Gothic supernaturalism in the ‘African imagination’

Locating an emerging form

Authored by: Rebecca Duncan

Routledge Handbook of African Literature

Print publication date:  March  2019
Online publication date:  March  2019

Print ISBN:
eBook ISBN: 9781315229546
Adobe ISBN:


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A young Xhosa woman in South Africa is confined to a convent, a ‘cure’ for the spirits that she has always been able to see; a little girl in London makes friends with a Yoruba ghost, and is consequently terrorised by threatening visitations; a child in Igboland hears a voice inside her head, compelling her into the scaled arms of fanged and flesh-eating playmates. These scenarios, taken – respectively – from Angelina N. Sithebe’s Holy Hill (2007), Helen Oyeyemi’s The Icarus Girl (2005) and Nuzo Onoh’s The Sleepless (2016) – demonstrate what I will explore in this chapter as an emerging gothic impulse currently animating strands of literary production within (to borrow F. Abiola Irele’s term) ‘the African imagination’ (2001). But what validates the use of the term ‘gothic’ here, and why its attendant ‘emerging’ designation? African literatures have long been populated by magical and – often – terrifying figures: under what conditions do these become newly legible as ‘gothic’? I address these questions in what follows, although – from the outset – it should be noted that to a certain extent ‘gothic’ appears an appropriate category for analysis on the grounds that it is demanded by the texts themselves. Here I am referring specifically to Onoh, who is hailed – on the jacket of her Unhallowed Graves (2015) – as ‘the frontrunner of African horror’. 1 In the coming pages, I ask what ‘African horror’ might look like, in formal literary terms. I attempt to situate these terms through a discussion of gothic’s treatment of the supernatural, and to locate this within established analyses of magical dimensions of African fiction writing. In conclusion, I suggest that the aesthetic departures entailed in gothic form respond to conditions in African postcolonies at the historical juncture of the millennial present. To begin, however, I broach the often-elusive definition of ‘gothic’.

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