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“Our Forces Have Redoubled”: World Literature, Postcolonialism, and the Afro-Asian Writers’ Bureau

  • Duncan M. Yoon (a1)

Although most all contemporary studies of China and Africa focus on current economic or foreign policy concerns, this article provides a preliminary mapping of Africa-China cultural exchanges during the Cold War. Growing out of the Africa-Asia Conference of Bandung, Indonesia, in 1955, the Afro-Asian Writers Bureau forged third world solidarities via an alternative conception of postcolonialism based on the transnationalism of global South cultural struggle. By analyzing the cultural exchanges of the bureau, and in particular their definition of world literature, this article seeks to move beyond postcolonial scholarship that focuses exclusively on a vertical relationship between the colonizer and colonized. In so doing, it both reinterprets the Cold War from outside of an American and Soviet dichotomy and provides a critical cultural historicization to China’s current, and often controversial, presence in Africa.

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1 The poem is published under his previous name, George Awoonor-Williams. At the time of writing, word came of his death during the September 21, 2013, attacks at the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya.

2 Awoonor-Williams, George, “The Black Eagle Awakens,Afro-Asian Poems; Anthology. (Colombo: Afro-Asian Writers’ Bureau, 1965), 2.

3 Ibid., 45. Also, see Léopold Sédar Senghor’s 1956 poem “Chaka,” in his collection Éthiopiques. The poem appropriates the Zulu leader as a symbol for anticolonial pan-Africanism and serves as a textual precedent for Awoonor’s usage.

4 Please see Rossen Djagalov, “The People’s Republic of Letters: Towards a Media History of Twentieth-Century Socialist Internationalism.” PhD thesis, Yale University, 2011.

5 I use the term postcolonialism in reference to Ato Quayson’s usage in his Introduction to The Cambridge History of Postcolonial Literature: “Despite the designation of postcolonialism as a field of discursive practices as opposed to the temporal supersession of colonialism, the collective attempt to outline a literary history of postcolonial writing foregrounds certain conceptual and methodological difficulties for the elaboration of such a history. The time and inception of the colonial and how they are understood as process as opposed to singular ruptures is decisive for both determining the literary writing that is taken to fall under the rubric of postcolonialism and the criticism that sees itself as doing justice to such writing.” Quayson, Ato, The Cambridge History of Postcolonial Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 6.

6 See, in particular, Lee, Christopher, Making a World after Empire: The Bandung Moment and Its Political Afterlives (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2010).

7 Asian-African Conference. Selected Documents of the Bandung Conference; Texts of Selected Speeches and Final Communique of the Asian-African Conference, Bandung, Indonesia, April 18–24, 1955 (New York: Distributed by the Institute of Pacific Relations, 1955), 31.

8 Ibid., 21.

9 Pan-Asian solidarity emphatically fell apart with the Sino-Indian border war in 1962. The bureau’s solidarity was from the beginning fraught with the parochialism of Cold War national interest, which would come to a head with the Sino-Soviet split. The bureau would often serve as a public forum for this and other jingoistic polemics. As such, one of the tangential concerns of this article is to ask whether China, through the rhetoric of third world solidarity, was and is in the process of what John G. Ikenberry has called “international order building.” See Ikenberry After Victory (London: A. Melrose, 2001).

10 Wright, Richard. The Colour Curtain, a Report on the Bandung Conference. (London: D. Dobson, 1956), 138.

11 China’s role in the AAPSO and its relationship to the United Nations has always been a contentious issue. Although speaking more as it concerns the contemporary context, the Comaroffs put it well as they describe the fraught demarcation between the global North and South: “[...] if brute economic development is the primary criterion, where are we to place those powerhouses to which we keep returning [like] China, which greatly profits from playing in the interstices between worlds. And has interpolated itself into both north and south without being truly either, all the while promising, some time off into the future, to alter the political economy, and the geo-sociology, of the entire planet.” See Comaroff, Jean, and Comaroff, John L.. Theory from the South: Or, How Euro-America Is Evolving toward Africa (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2012), 46.

12 When working within the history of “failures,” especially as it concerns the 1960s, Fredric Jameson’s remarks in the opening of his essay “Periodizing the 60s” seem appropriate: “Nostalgic commemoration of the glories of the 60s or abject public confession of the decade’s many failures and missed opportunities are two errors which cannot be avoided by some middle path that threads its way in between. The following sketch starts from the position that History is necessity, that the 60s had to happen the way it did, and that its opportunities and failures were inextricably intertwined, marked by the objective constraints and openings of a determinate historical situation [...].” See Fredric Jameson, “Periodizing the 60s,” Social Text 9/10 (1984): 178.

