Conrad’s need to explain, to circle back through time, excavating motive and pursuing its consequences.”5

I evoke this influential term, “delayed decoding,” from Conrad studies to understand why the discourse on decolonisation has come after postcolonial literature and theory sprang fully formed from the brow of imperial history. Why, in other words, did we return to the indeterminate time of decolonisation when the postcolonial epoch seemed to automatically come after the socioeconomic and epistemic depredations of colonial rule, albeit as a futurity and an ideal? What Ian Watt describes as an impressionist strategy at work in Heart of Darkness, Cedric Watts posits as a covert plot sequence: the plot elements are evident, but the connections between them are not, which Watt attributes to “authorial strategies of reticence and elision” or occlusion by “the conspicuous linkages of the overt plot.”6 The delayed decoding I am referring to is best described as a delayed and unfinished interpreting. At the level of the text, this manifests in the way retrospective sections struggle to fill in the gaps in the teleological narrative. For the reader, delayed decoding is the act of reading the overt and covert plots, belatedly uncovering the text’s richness and its maverick ordering.

In a powerful essay on Chinua Achebe’s third novel, “The Arrow of God: The Novel and the Problem of Modern Time,” Simon Gikandi evokes the temporality of the interregnum to speak of decolonisation and “lives of subjects stranded in time as it were.”7 He cites the visual artist Gerhard Richter to understand this problem of time as a “scission or rupture in what is no longer simply an after or a before.”8 As Gikandi observes, The Arrow of God is not usually read as a classic work of decolonisation, perhaps owing to the fact that it was written after the end of formal colonialism in 1960. It offers neither scathing critique nor a poetics of disillusionment about the narrative of liberation espoused by the postcolonial state, fast descending into communal conflicts and a civil war. It is different in tenor from Achebe’s Man of the People, Ngũgĩ wa Thiongo’s A Grain of Wheat, or Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born in that the novel is about the African encounter with Europe. And yet, Gikandi argues, Arrow of God is a definitive work of the crisis of decolonisation, “a major statement on that moment when late colonialism came to shape and trouble the culture of the modern even as it sought to reconstitute African society as an impoverished version of identities and histories that had already been questioned in Europe.”9 In other words, the novel charts how the politics of late colonialism is not separable from the neo-colonial regime and civil war that follow: postcolonial Nigeria is denied an autonomous “afterness” as it perpetuates the ills of colonialism. Decolonisation, Achebe shows, is this crisis of a present unable to escape its tyrannical past or engender a viable postcolonial future. This is not a novel of an intransitive African past at odds with the encroaching culture of colonialism, Gikandi argues. Instead, it is “a novel embroiled in the very crisis of modernity initiated by Galileo and Newton and compounded by Cartesianism, not separated from it.”10 Arrow of God is a great narrative of decolonisation in that its central preoccupation is the following question: what brings about the ruin of tradition? In the novel, the vicissitudes of this question are played out through the thoughts and actions of Ezeulu, the high priest. The novel is set in a village called Umuaro, and its cultural references reflect the semiotics of Igbo culture, but, as Gikandi points out, it does not function within a historical framework through which we can critically assess the positive or negative repercussions of the transition from one age to the other: “Rather than present the problematic of colonialism as the opposition between two temporalities, between the past and the present, the novel is often bogged down by a present that it cannot name.”11 This is a definition of decolonisation I find particularly useful.

The very moment that the English colonial agent, Winterbottom, calls the old priest “the only witness of truth,”12 Ezeulu is de-authorised, made a stooge. This is not surprising. As Achebe has shown in Things Fall Apart, imperialist axiomatics will always replace African tradition with its own invented tradition: the power imbalance is such that the two modalities, the precolonial and the colonial, could not possibly coexist. The unique feature of Arrow of God is that Ezeulu is thwarted not by colonial agency alone but also by his own will to address – and I quote Gikandi again – “something lacking or missing in the hermeneutics of culture.”13 Ezeulu is torn between his nostalgia for a ruined past and his own zeal to create a space for the project of colonial modernity, one that sees him hand over a son to the missionaries. Ezeulu’s is a time of disenchantment, estranged as he is from the authority of the gods and communitarian traditions as well as from the narratives of modernity. The crisis is not ushered by civilizational difference or the superiority of the colonizers – Mr Winterbottom is portrayed as sick and ineffective, his narrative of the internecine conflict between Umuaro and Okperi meant to be laughed at by the reader – nor is it because Arrow of God cannot imagine an African world before colonialism. Decolonisation, instead, is that time after colonialism which makes Ezeulu, caught between the anachronistic temporality of the past and unknowable futures, feel impermanent, like a placeholder:

He was merely a watchman. His power was no more than the power of a child over a goat that was said to be his. As long as the goat was alive it could be his; he would find it food and take care of it. But the day it was slaughtered he would know soon enough who the real owner was.14

Achebe is regarded, and justifiably so, as the most outspoken critic of the imperial Gothic romance that is perpetuated in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.15 Here I am bringing together Achebe’s powerful meditation on a failed postcolonial futurity with the interpretive tool of “delayed decoding” generated by Conrad’s novel to show how relevant both these formulations – from authors considered to be historic adversaries – are for apprehending the paradoxical temporality of decolonisation. With Achebe’s definition of decolonisation as the crisis of the present, let us turn to the implications of one of the rallying cries for reforming the modern university.

Decolonise, Not Diversify

One of the most powerful meditations on overthrowing the psychic thrall of colonialism is Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o Decolonising the Mind, which begins with a reckoning of the business of empire: “Imperialism is the rule of consolidated finance capital.”16 Imperialism presented the struggling and wretched peoples of the earth “with the ultimatum: accept theft or death.”17 Imperialism is embedded in postcolonial and neoliberal universities, its foundations built into language and literary studies. For the modern university to not become neo-imperial, for it to proclaim “liberty from theft,”18 as Ngũgĩ puts it, it must unflinchingly confront the violence of its formation and perpetuation. Thiong’o is talking about the African university, in particular the colonial education policy in Kenya, while my frame of reference is primarly the Anglo-American academy, which I have been a product and part of over two decades. For every university shaped by the legacies of colonialism and Atlantic slavery, this would involve interlinked processes: an ongoing scrutiny of unexamined course content and curricula; an overhaul of teaching and learning methods; expanding the debate on decolonisation to STEM subjects, not just the humanities and arts, where they tend to originate and gather critical mass. Beneficiaries of the colonial and tricontinental slave trade must acknowledge their relationship to – and unwitting or unthinking complicity in – these obdurate legacies. This includes slaver or confederate statues, such as that of Cecil Rhodes, artefacts which serve to keep out and keep in place scholars and students of colour, or admit them as tokenised “diversity” hires. Decolonisation is not lumping all non-white populations in unlovely middle-management acronyms – BAME for “Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic” in the UK and BIPOC for “Black, Indigenous, People of Colour” in the US context – but understanding the spectrum as well as singularities of ethnicity, and the particular virulence of anti-Black racism.

Ngũgĩ, writing about the politics of language in colonial education (as these continue to exist in postcolonial societies), points out the institutional imbalance in the teaching of Indigenous versus imported languages and literatures. These relics of imperialism, such as English – the once invasive but now standardised epistemologies, languages, methodologies – must be contextualised at every step in order to de-imperialise the university, whether in an erstwhile colony or metropolitan centre. Without decolonising the curriculum, we cannot be properly postcolonial. If with the return in 2020 of #RhodesMustFall in Oxford we are seized with hopeless déjà vu, it is because it has happened before, as have several fiery outbursts of the Black Lives Matter movement. We were in the crucible of historic change in 2015, for instance, but failed to seize this opportunity to address racial disparity. RMF redux has made the through lines between statue-toppling and the prevention of the callous murders of Black people more obvious than ever. The history of slavery and colonialism is refusing to go away, and Abolition has not yet been achieved. Governments and governing bodies, instead of actively working to undo histories of structural violence, are asking us to unsee its edifications, as if there was no relation between the Victorian reinvention of the Bristol slave trader Edward Colston as “the father of the city” and a consolidation of the gains of structural and systemic racism.

The hiring and retaining of academic staff with relevant expertise is particularly important if decolonisation is to go beyond perfunctory measures already in place: the rejigging of reading lists or examination questions, with a “race-themed” week or “postcolonial” question; one or two seminar series in the Humanities department concerned; a strand of world literature or postcolonial studies to cover the vast corpus of literatures in English (and in English translation). Intersectional thinking is key in redressing the lack of diversity: a UCU (University and College Union) report of 2016-2017 showed that there were only 25 black women professors compared to 14,000 white men in the UK. That’s a rate of 560 to 1. Iyiola Solanke, Chair of EU Law and Social Justice at the University of Leeds, prepared a 2017 report for the Runnymede Trust which revealed that only 2% of the professoriate in higher education in the UK was Black women, even though “Black” is expansively defined here to include African, Caribbean, as well as people of Asian origin and descent.19

English Literature and Curriculum Change

Initiated by the #RhodesMustFall protests in 2015 and 2016, in South Africa and Oxford respectively, students are increasingly asking for curricular revision. Not just English Literature students but History, Political Science, Anthropology, International Relations. This demand is not just for tokenist inclusions of BAME writers but for the contextualisation of scholarship – and the infrastructure in which this scholarship is undertaken – in the history and afterlives of colonialism and Atlantic slavery. Curriculum revision in English Language and Literature departments usually assumes two forms. The first is a reclaiming of strategically silenced writers of colour. As Toni Morrison states in the introductory pages of Playing in the Dark about her project of extending the study of American literature into a wider landscape:

