The Protean Web: Literature and Ethnography in Lusophone Africa


This book discusses colonial and postcolonial textuality under the theoretical scope of Literary Theory, Cultural Critique and Anthropology. 
It focuses mostly but not exclusively on Angola and Moçambique. In these countries, Ethnographic Fiction has emerged as a genre that inspired until this day “violent readings” of history and society. The generalized interest in “the cultural in the text” raised literary heritage and current production to the position of a privileged mediator for all forms of postwar predicament.
Configuring grounded ethnographies, the fiction that we choose to present and discuss translates simultaneously into localized experience, movable textuality and protean matter, since it applies to changing knowledge, as determined by the field.
This work is adjacent to the contributions of researchers who are dedicated to the Literary and Ethnographic fields in their contemporary associations.

In Chapter 1, we discuss how different seminal experiences in ethnographic and cultural writing contribute to the discussion of an epistemological and hermeneutical revisitation of Portuguese colonization in Africa. To do so, we put in perspective different theoretical approaches to fieldwork and compare them with the colonial Portuguese-African Ethnography. In essence, Portuguese colonialism in Africa fostered the emergence of new disciplinary fields and knowledge. This enabled new forms of writing about the colonial experience and new ways to interpret it. 

During the Portuguese colonization of Africa, textual production had to endure many restrictions. We present such circumstances in Chapter 2. There was at the time a strict official control of what was published. Nevertheless, a considerable number of institutions were active in the editorial space and were responsible for supporting research activities in Africa and in Asia. The archival dimension of these editions is overwhelming, which requires appropriate consideration and analysis.

Through a critique of these publications, we elaborate on their impact in subsequent textual production. This allows the discussion of their relevance in fostering a literary genre that can be defined very broadly as Ethnographic Fiction, which became, and remains, extremely popular in these now independent countries.

For some critics, the fear of misrepresentation is mainly a problem of the postcolonial reality, as mentioned in Chapter 3. The changes that occurred after 1975 opened a window on the reevaluation of the experience of cultural displacement and mobile identities in their multiple forms. In this chapter, we take a close look at this with respect to the colonial and postcolonial realities in Lusophone texts. Many African authors have used ethnographic writing as a tool to establish closeness with the people they wanted to represent, describe, and motivate. Appropriate representations and perceptions were not easy to disseminate though, due in part to the disparate reading of differences and to cultural portraits of disputed generalization. Thus, the articulated perception of misrepresentation creates in this context an uncomfortable place for the African writer, but seems to work as well as a protective filter on political grounds.

In Chapter 4, we stress the importance of J. Clifford’s The Predicament of Culture in the matter of discussing ethnography and authority. We discuss several of his premises in order to consider them in the specific context of fiction production in Africa. Most of the modern African narratives are not merely reproductions of the so-called traditional oral stories and histories. They are cultural testimonies of national travelers, and epitomize transitions experienced as well as symbolic, cartographic, and cultural routes. Research from a combined perspective of Anthropology and Literature can illuminate some aspects of the discontinuities in cultural identification between the intellectuals and their “tribes”. From this perspective, postcolonial societies and their cultures can be read through a localized anthropological gaze, since they tend to accept literature as cultural testimony. Such literature emerges from a resilient context of long-term war and post-war wounds.

Minefields constitute therefore a locally relevant metaphor for situations of violence. (Chapter 5). They can be seen as the epitome of movable textuality(ies) under circumstances that force change by external impact. Such change can be related to what has been called in different situations “protean matter”. It applies to all changing forms and adaptive organisms. This is particularly evident in the way multiple African ethnographies expose transformations that are occurring in many communities and ethnic groups. We stress in this chapter how this ability to change and to create new ethnographic genres, as the field demands it, is a matter of dynamic survival that applies to peoples, cultures, or literatures.   In Chapter 6 we review Deleuze and Guattari’s contributions to the discussion of territoriality and violence. A good part of the postcolonial theory is in fact embedded in the idea of meanings built from the location of changing borders; in knowledge as in culture as in text production and dissemination. The colonial and the civil wars have dramatically reshaped land property, land distribution, mobility of the populations, society and culture in Angola and Moçambique. These have affected repeatedly, and dramatically, the writing of macro-narratives about the nations and their many “borders”. Such impacts were also inspirational for a great number of “violent texts” and for texts about violence. Narratives have become nomadic war machines in the sense that they have disrupted conventional stories and are helping to retell history, also in times of reconciliation.

The evolving reconciliations encourage refugees and nomads to organize their return “home”. (Chapter 7). The specters left behind remind all of the many dangers ahead; de-centered subjects and spaces, domestic imperialisms, and new forms of state-run economies. What is finally emerging is not so Marxist, not so Capitalist, after all.

In the final part of this work, we discuss the matters of displaced identities. Portugal engaged since the beginning of the transatlantic travels in its own definition of the “figure of the hybrid, the migrant”. That resulted in a constitutive and unique paradigm that is worth deconstructing today. Ethno-criticism, through Krupat’s gaze, helps us reframe this discussion despite its limitations in explaining the complex rhetoric of the post-imperialist discourse. Musseques are the outskirts, the slums, and they constitute synecdochal images of the colonial cities in Lusophone Africa. They have been considered a loud representation of complex forms of mixed semiotic systems. As we see it, such hypotheses instantiate the paradox underlying the traditional ambivalence of urban/rural existence. The peripheral neighborhoods, though marginal, should be discussed under their own political and ethical coherence. Moreover, they should be read as dynamic “grounded ethnographies”, radically distanced from the colonial cultural writing.

by Ana Maria Mão-de-Ferro Martinho
Mukanda | 29 November 2011 | África, angola, colonial, colonization, cultural writing, ethnographic writing, history, moçambique, Portugal, postcolonial, society