Postcolonial Fiction and Colonial Time: 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.

Postcolonial Fiction and Colonial Time: Waiting for Now (out now from Edinburgh University Press) examines the temporal dimensions of waiting in postcolonial fiction, from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to Sierra Leonean writer Ishmael Beah’s 2014 novel Radiance of Tomorrow. Contrary to the widespread association of waiting with passivity or powerlessness, I argue that waiting can be re-appropriated as a strategy or cultural practice, producing possibilities for action and resistance. Waiting for Now contributes to the resurgence of interest in time within literary studies by demonstrating that waiting is integral to colonial regimes of time and postcolonial temporalities, from anticolonial nationalist movements for independence to forms of reconciliation after the aftermath of conflict. The book’s conclusion then takes a critical view of US American discourses of preemptive military strikes as “refusals to wait” in the War on Terror, which appropriate the radical potential of mid-century independence movements and their opposition to waiting.

The central aim of Waiting for Now is to reveal the fundamental, constitutive role that the temporal dimensions of waiting have in colonial regimes of time, as well as in postcolonial framings of time, history, and agency. Drawing from critical time and postcolonial studies alike, I argue that the temporality of waiting is an essential concept to theorize the relationship between time and power in postcolonial fiction across the long twentieth century—one that illuminates the contradictory temporalities that underlie narratives of progress, modernization, and development. In addition to innovative readings of both classic and contemporary postcolonial novels, Waiting for Now challenges the dominant narrative of the twentieth century as a time of acceleration and movement by arguing for the centrality of waiting to time-consciousness in the postcolonial world.

Waiting for Now answers the following questions: How is waiting configured in relation to colonial regimes of time, to anticolonial nationalisms, to so-called disillusionment after independence, and to promises of closure following Truth and Reconciliation Commissions? How do characters mobilize the language of waiting to describe the limitations and possibilities that inhere in their postcolonial present and conception of the future? The implications of this project are threefold. First, the analytic of waiting revises dominant narratives of anticolonial nationalism—movements that are generally characterized by “refusals to wait”—by opening up competing temporalities. Second, the methodology of pairing novels through their shared investments in waiting as a temporal mode reveals unexpected correspondences across postcolonial fictional texts, yet the novels’ contrasts underscore the specific historical and cultural contexts that condition the experience of waiting. Finally, contrary to the widespread association of waiting with passive disempowerment, the project suggests that waiting can be mobilized as an active strategy of temporal unruliness and resistance.

Key features:

  1. Brings together critical time and postcolonial studies, which produces new directions for both fields
  2. Intervenes in theorizations of the experience and layering of time and temporality across postcolonial spaces by centering the temporality of waiting
  3. First study to examine colonial and postcolonial temporalities through the analytic of waiting