I want to draw a map, so to speak, of a critical geography, and use that map to open as much space for discovery, intellectual adventure, and close exploration as did the original charting of the New World – without the mandate of conquest.20

Morrison called the abiding yet not-fully-acknowledged Africanist presence in American literature “unsettled and unsettling.”21 Decolonising the curriculum must begin by confronting the codes and restrictions around omissions and contradictions, omissions which guarantee the false coherence of national and paranational entities such as “American literature” or ”British literature.” This would be an institutional equivalent of the “delayed decoding” with which I introduced this topic, and wherein we visit the cause (racism, for instance) of the effects and outcomes we have experienced at a temporal lag from experiencing such effects and outcomes. Decolonising the university will remain in a state of arrest if we do not connect the cause, racism, or entrenched ideas of racial superiority, to the effects, namely, the exclusionary structures of university education, the prevalence of all things West as the norm, Western authoritarianism and business interests. The contemplation of these excluded bodies, voices, and influences, Morrison states, “should not be permitted to hover at the margins of the literary imagination.”22 A necessary second step would be to dismantle the colonial schema of centre and periphery as it governs humanities subjects: what are the compulsory options for undergraduates in UK higher education, and what is the logic of electives? Why and how is it possible for undergraduates at Oxford to complete a three- or four-year course in English without reading a single text written by a Black author? Postcolonial studies, critical race studies, and cognate fields are optional for an undergraduate degree in English in many world-class universities: these will need to be intricately woven into the mainstream literary histories our students take as compulsory papers. The way we teach and practice methodology will have to reflect this expansion of the canon. In Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said enjoins the reader of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations to connect this 1861 novel of formation to “a much older and wider experience between Britain and its overseas territories” than that represented by the metropolitan history of British fiction. He asks us to not treat the book as a Bildungsroman about Pip’s attempts to become a gentleman but examine the significance of its wider geopolitical scope: Magwitch’s Australia and Pip’s Orient. This critical vantage point should be assumed not in the spirit of “retrospective vindictiveness” but from a “fortified need for links and connections.”23

English Language: A Global Vernacular?

English Literature, which is my subject, is indissociable from the question of language. I can regale readers with many stories of being stopped at checkpoints in the US and UK where people have reacted with incredulity that a person of my description, carrying an Indian (subsequently overseas Indian) passport, teaches English at Oxford. “You teach English to the English?” Another zinger is being told, after an impassioned talk from my last book, What Is a Classic? on English as a global vernacular in postcolonial literature, that “it’s a good thing we gave you English.” This jumbling of literature and spoken language can, however, be a productive confusion, and the study of English literature in an international frame, made increasingly possible by the non-parochial energies of postcolonial, comparative, and world literatures in English, could help literary studies promote language studies as active cultural media, not simply looking at languages as ethnographic objects of study, and not simply focusing on the languages of what Edward Said identified as the “Latin Christian literatures.”24 Arrival, Denis Villeneuve’s 2016 sci-fi thriller, seems committed to refuting the male lead’s – a theoretical physicist’s – assertion that science, not language, is the cornerstone of civilisation. Without giving away the plot, I can say that Arrival tells the story of Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams), a top language specialist ‎recruited by the US government after unidentified aliens known as Heptapods dock their crafts just above 12 global epicentres, including the United States. Louise spends much of the film trying to communicate with the mysterious and only possibly threatening creatures, learning the Heptas’ language and teaching them our own English tongue. The producers heavily relied on the scholarship of Jessica Coon, an associate professor at McGill University, who is an expert on syntax and Indigenous languages. I was very interested in what Coon said about the process of decoding logograms, the translational activity on which the movie pivots:

“One of the big misconceptions about linguists is that we’re just people who know and speak and translate languages,” Coon said. “That’s not what field workers” – which is what Amy’s character is – “actually do. We’re interested in the structural properties; we’re interested in understanding what underlies them.”25

The film seems to say that the hard-earned knowledge of linguistic relativity, the complex and often ruptured connection between languages, is a viable mode of human attachment. We could extend this insight to the citizens, aliens, and internal immigrants of English language and literature.

The literary critic Erich Auerbach had sounded a similar note in 1969 when he wrote, in “Philology and Weltliteratur,” that “Our philological home is the earth. It can no longer be the nation.”26 Auerbach was exiled for more than a decade in Istanbul after being discharged by the Nazis from his post at Marburg University. Auerbach goes on to say that “[t]he most priceless and indispensable part of a philologist’s heritage is still his nation’s culture and language.”27 He adds, however, that “[o]nly when he is first separated from this heritage […], and then transcends it does it become truly effective.”28 What does it mean for the critic to take the earth as their home? And how is the balancing act between the nation and the globe, excursion and circumscription, achieved? Arrival seems to suggest an even wider frame of cosmopolitan imagining based on shared language, the planetary, if not also the extraterrestrial. It is a no-brainer that the global spread of English literature and language is a corollary to the ravages of colonialism and Empire, Atlantic slavery, and capitalism. In the postcolonial era, the role of English has changed rapidly. Until the 1990s Russia and China, for instance, were not very interested in the goings-on of Western societies. Most Russian and Chinese Anglophones had been killed or exiled after the communist revolutions, and were never replaced. Even the KGB was short of English speakers: much of the intelligence sent to Moscow by British spies Kim Philby and Guy Burgess was never translated. But from the mid-1980s, the opening of China, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the coming of the internet all boosted English. Chinese and Russian elites sent their children to study in the US and the UK. From 1990 through to about 2010, British and American media and films gained unprecedented global influence.

In Monolingualism of the Other, the philosopher Jacques Derrida, an Algerian Jew by birth, gestures towards heterological openings in monological and tautological languages. He bemoans the fate of target languages which have themselves eschewed source languages: Derrida describes this state as not having, but being deprived of, a language. French or English has the danger of being ossified as a language of absolute translation, or “translation without a pole of reference.”29 Such languages cannot realise themselves as they no longer know where they are from and their trajectory, Derrida states, is one “without an itinerary and, above all, without any superhighway of goodness knows what information.”30 When we talk about the global spread of English, we, the teachers of English – white or non-white, speaker by birth, choice, or historic contingency – will do well to contemplate the rich impurities of English and the indeterminacies of its movement between different languages and in creole continuums.


Frantz Fanon saw decolonisation as a programme of complete disorder, one which makes hapless onlookers or passive victims, “crushed with their inessentiality,” into privileged actors.31 It brings with it, he writes in The Wretched of the Earth, “a new language and a new humanity.”32 I began my comments on decolonising the curriculum with the idea of a “delayed decoding,” implying that like Achebe’s Ezeulu, we are yet to make full sense of the afterness of the violence of colonialism visited on literatures, languages, cultures, ontologies. It is the critical gesture of turning to history, rethinking it, to understand the twinned processes of a failed postcolonialism and unfinished decolonisation. Decolonisation is far greater than anti-colonial struggles, Fanon cautions, urging that we combine “our muscles and our brains”33 in a new direction to address it. Its time is the present, not past’s future or future’s past: in fact, there’s no time like the present to start decolonising minds.


  • 1Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (London: W. W. Norton and Company, 2016), p. 20.
  • 2Ibid., p. 65.
  • 3Ian Watt, Conrad in the Nineteenth Century (Berkeley and LA: University of California Press, 1981), p. 270.
  • 4Ibid., p. 44.
  • 5Michael Gorra, “Joseph Conrad,” Hudson Review 59.4 (Winter 2007), p. 548.
  • 6Cedric Watts, The Deceptive Text: An Introduction to Covert Plots (New Jersey: Barnes and Noble, 1984), p. 51.
  • 7Simon Gikandi, “Arrow of God: The Novel and the Problem of Modern Time,” Research in African Literatures 49.4 (Winter 2018), p. 1.
  • 8Ibid., p. 2.
  • 9Ibid., p. 2.
  • 10Ibid., p. 4.
  • 11Ibid., p. 4.
  • 12Chinua Achebe, Arrow of God (London: Anchor Books, 1969), p. 7.
  • 13Gikandi, p. 5.
  • 14Achebe, p. 3.
  • 15Chinua Achebe, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,” Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness: A Norton Critical Edition, ed. Robert Kimbrough (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1988).
  • 16Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (London: Heinemann Educational, 1986), p. 2.
  • 17Ibid., p. 3.
  • 18Ibid., p. 3.
  • 19https://www.runnymedetrust.org/uploads/BlackFemaleProfessorsMarch2017.pdf
  • 20Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (Harvard: Harvard UP, 1992), p. 3
  • 21Ibid., p. 6.
  • 22Ibid., p. 5.
  • 23Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York and London: Vintage Books, 1994), p. xxi.
  • 24Ibid., p. 45.
  • 25https://full.gulf-times.com/story/523051/Making-sense-of-Arrival
  • 26Erich Auerbach, “Philology and Weltliteratur,” The Princeton Sourcebook in Comparative Literature, ed. David Damrosch et al (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2009), p. 137.
  • 27Ibid., p. 138.
  • 28Ibid., p. 138.
  • 29Jacques Derrida, Monolingualism of the Other; or, The Prosthesis of Origin, trans. Patrick Mensah (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1998), p. 61.
  • 30Ibid., p. 61.
  • 31Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press, 2004), p. 28.
  • 32Ibid., p. 36.
  • 33Ibid., p. 236.


