(Article discussed: Novak, Amy, ‘Who Speaks? Who Listens? The Problem of Address in Two Nigerian Trauma Novels’, Studies in the Novel 40.1&2, issue on ‘Postcolonial Trauma Novels’ (Spring-Summer 2008), pp. 31-51. Includes a discussion of GraceLand.)
In Amy Novak’s “Who Speaks? Who Listens? The Problem of Address in Two Nigerian Trauma Novels,” published in Studies in the Novel in 2008, Novak discusses GraceLand and Half of a Yellow Sun through the lens of trauma theory, focusing on how colonialism has remained a traumatic event for the Nigerian people that impacts their concepts of identity and realism. Contrary to Freud’s theory of trauma, which pinpoints a single, specific event as determining behavior, Novak follows in Franz Fanon’s footsteps in discussing how colonialism, the impact of British dominion and modern Western capitalism combine to create a veil of trauma that permeates Nigerian society. According to Novak, “The economic, political, and cultural domination of colonialism lingers in multiple ways long after the changing of flags. … The traumatic legacy of colonialism is not only evident in the large-scale events of history but also in the daily private lives of citizens” (34).
That “daily private lives of citizens” is how Novak links trauma to GraceLand, in which Elvis is abused, raped, tortured and unbelievably scarred from childhood onward. This combination of violence leaves Elvis in a state of flux considering his identity: He isn’t definitively homosexual or straight; he isn’t obsessed with a sense of traditional masculinity, as his father Sunday is, but he isn’t completely on board with wearing makeup full time; and he is torn regarding the appeal of Western influence, despite his namesake. These “artifacts of Western culture in contemporary Lagos” (34) impact not only Elvis, but also friends such as Redemption and the King of Beggars — the former becomes in drug trade to the U.S., while the latter rails against the World Bank, IMF and other Western organizations he believes have negatively impacted Nigeria. And later on, when Elvis and Redemption become involved in the Colonel’s transportation of organs and bodies, “Africans themselves become the latest natural resource exported to the West. This new exploitation, though, is also a return as the West trades yet again in African bodies, this time in silent fragmented pieces” (42). The Colonel may not be British or American, but his actions are colored by a need for those markets and their business — because the economy of Nigeria has been so overwhelmingly affected by colonialism and its ills that the country’s citizens have become commodities.
What does all of this specifically mean for Elvis, and how we view him throughout the course of GraceLand? For Novak, “The novel’s back-and-forth movement between Elvis as a young adult in urban Lagos and his childhood in the small town of Afikpo grounds the dislocation of the present in the loss of the past brought on by colonialism” (36). Additionally, Elvis’s favorite novels and films “all confirm a white subjectivity. By identifying with these narratives and images, the colonized subject undergoes a wounding; and this injury, as seen in Elvis, results in a loss of voice and no sense of identity–or rather, an identity modeled after the colonizer, which is no identity at all” (37). What do Elvis, John Wayne and Charles Dickens really offer to Elvis’s modern experience? He can acknowledge, with a smile, that “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” applies to Lagos, but how will the lack of male, Nigerian role models impact Elvis as he continues growing up? Does he need one?
As we’ve discussed, Elvis isn’t your typical testosterone-driven character, but if we are to consider how Elvis will overcome the trauma of his past as he moves to the U.S. (if he goes through with it, that is), we must discuss whether we believe he will receive any guidance from men like him. Or, as he leaves Nigeria behind, is he fully accepting these Western artifacts as his new life, with an abandonment of all that came before? The novel ends in an open-ended way regarding whether Elvis decides to travel to the U.S. or not, but beforehand, Chris Abani creates a narrative of trauma fiction that counters “the psychic shattering of the trauma victim with details that record concrete, tangible experiences” (44). It’s up to us as readers to decide whether Elvis will move past the trauma or stay within it.