Monday, April 12, 2010

MLA 2011: The Cold War in Africa

Our panel’s chief objective is identifying and presenting African conceptions of the Cold War. While many accounts of the conflict are readily available, there is a critical dearth of studies which take into consideration African voices, perspectives, and challenges to US and Soviet versions of this historical era. Predicated on Francoise Lionnet and Shu-mei Shih’s notion of “minor transnationalism,” which argues that a reading of cultural transmission between peripheral entities is necessary to fill elisions in the historical record, this panel will explore the cultural and political flows between peoples and nations that have been marginalized in more traditional explorations of the Cold War. The organization of panel presentation will attempt to mimic this notion of cultural transnational flows by beginning with a paper that reads the connections between South Africa and Latin America, move back across the Atlantic to Nigeria and Egypt, and finish with a presentation that moves East, reading Kenya in conjunction with India.

In “South Atlantic Cold War Cartographies: Mapping State Terrorism in the Novels of Nadine Gordimer and Mark Behr,” Kerry Bystrom begins by asking, “How should we read the relationship between Latin America and Southern Africa?” Recent attempts to explore this connection tend to take one of two approaches: examining the movement of truth commissions from Argentina and Chile to South Africa, or exploring the rise of new economic partnerships within a Brazil-South Africa-India paradigm. In this paper, Bystrom proposes to re-route analysis of this relationship through the lens of the Cold War and anti-colonial/ anti-apartheid struggles, in order to construct a Cold War cartography of the South Atlantic zone. Reading Nadine Gordimer’s July’s People (1981) and Mark Behr’s The Smell of Apples (1993)—novels which map flows of manpower and knowledge between South Africa and the Southern Cone—in relation to the participation of South African arms company Armscor in a military engineering fair in Pinochet’s Chile, Bystrom draws attention to largely obscured routes of congress between Latin America and Southern Africa in the 1970s and 1980s. She further raises for critical evaluation the role played by fictional representations of the South American dictatorships in mediating South African perceptions of apartheid.

From Latin America and South Africa, the panel moves on to Nigeria in Gary Rees’s “Neo-Imperialism and the Body Politic: Chinua Achebe’s A Man of the People.” Written shortly before the outbreak of the Biafran War, Achebe’s 1966 novel is a somewhat neglected text in the writer’s canon. In this text, one of Achebe’s most corporeally invested works, an interesting conflation happens between actual human bodies, drives, and desires and the body politic of the newly independent Nigerian nation. While bodies, hungers, and sexual desires dominate the first half of the text, the rest of the novel switches focus to the Nigerian body politic. This paper will interrogate specific mentions of the United States, the Civil Rights movement, and neocolonial activity and examine how their presentation (and absence in the second half of the text) speaks to Achebe’s concerns and ambivalence towards the United States and its Cold War foreign policy. Through the writing of a text that incorporates both the body, Nigerian politics, and United States neo-colonial interference, Achebe masterfully navigates the challenges of writing about western hegemony and creates a text with a distinctly African take on the Cold War era.

The panel continues with a shift to Egypt in Douglas Eli Julien’s “The Cold War, Radio Diplomacy, and the Works of Naguib Mahfouz: Retelling the Narrative of Suez.” Egypt, a gateway into Africa and the Middle East, served as a seminal battleground and a key piece of real estate in the Cold War battle between the US and the Soviets. One of the key methods used by the US and Soviet Union to gain influence and an advantage in the Cold War was radio diplomacy through Radio Moscow and the Voice of America. In these representations, the leaders of Egypt and the people themselves are often treated as dupes in a finely crafted charade constructed by the superpowers. However, the insights provided by Naguib Mahfouz’s literary texts such as Miramar and Autumn Quail reveal an Egyptian voice that challenges the traditional interpretation of the conflict. Mahfouz stands on the ground that this was not an East-West conflict, the decision to nationalize the canal was not a Cold War issue but an issue of resolving the “Israeli problem,” and that neither the leaders of Egypt nor the people were so easily duped by the superpowers.

Moving first South, then East, J. Daniel Elam’s “Non-Alignment and the Postcolony: India and Kenya in the Cold War” concludes this panel by opening a fresh geographic trajectory away from the West. A growing body of work, according to Elam, is exploring the political relationships across the Indian Ocean which include Sugata Bose’s A Hundred Horizons and Engseng Ho’s The Graves of Tarim. The strength of this historical work necessitates a theoretical reexamination of the political commitments Indian Ocean postcolonial nation-states had for one another, especially throughout the years following their independence. This paper explores the relationship (both political and cultural) between the two countries, focusing most closely on the writings and letters of Jomo Kenyatta and Indira Gandhi in the 1970s. From a close analysis of the two leaders’ letters, writings, and speeches, Elam’s paper argues that the Cold War provided the stage for a close relationship between two newly postcolonial nations. Elam argues the importance of transnational relationship between non-alignment countries in the face of the Cold War. These transnational relationships challenge regional claims of postcolonialism and show, following Dipesh Chakrabarty and Homi Bhabha, that postcolonialism is a transnational (and perhaps even cosmopolitan) theoretical endeavor.