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Dévoiler les ténèbres de Conrad : à propos de l’oeuvre spectrale de Michael Matthys

Une interview par Véronique Bragard

Formé en bande dessinée et enseignant le dessin à l’Académie des Beaux Arts de Liège, Michael Matthys expose depuis 2005 dans la galerie Cerami de Charleroi, sa ville natale. Depuis qu’il a lu Au coeur des ténèbres de Joseph Conrad il y a une dizaine d’années, il n’a cessé de s’interroger sur la manière de représenter la densité de la jungle et la brutalité de la domination coloniale. Il s’est lancé dans un travail de longue haleine qui explore les méandres et ténèbres de cette période aujourd’hui fort contestée. Comment son art permet-il de décoloniser le regard ? Comment ses grands formats mêlant crayon et sang (de bœuf) retravaillent-ils ce passé invisibilisé ?

Les 350 dessins inspirés d’archives coloniales et familiales sur lesquels Michael Matthys travaille depuis plus de dix ans seront bientôt rassemblés dans un roman graphique (initialement intitulé Nuit sombre) qui sera publié chez Fremok. C’est déjà dans cette maison d’édition avant-gardiste en matière de bande dessinée que Matthys a publié Moloch (2003) et La ville rouge (2009)1, deux ouvrages sur la ville qui engloutit, monde sombre de la sidérurgie et de l’industrie. Son œuvre ne cesse de pénétrer, recomposer, déstructurer des photographies d’archive. En 2012 il expose 1000 aquatintes montrant les industries d’acier de Charleroi à Genk.2 Une de ses œuvres a plus récemment été exposée au Boulevard Tirou (ancien cinéma Marignan) à Charleroi dans le cadre d’Art public (2017). Une scène représentant un groupe de coloniaux buvant un verre rapprochait ainsi le passé colonial belge et le passé sidérurgique de la ville de Charleroi.

En 2014, il part de documents d’époque de la grande guerre, et participe à l’exposition Putain de guerre au Musée des Beaux-Arts de Charleroi avec plusieurs toiles mémoires à ceux tombés dans ce bain de terre et de sang. Au Botanique en 2018, il expose une série représentant des personnages en maison de repos. Ceux-ci ont des visages de squelettes souriants proches des personnages de James Ensor mais sont en vie et en mouvement, pris par leur rires, leurs jeux de carte, leur façon de faire la fête avec leurs nez rouges.

Michael Matthys, exposition galerie Cerami, Charleroi (2018).

Sur fond de noirceur d’où cingle le rouge – un mélange de sang de bœuf, de fusain et de graphite – l’esthétique de Matthys permet de plonger dans les abîmes de la sidérurgie, la vieillesse, la blessure, l’exploitation et le passé colonial de l’Europe. Dans son imposant atelier de Thuin dans le grenier d’une vieille bâtisse, les murs sont emplis de sang animal et de grands formats de dessins au graphite demandant le recul du spectateur. Nous l’y avons rencontré.

Michael Matthys. Sans titre (travail en cours en 2020). Traces de sang animal sur le mur de l’atelier de l’artiste.

Qu’évoque pour toi lœuvre Au cœur des ténèbres de Conrad ? Comment cette nouvelle t’a-t-elle inspirée ?

Je voulais à l’époque entamer un travail sur la jungle. Ce qui m’a intéressé dans lœuvre de Conrad est la manière dont il montre la profondeur de la nature qui devient ténèbres. La couverture de l’ouvrage était en couleurs, n’évoquait pas vraiment ces ténèbres. Je voulais donner corps et matérialité à cette immensité, cette puissance très physique. Ce n’est pas le méchant qui m’intéressait mais cette densité dominante.

Comment es-tu arrivé à aborder cette part de l’histoire belge ?

J’ai d’abord lu Conrad, puis Arthur Conan Doyle, David Van Reybrouck et Éric Vuillard.3 Aguirre de Werner Herzog m’a également hanté. L’ouvrage de Conan Doyle contient des images d’archives et je suis alors parti de ces clichés. Tout mon travail part d’archives que je transforme. Des membres de ma famille sont allés au Congo à l’époque et j’ai donc aussi utilisé une série de clichés familiaux que j’ai retrouvés. Je me suis chaque fois ou presque basé sur un document soit visuel soit textuel.

Beaucoup d’adaptations contemporaines de ce texte vont dans cette direction. Darkness de l’américaine Yedda Morrison, par exemple, reprend le texte de Conrad mais efface tous les mots liés à l’humain afin de ne laisser apparaître qu’une vision biocentrée, organique, brute de la nature. Est-ce que d’autres adaptations, notamment BD, ont influencé ton travail ?

J’ai vu l’une ou l’autre adaptation mais elles ne m’ont pas du tout influencé. J’essaye de me détacher du livre qui est relativement simple. Des adaptations comme Apocalypse Now, que je connaissais avant de lire Conrad, m’ont évidemment marqué, surtout dans l’élément aquatique : l’eau est partout dans ses reflets et sa puissance.

L’ouvrage que tu prépares est à la fois progression, mais aussi exploration d’images insoutenables et révélation de spectres passés. Restes-tu proche du texte de Conrad ?

Non, il n’y a presque plus de texte conradien dans mon ouvrage. Le lecteur suit un bateau qui avance sur le fleuve Congo, puis disparaît. Il n’y a plus véritablement de recherche de Kurtz mais l’histoire d’un homme qui se perd face à un univers qui reprend ses droits. La nature émerge telle une force qui ne bouge pas mais est étouffante. Depuis mes premiers dessins, j’ai refait beaucoup, retravaillé, ajouté, extrapolé.

Michael Matthys, Au cœur des ténèbres (2010).

Si ton travail est d’abord une remise en question de notre relation à la nature, il contient cependant de nombreuses références au passé colonial belge. On y voit une statue de Léopold II, un homme porté dans son hamac par des Africains, de l’ivoire, des scènes de chasse, des corps démembrés. Quel rôle jouent ces références concrètes par rapport à un ouvrage régi surtout par l’implicite, le brouillage à la fois séquentiel et visuel (lignes gribouillées) ?

Dans cette narration graphique, on aperçoit la statue du roi Léopold II dans l’ombre, un drapeau, des mains coupées. Dans l’ouvrage de Conrad on ne sait pas ce que le narrateur pense de ces horreurs. Il y est confronté de manière abrupte. Ici ces images sont des traces de ce passé colonial belge, de ses fantômes qui remontent à la surface. Plus récemment, mon éditeur m’a suggéré d’ajouter des dessins des mains coupées. Cet élément fait plus choc, mais rend aussi les choses plus explicites car mon ouvrage est très ténébreux à plusieurs égards. Les personnages apparaissent et disparaissent. L’idée sous-jacente est que tout est un rêve. Les personnages sont des fantômes du passé qui se transforment en témoins qui jaillissent de la nature et y retournent. Ils sont une mise en garde.

Tu as utilisé énormément d’archives que l’on reconnait souvent en filigrane. Avec les technologies numériques, les archives ne vieillissent plus et les présenter comme telles pourrait reproduire l’idéologie dangereuse de l’époque. Ton travail de crayonnage semble vouloir brouiller cette archive tout en lui redonnant du mouvement. Il y a véritablement un engagement avec l’archive et le passé mais aussi une mise à distance de l’horreur.

Oui, il y a une volonté d’aller au-delà de la simple image, pour espérer qu’elle fasse son oeuvre d’immersion dans le monde passé dont elle représente une partie mais aussi de rentrer dans une époque qui désoriente. Souvent l’archive visuelle ou le texte littéraire constitue un élément déclencheur qui permet d’entrer dans un morceau de l’histoire. Je me laisse alors emporter par un acte quasi automatique, inconscient qui m’immerge dans le monde évoqué par l’image.

Tu as également utilisé des clichés familiaux. Quels rôles jouent-ils dans ton récit ?

On ne reconnaît pas du tout les membres de ma famille dans mes œuvres mais je viens d’une famille avec beaucoup d’histoires. Je pars des photographies et fais ressortir les personnages comme des fantômes. On voit surtout leurs costumes. Ils incarnent des histoires racontées, des souvenirs créés. L’époque coloniale d’après-guerre pendant laquelle ils ont vécu était également très différente, beaucoup plus prospère. Il n’y a pas de personnages récurrents dans mon travail. Aucun d’eux n’a d’identité précise. J’aime les faire apparaître et disparaître dans ce travail de fragmentation.

L’originalité de lœuvre de Conrad est de regarder celui qui ne regarde pas, qui détourne son regard de ce qu’il voit. Quelle est la perspective que tu adoptes dans ton ouvrage ?

Je montre les choses avec beaucoup de flou, de distance, parfois j’utilise des vues aériennes. Mon travail au niveau du graphisme cherche à comprendre comment ressentir la jungle. Certaines personnes trouvent mon travail très dur. Moi le noir ne me fait pas peur. J’essaye que le lecteur puisse apprivoiser ces espaces clos de la jungle par différents biais. Il n’y a pas de soleil tout comme dans la scierie de Moloch qui ressemble à une jungle avec plafond et une machine qui crache le feu. Ici il n’y a pas de feu possible. Mes personnages nous regardent, nous préviennent. Ce que j’ai en tête en les dessinant sont les mots « à cause de vous ».

Quel sentiment éprouves-tu quand tu redessines le passé et quelles sont les techniques que tu utilises pour traduire cette émotion ?

Souvent c’est la tristesse qui m’envahit, la rage aussi. Les traits traduisent ma colère. J’essaye souvent d’aller jusqu’au bout et m’arrête quand j’ai mal au bras. J’utilise de simples porte-mines et me lance dans le dessin de manière quasi inconsciente. J’utilise des grands formats. Partant souvent d’images dures, le travail artistique est à la fois passionnant mais aussi un moment dur physiquement et psychologiquement. Je suis dans des obsessions et des sensations déstabilisantes. Le sang est un matériau noble qui amène la blessure mais aussi la rage, la vie, le mouvement que j’ajoute avec le gommage, par exemple. Le fusain permet de saturer, de faire sortir les fantômes blancs du noir. Le graphite, lui, permet d’aller plus loin dans les détails.

