Past Conditional Temporalities and the Historical Novel

Authors: Neelofer Qadir*, University of North Carolina At Greensboro
Topics: Cultural Geography, Africa, Gender
Keywords: African literary studies, historical fiction,
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/10/2021
Start / End Time: 1:30 PM / 2:45 PM
Room: Virtual 30
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


The historical novel is not a new phenomena; it has become an insurgent form in the aesthetic practice of African women writers. One temporal orientation is Jennifer Nansubaga Makumbi’s 2013 historical fiction, Kintu (first published by Kenya-based Kwani Trust and later, in 2017, making its United States debut with Transit Books and, in 2018, with OneWorld for the UK market). Makumbi reports that critics often called Kintu a feminist novel, but she always resisted, promising that her feminist novel was still to come. That book — another historical fiction, The First Woman (UK), or The Girl Is a Body of Water (US) — made its way into readers hands in 2020. Between these two moments, we witnessed Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s The Dragonfly Sea, which animates historic and contemporary relationships between China and the Swahili Coast; Namwali Serpell’s The Old Drift, melds historical and science fiction to rupture the singular temporalities familiar to both genres; Wayetu Moore and Ayesha Harruna Attah reprise colonial Liberia and Ghana, respectively, to reckon with the intertwined legacies of colonialism and the TransAtlantic Slave Trade.

Informed by Saidiya Hartman’s practice of “critical fabulation” and Christina Sharpe’s “wake work” and with these texts as my guides, I suggest that African women writers are revising the genre of historical fiction by deploying speculation rather than realism as their primary representational strategy. They fracture calcified knowledge about History and invite us into a durational practice of remembering and repair that reveals how colonialism and slavery’s afterlives are multiply inhabited.

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