In At Penpoint: African Literatures, Postcolonial Studies, and the Cold War (Duke, 2020), Monica Popescu traces the development of African literature during the second half of the twentieth century to address the intertwined effects of the Cold War and decolonization on literary history. Essays in this forum are authored by Kerry Bystrom, Elizabeth M. Holt, Lauren Horst, Mathias Iroro Orhero, Carolyn Ownbey, Monica Popescu, Jini Kim Watson, and Mingqing Yuan.
At Penpoint: African Literatures, Postcolonial Studies, and the Cold War
Book Forum Essays
“Postcolonial studies and Cold War scholarship treat contemporaneous cultural phenomena, yet they have seldom crossed paths.” This astute observation forms the starting point for Monica Popescu’s recent monograph, At Penpoint: African Literatures, Postcolonial Studies, and the Cold War (2020).
Surprisingly little critical work has been done on the intersection of oil and Arabic literature, despite the centrality of the carbon economy to the region’s history. Amitav Ghosh coined the phrase “petrofiction” in a review of Saudi writer Abd al-Rahman Munif’s Cities of Salt in 1992, principally to mark the dearth of novels about oil despite its ubiquity in our lives.
Monica Popescu’s At Penpoint: African Literatures, Postcolonial Studies, and the Cold War invites us to rethink the place of African literature in the context of the Cold War. Based on the premise that the superpowers—the West and Eastern bloc—held African cultural productions at “penpoint” through competing imperialisms and aesthetic systems, Popescu explores the intricacies, aesthetic alliances, and non-alignment that are reflected in the artistic commitments of African writers.
Analyzing African literature through a Cold War lens nuances both objects of study, adding layers of complexity to an already overwrought sociopolitical landscape in Africa, and complicating the presumed clear-cut ideological (and often geographical) Cold War binary. Modeling such a theoretical approach, Monica Popescu’s At Penpoint provides a framework for understanding the legacies of the Cold War in postcolonial studies — including its watermark on current methodologies and modalities of thinking.
Ama Ata Aidoo’s 1977 novel Our Sister Killjoy is often remembered as a novel about the harrowing legacy of colonialism and, in the postcolonial moment, the perils of neocolonialism. The novel follows a young woman from Ghana, named Sissie, as she travels to Europe for the first time. As a protagonist, Sissie is almost singularly focused on the many ways in which colonialism has tightly bound “Africa” to “Europe,” reshaping the continent’s economic system, its governmental structures, its language, and even its culinary tastes around that (and those) of the colonizer.
Monica Popescu’s new book brings postcolonial studies under the “Cold War lens” to examine the latter’s buried traces in African cultural productions. It goes beyond the Cold War binary to emphasize African writers’ autonomy and creativity in search for literary aesthetics. Even though it mentions fleetingly some African writers’ engagements with Afro-Asian associations, however, it does not go deep into Africa’s “writing with” Asia and Latin America.
Monica Popescu’s At Penpoint: African Literatures, Postcolonial Studies, and the Cold War brilliantly diagnoses the fragmentation of postcolonial studies and Cold War studies, showing how the former has often only attended to neocolonial relations of the Third World to the West, and ignored “the competition between Western and Eastern Bloc forms of imperialism.” Focusing specifically on the effects on African literature during the Cold War, the book ends with several profound questions for scholarship more generally: “what if the knowledge paradigms specific to the global conflict linger on, shaping the intellectual instruments we use to explain literary phenomena today?
In 2000, at the turn of the millennium, Aijaz Ahmad published an article that looks back at Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’s “The Communist Manifesto” through the prism of its engagement with the concept of “world literature.” At the time of his writing the article, world literature as a field was taking off with renewed energy, after waxing and waning in popularity since the nineteenth century.