Graduate student Isaac Joslin compares the real and the representative in postcolonial African literature and culture
By Isaac Joslin, Ph.D. candidate
Arriving at my current dissertation project has been a journey of trial and error, success and setbacks, enlightenment, and sometimes overwhelming obscurity. Where does it all start? I guess I like to think of myself, first, as a writer. I remember when, at age 10 or 11, lying on the cool cement floor of my family home in Bouna, a remote town in northern Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), I would spend hours filling up notebook pages with pencil scratch to describe what I imagined a normal American boy’s life to be like. This imaginary life was in part a projection of what I remembered of my childhood from the time before my parents travelled as missionaries to Africa, and in part a fantasy fabricated from TV shows that I had seen or books that I read, but for me it became reality. The characters, the setting, and the story were as much a part of my worldview as Shakespeare, Steinbeck, or the nightly news. That question—what is real, what is representation—is what has fueled my research on a baroque aesthetic practice in post-independence African politics and literature.
That question started taking shape in my first year as a Ph.D. candidate in French studies at the University of Minnesota, in a seminar on Renaissance and Baroque poetry with Professor Alan K. Smith. When Professor Smith, to promote my development as a young scholar, urged me to look for connections between the course topic and my chosen research field of postcolonial studies, I thought, “This is certainly suicide.” From my experiences as an M.A. student, la francophonie and the early modern baroque, classical, and neo-classical traditions seemed as disparate as night and day. Yet I took to the task, and although the project sometimes seemed to have more promise than definition, it marked the first steps in an exciting and innovative dissertation project on postcolonial African literature and culture. In my research project for that seminar, I wanted to explain how the baroque is a concept that resists definition, a mode of seeing and being in the world and in time, which is always somehow incomplete, shifting or otherwise beyond our reach, even though it is only perceptible in its overwhelming totality. Although the 19th-century art historians could think of the baroque only in purely negative terms as a degenerate classicism (perhaps as a way to keep their own fin de siècle at bay), I came to see that the bizarre cultural and aesthetic ambiguities of the baroque characterize almost all times and spaces of the globe since that fin de siècle. My intellectual adventure with the baroque has led me to examine some of the disciplinary, aesthetic, and cultural categories that frame how we study French and francophone literature.
Today, I am approaching Africa, reconstructed from my fading memories and the works of contemporary writers and scholars who in their own way have identified different qualities and characteristics in post-independence African art and politics that can be considered baroque. In particular, my research focuses on the ways that the spectacular demonstrations of political power, so prevalent in many postcolonial states, are indicative of a baroque mentality where life and theater, reality and representation, blur into a fantastic and often terrifying ambiguity. Yet the baroque fictional worlds of postcolonial writers resemble the real world, often referring to real events or places. Their parodies of authority (much like Molière’s farces) subvert the power structure by showing the art of representation that ratifies any given reality.