Tuire Valkeakari, Precarious Passages: The Diasporic Imagination in Contemporary Black Anglophone Fiction

Tuire Valkeakari, Precarious Passages: The Diasporic Imagination in Contemporary Black Anglophone Fiction (Gainesville: University Press of Florida 2017) 344 pp. $84.95 Hb. ISBN: 978-0-8130-6247-1

Precarious Passages makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the diasporic imagination in post-Second-World-War and contemporary black Anglophone fiction.  The entry point into Valkeakari’s analysis is a selection of contemporary fiction by writers of the Anglophone African diaspora in the West: novels depicting migration, movement and dislocation at various stages and settings of black Atlantic history.

Themes of identity formation and black diasporic (be)longing are woven throughout the book and as the title suggests, the author engages with the important role of fiction, particularly historical fiction, in this process. The scope of Precarious Passages is wide-ranging. Valkeakari’s monograph study examines eleven historically informed novels by eight contemporary novelists of African or African Caribbean descent: Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage (1990), Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes, Toni Morrison’s Sula (1973) and Tar Baby (1981), George Lamming’s The Emigrants (1954), Caryl Phillips’s The Final Passage (1985), A State of Independence (1986) and Crossing the River (1993), Andrea Levy’s Small Island (2004), Cecil Foster’s Sleep On, Beloved (1995) and Edwidge Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory (1994).

Precarious Passages first identifies the conflicting approaches to ethnoracial terminology to discuss the diasporic imagination in post-Second-World-War and contemporary black Anglophone fiction. The terms ‘black diaspora’ and ‘African diaspora’ are used interchangeably throughout her study. Valkeakari argues that the two meanings both overlap frequently in the materials she is studying; hence her preference for interchangeability in the examinations and discussions.

For the most part Precarious Passages is structured chronologically. The author claims to adopt an integrative approach as the book 'reads samples of all these national/regional varieties of black Anglophone diasporic fiction together' (3). Valkeakari took the decision to proceed in a chronological order 'with respect to the eras that the novels portray, with concessions made for some movement back and forth in time and among my sources' (32).  This comparative reading strategy offers a valuable perspective on the representation of black diasporic identity formation that is not often explored in postcolonial and diaspora studies. Here, temporally disparate set of texts connect with each other to create national identities.

Valkeakari’s examination of Johnson’s Middle Passage in Chapter One shows how this novel contributes to the construction of black diasporic identity. She argues in depth that the entire novel can be interpreted as a story about the formation of the African American protagonist’s diasporic self-understanding.

Chapter Two focuses on Hill’s The Book of Negroes to create a close connection between black diasporic memory and identity. Valkeakari discusses the thematic approach of diasporic subjectivity in Hill’s The Book of Negroes and Johnson’s Middle Passage to demonstrate how both novels create a relationship between memory of the black diaspora and identity. She claims that the major difference between both of these fictional accounts is that Hill’s account of African diasporic history and geography are more detailed than Johnson’s (62). This chapter’s main concern is Hill’s itinerant fictional narrator-protagonist, Aminata Diallo and the development of her diasporic subjectivity, or her process of becoming. Valkeakari’s analysis follows the chronology of Hill’s narrative closely, as she claims the diasporic identity. This critical scholarship creates a relationship between fictional accounts and demonstrates well how the narrative moments including Middle Passage have shaped a wider African diasporic space.

Valkeakari uses Chapter Three to examine war and diaspora, a relationship that is linked by traumatic displacement, that is, the temporary wartime displacement of African American soldiers. In the analysis of Morrison’s Sula and Phillips’s Crossing the River, there is a clear movement from the late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century Atlantic world as portrayed in Hill’s The Book of Negroes to the twentieth century. Precarious Passages delves more deeply into the relationship between diaspora and war in both of Morrison’s novels, Sula, which depicts a veteran of the First World War and Tar Baby, where the male protagonist fought in Vietnam, and the Second World War section of Crossing the River. The chapter discusses Morrison’s and Phillips’ portraits of African American troops in the First World War, the Second World War and Vietnam.

In the fourth chapter, Valkeakari cites Paul Gilroy’s first monograph, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack (1987), noting that even this, Gilroy's first book, 'underscored that nations, with their clearly defined borders, cannot constitute an adequate or sufficient basis for examining black histories and analyzing black cultures' (131). She examines The Emigrants, The Final Passage, and Small Island to analyse the relationship between national identity, diasporic and imperial formations. Female representation in the writings of Phillips, Danticat, and Foster is also considered here.

Chapter Five invites discussion about the formation of national and diasporic self-understandings, and solidarities based on the notion of return. The author examines three black diasporic works in which the crucial points of departure and return occur in the Caribbean: Phillips’s A State of Independence, Barbadian Canadian Foster’s Sleep On, Beloved, and Haitian American Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory.

Valkeakari successfully uses contemporary diasporic Anglophone novels to connect the experiences of black migration and movement. Her study is an insightful and illuminating read, with much to teach about the diasporic imagination in the aftermath of the Second World War. It will be of interest to scholars of Caribbean diaspora and postcolonial studies alike.

Denise Saul, University of Roehampton