Waiting for Now

On March 6, 1957 at midnight, Ghana raised its new national flag, replacing the Union Jack and marking the establishment of the Republic of Ghana and its independence from the United Kingdom. At that midnight ceremony in Ghana, the first African country south of the Sahara to achieve independence from European colonial rule, prime minister Kwame Nkrumah declared, “We are not waiting; we shall no more go back to sleep. Today, from now on, there is a new African in the world and that new African is ready to fight his own battle….We are going to demonstrate to the world, to the other nations, young as we are, that we are prepared to lay our own foundation.” In anticolonial nationalist movements across the globe, agitation for change has often been linked with refusals to wait, as activists saw waiting as a concession to a colonial sense of time, which postpones self-rule indefinitely.

Despite the ostensible rejection of waiting at independence, however, the rhetoric of waiting did not disappear in postcolonial literature after the majority of postcolonial nations achieved independence in the 1960s. Instead, novels like Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s A Grain of Wheat describe waiting as a “taut cord” underlying the ceremony marking Kenya’s independence, while others such as Ayi Kwei Armah’s Fragments suggest a new openness to Ghana’s future through characters who decide to “wait for whatever will come.” Rather than link waiting with refusal, these texts explore waiting as an experience and orientation in time that might be employed in active resistance to both colonial and neocolonial powers. Recuperating subversive aspects of the temporal dimensions of waiting appears to be at odds with the rhetoric of Kwame Nkrumah and other agitators for political independence. When studied together, however, postcolonial novels depict characters inhabiting waiting in various ways. Some characters utilize the language of waiting to critique the shortcomings of the postcolonial state and the damaging effects of neocolonialism, suggesting that the integration into civil society is still indefinitely deferred; for others waiting is a potential strategy of resistance, as characters refuse to labor in time with capitalism’s dictates, or they use times of enforced waiting to build community and to meditate on the past.

My dissertation also reframes the conception of “colonial time” by demonstrating that it is both marked and challenged by the experience and practice of waiting. The implications of tracking waiting in postcolonial novels are threefold. First, this structuring and thematic concept pushes back on received narratives of anticolonial nationalism by opening up alternative and competing temporalities for both the characters and the nation they inhabit. Second, it demonstrates unexpected correspondences across postcolonial novels that share affinities through the temporality of waiting, putting into dialogue novels as diverse as V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River and Nadine Gordimer’s July’s People, and J.M. Coetzee’s Life & Times of Michael K and Alejo Carpentier’s The Kingdom of This World. Finally, paying further attention to waiting as it is manifested in these novels illuminates the contradictory temporalities that underlie narratives of progress, modernization, and development. Waiting can become an active strategy of resistance in the face of pressures to develop and to modernize following a modular form.

To illuminate the complex relationship between waiting and colonial time, my introduction discusses Joseph Conrad’s classic 1898 novella, Heart of Darkness—a text continually revisited in postcolonial literature classes for its complicated rendering of colonial attitudes of difference and otherness, and one that postcolonial authors rewrite or respond to in their own works.[1] By locating the temporality of waiting in the colonial context, my introduction creates a genealogy of waiting that extends from the turn of the twentieth-century to the present day. Heart of Darkness is certainly indebted to the notions of progress, development, and evolution en vogue at the turn of the century, but an examination of the temporal dimensions of waiting in the text reinvigorate the novel’s complicated relationship with the narratives of linear, historical time. The text suggests that waiting is an alternative modality that inscribes these temporal tensions. After discovering that his steamer is sunk at the Central station, Marlow ascribes waiting to the environment itself: “‘And outside, the silent wilderness surrounding this cleared speck on the earth struck me as something great and invincible, like evil or truth, waiting patiently for the passing away of this fantastic invasion. …It had been hopeless from the very first’” (23). The passage exemplifies a trend that continues throughout Heart of Darkness, associating waiting with futility, at least from Marlow’s European perspective. Significantly, the language of the passage allows for an alternative reading of waiting as resistance, or a resistive modality for colonial Others just beyond the limits of Marlow’s comprehension and understanding. With a long or alternative view of history, the colonial episode appears as a “fantastic invasion” which too might pass—waiting as a mode of survival, in which the Congo and its people endure and may be poised for an opportunity to transform waiting into action.