13 Césaire and Wright were already a part of a team of collaborators at Présence Africaine. As such, much of thinking regarding these questions was of a fundamentally collective nature.

14 Césaire, Aimé, “Letter to Maurice Thorez,Social Text 103 (2010): 147.

15 Ibid., 150.

16 For the ramifications of Maoism in the American context please see Robin D. G. Kelley’s “Black Like Mao” Afro Asia: Revolutionary Political and Cultural Connections between African Americans and Asian Americans, eds. Fred W. Ho and Bill Mullen (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008).

17 Jameson, , “Periodizing,” 179.

18 Jameson, , “Periodizing,” 205.

19 Quayson makes a particularly effective case for what he calls “colonial space-making” in the introduction to The Cambridge History of Postcolonial Literature: “[...] colonial space-making is first and foremost the projection of sociopolitical relations upon a geographical space. Colonial space-making is ultimately about the distribution of social and political goods along axes of power and hierarchical relations and is the result of a series of interconnected and highly complex procedures and instruments. It is undergirded by assumptions, metaphors, and bureaucratic practices all of which interact with a given social environment to produce hegemonic relations of power. While the hegemonic relations of power and the ideas and assumptions undergirding them may be challenged, the platforms upon which the relations take shape are as much cultural and symbolic as they are political and spatial.” Quayson, Postcolonial, 16.

20 See Williams, Raymond, Marxism and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977). Print.

21 Jameson, , “Periodizing,” 188.

22 Abrams, M. H. and Harpham, Geoffrey Galt, A Glossary of Literary Terms (Boston, MA: Wadsworth/Cengage Learning, 2012), 396.

23 Wilson, Rob and Connery, Christopher Leigh, The Worlding Project: Doing Cultural Studies in the Era of Globalization (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2007), 96.

24 For a discussion on the emergence of Maoism out of a range of socialisms, including a sustained engagement with anarchism in twentieth-century China, see Arif Dirlik’s seminal work, The Origins of Chinese Communism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).

25 Some of the key primary documents and speeches by Mao are “Analysis of Classes in Chinese Society” (1926), “On Contradiction” (1937), “On Practice” (1937), “On New Democracy” (1940), and “Talks at the Yenan Forum of Literature and Art” (1942) to name a few of the most influential texts of a large and controversial corpus.

26 See, for some examples, the debate on the uses of Maoist literary and cultural theory between Senghor and Alexis at the First Congress of Black Writers in Presence Africaine (Paris: s.n., 1956), 66–83. Frantz Fanon’s 1958 article in El Moujahid included in Toward the African Revolution: Political Essays (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1967). Also, within the literary realm, the repeated references to Mao in Ngũgı̃ wa Thiong’o’s socialist realist novel, Petals of Blood (1977).

27 The AAPSO and AAWB brought together a variety of vectors, exchanges, and influences including Soviet influences, pan-Asianism, pan-Africanism, and increasingly, the influence of the tri-continental and the Cuban experience. It is not the article’s intention to deny the influence of these factors on the organization and their conception of postcolonialism, but rather to indicate the Maoist presence as a provocative but often elided part of a global South network of exchange and appropriation.

28 Afro-Asian Peoples’ Solidarity Conference. Afro-Asian Peoples Conference 26 December 1957–1 January 1958: Principal Reports Submitted to the Conference (Cairo: Permanent Secretariat, 1958), 9.

29 Ibid., 9.

30 Ibid., 9.

31 Ibid., 60.

32 Ibid., 60.

33 Permanent Bureau of Afro-Asian Writers. 1970. 12 Years, Afro-Asian Writers. (Cairo: Afro-Asian Writers’ Permanent Bureau, 1970), 23.

34 This reference to the world literature at Tashkent can be traced back to discussions at the Union of Soviet Writers Conference in 1934.

35 The long list of scholarship over the past twenty-five years includes but is not limited to Edward Said’s Orientalism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978); Charles Bernheimer’s edited volume Comparative Literature in the Age of Multiculturalism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995); Moretti’s, Franco “Conjectures on World Literature” New Left Review (January/February 2000): 5468; Damrosch’s, DavidWhat Is World Literature? (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003); Spivak’s, GayatriDeath of a Discipline (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003); Casanova’s, PascaleThe World Republic of Letters (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004); Prendergast, Christopher and Anderson’s, Benedict R. O. G.Debating World Literature (London: Verso, 2004); Dimock, Wai Chee and Buell’s, LawrenceShades of the Planet: American Literature As World Literature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007); Behdad, Ali and Thomas’s, DominicA Companion to Comparative Literature (Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011).

