Mami on Goyal, 'Runaway Genres'
Reviewed by Fouad Mami (University of Adrar) Published on H-Migration (February, 2021) Commissioned by Nicholas B. Miller (Flagler College)
Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=55536
Mami on Goyal, 'Runaway Genres' (2019)
Right from its title, Runaway Genres leaves no illusion that it is an investigation into a booming form of narrative in the book market. A literary scholar of impressive credentials, Yogita Goyal underlines how escapes from captivity are rarely a straightforward account. When considered against geostrategic contexts that are decisive in publication, circulation, and reception, a given novel, poem, or play deploying the trope of slavery often follows a preexisting template that, more often than not, questions easy claims on freedom, dignity, or historical justice. The book's introduction invests the reader in locating runaway narratives in unexpected corners of the literary spectrum. As a powerful trope shaping the production of contemporary culture, runaway works of fiction create a sort of rite of passage, ensuring literary fame, if not, stardom. Still, not all that glitters is gold. Goyal's obliging study dives into the jungle otherwise called "runaway genres" and comes out with an arresting mapping of the field. She distinguishes the sentimental, the gothic, satire, revisionism, and diaspora, dedicating a chapter to each. The ordering is hierarchal, without being chronological. With revisionism and diaspora at the top, Goyal outlines the formula for truly insurrectional works: those books that promise overall societal freedom in the guise of a runaway.
Chapter 1, then, considers sentimental modern slavery novels. Goyal's prose implies that works written in the sentimental mood are understandably the cheapest in the scale deploying the runaway subtext. This is so because the analogy to slavery is often forced or just lacking. These stories' construction around preexisting models put forth by mid-nineteenth-century abolitionists drag inattentive readers to overlook historical contexts between, say, challenges in present-day Sudan, Mauritania, or Uganda and the experiences of actual slaves in the American South during antebellum times. That insensitivity to historical contexts risks anesthetizing audiences to the nuances of present injustices, which can only be addressed through rigorous historicism. Perhaps more worrying is the scandalizing tone and overall shaming schemes on which neo-abolitionists base their strategies of story making. To make such books marketable for middle-class American audiences, editorial skills by the White patrons of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) ensure the sanitization of the final output. Sentimental runaway novels are multi-million-dollar endeavors, carefully tailored to match the liberal expectations dominating the US book industry.
For an illustration, Goyal finds that the neo-slave narrative drives readers into tears, but those tears—she notes—are of a misguided sublimity, functioning often as a substitute for subtle understandings and comparisons. When lifting the element of thoughtful reasoning, the tears urge the audience to act idiotically. Liberal outrage despises attention to the real mechanics of power (le rapport des forces productives), where cases of slavery, exploitation, or inequality are allegedly rampant. In the case of Dave Eggers's What Is the What? (2006), Goyal notes a blatant disregard for important details, such as the British colonial policy of divide and rule or neocolonial disputes over fertile lands. Thus, the reader ends with a simplistic storyline that the NGOs' benefactors approve, which in the meantime, capitalizes on Africans' vulnerability. Readers will get false self-satisfaction by simply signing a petition, donating a small amount, or indulging in a given commodity on the ground that part of the profit goes for the cause of the vulnerable. Consumption, the very material that fuels the exploitation or vulnerability-confused-as-slavery, remains untouched; it often encroaches further.
Chapter 2, titled "Gothic: The Child Soldier Genre," carries on the critical stance started in chapter 1, vis-à-vis the abolitionist template, showcasing where it works and where it misses. Prima facie, Goyal does not blame the gothic as a genre. Like other literary modes of expression, the gothic can be very useful in zooming in on unspeakable horrors in the contemporary world. The trouble, however, as the author cleverly notes, is how the gothic becomes manipulated for sentimental effects, making the genre capitalism-friendly, that is, at home with private property and consumption. Meanwhile, African authors embracing this mode of expression often adopt the figure of the child soldier to match the contradictory image: savage on the one hand and innocent-but-forced to commit atrocities on the other. The biased image is becoming the darling of NGOs and human rights militants, who are often in the service of neo-imperialists. Again, gothic portrayals of child soldiers encourage readers to be oblivious of historical contexts. They engrave in Western audiences the bias that Africans are inherently unfit for self-rule, regretting, as it were, political decolonization since African forms of polity degenerate, showcasing barbaric scales of violence. What else do US Empire builders desire to see rampant via the proliferation of stories in the gothic genre, but failed states that validate their interventionist policies, which they can sell as selfless humanitarian undertakings?
Chapter 3 underlines how satire has recently become a genre for the slavery subtext. Here, the author focuses on how often certain African American authors reject sentimentalism—reject even the seriousness usually involved in race conversations. Writers in the satire mode prefer to see Blackness on a par with Whiteness: a pathology, the sooner that is dispensed with, the better. Hence, they expand on irony, farce, and satire to outline what they presume to be a radical stance from the civil rights era's rhetoric and type of engagement. The two figureheads for such a mode of expression are Colson Whitehead and Percival Everett. While expectedly informative and meticulous, post-Black authors' imaginative output may give readers a hard time connecting it with the preexisting template of slavery narratives of mid-nineteenth-century America. Likewise, is fiction written in the satirical mode exclusively African American, whereas the gothic and sentimental are African? How about the Ghanaian Ayi Kwei Armah and other master ironists (like Kamel Daoud, Alaa Al-Aswany, or Chigozie Obioma, to name but a few) from Africa? Still, with satire, it becomes easy to note a shift from the flatness of plot shaping the sentimental and the gothic to an emergent sophistication and daring in respect to the themes proposed and techniques used to pursue those themes. It remains tricky, nevertheless, to conclude that, just because post-Black neo-slave authors actively defy the repertoire of slavery, victimhood, and trauma (which they deemed saturated, boring, or limiting) and seek alternative ways to explore their humanity in the wider horizon of laughter, even derisory laughter, they subscribe willy-nilly to the preexisting template, no matter what. This sort of Hegelian negativity does not work all the time. The critic, at one or two instances in the chapter, remains unabashed to bend facts to suit her theory.