Le projet actuel consiste à mettre tous ces dessins dans un format de roman graphique. Cependant, ce travail de séquencialisation est à la fois très complexe. Tu sembles un peu, comme ton personnage, t’être perdu dans les méandres d’un travail gigantesque. Quels sont les obstacles rencontrés au cours de ce travail et qu’est-ce qui ralentit sa publication ?

Je viens en fait de la bande dessinée, que j’ai étudiée à Tournai. Donc mon travail mélange à la fois le dessin plus artistique dans mes grands formats et l’art plus séquentiel. Là, je suis occupé à tout remettre ensemble pour le roman graphique. Le travail de montage est un long processus qui met ensemble des séquences mais sans les vignettes blanches de la bande dessinée pour éviter tout cadrage.

C’est également un travail tout à fait personnel et donc je n’ai aucune pression externe pour la publication. Je veux que ce soit abouti. Le plus difficile est sans doute de mettre du texte avec les images. Je ne veux pas que le texte déforce l’image ou illustre l’image. Il me faut donc trouver les mots et leur place mais ils ne peuvent détourner le regard du spectateur du mouvement visuel qui est ce qui contient une véritable puissance. C’est une étape que je ne cesse de recommencer. Je travaille énormément le texte, qui devient de plus en plus épuré.

Quelle a été ta recherche au niveau des points de vue adoptés dans ton ouvrage? As-tu cherché à décentrer le regard conradien ? L’ouvrage suit en fait le monologue de Kurtz et pas Marlow comme c’est le cas chez Conrad. C’est Kurtz qui délire et s’exclame « il faut tous les tuer ». On se rend compte qu’il devient fou, un gourou déconnecté mais aussi enfermé et piégé. Dans ma version, j’imagine des enfants qui courent après lui mais il n’arrive pas à s’échapper et s’enfuit dans la forêt. Cette scène est le moment ultime d’une fuite en permanence. Son délire est traduit par la grande fragmentation des séquences et un texte minimaliste, ambivalent. Tout est suggéré, rien n’est imposé.

Je n’ai pas essayé de me mettre véritablement à la place des autres mais j’aimerais que le spectateur congolais puisse s’y retrouver. On voit beaucoup plus de Congolais dans mon travail que de colons. Les colons sont toujours les mêmes en position debout bras croisés. Mon ouvrage met aussi les personnages africains du côté de cette nature qui désoriente le narrateur. Par ailleurs, les animaux mutilés mettent en exergue les questions de rentabilité qui écrase les peuples.

Michael Matthys, sans titre (travail en cours 2020).

Ce fusain dans ton atelier, fait-il partie de ton ouvrage ? Quel est son titre ? Il y a ici un mélange d’expressionisme et de grotesque. Y a-t-il moquerie ? Que nous disent les regards à la fois macabres et souriants de cette famille de colons ?

Je n’aime pas donner de titre à mes œuvres car ils en limiteraient la portée. Ce fusain est un travail récent qui reprend mon travail sur le Congo pour une exposition qui accompagnera mon roman graphique.

Il n’y a pas de volonté de se moquer des personnages. Pour moi ils viennent nous rappeler quelque chose, me dire de faire attention. En travaillant les traits du visage, j’ai réalisé que quand je dessinais des visages éteints, squelettiques, il y avait quelque chose de plus fort qui en émanait. Ils nous regardent sans avoir besoin d’avoir des yeux. Ils nous attrapent d’une autre manière. Il y a pour moi une obsession de mettre en scène le regard.


  • 1Voir Clément Dessy, “La ville entre texte et image dans les bandes dessinées de Michaël Matthys” Textyles : revue des lettres belges de langue française 36-37 (2010), 201-214.
  • 2Voir “Mining the Past: Art Takes On the Coal Industry – in Pictures” The Guardian (Aug. 6th 2012).
  • 3Arthur Conan Doyle, The Crime of the Congo (Hutchinson & Co, 1909), David Van Reybrouck, Congo: une histoire (Actes Sud, 2012), Éric Vuillard, Congo (Actes Sud, 2012).


clustered | unclustered

Decolonizing the Cli-Fi Corpus

Mahlu Mertens and Gry Ulstein1;2


With the danger of sounding apocalyptic, it seems the “Anthropocene” is here to stay. In spite of catchy competing concepts such as “Capitalocene,” “Plantationocene,” or “Chthulucene,”3 and even though it is not yet formalized as the name of our current geological epoch, the Anthropocene has taken on a dominant presence in the critical landscape, and particularly in the humanities and social sciences.4 However, the concept has been criticized for being undifferentiated and ignoring structural differences related to class, race, gender, and colonialism. Talking about the Anthropocene becomes particularly precarious if we consider questions of power, responsibility, and agency across cultures: who pays the greater price for the effects of global climate change – and for the many strategies currently being suggested or implemented to remedy the situation? One example of such skewed power relations and underrepresentation could be observed at the UN climate summit in New York last year, where Tuntiak Katan of the Ecuadorian Shuar people was the first-ever (in 2019) Indigenous representative to attend and defend the interests of Indigenous peoples in a formal capacity.5 This underrepresentation is also a problem facing the artistic response to the climate crisis.

Climate change fiction has become a cutting-edge topic within literary studies. Popularly called “cli-fi,” it emerged as a subgenre of science fiction in the late 1970s, and stayed within the brackets of genre and pulp fiction for a while before more “serious” authors started exploring climate change and other environmental issues. By 2020, the large scope of climate change fiction across multiple genres and media points to “cli-fi” as defined by theme rather than genre; a theme, moreover, that stands to cross cultural, social, and political borders because of its global implications. But while efforts to decolonize the syllabus are becoming increasingly commonplace at universities internationally – with the American Society for the Study of Literature and the Environment (ASLE) playing a leading role in the circulation and stimulation of new environmental literature – there is no getting away from it: the authors of the most widely acclaimed works of climate change fiction are overwhelmingly white, Western, and often male. Much-quoted examples of such works include Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy (2003-2013), Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2009), Ian McEwan’s Solar (2010), and Richard Powers’s The Overstory (2018).

It can be sobering to realize that real effort is required of us, as scholars and teachers of contemporary climate change fiction, if we want our corpus and syllabi to be more representative of the global literary response to the Anthropocene. We have, in both our teaching and research practices, found Erin James’s seminal study The Storyworld Accord (2015) helpful for how it uses strategies from narratology to engage with postcolonial narratives from an ecocritical perspective. “Econarratology,” as James calls it, is a mode of reading which, through its focus on formal aspects, engages with marginal(ized), nonmimetic writing that does not conform to “canon” representations of nature – writing which might not, in fact, be overtly concerned with the environment at all (at least from a Western perspective).6 James launches econarratology as a method that allows ecocritics to access “a set of texts that had previously been illegible,” opening up storyworlds that “provide illustrations of a locally informed and highly subjective experience of a particular space and time that is not dependent upon Western ideas of literary realism or environmentalism.”7 We therefore propose James’s econarratology as part of a “toolbox” for decolonizing climate change fiction.

Econarratology, we argue, can help us teach and study climate change fiction without reiterating the structural inequalities and violence that the current cli-fi canon often fails to address. To illustrate this claim, the second half of this article will discuss Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book (2013) and Aaron Thier’s Mr. Eternity (2016). Both novels offer nonmimetic content and formal experimentation that destabilize traditional environmental representation, but they do this in different ways, and their postcolonial thematic works at different levels. The most obvious level is the two authors’ respective cultural contexts: Wright is an Indigenous Australian writer, and Thier a white North-American. More interesting for this article, however, are the narrative tools applied by Wright and Thier to build their respective storyworlds, in ways that make apparent the reciprocal relationship between postcolonial concerns and Anthropocene issues.

The storyworld is a concept that James borrows from narratologist David Herman, who defines storyworlds as “[m]ental models of who did what, and to whom, when, where, why, and in what fashion in the world to which interpreters relocate […] as they work to comprehend a narrative.”8 Storyworlds depend on textual cues that appeal to temporal, spatial, or sensory experience and help readers imagine “what it is like” to live in the world represented. James suggests that these cues “are particularly powerful when they are filtered through a subjective consciousness informed by a different sociohistorical, material, or cultural context than that of the reader.”9 Therefore, she argues, studying the (environmental) textual cues in postcolonial narratives “stands to foster real-world understanding among readers by opening up channels of communication concerning different environmental experiences across space, time, and culture.”10 James’s econarratology thus highlights the power of storyworlds to acquaint readers with unfamiliar environments and different ontological orientations.

Frontloading an econarratological approach to reading and teaching climate change fiction, we argue, encourages an open engagement with cli-fi storyworlds, mindful of different representations of Anthropocene issues. In The Storyworld Accord, James largely uses Caribbean and African texts to show how different storyworlds use different textual cues that are crucial to the way interpreters comprehend a narrative and are transported to alternative times, spaces, and experiences. The Swan Book and Mr. Eternity represent, on the one hand, peripheral literature that we, like James, argue deserves more ecocritical attention because it makes innovative use of such textual cues to show how issues of (post)coloniality intersect with and inform Anthropocene issues. However, the novels do this not only by giving readers access to non-Western experiences of the environment, but also by exposing cracks and gaps in existing “cli-fi” and in the broader ecological debate. On the other hand, therefore, Wright’s and Thier’s novels invite readings against the grain of “typical” cli-fi, challenging readers to also notice where textual cues are missing.

