Saturday, September 1, 2012

Virtue, Commerce, History, and Cuisine in the novel GraceLand by Chris Abani

I recently finished reading the award-winning novel GraceLand, written by Chris Abani, first published in 2004. It is a wonderful novel about a young boy named Elvis who dreams of being a professional dancer and sometimes impersonates his namesake, Elvis Presley. The novel moves back and forth between Elvis's life in the small town of  Afikpo, Nigeria at the end of the 1970s and his life in Nigeria's largest city Lagos in 1983. In the 1970s, we see Elvis as a young boy affected by family tragedies including the death of his mother who encouraged his dancing, the rape of his cousin, and the downfall of his father. There are other events, but I don't want to spoil some of the surprises that Chris Abani so carefully and brilliantly plotted. The 1983 sections take place deep within the slums where we see Elvis's alcoholic father, depressed about his failed attempt at running for political office, and Elvis, scratching out a living on the margins of society, sometimes pursuing his dream of dancing, but mostly engaging in criminal acts under the tutelage of his friend Redemption. To put the story in historical context, most of the novel takes place during a period of corrupt democracy that began in 1979 (when the military returned the country to a nominal democracy) and ended with a coup in 1984 (when the military took the country back under its control.) As has been observed by other readers, the novel complexly and richly explores several themes such as the struggle of Nigeria to develop as a democratic nation in the context of neocolonialism and the economic and cultural relationship between Nigeria and the West. As the scholar Madhu Krishnan has argued in several essays [here], [here], and [here], the novel navigates the dilemmas faced in the historical wake of colonial and postcolonial violence -- dilemmas between a desire to imitate the modern Western nation state and the desire to recuperate traditional culture and values. Such themes are explored mostly through the marginalized figure of Elvis, who seems to maintain an ironic, quizzical, open-ended relation to both the American and the Nigerian culture (including novels, jazz, movies, cigarettes, food, etc.) that he consumes.

What struck me -- and what I want to discuss briefly in this blog post -- is something I haven't seen mentioned much in the scholarly discussion of Abani's novel. At the beginning of almost every chapter, Abani includes a recipe of some traditional Nigerian dish or an explanation of the medicinal properties of local plants. In the acknowledgements in the back of the book, he notes that "R. C. Agoha's book Medicinal Plants of Nigeria was an invaluable resource." The recipes serve several functions in the novel. As part of the main plot, they come from the recipe book of Elvis's deceased mother that he carries with him always as a token of his mother's love and a memory of better days. Certainly, for both Abani and his character Elvis, food is an important memory tool, and Elvis's grandmother Oye even urges him to draw pictures of the plants "so you won't forget" (p. 44). However, at the same time, Elvis seems confused by its contents, doubtful that the plants will have any medicinal effect (p. 80). Elvis also wonders whether the recipes are authentic and doubts his culture had a need to ever write down its recipes (p. 146), even though the Nigerian Omosunlola Williams did in fact do that in a Cookery Book, published in 1957, something Abani never mentions. Beyond a brief explanation that the recipe book is a symbolic link to his mother and the ambivalence Elvis seems to have towards traditional Igbo culture, Abani offers almost no interpretation or contextualization of these snippets of culinary and medicinal culture that hang in italic font at the start of his chapters. Some of the medicinal qualities seem to relate thematically to plot points, but ultimately how they function in relation to the plot is as opaque as the political and cultural commitments of the novel's main character.

And Chris Abani is not unique for using food in his novel. His fellow Nigerian Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie includes so much description of food at the beginning of her novel Half of a Yellow Sun (2006) that my stomach was rumbling with hunger when I read them (a point that dramatizes the tragic starvation that happens later in the novel when she describes the horrors of the Biafran War.) Another novel that, like Abani's, explores the ambivalent, transnational relation between the author's homeland and adopted America through the figure of cuisine is Francesca Duranti's Left-Handed Dreams (2000). The rhetorical role of food in literature is a curious topic. One might blandly observe that both food and literature bring people together. From a rather cheerful, internationalist perspective, both food and novels serve as cultural ambassadors between nations. Food is a way one retains cultural traditions, but at the same time the fetishization of "authentic" and "traditional" cuisine also indicates the loss of the broader culture and economy that created that cuisine, as the commercialization of food subsumes selected cultural traditions to the Western marketplace and suppresses other, less comfortable cultural traditions. For example, I have known Americans who will openly express dislike of the religious and other cultural traditions of other countries at the same time the gush with pleasure over that culture's food. One might also note that food often symbolizes the blending of cultures, a sort of material emblem of an idealized hybridity. Along those lines, noticeably some of the traditional Igbo dishes include "curry" (which is a British innovation of Indian food) and peanuts (now a staple food of west Africa, imported originally from South America.) The recipes themselves seem to combine pre-colonial and industrial ingredients and techniques. Moreover, it seems easy enough to make an analogy between the production and consumption of food and the production and consumption of novels. To sum up, in this paragraph, I have listed a few ways one could think about food symbolism in literature, but they are not the ways I think of it.

