Second Thoughts: Visiting Professor Ato Quayson Offers a Different Look at Postcolonial Tragedy (by Cynthia De Luna)

atoNYU’s English Department always attracts professors from many different places, and this semester is no different. Professor Ato Quayson is here from the University of Toronto. He received his Ph.D. from Cambridge and is interested in areas such as urban studies, postmodernism, tragedy, and postcolonial and diasporic writing. Many of his publications—like Oxford Street, Accra; Aesthetic Nervousness: Disability and the Crisis of Representation; and African Literature: An Anthology of Theory and Criticism—explore these areas of research. Similarly, he is teaching two courses in the areas of postcolonialism and African literature this semester: an undergraduate “Introduction to African Literature” course and a graduate course titled “Postcolonial Tragedy: Concepts, Forms, Histories.”

Professor Quayson has begun his visit at NYU with a lecture related to one of his major interests, postcolonial literature. The lecture Professor Quayson gave on February 3rd was titled “On the Affliction of Second Thoughts: Modes of Doubt in Postcolonial Tragedy.” The lecture gave listeners a look into the kind of information Professor Quayson will be seeking and the kind of work he’ll be doing while here at NYU, as the subject of the lecture worked toward a book he’ll be writing, tentatively called On Postcolonial Tragedy.

The talk focused on specific works—by South African, Martinican, Nigerian, and African-American writers—such as J. M. Coezee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks and The Fact of Blackness, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God, and some of Toni Morrison’s writings. Before proceeding to these examples, however, Professor Quayson clarified the definition of tragedy he would be using to shape his thoughts on the subject. He used Aristotle’s definition, which involves the viewer or reader in the ethical concerns and actions of another character; the tragedy that Professor Quayson was most interested in was one that elicited pity, one that he could relate to a person’s inner thoughts.

The interior monologue, presented within the context of the soliloquy, was the focus of Professor Quayson’s lecture from that point on, beginning with the conditions necessary for the interior monologue. Firstly, some spiritual element that requires reflection is needed, like a dogma or belief. The resulting contemplation of or reflection on the self implicates a past self that is put in relation with the present self through forms of narration. The interior “dialogue” that occurs between the past and present selves helps the self translate the external world for the internal world.

Interior monologues tend to involve sensations and emotional states that can’t be accurately portrayed through language and are therefore ambiguous. The feelings and states that are considered in the interior monologue only become more ambiguous as time passes, and reflecting on those states affects the visual memories associated with them. These visual memories, or “rememories,” as Professor Quayson called them, visually represent the act of reflection, of the second thought, which can be argumentative or doubtful in nature, or neither.

diasporaProfessor Quayson later took an opportunity to relate these “rememories” to displacement as a result of colonialism. The displacement of people from their homes leads to a nostalgic, emotional attachment to a specific place, and Professor Quayson equates this loss of geography to the loss of any relationship with another person. What happens is a displacement from a space that can never be returned to as it no longer exists. It only exists in memories, but as with the case of “rememories,” memories of a place are easily altered and leave room for doubt. By analyzing the way the internal monologue works and the way people process memories and emotions, Professor Quayson not only offered his listeners a new way to consider the inner self in relation to the external world, but also a second thought on the matter of postcolonial tragedy.