The work of Edward Said is an important postcolonial coordinate for James’s econarratology. In a public lecture in 2019, she proposes Said’s model of “contrapuntal reading” as particularly well-suited for studying narratives that do not (directly) acknowledge climate change.11 For Said, the point of contrapuntal reading is that it “must take account of both processes, that of imperialism and that of resistance to it, which can be done by extending our reading of the texts to include what was once forcibly excluded.”12 The idea is to study, for instance, a story like Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (which is Said’s example), and consider potential historical imbalances or rose-tinted ways in which the storyworld represents reality. Such readings of absences rather than presences potentially open up any narrative to, in Said’s case, postcolonial critique – and in James’s case, to ecocriticism. Of course, Said and James differ in their political and ethical framing of contrapuntal reading as an interpretative strategy: while Said is interested in stories and events “missing” from texts due to imperialist oppression, James argues that contrapuntal reading stands to undress persistent, undercurrent assumptions and beliefs that form the cognitive backdrop of the official Anthropocene discourse. It seems obvious to us that this mode of reading, rather like a yin to econarratology’s yang, can be valuable for a decolonizing approach to studying climate change fiction – especially in cases where the storyworld depends on textual cues informed chiefly by a Western frame of reference.

In sum, James makes use of environmental textual cues to demonstrate the ecocritical potential of postcolonial storyworlds—thus also serving a decolonizing agenda. This mode of reading contrasts with Said’s contrapuntal reading, which rather asks what happens when certain environmental cues are missing, or when they are missing for certain people. Marrying these two modes of reading, therefore, in what remains we will briefly discuss and compare The Swan Book and Mr. Eternity: novels with rich storyworlds that both thematically and formally work to resist Western Anthropocene bias by dramatically accentuating and actively leaving out such textual cues.


Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book is set in Australia in or around 2088, three hundred years after the establishment of the country. Climate change has dramatically altered the world, and Australia has become a destination for climate refugees, who are placed in detention camps together with Indigenous people.13 The novel’s main focus is the story of Oblivia, an Indigenous Australian woman from the “Swan Lake” swamp, who crawls into the base of a tree and falls into a deep sleep after a group of young boys from the community gang rape her. When she returns to the community, her people reject her and treat her like a stranger, claiming the lost little girl had died years ago. The trauma renders Oblivia mute and only able to communicate with the black swans on the lake. Summarizing this novel inevitably fails to do it justice: its rich and intricate tapestry of interlocking images and stories actively resists Western storytelling templates, and the discursive situation – who is telling the story to whom, and when? – is hard to pin down.

This blending of stories is reinforced by a blending of narrative voices; although Oblivia is the most obvious protagonist, a great variety of other voices are given space in the novel, often voices that are usually left unheard. A chorus of human and nonhuman characters and collectives intertwine with natural structures and land, and though they are usually accessed via the point of view of Oblivia, their voices haunt the pages of The Swan Book by way of a restlessly shifting focalization:

The swamp’s natural sounds of protest were often mixed with lamenting ceremonies. Haunting chants rose and fell on the water like a beating drum, and sounds of clap sticks oriented thoughts, while the droning didgeridoos blended all sounds into the surreal experience of a background listening, which had become normal listening. Listen! That’s what music sounds like! The woman once explained to the world that the music of epic stories normally sounded like this.

This is the world, disassembling its thoughts.

It was just the new ceremony of the swamp dreaming, the girl thought, for what she called, Nowhere Special. She thought it suited the wind-swept surroundings of the dead swamp, where children played with sovereign minds, just by standing out in the wind to fill their cups with dust given to them by their ancestors.14

The extract above is just one example of this mesh-like structure of the story; as such, it works well as an expression of Timothy Morton’s ecological thought.15 The environment takes on an uncanny agency, dreaming and “listening” to the community playing their didgeridoos: together the sounds of the community and the landscape unite in the striking image of a collective world “disassembling its thoughts,” while the image of children playing and drinking from “cups with dust given to them by their ancestors” solidifies The Swan Book’s strong postcolonial critique.

As Sonja Mausen and Judith Eckenhoff argue, Wright offers an Indigenous perspective that makes the story a challenging, though rewarding, read for Western readers, because Wright withholds or omits textual cues “that would aid or clarify storyworld construction.”16 By thus preventing readers’ wholesale immersion in the storyworld, the narrative destabilizes the “site- and culture-specific nuances encoded in many of the cues that readers use to construct storyworlds” (as theorized by James), and this strategic lack of explanation raises “important political questions about cross-cultural reading.”17 It is almost as if The Swan Book consciously forces non-Aboriginal readers to read contrapuntally. This gap between the (Western or non-Indigenous) reader’s ontological orientation and Oblivia’s narrated experience is dramatized to the point of defamiliarization. The tension that arises in this gap, created by the deliberate omission of cues, challenges readers to question their real-world position because the storyworld resists easy immersion.

Mr. Eternity, by contrast, is written by a white, male, American author, and it offers an outsider’s perspective on the entwined history and future of climate change and colonization. The novel consists of five alternating autodiegetic narratives that all deal with environmental destruction and/or climate change. The stories are set in several locations on the American continent in 1560, 1750, 2016, 2200, and 2500, and the narrators are, in chronological order, an Indigenous Pirahao girl, a former slave, a male millennial filmmaker, a poor illiterate orphan, and a princess in a future patriarchal society. Every narrator has their own style, and the title of each chapter indicates the year in which that part of the story takes place. So despite the layered structure of the novel as a whole, with temporal leaps and shifting character perspectives that sometimes use non-standard English which disturb the reading process, readers can navigate the storyworld with greater ease than in The Swan Book. The title character, a mariner who lives for over a thousand years and goes by (various spellings of) the name Daniel Defoe, recurs in every story (but never as narrator). Defoe’s superhuman lifespan roughly corresponds with the era of capitalism, and the character can be read as an allegorical figure that represents capitalist ideologies and mentalities (as the real-life author Daniel Defoe’s character Robinson Crusoe always has been). The form of the novel draws attention to the Western bias engrained in the concept of the Anthropocene: it decentres white male Western experience as the character Defoe is recast as an extra in the stories of characters whose voices history has often neglected or silenced, and he himself never serves as internal focalizer.

Despite the different character perspectives and styles, the two novels show some striking thematic similarities in their representations of climate change. As mentioned above, both writers explicitly link environmental degradation and climate change to colonization, and both novels foreground that this colonization is an ongoing process and not a thing of the past – it is, indeed, explicitly posited as continuing into the next decades and centuries. Both writers focus on the story of an Indigenous, displaced, oppressed female character who has become the victim of (the side-effects of) the colonizer’s worldview and ideology. The Swan Book’s Oblivia lives in a detention camp and is abducted by the first Aboriginal president of Australia to become his trophy-wife.18 In the 1560 story in Mr. Eternity, Xiako is sold by her people to the Spanish invaders as a prostitute.

These two characters both experience their minds being infected with the colonizer’s way of thinking. The prologue of The Swan Book is narrated by Oblivia through retrospective first-person narration, which gives the reader access to a virus that is living inside her mind: this virus “thinks it is the only pure full-blood virus left in the land. Everything else is just half-caste. Worth nothing!”19 The virus employs the language of the colonizer, which “shows that it thinks in the colonizers’ thought patterns.”20 The virus can thus be read as a metaphor for imperialism; in Decolonizing the Mind, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o argues that imperialism and neo-colonialism “annihilate a people’s belief in their names, in their languages, in their environment, in their heritage of struggle, in their unity, in their capacities and ultimately in themselves.”21 Even though Oblivia is aware of the fact that she has internalized the thought patterns of the imperial master narrative, she still struggles to regain, as Wright phrases it, a “sovereignty of the mind.”22 The girl says, interestingly comparing herself to another historically marginalized people: “I have become a gypsy, addicted to journeys into these distant illusionary homelands, to try to lure the virus hidden somewhere in its own crowded globe to open the door. This is where it begins as far as I am concerned. This is the quest to regain sovereignty over my own brain.”23

In Mr. Eternity, Xiako too suffers from a loss of sovereignty caused by the colonization of her mind. After she has been living with the Spanish invaders for some time, she realizes: “Xiako is not here anymore. I am Maria. I am not a Pirahao and I am not a Christian. I am nothing.”24 She feels as if she “flicker[s] in and out of existence.”25 Language is thematized as a powerful weapon of oppression, as Xiako is assigned a new, Christian name, which is a first step in the process of severing the ties to her own culture. She also has to learn Spanish, but as she does so, the thought patterns of the colonizer start to take over her mind: “When I speak Pirahao, I want to return to the city and eat inaga fruit in the central plaza, but when I speak Spanish I want to see the city [of Anaquitos] burn, and it is only in Spanish that it’s proper to act. It is this difference that dooms the Pirahao.”26 The change of language, in other words, changes the way she thinks and feels.

Just like Oblivia, Xiako compares this internalization of imperialist thought patterns to being infected: “They [the Christians] are the disease, but the disease is not the plague. The disease is the future. The disease is time. The disease is a way of thinking. It doesn’t kill anyone yet, but it kills things. It begins to kill the world.”27 In both Xiako’s and Oblivia’s cases, their colonization of mind is tied to the broader human colonization of the world: “a way of thinking” that “begins to kill the world.” Xiako and Oblivia exist at the Indigenous intersection between imperialism and the Anthropocene. The virus/disease becomes a metaphor for the colonial instrumentalization of Indigenous people, but also nonhuman animals, ecosystems, and natural systems, who are often the first to experience the detrimental effects of both colonization and climate change, and often the last to be heard. In a sense, therefore, this imagery also highlights why paying attention to storyworlds is helpful to a decolonization process: if the imperialist mindset is a virus, perhaps reader engagement with marginal(ized) or Indigenous storyworlds can serve as a vaccine.

