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Modern trickster figure serves to 'decolonize knowledge'

Tuesday, June 27, 2017


LAWRENCE — While a humorous figure in African folk tales in which the character originates, and in the Caribbean children’s stories of her own upbringing, a far more complex, modern portrait of the trickster figure Anansi the Spider emerges in a new book chapter by University of Kansas Professor of English Giselle Anatol.

In “Anansi the Trickster: Contesting Eurocentric Knowledge Production in the Americas” in the “Routledge Companion to Inter-American Studies” (2017), Anatol writes that the character serves modern writers as a means to “decolonize knowledge,” reversing the usual north-to-south hemispheric pathway and undermining “malestream,” i.e., mainstream, ways of thinking.

Anatol analyzes the Anansi writings of such authors as Neil Gaiman, Nalo Hopkinson, Jenise Aminoff and Erna Brodber.

“I look at what contemporary authors do with folklore,” Anatol said, “whether they modify it or perhaps make it a commentary on the lessons of the past that have been forgotten or deserve to be exhumed.”
The spider Anansi can be compared to such other literary animal trickster figures as Brer Rabbit and the coyote in Native American lore.

“He has a little wickedness in him, but it’s often funny,” said Anatol. “We all have flaws, and so we see the character make his mistakes, and seeing if he’s going to get away with it is part of the humor.

“Most cultures have a trickster figure,” Anatol said. “In the African diaspora, as opposed to a lot of European fairy tales, where you have a strict binary of good and evil, there’s an acknowledgment that we all have some good and bad in us, and the world actually requires a kind of balance.”

Thus in the sci-fi novel “Midnight Robber” (2000), Hopkinson writes of a “Nancy Web” that controls a future society.

“‘Nancy’ is short for ‘Anancy’ in Hopkinson’s book. There is, therefore, a play on gender there — Anansi is not strictly male, and female figures are allowed to be the generators of knowledge and hold positions of power. In the oldest West African tales, Anansi was gender-fluid, too: sometimes portrayed as male, sometimes as female,” Anatol said.

“Hopkinson also takes a figure associated with the African past of assumed uncivilized backwardness and gets us to think of Nancy as a futuristic thing associated with intellect, artificial intelligence and logic to try to shake readers up and get us to think about where we receive knowledge from, how we think about what knowledge is,” Anatol said. “If it’s printed in a book, it’s typically seen as more valuable and truer than things heard by mouth. That devalues oral-based cultures.”

In the novella “Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home” (1980), Brodber’s protagonist “has to learn to be proud and not ashamed of her female body,” Anatol said. “She has also internalized a damaging message about race: that white skin is to be privileged over dark skin, much in line with the colonial ideology that promoted English culture as better than the local Jamaican culture, and definitely as superior to older West African traditions that were brought over during the slave trade. The book is resonant with contemporary ideas about intersectional identity.”

One of the shortest tales at just a page and a half, Douglas Kearney’s “Anansi Meets Peter Parker at the Taco Bell on Lexington” (2005) is a riff on cultural exploitation.

All the stories, Anatol writes, “charge readers to challenge the ways that monologic, Eurocentric, ‘malestream’ ways of being, philosophies and reservoirs of knowledge must be decolonized by considering culture as well as gender and acknowledging time and era as well as the spaces in which these ideas are generated.” 

Image courtesy of Crusier/Galeria via Wikimedia Commons.