Imperially White and Male. Colonial Masculinities in M. G. Vassanji’s The Book of Secrets (1994) and Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Desertion (2005)

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Abstract

The interconnection between empire and whiteness has been demonstrated in critical works such as Richard Dyer’s White (1997) and, more recently, Bill Schwarz’s The White Man’s World (2011). Considering Dyer’s observation that “race and gender are ineluctably intertwined” (30), this essay explores the interdependence of whiteness and maleness that stands at the core of empire’s rhetoric. Vassanji’s The Book of Secrets and Gurnah’s Desertion counteract the ideal imperial masculinity elicited by colonial literature by destabilizing the imperial dyad of whiteness and maleness. Following Dyer’s powerful assertion that “whiteness needs to be made strange” (1997, 10), I contend that in The Book of Secrets and Desertion, not only is whiteness made strange but so also is maleness. Sara Ahmed’s phenomenological approach to whiteness allows me to probe into the ambivalences and ambiguities of the colonial (white and male) body. This is a body forged within patriarchal discourse which, despite its normative and authoritative whiteness and maleness, is doomed to remain a body-out-of-place. Henceforth, it is empire’s own creation of the colonial body that ultimately dislocates it. Displacement, in its variegated manifestations, is what assails the three embodiments of whiteness that feature in Vassanji and Gurnah’s texts, namely, the soldier/estate manager, the administrator, and the orientalist. Nonetheless, it is the body of Gregory, the homosexual poet and teacher of English literature from The Book of Secrets, that is the recipient of the most acute ambivalences and contradictions of whiteness. Gregory’s body resists colonial embodiment. In his dismissal of whiteness and maleness, Gregory experiences the crudest manifestation of displacement, but this is precisely what permits him to negotiate a subjectivity beyond the phallocentric framework of imperialism.

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Pujolràs-Noguer, E. (2019). Imperially White and Male. Colonial Masculinities in M. G. Vassanji’s The Book of Secrets (1994) and Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Desertion (2005). Interventions, 21(1), 131–149. https://doi.org/10.1080/1369801X.2018.1487323

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