Violence in African literature

Date of Completion

January 2002


Literature, African|Language, Rhetoric and Composition|Sociology, Social Structure and Development




In this study of violence in African literature, I share James Gilligan's view that violence is reactive and is caused by social, cultural, and economic conditions. Behavioral violence cannot be comprehended if it is not studied in the context and perspective of structural violence which is determined by the socio-economic structures such as class, gender, race, and caste. Consequently, after a brief survey of typical African dictatorships, I have looked at violent practices in Africa in the contexts of African value-systems, political systems, and economic structures. ^ The violence portrayed by the writers I have sampled in my study encompasses despotic, racist, and patriarchal violence. They may operate in different ways in different contexts, but they are all historically and culturally determined and are psychologically damaging. All three cases show that the rule of violence is dehumanizing and causes social and psychological fragmentation. Using the works of Ahmadou Kourouma, Alex Laguma, and Nawal el Sa'dawi, the study has focussed on the ways fragmentation affects perpetrators and victims of violence alike and what it requires to undo fragmentation. ^ The study has also focussed on the rhetoric of violence using Teresa de Lauretis' and Michel Foucault's views of the interplay between language and power. De Lauretis argues that a rhetoric of violence presupposes that some kind of discursive representation is at work not only in the concept of violence, but in the social practices of violence as well. That representation is indicative of the relations of power, the socio-political tensions, and the agendas of different forces interlocked in the fight for the preservation or the subversion of the power structure. This study has shown how African writers such as Alex Laguma, Sony Labou Tansi, and Ken Saro Wiwa have dramatized the interplay between power and discourse. ^ Besides the rhetoric of violence, I have focussed on the ethics of violence using Mark Ledbetter's concept of the ethics of reading as a theoretical framework. Ledbetter argues that literary text itself as an embodied event reveals an ethic of its making through writing and reading. Within the text, according to Ledbetter, the disruption of the masterplot is another form of violence that subverts the marginalization and the victimization of the powerless. Such violence is revealed through examination of violations imposed on the characters' bodies within the text. Such an ethic of reading has an ear for the body that may be, according to Ledbetter, the moment of certainty in the narrative when the weapon that causes victimization is revealed. Wounds and scars become the etiology that reveals the ills of society. Therefore, they initiate the process leading to knowledge and action that awaken the victims to the possibility of better worlds. The body metaphor becomes an ethic when it seeks to know and to describe what it means for the body to be wounded, physically and emotionally. Therefore, the violence in itself is not the ethical centerpiece. Instead, it is how the victim uses the violence to outdo the violators that is the true ethical moment. Drawing examples from the works of Alex Laguma, Sony Labou Tansi, and Nawal El Sa'dawi, this study has shown how the violence inflicted to the body leads to awareness, resistance, and a form of transcendence. ^