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Erin Hurt on "Resistance Literature"

Cover of "Resistance Literature": Illustration of woman reading book

Barbara Harlow

Resistance Literature

Methuen, 1987
234 pages

Reviewed by Erin Hurt

As one of the foundational texts in the field of postcolonial writing, Barbara Harlow’s Resistance Literature broke new ground in western literary studies by not only calling for a wider, more serious consideration of previously ignored Third World texts, but also for demanding that critics abandon their New Critical mantle of neutrality and objectivity in favor of a methodology that takes the social, political, and historical circumstances of these works into account.

The assertion at the center of Resistance Literature is straightforward: literature represents an essential “arena of struggle” for those peoples who seek liberation through armed fighting from oppressive colonialism. As Harlow explains, “the historical struggle against colonialism and imperialism of such resistance movements…is waged at the same time as a struggle over the historical and cultural record.” Moreover, this battle for historical and cultural control “is seen from all sides as no less crucial than the armed struggle.” Amilcar Cabral, a leader of the Guinea-Bissau liberation movement as well as liberation theorist, nicely summarizes resistance literature’s primary role when he explains, “armed liberation struggle is not only a product of culture, but a determinant of culture.” As Harlow’s work goes on to show, resistance movements rely on political and guerilla elements to force governmental and civil change, but only via literary elements will they be able to liberate themselves from cultural hegemony and domination.

Harlow begins her text by explaining a theoretical framework that builds on work by Ghassan Kanafani and Michel Foucault. She follows this opening chapter with discussions of resistance poetry, resistance narratives, prison memoirs, and post-independence texts. Each chapter builds its argument by looking at the work of many different authors such as Roque Dalton, Julio Cortazar, and Akhtar Baluch. As Harlow explains in her preface, part of her goal in Resistance Literature is to simply show as many texts as possible in order to represent “the diversity and scope” of this body of work. She is careful to point out that any “arbitrariness” in her selection of writers in part stems from a lack of availability of “Third World” texts due to the censorship and neglect in “First” and “Third” world publishing industries. Despite this dearth, the work showcases a substantial number of books. 

Within the area of poetry, Harlow examines the work of Cuban Nicolás Guillén, Chilean Pablo Neruda, Nicaraguan Ernesto Cardenal, Baluchistanian Balach Khan, Kenyan Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Cape Verdean Onesimo Silveira, Mozambican Jorge Rebelo, El Salvadoran Roque Dalton, and South African A.N.C. Kumalo. For Harlow, resistance poetry replaces those cultural and literary traditions lost by Third World peoples through the “First World’s military, economic, and political intervention”—by replenishing the “popular memory” these poets produce a new national consciousness. They achieve this by engaging with instances of cultural, institutional, and authoritarian imperialism, exploring the poet’s role in the liberation struggle, and providing a means by which the powerless communicate with the powerful. Most importantly, this poetry provides “a force for mobilizing a collective response to occupation and domination.” Through their work, poets allow a people to reclaim their “historical personality,” which for Harlow is a necessary part of any successful national liberation.

Harlow’s discussion of resistance narratives includes work by Argentinian writer Julio Cortazar, Nicaraguan Omar Cabezas, Palestinian Ghassan Kanafani, Nicaraguan Sergio Ramirez, El Salvadoran Manlio Argueta, South African Sipho Sepamla, and Lebanese Etel Adnan. This chapter distinguishes between narrative and poetry by presenting the former as more expansive and more analytical than the latter. She writes, “Resistance narratives go further in analyzing the relations of power which sustain the system of domination and exploitation.” Furthermore, because of its length, the narrative “provides a more developed historical analysis of the circumstances of economic, political, and cultural domination and repression and through that analysis raises a systematic and concerted challenge to the imposed chronology of what Fredric Jameson has called ‘master narratives,’ ideological paradigms which contain within their plots a predetermined ending.” By constructing their own conclusion, novelists are able to appropriate and challenge those conclusions imposed by the imperial forces of the West. Narratives are also able to present and analyze the role of the past in the present, and to use this analysis to find new ways to resist in “the present and in the future.”

