Spelling Lessons: Writing and Speech in African Magical Realism
English Department Lecture by Dr Graham Riach, University of Amsterdam/University of Oxford.
African authors have long been wary of the term ‘magical realism’, seeing in it a suggestion of belatedness in relation to Latin American literature, and a lack of awareness that magical realism’s defining features have always been present in African orature and writing. However, this suspicion may be misplaced. The product of the encounter between African writing, oral forms, and magical realism is not simply classifiable under a pre-existing rubric of magical realism, but rather constitutes a performative alteration of magical realism as a discursive category. In particular, African magical realism’s freakish figures and logical extravagances draw attention to the naturalisation of ‘capitalist realism’ – Mark Fisher’s term for a sense that no coherent alternative to capitalism can be imagined. It does this not through diametrical opposition, but rather by rivalling capitalism’s grotesque disfigurements and abnormalities, and so revealing their shared irrational premises. The alternative ways of knowing and being offered by magical realism can actively intervene in the epistemological paradigms of the west (and the non-west), and in so doing contribute to the cultural politics of postcolonialism more broadly, which, in Robert Young’s words, ‘seeks to change the way people think, the way they behave, to produce a more just and equitable relation between the different peoples of the world’.
Graham Riach is a Departmental Lecturer in World Literature at the University of Oxford, and a Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Amsterdam. While finishing one project – Short Change: Writing and Politics in the Post-Apartheid Short Story – he is developing two others: Disconsolate Forms: Postcolonial Aesthetics and Global Narratives of Ageing. His teaching and research interests range from 19th-Century imperial Britain to 21st-Century Africa, India, the Caribbean, and elsewhere. His published work includes book chapters in Cambridge Critical Concepts: Magical Realism (forthcoming) and The 1960s: A Decade of Contemporary British Fiction (2018), and journal articles in the Journal of Commonwealth Literature and Journal of Southern African Studies.
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