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Gender and narrative in the postcolonial nation
Author: Elleke Boehmer

Why is the nation in a post-colonial world so often seen as a motherland? This study explores the relationship between gender icons and foundational fictions of the nation in different post-colonial spaces. The author's work on the intersections between independence, nationalism and gender has already proved canonical in the field. This book combines her keynote essays on the mother figure and the post-colonial nation with new work on male autobiography, ‘daughter’ writers, the colonial body, the trauma of the post-colony and the nation in a transnational context. Focusing on Africa as well as South Asia, and sexuality as well as gender, the author offers close readings of writers ranging from Chinua Achebe, Ben Okri and Nelson Mandela to Arundhati Roy and Yvonne Vera, shaping these into a critical engagement with theorists of the nation such as Fredric Jameson and Partha Chatterjee. Moving beyond cynical deconstructions of the post-colony, the book mounts a reassessment of the post-colonial nation as a site of potential empowerment, as a ‘paradoxical refuge’ in a globalised world. It acts on its own impassioned argument that post-colonial and nation-state studies address substantively issues hitherto raised chiefly within international feminism.

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The English novel and the world
Elleke Boehmer

English novelists have allegedly favoured heaths over harbours, crises of character over world conflicts, storms in teacups over military and political tempests out on the open seas. There is as much British world history to be discovered embedded in the relatively closed category of English narrative, as in postcolonial writing by authors like Kamila Shamsie, Bernardine Evaristo or David Dabydeen. Faced with the loss of empire's moral legitimacy, the English novel shows clear signs of having avoided, repressed or erased the full implications of what that loss entailed at a variety of different levels, emotional, psychological, social, cultural and ethical. Inchoately but persistently, the memory of empire has impinged on the English novel in the second half of the twentieth century. The predominant mode through which the post-1945 English novel has registered the British imperial experience as well as the retreat from world dominance more specifically, is melancholic.

in End of empire and the English novel since 1945
Elleke Boehmer
in ‘War on terror’
Open Access (free)
Colonial body into postcolonial narrative
Elleke Boehmer

The silenced and wounded body of the colonised is a pervasive figure in colonial and post-colonial discourses, although its valencies obviously shift with the transition from colonial into post-colonial history. In the post-colonial process of rewriting, certainly, the trope of the dumb, oppressed body undergoes significant translations or transfigurations. In Maru (1971), a novelistic indictment of intra-black racism, the South African writer Bessie Head stakes out a number of epigraphic moments with which to begin the discussion. This chapter explores post-colonial retrieval of the figure of the native body in colonial discourse and unpicks the complex interconnections between colonialism, nationalism, hysteria, gender and sexuality. It concentrates in particular on post-colonial attempts – by Nuruddin Farah, Bessie Head and Michelle Cliff, among others – to recuperate or transfigure the native/colonised body by way of the ‘talking cure’ of narrative.

in Stories of women
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The adolescent girl and the nation
Elleke Boehmer

This chapter examines how three very different post-colonial women writers have written themselves into the national family script, or redrafted the daughter's relationship to the national father. The novels in question are: the expatriate Australian Christina Stead's The Man Who Loved Children (1940); the Nigerian-born London writer Buchi Emecheta's Destination Biafra (1982); and the American-born Canadian Carol Shields's Unless (2002). The chapter focuses on the daughter's position in the three novels relative to the family, tradition or community, where these structures are in each case figured as analogous to or integrated with the nation, thus approaching the narratives as gender and nationalist theories-in-text. Yet, despite their varying determinations, all three are distinguished by their preoccupation with daughterhood. Towards setting up the comparative frame, the gender roles inscribed within the national family drama can be further elaborated by drawing on Olive Schreiner's The Story of an African Farm (1883) as an interpretative paradigm.

in Stories of women
Open Access (free)
The male leader’s autobiography and the syntax of postcolonial nationalism
Elleke Boehmer

