This article discusses the chronotope of humanitarian emergencies in realist fiction. Novels that depict the effects of prolonged and extreme insecurity often include improbable figures, characters in which they invest a hope for the future and who are presented as inventive improvisers of the new. Characters such as Toloki in Zakes Mda's Ways of Dying (1995), Ahl in Nuruddin Farah's Crossbones (2011), and Kotchikpa, the boy narrator in Uwem Akpan's “Fattening for Gabon” (2008), each navigate a terrain of insecurity to improbable ends. They challenge us to rethink our assumptions about historical contingency and how they operate in realist texts. The narrative model of emergency devised by such novels has antecedents in articulations of the improbable in canonical theorists of realism such as Georg Lukács, Fredric Jameson, and Njabulo S. Ndebele. The novelists' embrace of a realist aesthetics stages a critique of key assumptions of the narratives of emergency, which place the victims in an overly determined condition where meaningful action is impossible. The works of Mda, Farah, and Akpan restore historical agency to characters who experience extreme insecurity and provoke us to think anew about our readerly expectations for typicality and the quotidian.
Improbable Figures: Realist Fictions of Insecurity in Contemporary African Fiction
eleni coundouriotis is professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Connecticut, where she also directs the Research Program on Humanitarianism at the Human Rights Institute. She is author of Claiming History: Colonialism, Ethnography and the Novel (1999) and The People's Right to the Novel: War Fiction in the Postcolony (2014). Her current project, “Making It Real,” focuses on the tension between demands for authenticity in human rights narratives and the expectation that they adhere to a realist aesthetic.
Eleni Coundouriotis; Improbable Figures: Realist Fictions of Insecurity in Contemporary African Fiction. Novel 1 August 2016; 49 (2): 236–261. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00295132-3509003
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