Monica Popescu

At Penpoint: African Literatures, Postcolonial Studies, and the Cold War

Duke University Press, 2020

258 pages


Reviewed by Emmanuella Amoh

Author Monica Popescu’s book demonstrates the old saying that the pen is mightier than the sword. Popescu writes, “Most of the Cold War battles were fought at penpoint.” This statement underscores the impact of the era on African literature but, most importantly, moves the conversation of the Cold War, especially as it pertains to Africa beyond “gunpoint” narratives. In other words, besides military and political interventionism, the Soviets and the US used less overt tactics such as controlling scholarly works to transform the continent. Nevertheless, African writers participated in this process of social transformation. Popescu highlights the impact of Cold War politics on African literary studies and urges scholars to “address diachronically overlapping and synchronically interweaving forms of neocolonial domination.” It is a call for scholars to examine multiple views of the Cold War and decolonization by re-reading African literature, which will advance postcolonial, Cold War, and African literary studies. These African writers engaged in Black internationalism, transcending national and ideological boundaries to support liberation and development at home and abroad. They had influence, and pens were their guns during the African Revolution of the second half of the twentieth century.

The book is divided into two parts. Part I focuses on the emergence of African literature as a scholarly field, where Popescu examines debate and analyzes the impact of the Cold War on its production, circulation, and reception between the 1950s and 1980s. Part II focuses on re-reading African literature to show how the continent and its people were “witnesses and contributors to the formation and development of a global Cold War culture.” At Penpoint offers a series of historical interventions, including what Popescu calls a dissociative approach to Cold War narratives.

The United States Cold War policy of “winning hearts and minds” led them to interfere in the production of African literature. African literature, the author notes, emerged with a nationalistic sentiment in hopes of supporting the independence struggle and nation-building. It also challenged Eurocentric and racist views about Black people. According to Popescu, the US used cultural diplomacy to shape the emergence of African literature by funding African writers and publishing African literary texts they felt reflected well on them, thereby shaping the taste for particular genres of African literature. Popescu adds that writers who promoted American values received invitations to the US and support for their publications, which in turn canonized them as authorities in African literary works. According to Popescu, African literati like Ezekiel Mphahlele, Rajat Neogy, and Dennis Duerden, directly and indirectly, became Western cultural bearers. They advanced Western discourse such as individualism.

The Soviets also pursued this cultural policy through organizations like the Soviet Filmmaker’s Union and Writer’s Union. The Soviets’ “cultural ambassadors” promoted collectivism and active participation in societal building. Ousmane Sembene and Abderrahmane Sissako were some of the beneficiaries of Soviet funding. Thus, the US and the USSR pursued a ‘second scramble for Africa’ using military and political control over intellectual productions and culture of Africa. Despite what appeared to be a Western and Eastern divide, Popescu demonstrates brilliantly that African writers often transcended the binary and combined elements from multiple places to advance African literature. Thus, they had more agency than often perceived. As the author notes, writers like Sembene, Mphahlele, and Ayi Kwei Armah were not autonomous writers who distanced themselves from the affairs of the day; instead, they advanced anti-colonialism and nation-building ideologies within their essays and literary works.

Popescu also demonstrates that Africans challenged dominant meanings of Western concepts such as realism and modernism through their novels. The Ghanaian writer Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born captured the reality of Kwame Nkrumah’s Ghana (1957-1966) in its quest to rebuild and modernize while claiming independence and crafting its path in the political ideology of African socialism. Popescu underscores that Armah’s work, like many postcolonial literary works, showed the stagnation of neocolonialism and the end of African socialism. Armah challenged and re-interpreted Marxism for the African context as a theory of liberation, which embodied colonialist features. In other works like Ngugi wa Th’iongo’s Petals of Blood, Popescu demonstrates the challenges of postcolonial Africa and how African writers combined Western and African elements to define African realism, modernity, and democracy. They engaged Western and African theorists such as Karl Marx, Frantz Fanon, and Amilcar Cabral.

Popescu’s work also seeks to bridge the story of decolonization and the Cold War. Popescu puts African nationalism in the context of the Cold War to demonstrate how African writers engaged the Iron curtain and shows the impact it had on them, especially in the development of African literary studies. One of the central aims of the book is to show the effect of the era on cultural productions in the Third World and their resistance to America and the USSR’s ideological, political, and cultural impositions. Popescu uses what she terms a “dissociative approach” to highlight some of these binary politics and framings of the Cold War period, which tend to victimize people of the Third World. Transcending the binary frameworks draws attention to the agency of African writers. In other words, Africans were not just victims of the Cold War but active agents in the global changes of the era from political independence to literary studies. Thus, the book urges scholars to go beyond the superpowers in studies of the Cold War.

At Penpoint speaks to a variety of disciplines and historiographies, including literary studies, African studies, African literature, Cold War studies, and Black internationalism. Essentially, Popescu shows how the Third World contributed to global cultural formations within the context of Cold War narratives that tend to victimize them. Popescu writes in accessible language that will make graduates and undergrads appreciate and trace the transnational networks involving African writers, diasporic African intellectuals, and various Cold War actors and the impact they had on Africa, especially in the area of African literature.