The connection between climate change and processes of colonization is something that is absent, or only implicitly referred to, in most canonical climate change fiction. Both The Swan Book and Mr. Eternity therefore show themselves to be promising for the project of decolonizing climate change fiction. Thematically, they both target the problematic present via a historical colonial past and a speculative post-apocalyptic future. Formally, both novels also search for ways to resist and criticize the Western Anthropocene narrative. The Swan Book resists normative story structures characteristic of Western storytelling and instead draws on Indigenous narrative traditions – for instance by attributing agency to the land, as in the passage quoted above. Thier, by contrast, is a more central participant in the Western tradition and tries to decentre the imperialist worldview from within via a temporally layered narration that pushes Western experience to the background to make room for marginalized voices. The brief discussions of these two novels show how econarratology can be a fruitful mode of reading these and other cli-fi narratives because it calls attention to the site- and culture-specific cues required to build storyworlds – and to the politically loaded lack of such cues in some storyworlds.

While James’s mode of reading centres on existing cues, her later adaptation of Said’s contrapuntal reading works well to complement econarratology because potentially missing cues are given priority. The Swan Book is an example of cli-fi where these absences might productively destabilize Western readers because they have to put in more effort to make up for the missing or unfamiliar cues if they are to gain access to the storyworld. But even climate change fiction that uncritically perpetuates Western ideas and displays humanity as a whole as a geological agent, failing to pay attention to the differences in affectedness and responsibility between communities, might benefit from econarratological strategies to critically engage with these works by focusing on what is absent. That being said, we believe that it becomes harder and harder to defend a cli-fi corpus written solely by Western authors, especially since more and more works by non-Western authors have started to garner critical attention – think of Amitav Ghosh’s Gun Island (2019) and Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves (2017). In addition to that, one might be well advised to question the boundaries of climate change fiction as a category when teaching a cli-fi-focused course: it is still often seen as a genre focused on something that is about to happen in the (nearer and nearer) future, whereas issues related to vast environmental changes have been a lived reality for many people around the planet for (pre-Anthropocene) ages.


  • 1This article is based on a co-written paper presented at the annual conference for the Belgian Association of Anglicists in Higher Education at Ghent University on 19 December 2019. Ulstein is the main author of part 1, Mertens of part 2.
  • 2Mertens’s and Ulstein’s work on this article was supported by funding from, respectively, Ghent University’s Special Research Fund (BOF) and the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement no. 714166).
  • 3Donna J. Haraway, “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene,” Environmental Humanities 6, no. 1 (2015): 159-65.
  • 4The Anthropocene, roughly defined, designates the geological epoch marked by detrimental human activity measurable on the scale of planetary geo-history. In The Value of Ecocriticism Timothy Clark usefully calls it a “loose, pseudo-geological concept” (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019): 21.
  • 5Jenni Monet, “Indigenous representative joins UN climate summit: ‘They need us.’The Guardian (26 September 2019).
  • 6Erin James, The Storyworld Accord: Econarratology and Postcolonial Narratives (London: University of Nebraska Press, 2015), xiv.
  • 7James, Storyworld, xiv-xv.
  • 8David Herman, “Storyworld,” Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory (New York: Routledge 2005), 569-70.
  • 9James, Storyworld, 22.
  • 10James, Storyworld, xv.
  • 11James, “Narrative in the Anthropocene,” Public Lecture, University of Giessen, 10 December 2019.
  • 12Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Vintage 1994), 66-67.
  • 13See also J. Gleeson-White, “Country and Climate Change in Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book”. Australasian Journal of Ecocriticism and Cultural Ecology, 6 (2016/2017), 29-38.
  • 14Alexis Wright, The Swan Book (Sydney: Giramondo Publishing, 2013), 47.
  • 15Morton uses the metaphor of the mesh to explain how everything (human and nonhuman) is interconnected, which he argues is a crucial realization in a time of environmental crisis. See Morton’s The Ecological Thought (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2010), 28-38.
  • 16James, Storyworld, 38.
  • 17Ibid. 21; 38.
  • 18The fact that Warren Finch is a member of the Indigenous Brolga nation seems, at first, to set him apart from the colonizers. However, this character has, from an early age, been trained and formed by both Australians and elder people from the Brolga nation to become the nation’s leader. In the process, he “has lost his true connection to place [and] has become so adept at adapting that he is not more than an empty projection of himself” (Eckenhoff & Mausen 14). His physical appearance categorizes him as Aboriginal, but he has adopted the colonizers’ worldview and way of thinking.
  • 19Wright, Swan Book, 1.
  • 20Judith Eckenhoff and Sonja Mausen, “Australian Speculative Indigenous Fiction as Counter-Narrative: Post-Apocalyptic Environments and Indigenous Ancestral Knowledge in Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book” (The Routledge Handbook of Counter-Narratives, ed. Klarissa Lueg and Marianne Wolff Lundholdt, forthcoming 2021), 8.
  • 21Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (Harare: Zimbabwe Publishing House, 1981), 3.
  • 22Wright, “Rebel Voice,” The Age (15 November 2008).
  • 23Wright, Swan Book, 4.
  • 24Aaron Thier, Mr. Eternity (New York: Bloomsbury, 2016), 203.
  • 25Ibid. 171.
  • 26Ibid. 7.
  • 27Ibid. 236.


clustered | unclustered

“A Sense of Being the Foreign-”:
Unlearning Western Privilege in J. T. Rogers’s The Overwhelming

Laura Michiels

In the January 2009 issue of American Theatre magazine, American playwright J. T. Rogers published an opinion piece titled “Writing without a Map.” He passionately argues that if American theatre wants to stay relevant, it is time to look beyond US borders. According to Rogers, “we need to recognize that there is no separate ‘American Experience’ anymore. Our stories are just one part of a shrinking, interconnecting world.”1 American theatre has no choice but to “internationalize, globalize – whatever we want to call it.”2 Rogers has clearly taken his own advice to heart and kept his gaze turned firmly outward to countries like Norway, Italy, Afghanistan, Rwanda and soon Japan, now that he is set to write the screenplay for the television adaptation of Jake Adelstein’s Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan.3

If one characteristic of Rogers’s texts is that they are often set abroad, a distinct interest in the legacy of colonialism is another. Rogers was asked to contribute a short piece to “The Great Game: Afghanistan,” a 12-play cycle named after the nineteenth-century clash between Russian and British imperial ambitions.4 He withdrew his contribution before the cycle’s American tour and turned it into Blood and Gifts, a full-length play about American and British covert operations in Afghanistan between 1981 and 1991 as well as the rise of religious fundamentalism following in the wake of the Soviet-Afghan War. Rogers’s critically and commercially most successful endeavour to date focuses on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a long-lasting struggle resulting from settler colonialism. The play in question, his Tony-award-winning Oslo from 2017, deals with the forging of the Oslo Accords between the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Israeli government in 1993.

In his introduction to Oslo, Rogers explains that “[a]s a playwright, I look to tell stories that are framed against great political rupture. I am obsessed with putting characters onstage who struggle with, and against, cascading world events – and who are changed forever through that struggle.”5 For the purposes of this essay, I would like to look at Rogers’s 2006 play The Overwhelming, which explores just such a moment of great political rupture, namely the events leading up to the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. A very brief and therefore necessarily crude and reductive recap: over the course of a hundred days, from 6 April 1994 until 4 July 1994, thousands of Tutsi were murdered by Hutu extremists and those they managed to influence or coerce. Moderate Hutu who refused to join in the killing also found their death. The exact death toll is difficult to determine but 800,000 is a number often mentioned. Taking into account local census data as well as the national census of 1991, which tended to downplay the presence of Tutsi, Marijke Verpoorten estimates that between 512,000 and 662,000 people died.6 Filip Reyntjens’s 2017 Dutch-language introduction to the genocide and its aftermath similarly mentions approximately 600,000 victims.7 Several explanations for this terrifying outburst of violence have been attempted. These include economic circumstances (land conflict in the face of a growing population) and cultural factors (Rwandan society as racist and based on blind obedience).8 Mahmood Mamdani holds that the genocide resulted from the civil war between the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and the Rwandan armed forces. When the Tutsi-led RPF left exile in Uganda, they displaced thousands of Hutu civilians in Rwanda, thus raising the spectre of Tutsi rising to power again.9 The Kigali Memorial Centre prefers to emphasise the destructive impact of colonialism: it claims that Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa lived in harmony until German and, even more so, Belgian colonisers started favouring Tutsi over Hutu. This was rooted in the belief that the former were a superior race which had migrated to Rwanda, presumably from southern Ethiopia, a theory that came to be known as the Hamitic hypothesis.10

While its title may suggest otherwise, The Overwhelming takes place shortly before the genocide begins, “early 1994.”11 The play tells the story of an American professor specialised in international relations, Jack Exley, who is invited to Kigali by his former college roommate, a Tutsi doctor called Joseph Gasana. Jack brings along his African American wife Linda White-Keeler – a writer of “[n]arratives of self”12 – and his estranged 17-year-old son Geoffrey. Once they arrive in Rwanda, Joseph is nowhere around, and the family find themselves sucked into the quagmire of a political conflict they do not understand. Linda and Geoffrey both unwittingly make friends with proponents of Hutu Power, while Jack’s friend turns out to be an RPF spy in hiding instead of the saintly doctor curing children suffering from AIDS he gives himself out for. One of the characters in the play, namely the disillusioned South African NGO worker Jan Verbeek, points out that “everyone lies here.”13 The text is built around questions of privilege and responsibility, and it is these issues that I would like to address in the remainder of my essay.

