Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster: Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration

Familial Feeling

Entanglements between Early Black Atlantic Writing and the British Novel

Dr. Elahe Haschemi Yekani


In this book project, I analyse the simultaneous emergence of the British novel of the late eighteenth and nineteenth century and the ideal of the middle-class family as always already entangled with writings of the Early Black Atlantic. No other social sphere, it seems, is as saturated with affects and regimes of feeling as kinship structures. They organise emotional belonging as well as social intelligibility and the accumulation of wealth. Literature and the act of reading as empathic identification with Others becomes the central medium for the conception of the modern subject. This narrative conception of subjectivity hence emerges at the intersection of modernity, national belonging and familial feelings. On a metaphorical level these texts construct a ‘national family’, which feeds into narrations of modern nation states and the emergence of a national literary canon. Authors like Jane Austen, the Brontës and Charles Dickens become pioneers of this new middle-class self-image. At the same time, however, the first written testimonies of Black British or transatlantic authors such as Olaudah Equiano, Ignatius Sancho, Mary Prince and Mary Seacole are published. Linked initially mainly to the abolitionist campaign, these narratives can also be read as part of a larger ‘family history’. Literature becomes the medium of middle-class self-assertion and the emotive claim of subject status by those who have been excluded from the realm of the human, the ‘family of man’. The tension between the canonical texts, on the one side, and those marginalised for a long time, on the other, is understood as an entangled literary history in this project.

Already in 1994 Edward Said suggested to read “different experiences contrapuntally” as “intertwined and overlapping histories” (Culture and Imperialism, 18). Even if this has become a foundational principle of postcolonial literary studies, there is a tendency to focus either on the influences of imperial culture on canonical writers like Austen or Dickens or to shift attention to the global literatures in English. Thereby local contexts are often analysed following the paradigm of ‘writing back’ – challenging the centre from the periphery. In this approach, I argue, the potential of Said’s contrapuntal reading is reduced to a binary opposition that finds expression only in postcolonial writing – understood as a form of writing that succeeds decolonisation. The focus on authors of the Early Black Atlantic, however, shows that already the emergence of the British middle-class family and its narratives are part of a global context that needs to be taken into consideration in its emotive and formative aspects in the interplay of definitions of hegemonic self and Other.

With this publication, I am interested in bringing into dialogue the mainly separated spheres of postclassical approaches in narrative studies, addressing aesthetic dimensions of literature and narrative identity formation, with those strands of affect studies that emphasise the political dimensions of affect and feeling, prevalent in postcolonial studies and queer theory.