Chapter 4 takes as its task that of following mostly African American literary writings in elaborate conversations with canonical texts. Intertextuality here does not follow the logic of a simple reversal of master narratives, as is the case of, say, Chinua Achebe with Joseph Conrad or Kamel Daoud with Albert Camus, but of a generative engagement with Whites' masterpieces. Goyal's heroes in this mode are Caryl Philips and Toni Morrison, where she notes a succinct recreation of the White heroes by these two artists, but not for the sake of rewriting the canon or filling gaps. Rather, these efforts register a shared understanding of the future beyond race and gender. In respect to Morrison, Goyal's shrewd analysis renders the Nobel Laureate a saint, a Sufi, and, at times, even a prophet, for convincingly rendering Shakespeare's Othello a sort of "a black man trapped inside a white woman's body and inside the whites' envelope of the slave narrative, thus usefully disturbing rigid distinctions" (p. 147). Perhaps, the author could have saved readers an unnecessary indulgence in ventriloquism by simply outlining how Morrison refuses representation, identity politics, or the ghettoization of Africans or African Americans—or even Whites, for that matter—in prearranged categories. Representations of any race, gender, or faith undersell core humanity into marketable divisions, warring against each other, maintaining the denaturalization that always leaves the true victors of history at an advantage.
Chapter 5, "The New Diaspora," focuses on recent fiction written mainly by immigrant African authors in the US. Other critics refer to this type of writing as Afropolitan, to distinguish it from Pan-African, with 9/11 as a rough line of demarcation in between. Goyal specifically refers to NoViolet Bulawayo, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Teju Cole as representatives of this stream of new writing. The themes covered by the New Diaspora authors vary based on vulnerability, class, immigration (both documented and not), education in the US, possibilities of romance, experiences of race, relations with African Americans, etc. Goyal esteems this new fiction as more refined and exacting than, say, the fiction of first- and second-generation African authors, the likes of Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, or Ayi Kwei Armah. The distinction becomes irrefutable, because these new voices have a different agenda, or precisely because of their lack of agenda. They are deemed freer than their predecessors to probe daring questions and explore challenging forms, without presuming to instruct or even represent. Their rejection of metaphoric readings easily applicable to sociological expectations recalls the innovations of their African American brethren, discussed in chapter 4. Indeed, the chapter attributes to Cole's musings on family dysfunctionality the authority to approximate instances of failed states, contrary to the author's intention.
Goyal finds that, even when discussions over slavery and Whites' guilt seem rampant in mainstream culture, there are simply not enough translucent conversations vis-à-vis the topic, ones that would overcome what she memorably qualifies as "the massive historical disavowals and distortions" (p. 192). Shrewdly, the conclusion underlines that, even when slavery is brought up in media or film, it is often in ways to further stigmatize both Africans and African Americans, generating lasting trauma and lethargy. Perhaps more than quantity, the conversation needs quality, and quality insists on bridging the divide pertaining to both imaginative frictions and critical receptions between African Americans and diaspora Africans. Future research may want to closely consider such authors as Yaa Gyasi with Homegoing (2016), Wayétu Moor with She Would Be King (2018), and Laila Lalami with The Moor's Account (2014) for crystalizing the urgency of concerted efforts to beat historical injustices, lest they damage the collective future of people of African descent. These three authors are by no means exhaustive, but with one foot in Africa and the other in the US, their fiction is, indeed, at the next level for resonating equally with both experiences. Part of their obliging aptitude is how they render the story of slaves as revolutionaries, with intricate plans at wrecking the hard spot of the institution. Such works spell man's fundamental alienation, even, denaturalization, beginning from the Neolithic age onward, which was spearheaded by both money and the state as the principal motif behind slavery—the trope, not the template. In so doing, these new authors connect with the other quintessential slave revolt, Spartacus against Rome, claiming a universal heritage of radical insurrection well beyond race, gender, nation, or faith.
Overall, Runaway Genres enables vested readers to rethink non-informed presumptions about post-coloniality, racism, or gender. Even if she sometimes gives the impression of interrogating the consciences of the authors whose fiction she is studying, Goyal remains the literary scholar students want to emulate and—why not?—one day supersede. Her jargon-free prose is an asset, making the book stimulating well beyond academia. When discovered and its ideas fully disseminated, Runaway Genres will have far-reaching reverberations, like The Country and the City (1973) by Raymond Williams or Orientalism (1978) by Edward Said, as it will reshape literary scholarship for generations to come. Goyal asks the right set of questions; she even carefully refrains from explicitly underlaying the intensity of her chapters' engagement with the imagined slavery: that escalating involvement ranging from sentimentalism to Afropolitanism. She instructs by example, specifying the urgency to be diligent and wary of false debates taking the guise of serious scholarship.
Citation: Fouad Mami. Review of Goyal, Yogita, Runaway Genres. H-Migration, H-Net Reviews. February, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=55536This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.