Academic Writing Sample
Although the original Western reception of Camara Laye’s work was positive, classified as the first of its kind according to European canonical standards, its African reception was skeptical as a result of the writer’s alleged failure to be overtly critical of colonialism. The author Christopher L. Miller summarizes the demand for a more immediately political text as he relays the perspective of one of Laye’s harshest critics, Mongo Beti, who argues, “because of the colonial situation, the very act of writing on Africa in the 1950s implies ‘taking a position for or against colonization—there is no getting out of it.’ L’Enfant noir cannot be considered authentic because it ignores the reality of colonialism and seems to hide its head in the sand…” (123). Here Beti presents the claim that in order for a text to be considered African it must be political or overtly address issues concerning colonization. Although the paramount importance of the issue of colonialism is undeniable, whether or not a text is required to explicitly address the subject in order to be considered a truly African text is debatable. This statement, compounded with the conviction that the author “must choose a side,” only places unfair limitations upon the African writer, limitations which do not exist for the Western writer, whose classification of work will probably never fail to coincide with their own nationality, heritage, or identity. What further complicates the debate concerning the politics, or suggested lack thereof, of Camara Laye’s writing, is the general insistence that his work does indeed fail to address the issues of colonialism. One of the main contributing factors to this mislead perception originates in the fluctuating meanings and expectations of politics. As current political realities change, and former political realities continue to be reassessed and reinterpreted, the scrutiny of what is considered politically controversial or subversive readjusts. By studying the way that Laye’s second novel, Le Regard du roi, becomes an extension of many of the author’s messages concerning cultural conflict and issues of identity previously presented in L’Enfant noir, by observing the way that it relays Laye’s own messages concerning the necessary synthesis of the West and the African within one’s self, the author’s political message is conveyed.
One contention with Beti’s argument lies in the naturally ambiguous nature of politics. The critic Sonia Lee summarizes the African reaction to Laye’s work, critics finding “an unbelievable indifference to the drama of colonialism” and seeing Laye’s “lack of anguish as a lack of commitment” (16). Lee also addresses Beti’s criticism that Laye “deliberately closed his eyes” to the “unpleasant reality” of colonialism (17). It is through Miller’s exploration of the unstable nature of the label ‘political’ that one begins to comprehend the manner in which Laye’s work may be interpreted as such. He explains that “the whole notion of what is ‘political’ has changed in the postcolonial era: political vision and symbolic representation are no longer held to be mutually exclusive. African readers are now less likely to demand explicit political content and are more attuned to the symbolic politics of l’Enfant noir… as a work of subtly sublimated, rather than repressed politics” (124). It is through this notion of the “subtly sublimated” that one appreciates the full significance of the politics addressed through Laye’s writing. And, although the status of Laye’s work as “political” is not necessary for his work to be categorized as an African text, it remains nonetheless crucial to explore its political dimensions.