Asha Varadharajan – Transplanting the Slave Narrative: Frederick Douglass, B.R. Ambedkar, and Ishmael Beah

Writing the Empire: Scribblings from Below

An international & interdisciplinary conference

Phillipe de Vigors, ‘Convicts letter writing at Cockatoo Island, New South Wales, 1849’
Reproduced by kind permission of the State Library of New South Wales, Sydney


Event Dates: 25 June 2010
Bristol, UK

Asha Varadharajan (Asha Varadharajan, Queen’s University, Canada)
Transplanting the Slave Narrative: Frederick Douglass, B.R. Ambedkar, and Ishmael Beah

Henry Louis Gates’ well-known introduction to Classic Slave Narratives (2002) describes the intrinsic relationship between literacy and freedom in the construction of the genre, as well as its consolidation through imitation and repetition, resulting, therefore, in a simultaneously singular and emblematic literary form. Gates’ concern is with the origins of the African American literary tradition; my concern, however, is with the “travelling” potential of his analysis, with the cross-cultural significance of the genre that the African American literary tradition has made uniquely its own. Could an emphasis on the genre’s structure and recognizable tropes, and on the vexed relations among orality, literacy, humanity, power, and freedom produce novel interpretations of colonial agency and national dissent, thus exceeding the limits of historical repetition and geographical fixity?

In order to explore the transhistorical and cross-cultural potential of the genre of the slave narrative, to delineate the transition from destitution, silence, and animality to ambivalent agency, voice, and humanity, I propose to analyze some of the writings of Frederick Douglass and B.R. Ambedkar, and A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah. I have deliberately chosen masculine figures because I think all three writers demonstrate how their imagination of agency is inextricable from their masculinity. While these writers might seem strange bedfellows at first glance, both Douglass and Ambedkar turn the Bildungsroman into a structure of aversion and conversion in their indictment of the brutal hypocrisies of religious and social systems. All three works negotiate the inhospitable space of the emergent or failed nation state in thrall to the economics of slavery, the intractability of “native” traditions, the legacy of the civilizing mission, the violence of internecine conflict or the lure of the rhetoric of rights and freedoms. Each work is also Janus-faced, narrating experiences that are simultaneously particular and universal.

These preliminary family resemblances across time and space suggest the generic and political constraints and possibilities of the slave narrative. I hope that a careful tracing of the “system of signs” that constitutes the slave narrative (Gates’ phrase) will produce new ways of thinking about writing as a technology of power and instrument of freedom, about the contradictions of colonial agency that make it difficult to extricate resistance from hegemony, about the logic of empire traversed by the demands of caste, nation, and adulthood, about “scribblings from below” that must inhabit the terrain of the “above” in order to be read at all and, finally, about the mark of the human that stains and redeems them.

Asha Varadharajan, Queen’s University, Canada, email
Asha Varadharajan is associate professor of English at Queen’s University in Canada. She is the author of Exotic Parodies: Subjectivity in Adorno, Said, and Spivak (1995). Her most recent publications include “The Unsettling Legacy of Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence” in Modern Language Quarterly (December 2008), “Afterword: ‘The Phenomenology of Violence’ and the ‘Politics of Becoming’” in Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East (2008), and “‘On the Morality of Thinking’: Or Why Still Adorno” in Adorno and the Need in Thinking. Ed. Donald Burke et al (University of Toronto Press, 2007). She is currently at work on two book-length manuscripts, Violence and Civility in the New World Order and Enchantment and Deracination: The Lure of Foreignness in Contemporary Cinema. Her essays on Nick Hornby, Eric Idle, and Hanif Kureishi will appear in the Dictionary of Literary Biography (Bruccoli Clark Layman, 2009) and her contribution to Edward Said: Emancipation and Representation, the extended collection of reflections on Said’s legacy, will appear in 2009 from the University of California Press, Berkeley. Her writing and research encompass the biopolitics of citizenship, the globalization of culture, the conjunction of religion and violence, and the politics of representation in media and visual cultures.








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