Rather, the transnational commerce of food and the exploitation of local indigenous resources by powerful multinational corporations is big business that does not benefit everyone equally. Something about Abani's inclusion of medicinal plants and recipes reminded me of the recent popularity of Rooibos "Red Bush" tea from South Africa and the global trade in such exotic, indigenous plants. My own interest in the novel's food symbolism is more historical and economic, as you might guess from the title of this blog post that alludes to J.G.A. Pocock's book Virtue, Commerce, and History, a seminal work of scholarship that explores the history of eighteenth-century British political ideas (including such ideas as "nation" and "democracy") in the context of the Atlantic trade. Pocock is one of the "founding fathers" of Atlantic History, and his argument emphasizes how philosophical and political statements celebrating particular sorts of national or personal virtue are unstable rationalizations of very particular political positions on the trade of sugar, tobacco, rice, fish, pepper, wool, cotton, wood, etc. Alongside Pocock' book, we might also include scholarship that focuses more intently on food and transatlantic trade such as the famous Sweetness and Power: the Place of Sugar in Modern History by Sidney Mintz, Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens and the Origins of Environmentalism, 1600-1800 by Richard Grove, Black Rice: The African Origin of Rice Cultivation in the Americas by Judith Carney, and many others. To a much longer bibliography of such scholarly work, I might add my own modest essay "Doctoring Ideology: James Grainger's The Sugar Cane and the Bodies of Empire." These accounts of the cultural politics of food in the eighteenth century seems to me to have something in common with Chris Abani's account of Nigeria's historical memory.

Considering Abani's (or Elvis's mother's) Igbo recipes and medicinal traditions in terms of international commerce, I'd like to pose a thesis about the novel GraceLand, and I'd like this thesis to in some way respond to the many scholarly analyses of GraceLand that have focused on the complex dilemmas, ambivalence, and struggles that are so much a part of the postcolonial situation. And I say "I'd like to pose a thesis" that does all these things because I haven't yet figured out what it is. (Also, if I let this blog post take up any more of my time, I will never finish some other things that I actually have to do for my job.) Instead, I will just point out two things in the novel that seem to me to be very important to any scholarly analysis of it.

First -- and I must give a spoiler alert here -- the dramatic turning point of the novel happens when Elvis and his friend Redemption are in the middle of a smuggling operation for a corrupt army colonel. Redemption says that the commodity they are smuggling is a secret, and Elvis assumes they are smuggling drugs again, like they had before, but Redemption hints that the commodity they are smuggling this time is much more valuable. Elvis wonders what could be more profitable than drugs, and we eventually find out -- human trafficking, specifically human trafficking for body parts to be used in expensive medical organ transplant procedures. Up until this point in the novel, Elvis is willing to go along with Redemption's criminal schemes, but the realization that he is trafficking in human bodies traumatizes him. Moreover, the novel forces its American readers to confront the fact that the market for human body parts is generated by the United States. Similar to the context of eighteenth-century Atlantic history, in which a common theme is how Europeans were conflicted between their desire for sugar, tobacco, etc., and their knowledge that it came from a deadly and brutal slave economy. I don't think Abani meant to associate the recipes at the beginning of each chapter and the Conradian horror of human trafficking. Rather, I am juxtaposing the novel's representation of the commerce of these two things (food and humans) as a way to explore the problem of what the anthropologist James Ferguson calls the "neoliberal world order" in his book Global Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World Order.

