"Forms of Resilience: African Fiction and the Crisis of Capitalism"

Restricted (Penn State Only)
Fyfe, Alexander Colin
Graduate Program:
Comparative Literature
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
October 10, 2018
Committee Members:
  • Rosemary Jane Jolly, Dissertation Advisor/Co-Advisor
  • Rosemary Jane Jolly, Committee Chair/Co-Chair
  • Hoda El Shakry, Committee Member
  • Magali Armillas-Tiseyra, Committee Member
  • Alicia Catharine Decker, Outside Member
  • Shuang Shen, Committee Member
  • African literatures
  • capitalism
  • resilience
  • literary form
  • crisis
  • gender
Between the early 1980s and the 1990s, the dominant modes of literary expression on the African continent began to change. Alongside the realist novel, which had dominated African literatures since the colonial period, there emerged a proliferation of versions of the novel form, many highly experimental in nature. At the same time, sub-Saharan African countries experienced rapid economic and social transformations, the result of a global “crisis” of capitalism which, on the African continent, caused social, cultural, and economic values to enter a state of flux and constituted a significant challenge to existing conceptions of selfhood. The coincidence of these two occurrences raises the question of the relations between literary form and politics in the post-1980s era: whereas the realist novel was once easily understood as participating in literary resistance (pace Barbara Harlow and Neil Lazarus), the political valence of these newer, often sui generis, texts has frequently appeared at odds with existing critical frameworks. This dissertation proposes the concept of resilience as a means of understanding the relations between African fictions and the post-1980s historical context. Intended to complement rather than replace “resistance,” resilience describes the literary strategies that writers use to articulate alternative forms of value in the face of a broader instability of value-systems and to articulate new ways of being under capitalism. The dissertation consists of four chapters, each based around a key question in current scholarly debates around the politics of African literatures: the concept of African magical realism, the role of “literary Non-Governmental Organizations” on the continent, “experimental” writing in the Kiswahili literary sphere, and the relations between physical infrastructure—trains, roads, communication antennas, etc.—and the contemporary African novel. Reading under the sign of crisis and in reference to a concept of resilience provides considerable nuance to existing understandings of the relations between politics and form in each of these areas of study. Resilient adaptations of literary forms appear prominently—although in highly specific permutations—in diverse literary traditions, ranging from canonical Anglophone texts to experimental works in French and Kiswahili. In each case, these resilient literary forms assert new kinds of values against the background of a crisis in values. The argument of the dissertation develops chronologically to show that resilient forms have emerged at key moments in recent sub-Saharan African literary history and that attention to resilience allows us to understand how the practice of literature remains a politically relevant activity. Chapter 1 presents a reading of what is for many the archetypal “African magical realist” text: Ben Okri’s The Famished Road trilogy (1990-1998). Although the politics of Okri’s three novels have often seemed somewhat ambiguous when read against a concept of resistance, this chapter argues that the text articulates a form of wealth that, as it is instantiated in the text’s cyclical structure, persists in spite of the dangerous cycles of capitalism that are evident throughout the narrative. In its formal preservation of wealth in spite of the logic of capital, the novel exhibits resilience. Chapter 2 focuses upon FEMRITE, the Uganda Women Writers Association. Formed as a non-governmental organization in 1996, FEMRITE emerged at a moment in Ugandan history where liberal values were unevenly and inconsistently imposed upon society. FEMRITE, in its early years, worked to construct women’s writing as a valuable activity within Uganda. Three of its literary publications from this period—now canonical texts in Uganda—are shown to articulate a means of coping with the fluctuation in values and, to different extents, evidence strategies of resilience. This chapter relies upon interviews with members and founders of FEMRITE conducted in Kampala in the summer of 2017. In Chapter 3, Said Ahmed Mohamed’s Dunia Yao (2006, written in Kiswahili) is located against the decline of Ujamaa socialism in Tanzania. This novel—chosen not only because it is a key text in the recent trend of “experimental” Kiswahili writing, but also because of its extensive commentary on the appropriate form of the novel in the global era—re-codes the literary as a kind of “intellectual space” where human selfhood is re-theorized and preserved in anticipation of a utopian future that has not yet arrived. Chapter 4 builds on recent work on the relations between literature and infrastructure (by scholars such as Bruce Robbins and Dominic Davies) to argue that two recent Francophone novels from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, In Koli Jean Bofane’s Congo Inc. (2015) and Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s Tram 83 (2014), explore the contradictory relations between the “failed state” of infrastructure under crisis-capitalism and the possibilities for resilience that this state of failure offers. Bofane’s novel, a Bildungsroman, is able to register the contradictions raised by the DRC’s infrastructural situation, but falls short of presenting a protagonist who is able to negotiate them. Mujila’s novel, meanwhile, explores the contradictory relations between the “failed state” of infrastructure under crisis-capitalism. For this novel, resistance is all but impossible in a context where humans and infrastructure exist on the same conceptual level. Literature itself, however, is understood in the text to provide a means for the exploited to retain some aspect of their humanity. This resilience is echoed in the novel’s sprawling and idiosyncratic form.