AiW Guest: Uchechukwu Peter Umezurike.
In another of the in-depth conversations offered to us from AiW guest and friend Uchechukwu Peter Umezurike, Chielozona Eze discusses his work in ethics and literary study — particularly in relation to the uses to which postcolonial theory can be put — as well as “feminist empathy” and “empathetic cosmopolitanism”, with a view to human flourishing (Umezurike) and resonant compassion.
Chielozona Eze is Bernard J. Brommel Distinguished Research Professor and Professor of Africana Studies, Northeastern Illinois University, US, and author of Race, Decolonization, and Global Citizenship in South Africa (2018), Ethics and Human Rights In Anglophone African Women’s Literature : Feminist Empathy (2016), and Postcolonial Imagination and Moral Representations in African Literature and Culture (2011).
Umezurike: First, I would like to thank you for giving me the opportunity to have this conversation with you. Ethics is central to your practices as a literary critic, so could you talk a bit about the ethical turn in African Literature?
Eze: Thank you very much, Uche, for making this conversation possible. This is exactly the kind of platform we African intellectuals need. I have read some of your works, and added to this, you are truly keeping the light of African discourse burning bright. To your question, the ethical turn in African Literature was influenced by a book titled The Turn to Ethics, published in 2000, the year I began my postgraduate studies. After reading it I began to think of how it could apply to the African condition, and that changed the trajectory of my thinking and research. To start with, ethics is fundamentally about how we relate to: to the world out there and in the text, to our neighbors, coworkers, to animals, to the present and future generations. Once I realised this, I soured on postcolonial theory, because it wasn’t addressing any of the fundamental issues that ethics makes us aware. So, I dumped postcolonial theory.
Umezurike: Are you saying that postcolonial theory is no longer useful?
Eze: Well, I am saying that it has run its course. It is dead.
Umezurike: Oh. Isn’t this controversial?
Eze: It’s not. I’m not being original in this. I’m only helping to write its obituary in Africa.
Umezurike: Wouldn’t Chinua Achebe disagree with you?
Eze: I guess so. But that wouldn’t change my obituary announcement.
Umezurike: Help me to understand.
Eze: The truth is that we don’t need postcolonial theory any longer. It has run its course. And it has not helped us to understand our world. It has not helped us to understand ourselves and one another except as victims of the West. As long as you keep seeing the world through the prism of victimhood you’ll never master it. You just want to be pitied.
Postcolonial theory, understood as a prism through which we interpret contemporary African experience, was useful at the time Chinua Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart. As Achebe stated, he felt the need to explain to Africans that their past was not one long night of savagery from which Europeans saved them. True enough. But we are now challenged with explaining the present, or perhaps our immediate past. Those of us born after the independence of their countries have to explain to one another what their present is, and more specifically how they relate to one another. An example, as an Igbo man, the most urgent question I need to ask myself ought to be about my relation to fellow Nigerians of other ethnic extractions: the Efik, the Igala, the Yoruba, the Fulani, Hausa, etc. We all share the same country, and the answer we give to the above question can shape our future more than the quest to understand how the white man ill-defined us. As a heterosexual man married for now close to twenty-years, the most fundamental question has to do with how I relate to this life partner. Do I see her as an end or means to an end?
Umezurike: Is ethics then useful only for the contemporary texts?
Eze: It helps us understand every text, from Homer’s Odyssey to Things Fall Apart. For example, once you blank out the white man in the background and ask yourself—what was Okonkwo to his wives, children, and neighbors? Or rather, what were they to them? What were the Osus (the untouchables) and the ohus (the slaves) to the Umuofia people—you might begin to grasp why they fell apart even before the white man fired the first shot. You might be tempted to arrive to the conclusion that the people actually never stood together. So, we need to raise more fundamental questions that go to the heart of how we related to one another and to the environment, as Cajetan Iheka does in his celebrated book, Naturalizing Africa.
Umezurike: So, you and Professor Iheka are asking questions that arise from the African condition.
Eze: Precisely. That is what alert intellectuals ought to be doing. I have also read some of the things written by Bonny Ibhawoh, Moses Ebe Ochonu, and Ato Quayson, especially his Aesthetic Nervousness. These are some of the scholars who have stopped answering questions raised by Westerners, but rather address the African condition.
Umezurike: In your book Ethics and Human Rights in Anglophone African Women’s Literature, you conceptualised “feminist empathy” as a way of reading African women’s writing. Why do you choose to “gender” empathy? Are you not concerned that some might find its usage quite restrictive? Moreover, is feminist empathy limited only to our appreciation of the “stories about women in pain”? Where does the pain of a man figure in your idea of feminist empathy, considering the accent you put on human flourishing?
Eze: Feminist empathy is personal as it is cultural and social. There are two moments that convinced me of its relevance in contemporary Africa: First: I grew up watching my father beat up my mother like a child. I hated the scenes with every fibre of my being. I never wished any woman to be in that position. The second instance was when my two brothers and I shared my father’s estates in the village. I have three sisters. They did not get anything, because girls have no right of inheritance in Igboland. As a scholar I knew I had to come up with a theory that can allow men like me to begin to see their spouses as partners and their daughters as human beings that also deserve some economic basis in life. One of the ways to achieve that is to imagine themselves in the position of those females. Feminist empathy engages issues specific to patriarchal structures designed to see woman as an afterthought. Empathy cannot solve our problems, but it can help us to think more constructively about them. Regarding the pain of man, the notion of human flourishing is designed to do everything possible to alleviate human suffering.
