Anjuli Ishani Gunaratne, *17

Department of English

Tragic Resistance: Decolonization and Disappearance in Postcolonial Literature (2017)


My dissertation studies an inherent conundrum of postcolonial experience: the supposed failure of decolonization in the Third World. In the face of this failure, the Martinican poet and politician Aimé Césaire declared “nous sommes dans la tragédie” (we are in tragedy), and shifted his focus from writing poetry to writing tragic theater. Upon closer study, I have found that Césaire was not alone in this endeavor. Although the writers whose work this dissertation reads come from different geographical and historical contexts, each turns to tragedy to remember forgotten histories of decolonization and to imagine new forms of resistance: Assia Djebar re-tells the story of Algerian Independence by transposing it from epic to tragedy—we must return to “le creux de la tragédie” (the hollow of tragedy), she tells us.Sylvia Wynter rewrites the epic novel as tragedy, while creating theatrical works that extend what she calls “the cultural guerrilla resistance” that has roots in slave funeral ceremonies. Michael Ondaatje calls human rights reports on crimes against humanity pages “full of tragedy,”going on to uncover in the techniques of forensic investigations the very methods used in tragic theater to explore different and conflicting iterations of justice.

By pluralizing the study of tragedy, my dissertation moves away from the tendency to focuson, in discussions of postcolonial tragedy, C. L. R. James’s The Black Jacobinsand the Haitian Revolution. What emerges through this pluralizing is a theory of the tragic shaped by the violence and silence that haunts decolonization and its aftermaths. Each text I read returns to a site of assassination or disappearance, where mourning was either criminalized or foreclosed. By using tragic form to create experimental mourning rituals, these modern postcolonial tragedies mark a difference between mourning as a personal, psychological process and mourning as a ritualized, dramatic performance open to reinterpretation and repetition. Most importantly, I have found that these tragedies inaugurate a form of speculative thinking, which emerges through melancholic immersion: the “creux” that Djebar speaks of can be translated as both hollow and breathing space; so although each writer is immersed in the loss of what has been erased, this seemingly suffocating immersion opens the way for the conceptualization of a tragic resistance through the remembrance of revolutionary figures and forms of anticolonialism disappeared without a trace.


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