36 One of the key definitions of this “new humanism” is found in Fanon’s chapter “On National Culture,” The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press, 2004), 178: “This new humanity, for itself and for others, inevitably defines a new humanism. This new humanism is written into the objectives and methods of the struggle. A struggle, which mobilizes every level of society, which expresses the intentions and expectations of the people, and which is not afraid to rely on their support almost entirely, will invariably triumph. The merit of this type of struggle is that it achieves the optimal conditions for cultural development and innovation.” For a discussion of the AAPSO speech and its relationship to Aimé Césaire see my essay “The Global South and Cultural Struggles: On the Afro-Asian People’s Solidarity Organization,” Journal of Contemporary Thought. 35. Summer (2012): 40–46.

37 Césaire, Aimé and Kelley, Robin D. G., Discourse on Colonialism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000), 73. Another key text for this definition of humanism is Léopold Sédar Senghor’s defense of negritude in 1970 wherein although he acknowledges negritude as “the sum of cultural values of the black world,” he also modifies this static definition with a more flexible model: “it is essentially relations with others, an opening out to the world, contact and participation with others. Because of what it is negritude is necessary in the world today: it is a humanism of the twentieth century.” Léopold Senghor, Sédar, “Negritude: A Humanism of the Twentieth Century,African Literature: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory, eds. Olaniyan, Tejumola, and Ato Quayson (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007), 196. It is with this sense of a certain flexible set of cultural values and their “relational opening to the world”—tempered with the Fanonian notion of struggle—that this article understands the term humanism in regards to the AAWB.

38 Afro-Asian Writers’ Conference. La Conférence des écrivains d’Asie et d’Afrique à Tachkent...: (my translation) [7–13 Octobre 1958.]. (Paris: La Documentation Française, 1960), 11.

39 “The representatives of the Asian Communist countries in general were given every opportunity to propagate the achievements of a Communist society, but pride of place was taken by the Chinese delegation. The speeches made by its leader Mao Tun were published in Literaturnaya gazeta under the heading ‘Let us Set an Example of Unity,’ while the Soviet press generally stressed Mao Tun’s importance at the conference. Moreover, both Pravda and Literaturnaya Gazeta devoted considerably more space to him in their reports than to any of the other participants.” Institute for the Study of the USSR. Institute Publications. Bulletin. 5.12. Current Soviet Affairs “The Spirit of Tashkent: A Review of the Conference of Afro-Asian Writers,” (1958): 19.

40 One of the most famous adages from the Talks is: “There is in fact no such thing as art for art’s sake, art that stands above classes, art that is detached from or independent of politics. Proletarian literature and art are part of the whole proletarian revolutionary cause; they are, as Lenin said, ‘cogs and wheels’ in the whole revolutionary machine.” See Zedong’s, MaoTalks at the Yenan Forum on Art and LiteratureModern Chinese Literary Thought: Writings on Literature, 1893-1945, ed. Kirk A. Denton (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996), 474.

41 “最近一年来, 全国有七百多作家深入到农村, 工矿, 部队中去。因为他们深深知道, 如果不进一步深入人民中间, 理解劳动人民的思想感情, 将无法在创作上更真实, 更完美地描绘出劳动人民地精神面貌, 也就无法反映出这个惊天动地的时代.” (My translation) Shi jie wen xue she, Peking. Tashigan jing shen wan sui Zhongguo zuo jia lun Ya Fei zuo jia hui yi. (Beijing: Zuo jia chu ban she, 1959), 56.

This is a paraphrase of Mao’s Talks: “China’s revolutionary writers and artists, writers and artists of promise, must go among the masses; they must for a long period of time unreservedly and wholeheartedly go among the masses of workers, peasants, and soldiers, go into the heat of the struggle, go to the only source, the broadest and richest source, in order to observe, experience, study, and analyze all the different kinds of people, all the classes, all the masses, all the vivid patterns of life and struggle, all the raw materials of literature and art. Only then can they proceed to creative work.” Mao in Denton Talks, 470.

42 Mao continues in the Talks: “Writers and artists concentrate on such everyday phenomena, typify the contradictions and struggles within them, and produce works that awaken the masses, fire them with enthusiasm, and impel them to unite and struggle to transform their environment.” Mao in Denton Talks, 470.