Resistance writers are imprisoned as much for their political writing as for their role in a liberation or resistance movement. Harlow highlights this by looking at the prison memoirs of writers such as Chilean Victor Jara, South African Molefe Pheto, Bolivian Domitilia Barrios de Chungara, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Kenyan writer and novelist, South African Bessie Head, Egyptian Nawal al-Saadawi, Sindhi Akhtar Baluch, Ruth First, and Argentinian Jacobo Timerman, which serve as proof of “the serious consequences for the writers’ very persons and lives.” A memoir plays a complex role within the fight for liberation. Not only does it align an individual experience with the collective struggle, but it helps a political prisoner maintain “morale and conviction” in spite of horrific circumstances. Memoirs also challenge the social structures that underlie the prison system and its rules by recording both the brutality that takes place within the walls of the prison as well as in resistance. Through their very existence, these texts make material the power and desire of the government to censor and silence resistance writing. 

In her penultimate chapter, “Commitment to the Future,” Harlow looks at literature that responds to the post-independence moment. She writes, “The contradictions between the utopian goals and visions once expressed by the leaders, ideologues, even the participants, in the national liberation movements and resistance organizations of the previous decades and their ultimate failure of realization on the achievement of independence were manifest in the social discontent and economic disorder of the various new nations.” As an example, she examines Ghanaian Ayi Kwei Armah’s novel The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1968) and highlights the tension that arises for the protagonist between the version of a post-independent nation promised by the revolutionary ideals and a present Ghanaian society that falls far short of these. Other authors in this section include Egyptian Sonallah Ibrahim, Ghassan Kanafani, and South African Nadine Gordimer. From their works, Harlow concludes: “Unlike the narratives of resistance, with their open-ended histories and critical elaboration of new social and political formations, the dystopian visions of neo-colonialism suggest instead historical foreclosure and cultural bankruptcy.” In its effort to help achieve future utopias, Harlow argues that resistance literature must critique and create workable strategies for achieving these utopian goals. This means that literature must show not only what an independent nation will look like when liberation finally happens, but also the steps that revolutionaries must take to get there. 

Throughout Resistance Literature, Harlow not only presents new writing but a new critical perspective. Part of her argument is that work written in the context of resistance does not allow for an impartial approach, but instead requires an abandoning of the western model of criticism that renders art as apolitical. To fully make her point, Harlow quotes from Foucault, who writes, “We should abandon a whole tradition that allows us to imagine that knowledge can exist only where the power relations are suspended and that knowledge can develop only outside its injunctions, its demands and its interests.” Within the context of liberation, resistance literature loses any pretense of detachment from or objectivity toward the “political reality of struggle”—these works are fully part of the historical situations within which they are forged. In this book, Harlow offers and demonstrates a criticism that melds attention to literary form with an accounting of a text’s historical and political circumstances.

As Harlow herself writes, Resistance Literature should be read as a precursor, a preliminary study of this burgeoning new field. It is to the credit of the text, and Harlow herself, in the twenty years since its publication, the book has evolved from emerging to foundational scholarship and in the process changed how critics look at literature. 

Harlow herself has gone on to develop many of these themes further in her subsequent works. In Barred: Women, Writing, and Political Detention (1992) she expands on her work with prison memoirs to examine the connections, for Third World women, between feminism, women’s liberation, and the larger collective struggle. In her most recent publication, After Lives: Legacies of Revolutionary Writing (1996), she picks up where Resistance Literature leaves off. Focusing on the work of Ghassan Kanafani, Roque Dalton, and Ruth First, Harlow explores both the legacies and contemporary status of resistance literature in a post-revolutionary world. Moreover, Harlow’s work as an editor on such volumes as The View from Within: Writers and Critics on Contemporary Arabic Literature (with Ferial Ghazoul, 1994), Imperialism and Orientalism: A Documentary Sourcebook (with Mia Carter, 1999),
Palavers of African Literature: Essays in Honor of Bernth Lindfors (Vol. 1) and African Writers and Their Readers: Essays in Honor of Bernth Lindfors (Vol. 2, with Toyin Falola 2002),
 Archives of Empire: From the East India Company to the Suez Canal (Vol. 1) and Archives of Empire: The Scramble for Africa (Vol. 2) (with Mia Carter 2003) demonstrates a sustained interest in archiving third world writing. 

Resistance Literature demands that the study of literature should have everything to do with the material world, the obtaining of civil and human rights, the throwing off of hegemony, and “the active reconstruction of interrupted histories.” Resistance Literature, through its detailed look at the connection between liberation and literature, shows that these works are intrinsically and inherently political, and implies that efforts to read this literature otherwise is to offer an incomplete and irresponsible interpretation. Moving beyond the page, Harlow’s work continues at University of Texas at Austin in the form of the courses she teaches, the dissertation committees on which she serves, and, most especially, in her continued leadership of the Ethnic and Third World Interest Group.