Post-Imperial Waters: Oceanic Form and Politics in 21st-Century Global South Novels
This thesis investigates the oceanic imaginaries of three contemporary Global South novels—Abdulrazak Gurnah’s By the Sea (2001), Zakes Mda’s The Whale Caller (2005), and Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s The Dragonfly Sea (2019). I argue that the three novelists mobilize aqueous discourses to express political concerns regarding empires and modern nations’ control over the ocean commons, a process of territorial expansion, exploitation, and dispossession that lasts from the colonial period to the contemporary age of post- and neocoloniality. Drawing upon different oceanic properties including unboundedness, drift, fluidity, and solvency, the three authors from the South work to unsettle the general portrayal of their living environment in the Global North, that is, the distant, exotic, and empty seascape. In the first chapter, I concentrate on the coastal imaginaries of By the Sea. I assert Gurnah’s novel uses several formal tactics to undermine colonial and state powers’ governance of the littoral space. By considering the ancient Indian Ocean trade and the ocean’s deep time, the novel further relativizes modern empires and humans’ mastery over the seashore. In the second chapter, I turn to ocean-related sound imageries in The Whale Caller, including the whale song and the eponymous character’s kelp horn. I suggest Mda proposes marine soundscapes to counter the dominance of vision in Western cultures. The novel then tries to recuperate cetacean and indigenous human voices eclipsed in an ocularcentric paradigm, but still maintains the ocean’s natural alterity. In the last chapter, I approach Africa-China relations in The Dragonfly Sea using a hydro-critical framework. I contend that Owuor uses aqueous form to tackle the Afro-Sino encounter’s complex temporalities—its past of the ancient silk road, its present in globalization, and its unpredictable, ateleological futures. Additionally, by dissolving English grammar and referring extensively to Global South languages and texts, Owuor’s novel problematizes Anglocentrism and envisions alternative reading communities across the southern waters. Following scholars like Elizabeth Deloughrey, Isabel Hofmeyr, Meg Samuelson, and Charne Lavery, this project integrates and aims to improve upon oceanic and postcolonial studies. On the one hand, I use an oceanic approach to challenge the terrestrial focus of postcolonial theory. On the other hand, a postcolonial standpoint means that I remain sensitive to some general claims in oceanic studies that ignore the particularities of the Global South and naturalize the Eurocentric underpinnings of the blue humanities.
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