43 Shi jie wen xue, “Tashigan,” 56.

44 Ibid., 56.

45 Mao provocatively asks toward the beginning of his Talks: “The first problem is: literature and art for whom?” And later, “Our literary and art workers must accomplish this task and shift their stand; they must gradually move their feet over to the side of the workers, peasants, and soldiers, to the side of the proletariat through the process of going into their very midst and into the thick of the practical struggles and through the process of studying Marxism and society. Only in this way can we have a literature and art that are truly for the workers, peasants, and soldiers, a truly proletarian literature and art” Mao in Denton Talks, 464, 467.

46 “哪里有劳动, 哪里有就有诗.” (my translation) Shi jie wen xue, “Tashigan,” 56.

47 For a discussion on why Maoism is not a humanism, Marxist or otherwise, see Dunayevskaya, Raya, Philosophy and Revolution: From Hegel to Sartre and from Marx to Mao (New York: Delacorte Press, 1973). However, within the context of the AAWB as well as the Chinese diplomatic imperative to present themselves within the context of third world solidarity, Maoism was systematically misread as humanistic.

48 That is, the “history of philosophy, revolutionary political theory and practice, cultural production, and economic cycles.” Jameson, , “Periodizing,” 179.

49 See Karl’s, RebeccaMao Zedong and China in the Twentieth-Century World: A Concise History (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010); Clark, Paul, The Chinese Cultural Revolution: A History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008). Mobo Gao’s controversial The Battle for China’s Past: Mao and the Cultural Revolution (London: Pluto Press, 2008); Slavoj Žižek’s provocative introduction to Mao Zedong in On Practice and Contradiction (London: Verso, 2007); Meisner’s, MauriceMao Zedong: A Political and Intellectual Portrait (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2007). There are also a host of biographies, provocative and critical, of Mao’s legacy that constitute a whole field of study in and of themselves.

50 Dilip P. Gaonkar writes: “One can provincialize Western modernity only by thinking through and against its self-understandings, which are frequently cast in universalist idioms. To think through and against means to think with a difference—a difference that would destabilize the universalist idioms, historicize the contexts, and pluralize the experiences of modernity” Alternative Modernities (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001), 15. For an extensive discussions of this term as well as its limitations also see Wollaeger, Mark A. and Eatough, Matt, The Oxford Handbook of Global Modernisms (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012); Mohanty, Satya P., Colonialism, Modernity, and Literature: A View from India. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011); Doyle, Laura and Winkiel, Laura A., Geomodernisms: Race, Modernism, Modernity (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005); Jean, and Comaroff, John L., Theory from the South, or How Euro-America Is Evolving toward Africa (London: Paradigm Publishers, 2012).

51 There were a flurry of official state visits to the PRC by leaders such as Sékou Touré September 10–15, 1960, Kwame Nkrumah August 14–19, 1961, as well as Julius Nyerere’s five different trips to the PRC as president of Tanzania from 1964 to 1985, which were primarily in regard to China’s investment projects and in particular the TANZAM railway. See Monson, Jamie, Africa’s Freedom Railway: How a Chinese Development Project Changed Lives and Livelihoods in Tanzania (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009). Furthermore, China was the first nation to extend official diplomatic recognition to the Algerian Front de Liberation National (FLN) in 1958. Also, Zhou Enlai’s tour of ten African countries at the end of 1963 provided a response to the African visits to Beijing, as well as indicates an official Chinese diplomatic presence in Africa during the period. For these and other diplomatic activities, see Larkin, Bruce, China and Africa, 1949-1970: The Foreign Policy of the People’s Republic of China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971).

52 The issue of the politics of language—Europhone versus indigenous—has been one of the fundamental questions in scholarship on twentieth-century postcolonial literature. Although the bureau did acknowledge the importance of indigenous languages and translation projects between non-Western languages, the bureau’s publications would be primarily in English, French, and Arabic. In this sense, while at the Tashkent writers conference de Andrade pushed for the use of indigenous languages, with the publication of the bureau’s first poetry anthologies in English there was a pronounced emphasis on style, tone, and content over the use of an indigenous language.

53 Ratne Deshapriya Senanayake describes the reason why the bureau began with poetry as a genre: “The Anthology of Afro-Asian Literature aims at introducing the works of those Afro-Asian men of letters, who abide by the principle that art should serve the people and that Afro-Asian cultural workers should be in the forefront in fulfilling the aspirations of Afro-Asian peoples and implementing the fundamental tasks of the Afro-Asian writers movement. The present volume deals exclusively with poetry as poetry is the most popular branch of literature. Love for poetry is one of the characteristics of the Afro-Asian peoples as it may be all over the world.” See Afro-Asian Poems; Anthology (Colombo: Afro-Asian Writers’ Bureau, 1963), Preface.

