Skip to main content

Review of Perceiving Pain in African Literature


By Ruth Bush

Perceiving Pain in African Literature. Zoe Norridge. Palgave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2012. Pp. 248. ISBN. 978 023036 7425 (hb). £50.

Norridge is acutely aware of the potential ethical pitfalls of studying the aesthetics of pain in African writing. An underlying dynamic of this moving book – though not articulated in overtly political or prescriptive terms – is that of response: what does literature do? And what can it make happen? In dialogue with Susan Sontag’s work on voyeurism and the commodification of suffering, Norridge is attuned to the risks of reinforcing a reductive link between a homogenised notion of the African continent and a recurrent rhetoric of suffering. As her powerful readings demonstrate, such limiting associations, which remain apparent in certain areas of human rights activism, are precisely the reason why pain requires the more nuanced theoretical framework that African literary studies, and this book in particular, might provide (p4).

Norridge provides a detailed, often compelling, engagement with the verbal expression and perception of pain in anglophone and francophone literatures from across West, Central, and Southern Africa. Her argument moves deftly between disciplinary terms of medicine, psychology, anthropology and literary studies, employing and appraising these different vocabularies through a series of close-readings. It is lucidly written and deserves a wide readership from the many academic disciplines it traverses. Throughout, pain is examined as “both emotion and sensation” (p3) in testimony, autobiography, memoir, and fiction that in turn troubles such generic distinctions.

In particular, the book’s examples seeks to challenge Elaine Scarry’s foundational conclusions in The Body in Pain (1985) that pain is associated with the loss of language on the part of the person in pain, and with a sense of doubt on the part of the person perceiving that pain. In turn, it “resists the theoretical turn towards unspeakable suffering” (p7) by showing the many varied, often disquieting, sometimes beautiful “chromatic nuances” (p10) through which writers have crafted representations of pain. Norridge argues for the need to acknowledge individuality of pain experiences, and demonstrates convincingly that literature is uniquely placed to articulate both individual and collective suffering and precipitate distinctive forms of perception. Five chapters set up a series of probing comparisons with a rarely encountered attention paid to both anglophone and francophone texts. Norridge’s translations, and occasional comment on those translations, are welcome (e.g. pp119-121), though it is regrettable that the publisher’s house-style does not also accommodate the original French texts.

Chapter One offers a suggestive exegesis of the aesthetics of pain in Yvonne Vera’s The Stone Virgins (2002). The novel’s complex fictionalisation of the Matebeland Crisis in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe highlights the form of reader response that fiction demands (p33). Norridge’s discussion of Vera’s narrative voices draws on the idea of “polythetic” description, developed in subsequent chapters. This anthropological term emphasises the lateral relationship between different voices in the text that can combine to describe “social suffering” without foreclosing characters’ individuality. Such technique never renders a smooth finish, allowing for a sense of fractured identity amid the extreme trauma described in the text.

Chapter Two proposes a comparison between Bessie Head’s Question of Power (1974) and J.M. Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K (1983) that interrogates the Western philosophical underpinnings of perceiving pain, notably the Cartesian duality between mind and body. Again the subtleties of narrative voice suggest, resist and blur such binaries. The neurological term “somatisation” (p65) is introduced to refer to the slippage that occurs between mind and body in the experience of pain under apartheid.

Chapter Three extends the cultural and social attribution of meaning to pain through the analysis of representations of excision in seven francophone African texts. The analysis of “pain meanings” offers a helpful conceptual pathway along which to unpick the homogenised ways in which pain is often perceived in relation to an equally reductive idea of Africa. Ahmadou Kourouma’s Les Soleils des indépendances (1968) is set alongside less well-known texts by Mamadou Samb, Abdoulaye Ndiaye and Khady. The distinctions drawn evoke some shared motifs while emphasising narrative construction as a potential salve in itself, since it offers opportunity to create new personal pain meanings (p117). The discussion of Khady’s Mutilée is particularly striking as it raises the question of writer’s agendas. The reception of “campaign literature”, as Norridge advocates, remains an important area for future research.

Chapter Four moves to the realm of mass suffering, centring its examples of literary responses to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Texts include: two Rwandan memoirs: Yolande Mukagasana’s autobiographical La mort ne veut pas de moi (1997), Marie Béatrice Umutesi’s Fuir ou mourir au Zaïre, and texts by Véronique Tadjo and Boubacar Boris Diop. The chapter argues that such works resist and upset the dominant, dehumanising narratives of identity that lead to genocide in the first place – disrupting “a discourse of genocidal logic” (p140) by focusing on “the complex individual” at the centre of the pain experience.

The final chapter explores the matter of our individual and collective response, as writers and/or readers, to the perception of pain. The examples in this chapter are: Aminatta Forna’s The Memory of Love, Antjie Krog’s Country of My Skull and James Orbinski’s An Imperfect Offering. Alongside a nuanced discussion of ideas of healing, Norridge admits that: “the relevance of human rights and the aspirational impact of the field on contemporary society have proved more and more appealing for humanities scholars seeking to contextualise the value of their own work in a world of decreasing academic funding and increasing accountability” (p170). Though she accepts that “concrete outcomes are not the focus of my research here” (p169), she is nonetheless concerned with the invitations to action and empathy proffered by her chosen examples, and how those invitations might operate among different readerships. Norridge suggests that literary constructions can extend an invitation to a Levinasian interpersonal encounter that forms the basis for shared humanity (p208), a conclusion that should encourage further research on the reception of human rights literature.

An eloquent epilogue develops the book’s engagement with the substantial body of Memory Studies that has developed over the past fifteen years, often informed by the language of Freudian psychoanalysis. The shift to considering sites of memorialisation indicates the book’s openness to other media forms. This may be another way in which the evidently productive linking of literature and human rights can be diverted from a primary concern with justifying the study of literature in the current academic climate, to the deeper engagement with its underlying theoretical and practical questions.

Perceiving Pain in African Literature benefits from Norridge’s ability to weave perceptively between detailed analysis of literary aesthetics and sensitive attention to the historical, cultural and political contexts that differentiate her examples. She is clear that human rights is not an uncontested discourse, given its tendency to favour “a one-sided critique of developing countries by scholars and activists based in Europe and the US” (p213). She thus admits that human rights stories are inscribed within a global power structure, without hinging her argument on describing, accounting for, or directly challenging that power structure. Instead, our attention is subtly directed to the many individual ways in which pain, and at times a corresponding call for action, can be articulated and perceived in literary creation, as well as to the conflicted ethical impulse that motivates literary research as an endeavour.

Reviewed by: Ruth Bush, University of Westminster.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 75 (Winter 2013/14), pp. 107-110]

Article keywords:

Article Categories: