In J.M. Coetzee's "The Novel in Africa," Elizabeth Costello claims that Egudu and all African novelists “perform [their] Africanness at the same time as [they] write.” How can one “perform”...

In J.M. Coetzee's "The Novel in Africa," Elizabeth Costello claims that Egudu and all African novelists “perform [their] Africanness at the same time as [they] write.” How can one “perform” an aspect of one’s identity, such as nationality, race, or gender?

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durbanville | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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J M Coetzee is a South African - born novelist who has lived, studied and worked in South Africa, the US, the UK and Australia.  He tries to share the message of how oppression, be it colonial, civil, racial and so on, affects everyone's lives. He does not write from a political perspective, being purposefully apolitical, for which he has been criticized.

The Novel in Africa is a short story set on a ship bound for Antarctica and based on a fictional writer Elizabeth Costello. The basis of the story revolves around Emmanuel Egudu, a Nigerian lecturer and novelist and Elizabeth Costello, writer, lecturer and the story's main character. The two prepare a lecture or lesson concerning the true meaning of regional literature and what it means to reach a local audience by debating works by mainly (Black) Africans, including Egudu himself.

According to Egudu, Africans have a colorful and vivid history of storytelling through time and, as such, present a personalized and therefore,"regional," form of literature. He is aware that others will argue that Africans do not write their stories down for other Africans but for a European audience. This obviously changes the essence of any story as it is seen from a westernized perspective.

Egudu's protestations reveal his own prejudices and colonialist influence as he thus contributes to and allows for stereotypes to be perpetuated. He argues against these so-called "African" writers being more "French writers of African origin” who write for a foreign audience in a foreign language (French). This distorts the picture in Egudu's view, suggesting that there has been some "exchange" between cultures which he strongly resists.

In establishing whether African novelists are regional or global writers, Elizabeth Costello remarks that the "root of the problem" is the fact that African writers have to explain to "outsiders" what their world is all about; in other words, "Having to perform your Africanness at the same time as you write." This, in her view gives any "novel in Africa" a global stamp while at the same time creating a problem as creating an "African" novel thus cannot be done "at the deepest level."

What Costello means then is that, although "Africanness" exists, even in literature, it is not possible to transfer this to a truly "African" novel as "mutual understanding" does not exist between cultures.   

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