Underground Imaginaries of Extractivism in the African Novel Colloque de la European Society of Comparative Literature - "Underground Imaginaries"

Intervenant : Marie Pernice

Université de Alcala de Henares
Alcala de Henares, Espagne

Subterranean spaces are subject to a growing extractivism, partly triggered by fantasies about the riches they conceal. This rush towards earth’s depths and their wonders constitutes the backdrop of numerous contemporary French-speaking and English-speaking African novels, such as Généalogie d’une banalité by Sinzo Aanza (2015) or Oil on water by Helon Habila (2010). This paper aims at questionning the various underground imaginaries associated with mines and oil extraction areas which intertwine in some of these novels. Indeed, staging the conflictual appropriation of supposedly bountiful African subsoils, they often oppose the idealized vision of infinite riches extracted from the underground by powerful mining companies, to the more or less sterile digging of artisanal miners and mining city dwellers, hoping to escape their squalid daily life via the undreground. However, those extractive pratices on different scales converge in so far as they hollow out the soil, making it liable to collapse. In addition, the narratives considered in our study also depict the pollution caused by extraction as another subterranean threat to the surface. Oil, for example, permeates the upper geological stratas and the water supplies while being drawn from the depths. The unstability of the soil thus caused by extractive processes tends to blur the frontier between aboveground and underground. Literary portrayals of aboveground through a subterranean imaginary ensue. Hence, the thick dust produced by excavating sometimes literally covers up everything in the open air, recreating some sort of new layer above the surface. In parallel, the impression of living beneath the earth can also merely be induced by modified sensory perceptions (pervasive darkness, muffled noises, pungent smells...), oppressive settings and psychological pressure. In this respect, the novels studied in this paper aesthetically bear testitomy to a subterranean experience located whether literally underground or aboveground.