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Thousand Seasons and Scribbling the Cat
Both Ayi Kwei Armah's novel Two Thousand Seasons and Alexandra Fuller's Scribbling the Cat: Travels With and African Soldier deal with the complex formulation of racial and ethnic identities in Africa as a result of the slave trade and colonization. While at first glance the two stories could not be more different, as Two Thousand Seasons is a fictional tale that literally spans the titular amount of time and is narrated by a collective of voices and Scribbling the Cat is a first-person account of the singular author/narrator's travels with an African soldier, the seemingly disparate narratives actually offer two complementary perspectives on the same issues of identity, with Two Thousand Seasons purporting to represent the indigenous voices of Africa's history, attempting to reestablish and reclaim their past, while Scribbling the Cat engages with the narrator's complex Anglo-African identity in the midst of drought and war. By examining the relationship between both narratives as well some relevant secondary sources, one may begin to understand how the ever-present and inescapable trauma of colonization forces the individual to constantly and unceasingly question one's already unstable identity, with the desire for some kind of self-identification free from the memory of violence and trauma ultimately only ensuring that those memories are never forgotten.
Scribbling the Cat begins with an excerpt from Alexander Kanengoni's novel Echoing Silences which describes one character's amazement at learning that "the history of his people did not start with the coming of the whites" (Fuller 4). Scribbling the Cat uses this quotation as a means of introducing war as a means of communication, something that will be common throughout the story, but the quotation works equally well to describe the goal of Two Thousand Season's multifaceted narrator(s), the aim of whose "vocation" is "the clearing of destruction's pale, thick-lying pus from eyes too long blinded to every possibility of the way" (Armah 248). Just as the section commander in Kanengoni's novel narrates some of the history of Zimbabwe before "the coming of the whites," so too do the narrators of Two Thousand Seasons seek to retell the history of Africa from an indigenous perspective, thus reifying their identity and basing it in something other than the trauma and schism of colonization.
The redemptive work of the narrators is noted by Khondlo Mtshali in his essay "The Journey of a Healing Community in Ayi Kwei Armah's Two Thousand Seasons," in which he agues that the narrative uses the framework of traditional African superstitions in order to present the image of "a healing community" traveling through "three interconnected dimensions of experience that are the realm of the godhead, the realm of the ancestors, and the realm of the living" (Mtshali 125). In short, the novel progresses from the peaceful realm of the godhead in the form of the "fictional society of Anoa that is named after its mythical and ancient priestess who prophesied its life purpose and journey," travels through "the sedementing of the respective experiences [of slavery and colonization] in the realm of past experiences or ancestors," and finally recounts "the lived experience of Anoa's healing community" (Mtshali 125).
Mtshali's essay offers a useful means for understanding certain textual details of the novel, and especially the narrators' focus on possibility, because this "every possibility of the way" that is reduced and precluded b the violence of slavery and colonization may be regarded as Mtshali's idealized godhead. Mtshali recalls Alfred North Whitehead's argument "that all experiences presuppose the existence of unconditioned possibilities [called] forms of definiteness or eternal objects," and furthermore "that forms of definiteness constitute an infinite set of possibilities" that may be called "a realm of possibilities" (Mtshali 126). Mtshali amends this argument by suggesting that "religious literature names this realm of possibilities the godhead," and as such, the narration of Two Thousand Seasons may be seen as journey from this realm of possibility in the mythical past to the reduced, constrained, and ultimately truncated historical reality of Africa. However, while Mtshali's essay allows one to have a greater appreciation for the novel's structure and development, his ultimate conclusions regarding the extent of healing which occurs over the course of the novel is not supported by the narrators themselves. In order to see why, one must examine the particular use of the first-person plural in the novel as well as tragedy revealed by Mtshali's own analysis.
As Leif Lorentzon notes, "Two Thousand Seasons is remarkable in several respects, but one of its most distinctive characteristics is its we-narrator," not only because of the choice to include a pluralized narrator, but because the narrators are simultaneously outside the story and a character within it (Lorentzon 221). The narrators tell a thousand years of African history from some position after the fact, but also include themselves, such as when the narrators identify themselves as part of a group of freedom-fighters, stating that "there were twenty of us: eleven girls growing into women, nine boys growing into men" (Armah 148). While Lorentzon focuses mainly on the implications of the we-narrator as a character in the story, the true importance of the plural narrator is the fact that the narrators are simultaneously characters in the story and outside narrators. Thus, rather than consider the we-narrator as one of the twenty, as Lorentzon does, the reader is actually forced to acknowledge the narrators as all and none of them, or put another way, to acknowledge the narrators as all the narrated characters of Africa.
The implications of this may not be immediately apparent, so it is worthwhile to take a moment to explain. If the narrators are all of the Anoa, from mythic past to the present of the narration, this means that the narrators are always already experiencing the trauma of slavery alongside the "healing community" of the present. Put another way, rather than simply moving from the idealized realm of possibility that is the godhead, through the traumatic memories of the ancestors, and on to a hopeful, healing community of the living world, as is argued by Mtshali, the narrators have actually managed to return to the realm of infinite possibility. The tragedy, however, is that realm of infinite possibility must necessarily contain the possibility (and reality) of slavery and colonization, such that the "healing community" may never fully heal, but rather only succeed in condensing its collective experience into a singularity of memory and history, such that it simultaneously and eternally experiences the peace of the mythic godhead alongside the brutality of reality.
The condensation of the we-narrator forces the reader to acknowledge that the history under discussion is not linear, nor even cyclical, but rather always-already enacted. This is not to suggest that the overall argument of the novel is one of hopelessness, but rather to point out that the work of the narrators in Two Thousand Seasons is not to forget the trauma of slavery and colonization, or even to heal the wounds inflicted by them, but rather to remove the ideological and historical scars which trick the unknowing, like the character in Kanengoni's novel, into believing that this trauma is the singular organizing event of their history. Instead, the narrators serve to reveal that this horrible reality is nonetheless only one of an infinite number of possibilities, constantly and eternally being rewritten and reread.
In stark contrast to the millennia-spanning and all-encompassing narrators of Two Thousand Seasons, the narration of Scribbling the Cat covers only a relatively brief historical period and only explicitly concerns itself with the stories of a couple of characters, namely, the narrator and K. Nonetheless, Scribbling the Cat deals with precisely the same multiplicity of identity and history as Two Thousand Seasons, this time focusing on what Antje Rauwerda calls "the problem of persistent whiteness in Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique" revealed through "the tenuous hold white Africans have on their homeland" and the desire "to build a future that does not use the foundations of a violent, racist white past" (Rauwerda 51). Rauwerda argues that Fuller discusses these themes through her "extensive descriptions of houses that are makeshift, incomplete, and temporary" (Rauwerda 51).
Rauwerda cuts directly to the heart of the identity issues under discussion in Scribbling the Cat, because in the same way that the Anoa's journey to the healing community really only serves to remember the pain of slavery and colonization, if at least within the larger history of their people, the narrator's desire to find some kind of identity in returning to her birthplace forces her to acknowledge the violence of her own ethnic history and the ultimate impossibility of maintaining any kind of white African identity without acknowledging that violent past.
While Rauwerda focuses on the description of homes in Scribbling the Cat which represent the tenuousness of white identity in Africa, this instability of identity is even revealed in those homes which do not appear makeshift, incomplete, or temporary, as can be seen when the narrator and K. briefly look at the…[continue]
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