54 Awoonor, “Eagle,” 41.

55 Ibid., 41.

56 Ibid., 41.

57 Ibid., 42.

58 Ibid., 42.

59 The militancy of this poem is a departure from his first poetry collection, “Rediscovery and Other Poems,” published in 1964 and which contained numerous reinterpretations of Ewe dirge poetry. Robert Fraser writes: “Thus, in all of Kofi Awoonor’s work personal self-expression and social criticism proceed hand-in-hand. There are two principle reasons for this. The first is that the Anlo tradition itself embraces both norms: the ‘I’ of an Akpalu dirge is both the suffering individual artist, despised and often a little ridiculous, and the whole society which has suddenly and inexplicably been plunged into mourning. The English-language poet who draws on this convention soon learns to operate in both capacities. The second is Awoonor’s deep sense of responsibility toward the nation as a whole, a responsibility which extends way beyond the boundaries of Eweland to embrace the whole of suffering Ghana.” Fraser, Robert, West African Poetry: A Critical History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 161162.

60 Awoonor, “Eagle,” 42.

61 Ibid., 42.

62 Ibid., 43.

63 Ibid., 43.

64 Although this article cannot go into an in-depth analysis of the two, the resonances of Mao’s definition of revolutionary literature with Fanon’s definition of combat literature in The Wretched of the Earth are striking. First Fanon: “Finally, a third stage, a combat stage where the colonized writer, after having tried to lose himself among the people, with the people, will rouse the people. Instead of letting the people’s lethargy prevail, he turns into a galvanizer of the people. Combat literature, revolutionary literature, national literature emerges. [...] This is combat literature in the true sense of the word, in the sense that it calls upon a whole people to join in the struggle for the existence of the nation. Combat literature, because it informs the national consciousness, gives it shape and contours, and opens up new, unlimited horizons. Combat literature, because it takes charge, because it is resolve situated in historical time” Fanon, Wretched, 159, 174; my emphasis. And Mao: “Revolutionary literature and art should create a variety of characters out of real life and help the masses to propel history forward. For example, there is suffering from hunger, cold and oppression on the one hand, and exploitation and oppression of man by man on the other. These facts exist everywhere and people look upon them as commonplace. Writers and artists concentrate such everyday phenomena, typify the contradictions and struggles within them and produce works which awaken the masses, fire them with enthusiasm and impel them to unite and struggle to transform their environment.” See Zedong, Mao, Selected Works of Mao Zedong. Vol. I, III. (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1967), 82.

65 See Gikandi, Simon, “Realism, Romance, and the Problem of African Literary History,” Modern Language Quarterly 73.3 (2012): 309328.

66 Jean and John Comaroff’s notion of “Afromodernity” seems appropriate here: “At other times Afromodernity has lain implicit in signs and practices, dispositions and discourses, aesthetic values and indigenous ways of knowing. Nor is it best labeled an ‘alternative modernity.’ It is a vernacular—just as Euromodernity is a vernacular—wrought in an ongoing, geopolitically situated engagement with the unfolding history of the present. And, like Euromodernity, it takes many forms.” Comaroff and Comaroff, Theory, 9.

67 Neil Lazarus identifies “postcolonial” poetry as equally demonstrative of a structure of feeling (Williams) as fiction: “In much ‘postcolonial’ poetry we witness the attempt to find words, tones, registers, grammars, syntaxes, sensitive to and capable of registering landscapes as well as patterns of social relationship shaped by particular histories of dispossession and resistance, conquest and reclamation, subjection and struggle.” Although Lazarus uses the example of the Caribbean poet Édouard Glissant’s “leading the word astray” in order to reformulate colonial language in order to “enable them to shoulder the burden of postcolonial representation,” Awoonor’s poem, in its militant depiction of the history of slavery and exploitation does not so much as “lead the word astray” as it leads it headlong into the reimagined history of a romanticized and pan-African class struggle. Lazarus, Postcolonial, 82–83.

68 Awoonor, “Eagle,” 44.

69 Ibid., 44.

70 Ibid., 44.

71 Ibid., 45.

72 Ibid., 45.

73 Ibid., 45.

74 See Halim’s, HalaLotus, the Afro-Asian Nexus and Global South Comparatism,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 32.3 (2012): 563583; Vijay Prashad’s cursory survey in The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World. (New York: New Press, 2007).

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