The succeeding chapters of my dissertation examine the different temporal dimensions of waiting through postcolonial novels selected for their exceptional emphasis on waiting and time. Each chapter intentionally pairs two novels from different geographical locations and authors; this methodology demonstrates unexpected correspondence across postcolonial novels through their shared investments in waiting as a temporal mode, yet their contrasts underscore the ways that waiting is conditioned by specific historical and cultural contexts. For example, chapter 1 pairs A Bend in the River by Trinidadian writer V.S. Naipaul with July’s People by South African writer Nadine Gordimer, and I argue that their constructions of “waiting rooms of history” in the interior of Africa are designed to achieve very different ends; for Naipaul, the waiting room of history is both the default and requisite temporal model for the formerly colonized Africans of the unnamed country in A Bend in the River. For Gordimer’s Maureen, her perception of July’s village as a kind of waiting room pushes her to confront the apartheid regimes of temporality that have structured the economic, social, and political relationships between her family and July’s. Her refusal to wait any longer is a rejection of that apartheid temporality, whereas Salim’s refusal to wait in A Bend in the River is ultimately an acquiescence to the waiting rooms of history, in which certain occupants of the globalized, postcolonial world will always be relegated. Naipaul’s nihilism, as so many critics have characterized his pessimism, is a product of taking a revolutionary “refusal to wait” and inverting its revolutionary potential. Regardless of the events of the colonial period and independence decades, his narrative suggests, the formerly colonized are still waiting, and always will be.

Chapter 2 analyzes the Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier’s novel depicting the Haitian Revolution, The Kingdom of This World, establishing the importance of maroons to the narrative’s theme and structure. Maroons were escaped slaves who fled to the hills, and I argue that their insistence on spatial difference produces a sense of time and history antagonistic to the colonial state. I then read South African author J.M. Coetzee’s Life & Times of Michael K through the lens of marronage, identifying idleness as a strategy of resistive waiting. By pairing the Indian writer Anita Desai’s Cry the Peacock and the Ghanaian writer Ayi Kwei Armah’s Fragments in chapter 3, I explore the temporal dimensions of waiting and disillusionment following independence in India and Ghana respectively. Chapter 4 brings together South African author Njabulo Ndebele’s The Cry of Winnie Mandela and Sierra Leonean author Ishmael Beah’s Radiance of Tomorrow to assess what I call “strategic waiting” as a productive stage in the process of negotiating a traumatic past in order to create a shared future. I consider the role of “strategic waiting” in relation to the temporalities of “waiting” that underpinned the Truth and Reconciliation Commission processes in both countries. I conclude my dissertation with a reflection on the continuing significance of waiting as an approach to being in time and in the world. In particular, I examine the rhetoric of waiting as it is mobilized in the post 9/11 world: in the language of terrorist sleeper cells waiting for a sign to activate, as well as George W. Bush’s defense of preemptive military strikes that frame national security in terms of refusing to wait. In the contemporary global landscape populated by refugees waiting for asylum, the temporal dimensions of waiting are still invoked in both new and problematic ways, and waiting continues to reflect geopolitical divisions and realities.


By reading waiting through Heart of Darkness and later postcolonial novels, I preserve the texts’ complicated renderings of time in an effort to work within and across the binary division of the colonial and postcolonial eras. The significance and urgency of attending to waiting in postcolonial literature in particular is captured in another context by Pierre Bourdieu, who remarks in Pascalian Meditations that the time and space of waiting is “one of the privileged ways of experiencing the effect of power” (255). In other words, it is in the time of waiting especially that we can see the tensions and negotiations between old and new, past and present, and various historical narratives. My dissertation formulates new ways of understanding the role of waiting in constructions of colonial and postcolonial temporalities, and also stresses the significance of waiting in the structure of power relations more generally. The dimensions of waiting elucidated in my study reinvigorate waiting as a modality that can be at turns debilitating, depressing, strategic, calculating, and meditative. In addition to innovative readings of both classic and new postcolonial novels, my dissertation challenges the dominant narrative of the twentieth century as only a time of acceleration and movement by arguing for the centrality of waiting to time-consciousness in the postcolonial world.

[1] V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River, which I study in chapter 1 of my dissertation, is one such fictional text. Others include Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North and Michelle Cliff’s Into the Interior, among many others.