If one were obliged to pick among M.G. Vassanji’s texts a work that best exemplifies a post-Manichean aesthetics, it would have to be The Book of Secrets. In this novel that spans the period just before the First World War and the late eighties, Vassanji challenges some of the ways in which colonialism in East Africa has been imagined. At one level, the novel dramatizes the conflicting and confusing loyalties demanded by the Germans and the British and the shifts in allegiance required as one moved across what were deemed by locals are arbitrary boundaries. At another level, rather than seeing colonialism as an unmediated conflict between the white colonizers and the black colonized, Vassanji insists on turning his focus on the presence of Indian communities in East Africa. Instead of reading the white colonizers (both German and British) as a monolithic body of oppressors, Vassanji seeks to differentiate between them and to articulate for his readers what Frederick Cooper and Ann Laura Stoler were soon to label the “tensions of empire.” Further, by telling stories of illicit and sometimes unfulfilled sexual desires – between colonizers and colonized, between a Shamsi woman and a Hindu man, between a married man and an unmarried woman, between a teacher and a student, between men – Vassanji seeks to unearth the complex negotiations between sexual consent and coercion on the one hand and freedom and regulation on the other. In the process, I argue, Vassanji creates a vision of postcoloniality that is more in keeping with the inevitable resilience of the “maps of Englishness” that Simon Gikandi has so eloquently written about, than the rejectionist models of an earlier, more determined anti-colonialism.
About the presenter:
Gaurav Desai is Professor of English and has a joint appointment in the Program of African and African Diaspora Studies at Tulane University. Author of Subject to Colonialism: African Self-fashioning and the Colonial Library (Duke University Press, 2001) and editor of Teaching the African Novel (MLA, 2009) he has guest edited a volume of essays on “Culture and the Law” (South Atlantic Quarterly, 100.4, 2001), on "Actually Existing Colonialisms" (Journal of Contemporary Thought, 24, 2006), on “Asian African Literatures” (Research in African Literatures, 42.3, 2011), and co-edited a volume of essays on “Multi-Ethnic Literatures and the Idea of Social Justice” (MELUS, 28.1, Spring 2003). Postcolonialisms: An Anthology of Cultural Theory and Criticism (Rutgers University Press, 2005) which he co-edited with Supriya Nair has become a standard reference and classroom text since its publication. Among Desai's other publications are articles in edited collections and journals such as PMLA, Genders, Representations, Boundary2, Interventions, Research in African Literatures, African Studies Review and Cultural Critique. Recipient of a residential fellowship at the National Humanities Center in 2001, Desai has also been awarded a Rockefeller Foundation award for a residency at the Bellagio Center in Italy, a visiting fellowship at the Center for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and the Humanities at Cambridge University, and an ACLS Burkhardt Fellowship for his research. In 2004, Desai was made a life member of Clare Hall, Cambridge University. His latest book on narratives of Indian Ocean connections between Africa and India, Commerce with the Universe: Africa, India and the Afrasian Imagination has been published by Columbia University Press in 2013.