Thinking from the Periphery of the Margin and Envisioning Afro-Futurities

Yomaira C. Figueroa-Vásquez, Decolonizing Diasporas: Radical Mappings of Afro-Atlantic Literature (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2020); 296 pages; ISBN 978-0810142428 (paperback)

• February 2022

Decolonizing Diasporas is about relations in the hispanophone Afro-Atlantic. Engaging with Equatorial Guinea in Africa, and with Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic in the Caribbean, Figueroa-Vásquez studies diasporic literary productions that underscore colonial domination, erotic freedom practices, faithful witnessing, dispossession, decolonial love, reparations of the imagination, and the possibilities of Black futurities. In drawing these geographic, historical, linguistic, and subjective connections, Figueroa-Vásquez employs radical decolonial thought “from the underside of the Afro-diaspora” (5). Her work explores forms of knowing and being at the edges of cultural productions that are themselves already marginalized and often ignored. Decolonizing Diasporas, then, is a profound study of the periphery of the margins.

The book deftly traces interlinkages—of structures of oppression and unfreedom and, most significantly, of intimate liberatory practices, communal resistance, and emancipatory hauntings. Figueroa-Vásquez begins with her acknowledgements, citing the many “tangled threads” that have led her to this text (xiii). She confronts readers with the primacy of interlinkages, taking on both the possibilities for relationality and the possibilities opened up by relation. This attention to relation is a political commitment both to expanding diaspora studies and to establishing a decolonial ethics beyond regionalism. The subjects of the book, moreover, are people bearing the weight of interlocking oppressions. The texts examined are at the margins of literatures that have already been peripheralized. Figueroa-Vásquez introduces us, on the book’s cover, to an image of a grouping of Polaroid prints that collectively constitute a work of art by María Magdalena Campos-Pons depicting two Black women whose locked hair connects them to a canoe, the sea, each other, and the figures in the canoe (in a circulatory move, Figueroa-Vásquez comes back to the cover image in the book’s conclusion). At stake is the creation of collectivities and coalitions across difference that seek to imagine an otherwise of dignified being for Afro-Atlantic diasporic subjectivities. This decolonial entanglement of perspectives and experiences maps resistance to oppression and reveals “the racial potential of Afro-futurities” (4).

In the first chapter, Figueroa-Vásquez examines how the body works as a site of resistance in Juan Tomás Ávila’s Arde el monte en la noche, Nelly Rosario’s Song of the Water Saints, and Trifonia Melibea Obono’s La bastarda. Most notable in this chapter is Figueroa-Vásquez’s introduction of the term “haptic alterity.” She uses this concept to define the process whereby memory and memorialization are produced as acts of resistance through naming practices. This chapter is preoccupied with the demand to be seen and to bear witness to history, creating a corporeal consciousness that goes beyond and subverts coloniality. Haptic alterity forces us to see and feel the names of the dead, asks us what we owe the dead, and makes the losses intimate. This kind of literary politics and poetics becomes the archive for bearing witness to collective history, thus linking the individual to the collective.

Chapter 2 takes the concept of witnessing as its focus, utilizing María Lugones’ idea of faithful witnessing as a framework to analyze Donato Ndongo’s Shadows of Your Black Memory and Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Figueroa-Vásquez responsibly discusses the sexual misconduct allegations against Díaz before proceeding with her analysis, noting that while Díaz’s work “allows the reader to bear witness to the ways in which coloniality exerts power over and commits violence upon bodies deemed to be insignificant,” his actions “reveal deeply entrenched forms of domination” (79). She engages with his work for its capacity to witness founding violences while being critical of how he has replicated this violence onto the bodies of women of color. For Figueroa-Vásquez, participating in faithful witnessing is an act of putting oneself in relation to people, stories, and histories that coloniality has tried to erase. The faithful witness works against the grain of dominant narratives to recognize and affirm other voices and other truths. As such, faithful witnessing becomes a decolonial strategy with an underlying ethics to behold foundational dispossessions.

It is precisely dispossession—the theme of chapter 3—that is Figueroa-Vásquez’s most important contribution in this book. She introduces the term “destierro,” defined as “banishment, with all its accompanying and impotent anguish.” Destierro calls attention to the complexities of home, and Figueroa-Vásquez begins by acknowledging that while exile and diaspora “are rich discursive spaces in postcolonial literature and theory, they have remained critical yet undeveloped in decolonial thought” (89). For Figueroa-Vásquez, destierro encompasses exile and diaspora as well as removal from or dispossession of land and various forms of being ripped from land, land-based practices, and the community. She argues that the conditions of destierro, to which Afro- and Indigenous-descendant people are especially susceptible, are engineered by modernity as the darker underside of coloniality. The foundational question is, “How can we attend to the ways in which modernity tears peoples from their roots and dispossesses them through varying forms of destierro?” (105). Here, Figueroa-Vásquez draws the imperative link between faithful witnessing and destierro, positing that the faithful witness must understand the ontological nonbeing produced by anti-Blackness. The narratives that constitute the archive of destierro ask us to be faithful witnesses. They also show resistance to destierro through ties to the land and emotional and political commitments to protect it against settler colonialism and neocolonialism.

In chapter 4, the book shifts to a discussion of decolonial love, and Figueroa-Vásquez proposes through a reading of Ernesto Quiñonez’s Bodega Dreams, Joaquín Mbomío Bacheng’s Matinga, sangre en la selva, and Díaz’s Oscar Wao that decolonial love is a reparation of the self’s imagination and a reconciliation of community. Decolonial love, notes Figueroa-Vásquez, is underlaid by an ethics of valuing difference that bears witness to the past while looking toward a restorative future that unravels coloniality. She argues that there is no decolonial love without acts of faithful witnessing because it is the recognition of violence and dehumanization that opens the way to relationships based on love that can repair the damage and wounds of coloniality. Decolonial love as reparations is not based on monetary gains, apologies, or policies but on recognition of structural violence and relations across difference.

In the fifth chapter, Figueroa-Vásquez envisions worlds otherwise built on decolonial love. To imagine worlds otherwise, as she indicated at the start, means to also and necessarily imagine a future where post/colonial subjects under coloniality––that is, beings no longer under the overt political dominance of a colonizing power but who still suffer the lingering effects of the logics of coloniality that relinquish these subjectivities to the realm of the nonhuman––are seen as fully human (1). This requires a faithful witnessing of the past and of struggles under coloniality and decolonial love that manifests through ritual practice and communal relations. This future world is an apocalypso (the name of chapter 5) because it is the end of the world under the nonethics of modernity and coloniality and the birth of a world that makes visible what these nonethics have tried to erase.

The book concludes with an intimate engagement with Aracelis Girmay’s The Black Maria and Campos-Pons’s cover image for the book. Figueroa-Vásquez asks us to bear witness to the sea and the ways it links us, putting us in relationality as we undertake the practice of faithful witnessing that allows us to see decolonial futurities. Memory and relation are reparative forces that offer new possibilities. This book asks us to radically create new ways of being human and being together in defiance of a system determined to deny the extension and the future of Afro-diasporic lives.

 

Amanda González Izquierdo holds a master’s in comparative literature from Rutgers University. Her research concerns are broadly situated in the literary and theoretical production emerging from the Caribbean and its diaspora in the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries. She is currently researching decolonial witnessing and grief.