Narratives give form to and legitimate the process of post-colonial and national coming-into-being. In nationalist movements in India and Africa, leaders' tales operate as inaugural symbolic texts shaping and justifying configurations of status and power in the post-colonial nation(-to-be), including the interconnection of nationalist ideology and gender politics. Looked at more closely, the leader's autobiography effectively sets in motion a process of reciprocal, even circular, legitimation. This chapter looks at the independence autobiographies by national leaders such as Jawaharlal Nehru, Nelson Mandela, Kwame Nkrumah and Jomo Kenyatta. Where the story of the growth to self-consciousness of the independence leader presents as a synonym for the rise of the nation, and where that leader has historically been male, it follows that national-son figures become the inheritors of the nation's future. Throughout his autobiography, Nehru is strongly aware of the symbol-making power of nationalism; of that way in which national movements are constituted out of compelling images. The chapter also mentions the self-representation of Sarojini Naidu as a political leader.

in Stories of women
Open Access (free)
Elleke Boehmer

This book argues that literary texts – here especially novels and autobiographies – are central vehicles in the imaginative construction of new nations, and that gender plays a central, formative role in that construction. Post-colonial nationalist identities, iconographies and traditions are refracted through gender-tagged concepts of power, leadership, lineage and filiation, including, for instance, maternal images of nurturing and service. Developing these ideas, the book considers how national father/son and mother figures were used in the independence era to imagine the nation into being. It also shows that gendered, predominantly familial (patriarchal), forms have been invoked, paradoxically, to imagine post-colonial nations into being, and that, reciprocally, constructions of the nation in fiction and other discourses are differentially marked by masculine and feminine systems of value. Finally, the book explores community, nationality, subjectivity, sexuality or the native body.

in Stories of women
Theorising the en-gendered nation
Elleke Boehmer

Nationalism, which has been so fundamental to the decolonisation process around the world, bears a clear mark for gender. This chapter examines why and how, overdetermined by colonial history, national structures in post-independent nations have conventionally been organised according to masculine patterns of authority, in particular the family drama, embodied in such images as ‘father of the nation’, ‘son of the soil’. Women, by contrast, are cast into the more passive roles/metaphors of motherland, Mother Africa, Bharat Mata. The chapter first looks at two novels, Peter Abrahams' A Wreath for Udomo (1956) and Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children (1981), which have in common several paradigms of new nationality and the post-colonial nation founded on the imagery of national sons. To open the discussion with these two novels is in itself an anticipatory and symbolic gesture, in that Africa and India will comprise the two postcolonial ‘constituencies’ predominantly represented by this book.

in Stories of women
Gender and nationalism in the early fiction of Flora Nwapa
Elleke Boehmer

Mother figures bulk large in nationalist imaginings. Although they perhaps hold different sentiments and ideals in this regard, the figure of the common national mother is, significantly, one to which post-independence women writing from Africa and India have also paid their respects. Women encounter the strong need to resist the compounded oppressions of colonialism, gender, race, class, sexuality, etc., and find at the same time that tactics of self-representation are often usefully adopted from the more established and yet compromising nationalist politics of their male counterparts. In theory, and rhetorically, anti-colonial, nationalist movements made provision for the self-representation of women. Nationalism, whether as ideology or as political movement, configures and consolidates itself through a variety of deeply embedded gender-specific structures. This chapter explores how an investment in a typically masculine nationalist imaginary impacts on women's politics of self-realisation and on their involvement in the modern nation-state. In a reading of Flora Nwapa's early fiction, it makes suggestions as to what an alternative symbolisation of women's identity and language might entail.

in Stories of women
Open Access (free)
Gender and a new politics in Achebe
Elleke Boehmer

Although he published the autobiographical meditation Home and Exile in 2002, Chinua Achebe's Anthills of the Savannah (1987) remains the culmination point of his achievement as a writer of fiction, as well as being an elaboration of his earlier novelistic interests. Dealing in coded terms with Nigeria's calcified power-elite, and the bankruptcy of its post-independence nepotistic politics, Anthills of the Savannah is in many respects a sequel to the penultimate novel A Man of the People (1966), which explored themes of political corruption and military takeover on the eve of Biafra. In the fifth and final novel, Achebe's view of that elite and its position in the wider African context has become more uncompromising and – at least in theory – more attuned to gender and populist ideas. Addressing Nigeria's elite as himself a self-conscious member of that group, Achebe is unambivalent in his view of leadership as the chief pivot of political and also of economic transformation. The novel clears a space for women to be themselves the prefiguring subjects of a new social and political vision.

in Stories of women