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Review of Writing Madness: Borderlines of the body in African literature


By Jane Plastow

Writing Madness: Borderlines of the body in African literature. Flora Veit-Wild. Oxford: James Currey, 2006, 174pp, ISBN 0 85255 583 0

Critical writing on African literature is still often single author, country or time based; it is therefore pleasing to see a book that is topic led, looking at madness in African literature, and particularly at how that madness is often expressed through portrayals of grotesque, excessive or abused bodies. Having said this Veit-Wild’s book does often read like a collection of essays loosely held together by a series of interests, including women and gender, anthropology and surrealism, alongside madness and the body, which gives it a rather uncomfortable bagginess. It becomes something of a portmanteau, full of items of interest that don’t always sit comfortably together.

At the centre of Writing Madness are three exciting chapters on Dambudzo Marechera, Lesego Rampolokeng and Sony Labou Tansi. Veit-Wild sees these three experimental writers as emerging from the surrealist tradition she discusses in chapter three which so engaged the Francophone poets, Senghor, Cesaire and Tchicaya U Tam’si. The post-colonial writers use language in a far more grotesque, scatological, even monstrous manner than their surrealist forbears but Marechera explains. “If one is living in an abnormal society, then only abnormal expression can express that society”. (89) Veit-Wild discusses the writers’ rejection of the ‘African writer’ label as they draw on a Bakhtinian “carnivalisation of language” (94), at the same time that their production is profoundly influenced by the ‘madness’ of the particular postcolonial societies that they find themselves in, full of Ubuesque dictators in love with violence and sexual excess. Veit-Wild is particularly good on analysis of poetry, though she also examines Marchera and Labou Tansi’s novels in some detail. Sadly these writers’ prolific theatrical production and the theatricality of Rampolokeng’s performance poetry is scarcely mentioned. I do wonder why so many literary critics continue to fail to engage with drama.

Even within these chapters there is some unease as to focus. We are told that Veit-Wild is interested in how madness is written, not in the possible insanity of the writer, but she gives the reader considerable detail about Marechera’s struggles with sanity. She also tells us a fascinating story of how his mother apparently cursed the young Dambudzo as a child, and analyses how his poetry is similar to some scatological Shona initiation poetry, but apart from saying that Marechera himself rejected identification with his African heritage she then fails to engage with these issues she herself has raised. The ambivalence of the positioning of these writers in relation to African and world literature is never satisfactorily interrogated.

The first two chapters of Writing Madness are heavily anthropological. Veit-Wild looks at how colonialists saw African bodies as ‘distorted’, as in the disgusting exploitation of Sarah Baartman, the ‘Hottentot Venus’ who became the object of prurient fascination when she was exhibited in the Europe in the early nineteenth century. She goes on to examine how Africans were seen as infantile and necessarily inferior at this time. Chapter two somewhat strangely concentrates almost entirely on the relationship of a white South African psychoanalyst with a local healer in the 1930s. Wulf Sachs, the psychoanalyst, appears to have projected his wishes on to his subject, and I suppose this relates to Veit-Wild’s point about colonists seeing only what they wished to in African subjects, but no clear bridge is then laid for the subsequent analysis of madness in African literature. Certainly I feel uneasy with the apparently casual and unexplored linking of the surrealist form to madness that then follows.

The final section of this book moves on to study three women novelists; Bessie Head, Rebecca Njau and Tsitsi Dangerembga. Chapter eight looks at how women’s bodies can become the site of their madness because they have control over little else in their lives. The sections on Head’s A Question of Power and Dangerembga’s Nervous Conditions seemed to me over-brief, simply picking up a few points that neatly fitted into Veit-Wild’s interest in relating these writers to more anthrolopology; in this case relating them to an idea of ‘stray’ women; that is women who became outcasts because they could not fit in to their societies. However the section on Njau’s Ripples in the Pool, though also brief, was a welcome inclusion of a writer often neglected in contemporary criticism. The final chapter looks at Dangerembga’s film, Kare Kare Zvako, based on a folktale about a woman killed by her lazy husband in order to provide him with food in a time of famine. Madness is not a focus at all here, rather Veit-Wild links the film to Nervous Conditions, arguing that both are concerned with food, women’s bodies and male exploitation.

These is much of interest in Writing Madness and the central section on the surrealist poets of the grotesque brings voices from Francophone and Southern Africa into fascinating dialogue. Veit-Wild concentrates throughout on these two regions with some additional references to East Africa. The work on women writers seems to me too cursory to do more than look at a few points about how women, as opposed to the men previously focused on, see their often exploited bodies. The anthropology often throws up entertaining nuggets of information, but Africa is huge continent and the particular examples chosen have been rather arbitrarily selected and are not by any means fully integrated into the text as a whole.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 69 (2007), pp. 73-74]

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