Shackles Past and Present

When I first considered the title of the current contribution, I thought about naming it “Unlearning White Privilege.” Yet, this would not have been appropriate in this case, because one of the play’s main characters is African American. According to Eric Grode, the only reason why Rogers decided on an African American wife for Jack was to pre-empt “the criticism that people from other cultures become more interesting once white Americans drop down among them.”14 I am, by contrast, convinced that Linda’s racial background is of vital importance to the play because it allows Rogers to engage with the troubled history of American privilege and its connection to slavery, as will become clear. While the play has a lot to say about American privilege, it was itself born from that same privilege, a fact that Rogers is acutely aware of. In “Writing without a Map,” he describes his travels to faraway countries, which he is able to undertake in spite of his ignorance and near-inability to speak foreign languages.15 During conversations with locals, however, Rogers is always afraid of being forced to answer uncomfortable questions: “How dare you come here? How dare you ask that? Who do you think you are, you ignorant, sweaty little American!”16 As the comment from Grode quoted above makes clear, the reception of the play also engaged with questions of privilege. Grode questions Rogers’s decision to write a play about Rwanda centred on an American family because he feels that the play does not do the Rwandans justice, but also because “depicting the Exleys’ domestic woes alongside an entire nation’s implosion runs the risk of equating the two.”17

The Overwhelming is, in many ways, a play about Rwanda as well as the US, and in saying so I am referring to larger issues than the domestic squabbles of the American family it depicts. The fact that it is about Rwanda and the US can be discerned from the many scenes in which characters of both nationalities assert that they want to learn about each other’s countries. The family’s Hutu servant Gérard, for instance, will read Geoffrey’s high school history book based on a desire to “learn of [Geoffrey’s] country.”18 In return, “[p]erhaps [he] may show [Geoffrey] [his] country.”19 History plays an important role in these discussions. Linda’s friend Samuel Mizinga, a politician and representative of Hutu Power, tells her that “We are still shackled to our history here. A spiral of violence. I envy you. In America, you seem to have escaped your history, and you live wonderfully well. This is my hope for my country.”20

Yet, it is exactly this history which the US has supposedly escaped that drives Linda to him. She wants to find out all about Rwanda since she has “learned, [she] [has] ancestors from the Great Lakes region. They were taken from here in chains. [She’s] from here.”21 This makes her feel “[a] responsibility. I don’t want to be another tourist waxing lyrical about ‘Mother Africa.’ I want to really see this place. Ask hard questions. Write something that opens eyes and instils an interest.”22 She therefore gladly takes the opportunity to be guided by Mizinga, a decision that ultimately almost costs Geoffrey his life. Staying close to Linda allows Mizinga to gather information about the Exleys and become aware of the fact that they are hiding Joseph. During the play’s final scene, he comes to their house along with other Hutu extremists and threatens to kill Geoffrey unless Jack hands over his friend.

According to Aziz Rana, America has from its inception upheld the myth that its society is classless, as opposed to Europe’s.23 Yet, in Rana’s opinion, American democracy is based on what could be termed “settler privilege” in that “[m]any settlers believed that the preservation and enhancement of their own democratic institutions required Indian dispossession and the coercive use of dependent groups, most prominently slaves, in order to ensure that they themselves did not have to engage in menial but essential forms of work.”24 Linda experiences this history of exclusion through both past and present. Her family, as mentioned above, may have hailed from the Great Lakes region, while she herself feels particularly at ease there: “I mean, look at me! I look like you. For once I’m not ‘the other.’ My husband, for once he’s the …”25 Linda never finishes her thought, but it is clear that she is referring to her protracted experience of feeling “other” even in her home country, something her husband has not been able to understand until now.

A Taste of “Otherness”

Whereas Linda is happy that she temporarily manages to shed the cloak of otherness, her husband actively pursues it, because he is convinced that feeling like “the other” once in a while is bracing, a true learning experience. He explains to the US embassy official Charles Woolsey that he had the advantage of feeling like an outsider during his stay abroad in Sweden and now wants his son Geoffrey to have a similar experience in Rwanda. While Jack has not spoken to his son (who has recently lost his mother) in years, he now embarks on the grand project of instilling him with “a sense of humility and – yes! – of questioning. God! I don’t want to raise another American who doesn’t question. I see them in my classes: eighteen years old, this sense of entitlement. The scope of what they take for granted!”26 Jack is not, however, a poster boy for his own theory since a sense of humility is not something he possesses. His enormous sense of privilege leads him to lecture his Rwandan hosts about history and responsibility at a cocktail party held at the French embassy. Clearly unaware that “[h]istory in Rwanda is highly politicised and polarised, and considered a dangerous subject by most ordinary Rwandans,”27 Jack tells his Rwandan interlocutors that history is not made by great men like Thomas Jefferson, as that belief amounts to a way of absconding individual responsibility. He is sure that “[w]e’re the ones who have to be willing to stand up and make a difference. This is how history moves forward. One pebble redirects the river!”28 Jack’s enthusiasm is met with a prophetic question: “But what if that river becomes an ocean?”29

As the river starts to change more and more into an ocean of trouble, Jack finally does get to feel like an outsider, which turns out to be a less helpful experience than he thought. After the police fail to take Joseph’s disappearance seriously, he talks to a UN major who chides him for his lack of knowledge of the French language: “You are seeking answers in a country you do not know, without a language to understand it.”30 Yet the character’s reproach betrays his own ignorance, in that Kinyarwanda rather than French is the language spoken by most Rwandans. The major also mocks Jack’s sense of privilege: “You would like us to run through this city, flashing guns, saying, ‘A man is missing, and an American wants to know!’ ‘An American! Oh my goodness. Shaky, shaky, shaky: Here he is.’”31 The major points out Jack’s position of privilege not only as an American but also as a white man. He asks whether Jack knows that American soldiers died the previous year during an intervention in Somalia, which Jack does. The major then asserts that in addition to those 18 American soldiers who died, 90 Malaysian and Pakistani UN soldiers also perished, which Jack turns out not to be aware of. In the bigger scheme of things, Joseph’s disappearance simply does not matter all that much: “He is missing, he has been killed – the world does not care. A black African man. In this world, what is that?”32

The play’s Rwandan characters, for their part, are not so impressed by Jack’s search for connections between different people and cultures. They are aware that the Americans’ interest in them may end at any point and use their visitors for their own purposes, mainly information or protection. While Mizinga strings Linda along by telling her that she is “becoming Rwandaise,”33 Geoffrey’s friend Gérard is not at all impressed by her and keeps on referring to her as “the black wife,”34 thus making Geoffrey very uncomfortable. Geoffrey explains “We don’t say ‘black’ anymore. We say ‘African American,’”35 which makes no sense whatsoever to Gérard since she is American, not African. Linda, in another misguided attempt to connect to a Rwandan, asks Joseph’s Hutu wife Elise what it feels like to be married to a Tutsi, “asking as a woman married to a man of a different race. Trust me: I know about –”.36 Yet, the idea that the Tutsi and Hutu are different races is not shared by everyone. In fact, it was mainly propagated by those who ended up driving the genocide.37 Even though Jack tries to help Joseph after he has turned up again and Linda claims such strong connections to Rwanda, these things all no longer matter once Mizinga and Gérard threaten Geoffrey’s life at the end of the play. In Linda’s words, “We do not belong here! This is not our problem!”,38 thus proving that the Rwandan characters had been right all along. In his afterword to The Overwhelming, Rogers explains that he starts writing every play with a question in mind. With regard to the Rwandan genocide, he “kept asking [him]self the following: If you were there right now, what would you do to stay alive? What kind of person would you prove to be?”39 In Jack’s case, the answer is that he is willing to leave his friend to a certain and most likely gruesome death in order to save his son’s life.

Coda: Questioning Victim Narratives

A note to end on: in a recent book called Performing Trauma in Central Africa: Shadows of Empire, Laura Edmondson writes rather critically about theatre activism. In fact, the sixth chapter of her study is titled “Confessions of a Failed Theatre Activist.” She denounces the Westerners who flocked to Northern Uganda, Rwanda and the DRC in the wake of large-scale violence. In her words,

What these foreigners held in common was economic and geopolitical privilege, signified by their ability to travel to far corners of the globe out of curiosity and interest rather than flight from limited economic opportunities or political upheaval. They were united in a collective sense of earnestness that brought them to Central Africa in the first place. They were open, naïve, and painfully eager to help. They were playwrights, filmmakers, students, professors. They were minions of empire.40

Empire, in the context of Edmondson’s book, refers to Didier Fassin and Richard Rechtman’s “empire of trauma.” The term designates a paradigm shift whereby trauma was initially met with suspicion but was transformed into an experience deserving of sympathy and sometimes monetary compensation.41 Trauma has, moreover, become universalised: “the notion of psychological trauma has imposed itself on society in such a way as to become the central reality of violence.”42 According to Edmondson, Fassin and Rechtman’s empire demands simple stories with clear villains, “sweeping aside nuance and complexity in its single-minded quest for spectacles and narratives of suffering.”43 Edmondson posits that victim narratives are questionable for a number of reasons: most importantly, “notions of truth and testimony become destabilized in conflict and postconflict zones”44 because victims tend to adhere to a pre-set humanitarian aesthetic which they have internalised.

Rogers’s essay “Writing without a Map” ends with a victim story that would presumably make Edmondson cringe. During his 2006 trip to Rwanda, Rogers came across a genocide survivor who told him that she was HIV positive, “something she hadn’t told anyone else.”45 The playwright asked why he was the first person she confided in, and she answered “Because you are in the theatre, […] The theatre is important for this. To tell this.”46 Bearing the essay’s closing remarks in mind, one may have expected The Overwhelming to turn into a sobfest, allowing us to “respond[…] to the witness’s testimony by showing empathy and vicariously experienc[e] his or her trauma, a reaction which supposedly obviates any need for critical self-reflection regarding [our] own implication in the ongoing practices of oppression and denial.”47

Rogers asks his fellow countrymen to consider the part the US played before and during the Rwandan genocide. While the guilt of the Belgian and French governments is also touched upon, the play pays more attention to America’s role on the stage of global politics. The first conversation Jack has is with the US embassy official Charles Woolsey, who deeply regrets that the Cold War has ended, because American hegemony now goes unchallenged. After Joseph hands Jack a list with names of people who are about to be killed, Jack turns to Woolsey. The latter is already aware of the problem but explains that nothing can be done. Woolsey points out that Jack under no circumstances would send Geoffrey to save Rwandan lives but expects other Americans to make just that sacrifice:

Boots on the ground, mission of mercy, we sweep in – who’s the “we,” Jack? Some trying-to-make-it-to-college kid from the Bronx? Some eighteen-year-old cow-tipper from Illinois? They should come here? Risk their lives to save some people on some list because it’s the right thing to do? You teach poli-sci, Jack. When, in the history of the world, has there been a country with a foreign policy based on “It’s the right thing to do?”48

Since Woolsey is a government employee, it should come as no surprise that his attitude reflects official policy. Not once over the course of the 100-day duration of the genocide did the Clinton administration formulate any kind of strategy to stop the atrocities. According to Jared Cohen, the US’s inactivity weighed heavily because the country tends to serve as “the trend-setter for which international issues receive global attention.”49 Cohen explains that the “U.S. decision to not intervene in Rwanda was predetermined and made six months before the genocide began and before some of the principals even knew the location of Rwanda on the map.”50 The reason for this was the incident mentioned in the play by the UN major: the 18 American soldiers who died during a humanitarian operation in Somalia. The catastrophe in question had made peacekeeping politically unsavoury.51

Woolsey is of course right when assessing Jack’s attitude about Geoffrey. Jack is unwilling not only to send his son to save Rwandan citizens in general but even to help a Rwandan he knows and likes very much, namely his friend Joseph. Jack’s final words on stage are “[t]ake him. Please”52 as he pushes Joseph towards his executioners to make sure that Geoffrey is not murdered right then and there. This particular scene transcends nationalities in that Jack is primarily acting in his capacity as a father, going to extreme lengths to protect his son. While the play’s ending is uncomfortable – especially because Joseph is the last character to address us, telling Jack in a letter that he has “hope” and is his “true friend”53 – Jack’s is a choice many of us will be able to understand. At the same time, the play renders his decision problematic by blending the perspectives of witness and perpetrator: Jack does not actively kill Joseph but hands him over to people who make no secret of the fact that they will do just that. Jack’s mostly passive yet ultimately deadly attitude can be seen as a metatheatrical comment on the role of the spectator in general.

Rogers’s decision to foreground moral complexity in his play may have resulted from the fact that he himself was confronted with the tricky nature of victim narratives while writing it. In the Afterword to The Overwhelming, he explains that two Rwandans living in the US helped him with his research, mainly the pronunciation of the sentences in Kinyarwanda, mapping the geography of Kigali, etc. These two men, Raymond and Louis, both talked about their experience of the 1994 genocide. As it turns out, Raymond’s father was one of the military leaders on trial for organising the genocide and responsible for the death of Louis’s father. Rogers’s reaction was the following:

There was a time when I fantasized about confronting Raymond, of demanding he come clean and tell me the truth. But such a fantasy is founded on a very American idea of confession and redemption. Like so much about Rwanda, there is no such redemption in this story. Raymond is still fighting to prove his father’s innocence; Louis is still trying to move beyond his father’s murder. Neither man can see beyond his own truth.54

The play resulting from this research, then, is one of Rogers’s typically nuanced creations. There are no “good” and “bad” victims here.55 It would have been very easy for Rogers to turn the character of the Tutsi doctor Joseph Gasana into some kind of saint, but it turns out that the man in question is a spy, who refused to treat ailing Hutu children when he worked at the hospital. Hutu Power character Gérard, by contrast, is a murderer, but one who has recently lost his entire family and strikes up a more or less genuine friendship with Geoffrey. Although I have not (yet?) seen the play on stage, empathy was not the emotion I experienced while reading it. I was annoyed at the Americans’ ignorance – which I only found forgivable in the teenage son – and wary of everyone’s duplicity. I was not alone in this. New York Times critic Ben Brantley, reviewing the 2007 New York production, commented that “this supposedly well-educated husband and wife are exasperatingly ignorant, obtuse to the point of idiocy.”56 Grode, meanwhile, acknowledges the text’s sense of mystery and deception by comparing it to the 1949 film noir The Third Man, a source of inspiration Rogers has referred to himself.57 The play is infused with a heavy sense of dramatic irony for those familiar with the details of the genocide, once again making for a sense of distance rather than the closeness of empathy. Whereas Rogers may have been a minion of Empire, in Edmondson’s sense, when he travelled to Rwanda in 2006, I find it more difficult to dismiss his play as a straightforward product of Empire. Of course, the shadow of several empires – American imperialism and the legacy of colonialism to name but two – looms large here, yet the fact that the play takes a hard look at these makes it, if anything, an uneasy product of Empire.


  • 1 J. T. Rogers, “Writing without a Map,” American Theatre 26.1 (2009): 72-74, here 73.
  • 2 Rogers, “Writing without,” 73.
  • 3 Will Thorne, “Ken Watanabe Joins Ansel Elgort in ‘Tokyo Vice’ at HBO Max,” Variety, 12. Sept. 2019, n. p.
  • 4 Alexis Soloski, “Mr. Rogers’s Very Tough Neighborhood,” New York Times, 20 Nov. 2011, n. p., https://www.nytimes.com
  • 5 J. T. Rogers, Oslo (New York City: Theatre Communications Group, 2017), xiii.
  • 6 Marijke Verpoorten, “Rwanda: Why Claim That Only 200,000 Tutsi Died in the Genocide Is Wrong,” African Arguments, 27 Oct. 2014, n. p.
  • 7 Filip Reyntjens, De genocide van de Tutsi in Rwanda (Antwerpen: Pelckmans Pro, 2017), 62.
  • 8 Mahmood Mamdani, When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2001), 197, 199.
  • 9 Mamdani, 231.
  • 10 Laura Edmondson, Performing Trauma in Central Africa: Shadows of Empire (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2018), 36. Mamdani, 47.
  • 11 J. T. Rogers, The Overwhelming (London: Faber and Faber, 2007), 6.
  • 12 Rogers, The Overwhelming, 14.
  • 13 Rogers, The Overwhelming, 78.
  • 14 Eric Grode, “A Semester of Living Dangerously,” The New York Sun, 25 Oct. 2007, n. p.
  • 15 Rogers, “Writing without,” 72.
  • 16 Rogers, “Writing without,” 72.
  • 17 Grode, n. p.
  • 18 Rogers, The Overwhelming, 44.
  • 19 Rogers, The Overwhelming, 44.
  • 20 Rogers, The Overwhelming, 38-39.
  • 21 Rogers, The Overwhelming, 19.
  • 22 Rogers, The Overwhelming, 20.
  • 23 Aziz Rana, The Two Faces of American Freedom (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2010), 6.
  • 24 Rana, 3.
  • 25 Rogers, The Overwhelming, 75-76.
  • 26 Rogers, The Overwhelming, 11.
  • 27 Filip Reyntjens, “Understanding Rwandan Politics through the Longue Durée: From the Precolonial to the Postgenocide Era,” Journal of East African Studies, 12.3 (2018): 514-532, here 528.
  • 28 Rogers, The Overwhelming, 25.
  • 29 Rogers, The Overwhelming, 25.
  • 30 Rogers, The Overwhelming, 73.
  • 31 Rogers, The Overwhelming, 73.
  • 32 Rogers, The Overwhelming, 74.
  • 33 Rogers, The Overwhelming, 75.
  • 34 Rogers, The Overwhelming, 90.
  • 35 Rogers, The Overwhelming, 90.
  • 36 Rogers, The Overwhelming, 67.
  • 37 Mamdani, 190.
  • 38 Rogers, The Overwhelming, 109.
  • 39 Rogers, The Overwhelming, 113.
  • 40 Edmondson, 7.
  • 41 Didier Fassin and Richard Rechtman, The Empire of Trauma: An Inquiry into the Condition of Victimhood (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2009), 5.
  • 42 Fassin and Rechtman, 22.
  • 43 Edmondson, 5.
  • 44 Edmondson, 14.
  • 45 Rogers, “Writing without,” 74.
  • 46 Rogers, “Writing without,” 74.
  • 47 Stef Craps, Postcolonial Witnessing: Trauma Out of Bounds (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 42.
  • 48 Rogers, The Overwhelming, 94.
  • 49 Jared Cohen, One Hundred Days of Silence: America and the Rwanda Genocide (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007), 3.
  • 50 Cohen, 3.
  • 51 Cohen, 3.
  • 52 Rogers, The Overwhelming, 110.
  • 53 Rogers, The Overwhelming, 111.
  • 54 Rogers, The Overwhelming, 122.
  • 55 Cf. Fassin and Rechtman, 280.
  • 56 Ben Brantley, “Stumbling in the Dark, Surrounded by Death,” New York Times, 24 Oct. 2007, n. p.
  • 57 Grode, n. p., Brantley, n. p.