Umezurike: The concept of “empathetic cosmopolitanism” is an important idea in your book Race, Decolonization, and Global Citizenship in South Africa, which I really enjoyed reading and some of the ideas there have informed my thinking about the ethical dimensions of masculinity in the Nigerian novels I am researching. Is there any way we can translate “empathetic cosmopolitanism” into praxis or social action? Or institute it as a model for human interactions and relations?
Eze: First, we need to understand empathy as not necessarily the same as compassion, though both are rooted in the same Greek origin: empatheia, to feel, to have emotion. Compassion is generally understood as a positive gesture towards relieving somebody’s pain. Empathy can lead to compassion, but does not have to. Empathy is not a call to charity. It means putting oneself in another person’s position, seeing the world from that perspective, if only for a split second.
Umezurike: Can you talk about how we can mobilise empathy to possibly dismantle structures of hate and fear of the Other, particularly in these troubling times? To what extent might empathy prove effective to incite allyship across nativist, racial, and religious divides?
Eze: Empathy cannot be commanded. It is essentially an appeal—and by the way that is what literature does. As Jean-Paul Sartre states in his famous “What is Literature?” the writer appeals to the world. The writer shapes the world of the characters in a way to appeal to the readers’ sentiment. In some cases the text succeeds in making the reader “understand.” If we understand empathy as a form of the Golden Rule—do unto others as you would like to be done unto you—that can be deployed to initiate some conversations. One possible result is that we might moderate or even give up our original positions. Most importantly though, there might be what Hand Georg Gadamer calls Horizontverschmelzung—the melding of horizons. What this means in simple terms is that when we begin to dialogue with one another, when through hearing each other’s stories we begin to step into each other’s world of meaning, we might just find out what we have in common. This common space might just be enough to sustain our partnership.
Umezurike: One of the arguments you make in Race, Decolonization, and Global Citizenship in South Africa is that Africa has provided an ethical model for relationality such as Ubuntu. In your research, have you encountered any other Afrocentric model that could be employed to facilitate rethinking of human relations?
Eze: Ubuntu is not a perfect term. However, it captures some of the sincere efforts made by Africans and people of African descent to engage with their world. What I admire about it is its emphasis on inclusiveness and emphasis on perfection. Other efforts include “Conviviality” (Paul Gilroy), and Kwame Anthony Appiah’s “Cosmopolitan Contamination.” We now have Afropolitanism, proposed by Taiye Selasie. All these are efforts to expand our understanding of Africa and being African in the world
Umezurike: In Race, Decolonization, and Global Citizenship in South Africa, you write that: “We tell stories to be fully human, making sense of our experiences through the act of narrating them.” This reminds me of what Martha Nussbaum seems to describe, in Not for Profit, as “narrative imagination.” As a teacher of literature, how have stories helped your students to deal with questions of identity and difference? What work can stories do in encouraging us to reimagine a better social order rooted in decolonial ethics?
Eze: There is no reality outside stories, or what we prefer to call narratives. We consume the world in bits through stories: anecdotes, jokes, legends, fictions, factual reportage, etc. Our faiths (those who belong to organised religions) came to us in form of stories. Every once in a while I tell my students bits of my life story. They also share their stories so that by the end of the semester we all almost become a community. This is because we have heard one another’s stories. Stories can shape the world positively or negatively. After all, racists know how to frame stories that dehumanise others. The Nazis used it effectively against the Jews, and white people used it effectively during the Jim Crow era. What good stories do, however, is to humanise the world and make it possible for us to relate to others as humans. This, I think, covers any need to conceive of ethics as decolonial.
Umezurike: Lastly, would you like to share with us what you are working on? What advice would you give an aspiring scholar of African literature?
Eze: I have a book coming out from Routledge titled, Justice and Human Rights in the African Imagination. In it, I engaged with some issues such as the fate of people living with albinism, people with alternative sexualities in Africa, people accused of witchcraft. I am also working on a manuscript that examines the importance of Nelson Mandela in rethinking African political thought. It wants to understand the theoretical possibility of forgiveness in the African political thought.
Umezurike: Thank you very much, Eze. It was a delight talking with you.
Eze: It’s been my pleasure, Uche. Thanks, too.
Uchechukwu Peter Umezurike is a PhD Candidate and Vanier Scholar in the English and Film Studies department of the University of Alberta, Canada. His critical writing has appeared in Tydskrif vir Letterkunde, Postcolonial Text, Journal of African Cultural Studies, Cultural Studies, Journal of African Literature Association, and African Literature Today. He is a co-editor of Wreaths for Wayfarers, an anthology of poems.
Umezurike has been a long-time generous contributor to AiW. For more of his AiW posts, including his Words on the Times – a Q&A set intended to connect our communities up during the challenges of the pandemic – please click through to his AiW Guest posts here.