Historical Fiction and the Postcolonial, Transnational Condition

By Maya Aghasi
Submitted to Session P4998 (Disillusionment, Ambivalence, and Narrations of the Self, 2017 Annual Meeting
All Middle East;
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Having suffered the fate of erasure, postcolonial, transnational writing resurrects historical figures, saving their lives through narrative from oblivion. Works as diverse as Leila Aboulela’s The Kindness of Enemies, Maryse Condé’s Moi, Tituba, socière, Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account, Samia Serageldin’s The Naquib’s Daughter, and Toni Morrison’s Beloved are examples of this distinct type of historical fiction that challenges “the intentional or unintentional racism of the historians that we shall never know” (Condé, Historical Note to Moi, Tituba, socière).

Although these narratives convey vastly different colonial contexts and experiences, the problems of historiography and erasure recur, as do themes of migration, enslavement, and healing. Considering such texts as distinctly postcolonial, transnational historical writing, questions regarding not only the truths the narratives tell, but their broader implications about a postcolonial, transnational condition can be raised.

Such historical fiction is an “aesthetic response to the cultural significance of history in societies established on the bases of colonial occupation—places where memories of past violence fissure the imagined community, and as such, become subject to contestation” (Dalley 10). In other words, they point to a crisis in truth and in the claims of History on the ownership (the French propre better encompasses the notion) of nations, states, and societies.

In spite of this, these narratives do not make a claim to historical veracity. In fact, they assert that the characters and their experiences are entirely fictional. Although based on historical figures and events, they offer instead what one writer of historical fiction calls “existential veracity” (Dalley and Wilson 138).
What, then, is the work of existential veracity and what could it mean for postcolonial, transnational subjects? What is the claim of existential veracity on community and belonging? Can these narratives do the work of atonement and healing? Can it be argued that these imaginative texts speak to a more global, postcolonial condition, unraveling first the privileged stability that takes for granted a home that is at the center and second the violent modern compulsion (demand?) for identity and return to an elsewhere?

Works Cited

Dalley, Hamish. The Postcolonial Historical Novel: Realism, Allegory, and the Representation of contested Pasts. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Dalley, Hamish and Rohan Wilson. “In Defense of ‘the Lesser Cousin of History’: An Interview with Rohan Wilson.” ariel: A Review of International English Literature. Vol. 45, no. 4, Oct. 2014, pp. 133-150.