The commerce in human bodies is, of course, the most extreme form of "free trade" -- the absolute moral limit of what an arguably amoral economic system can tolerate. One of the most dogmatic assumptions of neoliberal economics is philosopher David Ricardo's "law of comparative advantage" that recognizes the productive potential of each geographic location focusing on what it can more easily produce and sell. Ferguson does not so much disagree with the practice of international trade as he disagrees with the dogmatism of this so-called "law" that neglects the moral and practical realities of the human condition and political circumstances. The egregious example of this dogmatism that Ferguson narrates is when, in 1991, the chief economist of the World Bank Larry Summers (now one of Obama's advisers) argued that dumping toxic waste in Africa is sound economic policy given that Africa is under-populated. Anyone who has been to Africa knows that it is not under-populated, but putting aside Summer's rather racist assumptions that led him to make factually inaccurate statements, what Summers and the Ricordo-doctrines followed by the IMF and World Bank fail to understand is that the real "comparative advantage" that is being exploited in this situation is not the difference in land scarcity (as they assume), but actually the difference in political power. To put it as briefly as I can, small African countries do not have the political power to enforce environmental and labor standards, and this gives them a "comparative advantage" (an absurd euphemism in this case) to sell out their ecoystems. As has been documented at length, the effect of this very political economy is the destruction of the environment due to pollution and the subsequent exacerbation of health problems among the poor. However, even someone like Larry Summers, who appears comfortable with causing the deaths of millions by encouraging the dumping of toxic waste in their neighborhoods, will not tolerate human trafficking. (And of course, Karl Marx pointed out in response to Ricardo that when you apply the law of comparative advantage to labor, the only thing a landless, uneducated person has to sell is his or her body. It's so easy to demystify the law of comparative advantage as a "universal law" that it's a wonder that neoliberal economists still insist on it so strongly.)

Since Ferguson is an anthropologist, not an economist, his focus is on the discourse surrounding economic issues, not the merits and demerits of specific policy. What he points out is something that Abani actually includes in his novel -- that to convince Africans (or anyone, anywhere in the world, in my view) of the value of American capitalism, pundits have to make moral arguments. In the 1960s and 70s, socialists were more successful at demonstrating the ways Western capitalism was morally evil and antithetical to traditional African values by synthesizing socialist dogma with indigenous philosophies and extensive kin-based social organization. A classic example of this argument against Western capitalism is Ngugi wa Thiong'o's novel Devil on the Cross first published in 1980. But a mere decade later, when socialist governments began to be perceived by the public as corrupt or ineffectual, they began to loose the moral argument, which was supplanted in the early 1990s (not so coincidentally after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the decline of Soviet influence in Africa) by a new moral urgency to "reform" according to Western principles of good governance and market pragmatism.

In Abani's novel, we see the old synthesis of socialism and indigenous ethics in the arguments of the aging King of the Beggars (p. 155). Elvis reacts to his friend with some skepticism, not surprisingly since Abani is writing his novel two decades after such arguments were commonplace. Elvis suspects that the representation of indigenous traditions in those early arguments against Western capitalism was too idealized, and his suspicion about the King of the Beggars resembles his ambivalent feelings about his mother's recipe book. Elvis's observation occurs halfway in the novel, when he is conflicted between his loyalty to the revolutionary politics of the King of the Beggars and his loyalty to self-serving, criminal activity of his friend Redemption. However, Elvis's feeling changes considerably laterin the novel after his traumatic experience with human trafficking.

To conclude, I agree with Madhu Krishan scholarly arguments on the novel, that the many of the dilemmas the novel stages are never fully resolved, especially the dilemma between American culture and African culture. However, in the context of food and human trafficking -- virtue, commerce, history, and cuisine -- we see Abani struggling to find a virtuous moral position amidst the chaotic commerce of daily life, but I don't think Abani's position is a morally ambivalent one. Rather, publishing his book in 2004, Abani is unequivocally critical of the cosmopolitan neoliberal morality that, according to James Ferguson, became popular among the African elite in the late 1990s, a morality that celebrated "African" identity (the food, movies, and novels that Elvis likes) at the same time that it adopted neoliberal "pragamatism" and adapted African-ness to the demands of IMF policy. The centrality of human trafficking to the plot of the novel is, in my view, what leads Elvis to flee his homeland for America. The novel may be open-ended or ambivalent about traditional Igbo recipes and medicines, but it is not open-ended about the exploitation of African children for organ transplants and the economic system that engenders that exploitation.