Subject and History in Selected Works by Abdulrazak Gurnah, Yvonne Vera, and David Dabydeen

University dissertation from Universitetsbiblioteket, Karlstad University Press

Abstract: This study is concerned with subject formation in the fiction of contemporary postcolonial authors Abdulrazak Gurnah, Yvonne Vera, and David Dabydeen. In contextualised readings of a total of nine works – Gurnah’s Admiring Silence (1996), By the Sea (2001), and Desertion (2005); Vera’s Without a Name (1996), Butterfly Burning (1998), and The Stone Virgins (2002); Dabydeen’s Disappearance (1993), Turner (1994), and A Harlot’s Progress (1999) – it explores thematic and formal aspects of the subject’s constitution in the texts. Investigating the representation of material and discursive traces that constitute the individual, this study has a double aim. First, it describes the particular historical formations that mould the individual in the different texts. Second, it investigates the tactics used to imaginatively upset these formations in order to present new and more enabling modes of being.Gurnah’s fiction depicts the intricate meshwork of social codes, emotions, and narratives that shape subjectivity in a highly unstable and cosmopolitan social reality. His novels repeatedly thematise cultural disorientation, migration, and the efforts of establishing a minimum of social and narrative stability in the form of a home. The chapter reads Gurnah’s fiction against a background of Zanzibari history and diaspora and suggests that various forms of “entanglements” paradoxically provide the means to pull the subject out of states of anxiety and alienation into more viable states of being. Vera’s novels engage a powerful Zimbabwean discourse on history, and the psychic and bodily wounds that result from its violent impact on the subject. Set at moments of special and contested historical importance, her novels address the exclusions and silences of this discourse in order both to assess its effects and the possibilities of imagining alternative versions that would allow other modes of subjectivity. These possibilities are manifested, thematically and textually, through an improvisational form of “movement,” geographical, linguistic, and musical. Dabydeen’s fiction investigates the textual dimensions of identity and its connections to larger cultural archives of tropes and languages. Focusing on the constraining yet constitutive impact of various modes of colonial and racial rhetoric, his literary texts display a manipulation of textual elements from these archives that approaches a re-conception of the subject. To describe this manipulation of English and Caribbean sources, thematised and dramatically staged in his fiction, I am using Dabydeen’s own phrase, “creative amnesia.”