Elijah by Michelle Yaa Asantewa is one of the newest additions to the repertoire of Guyanese literature. Her treatment of social issues such as gangs, violence, delinquency, organized crime, narcotics, drug addiction and the desire for a sense of belonging that plagues all youths is unapologetically raw and poetically bare. Her pen is a powerful mirror since it not only reflects the social environment and conditions that influence the practice of deviant and criminal behaviour but psychologically penetrates the mind of the protagonist, Eli Lovelace, in such profundity that readers are sucked into the vortex of his thoughts.
Elijah can be viewed as a masterpiece for sociological criticism since it encapsulates the kaleidoscope of social norms, antisocial behaviour and societal trappings that construct society, but the spiritual, philosophical, and existential thematics which underpin the literary work cannot be ignored. Asantewa’s meticulous deconstruction of Eli’s psyche through the direct exploration of his stream of consciousness and dreams are worthy of scientific merit. As a result, the novel is enriched with a psychoanalytical layer that borders heavily on social and criminal psychology.
As a postmodernist novel, Elijah portrays the “culture of fragmentary sensations” which characterizes postmodernity. Eli Lovelace possesses a fragmented psyche since he is a second generation Guyanese who was born in London. Consequentially, he cannot distinguish between the real self and role self and the result is the individualistic confrontation of an identity crisis that goes over seas and centuries. Eli begins to confront the most basic social variables that once defined his individualism, especially the Crew and gang life it offered that made him feel so fulfilled and purposeful. As a result, Elijah starts to feel the distinctive emptiness and alienation which characterizes postmodern capitalist societies. Moreover, Asantewa’s intricate weaving of mass media’s depiction of crime and strategic allusions to particular definitive cultural products such as ‘Scar Face’ and ‘The Godfather’, examine the uniquely postmodernist commodification of crime of which this novel is part and parcel.
As a post-structural work, on the other hand, the novel, Elijah, highlights the indeterminacy of the concept of self, nationality, and diasporic identity in a deceptively simplistic manner. This concept of indeterminacy is thoroughly explored through the symbol or image of the tiger which proliferates the novel. At the beginning, the tiger can be seen as a symbol of guilt and paranoia. It evolves into a dichotomous symbol of protection and danger. Toward the end of the novel, it becomes representative of self-reconciliation. In other words, the meaning of the tiger is indeterminate because it shifts as the level of awareness and maturity of the protagonist changes.
This instability is also reflected in the meaning and importance placed on various social institutions by Elijah. Even the evolution and transiency of ideas and ideology is examined in the work. This is evident as Eli’s worldview begins to change when he is introduced to the Rastafarian concept of Babylon and the ideas propelled by Marcus Garvey during the ‘Back to Africa Movement.’
In addition to reflecting conventions of postmodernism and post-structuralism, Elijah engages with several issues which are part of the quintessence of postcolonial literature. The novel captures the fragmented postcolonial psyche from the perspective of the protagonist who is divided within himself since he is unsure whether his personality in London or Guyana is the true self or the false self. He is baffled by which one of his ‘identities/nationalities’ truly captures his being. This division is subtly revealed by the strategic reference to “Uncle Joseph” (11) and “GT” (13) while Elijah is trying to get his thoughts together after the stabbing and it also foreshadows where the protagonist would have to go to piece himself together. The postcolonial psyche is also explored through the symbolic use of marijuana by Asantewa to distinguish Eli’s Guyanese identity-“pure marijuana” (149)- from his British one which is represented as marijuana which “had always been stretched out with tobacco and other surreptitious items meant to heighten the buzz” (149).The “unfamiliar seriousness and clarity” (149) that Elijah experiences when he uses pure marijuana for the first time mirrors his epiphany of how to create psychic symmetry between his seemingly conflicting identities and marks the beginning of his journey towards self-acceptance. This examination of the liminal space in diasporic identity in contemporary society is a common troupe in postcolonial and Caribbean literature. Furthermore, Asantewa’s treatment of the psychic fragmentation of the postmodernist postcolonial subject through the juxtaposition of crime and deviant behaviour is arguably a revolutionary feat in the corpus of Guyanese literature.
Further, the narrative structure of the novel, Elijah, reflects the evolution of postcolonial and Caribbean literature. The book is divided into parts and chapters which masterfully render the transnational nature of the work. The parts are divided according to the geographical location where the action within the proceeding chapters is set. This willful manipulation of the physicality of the text creates unison between the structure and content since the latter is reinforced. Moreover, the actual arrangement of events in the story forces the reader to go back and forth between London and Guyana. The physical partitioning of the parts aesthetically reflects the failed or vain attempts of Elijah to compartmentalize his transnational identity since the two nations overlap in every part of the work. Asantewa’s strategic use of physical organization of the text may be seemingly insignificant but its effectiveness is as concretizing as visual metaphors of shape poems.
Finally, this first novel by Michelle Yaa Asantewa pays tribute to the renowned and respected Trinidadian author, Earl Lovelace. The protagonist, Elijah, shares the same surname with Lovelace and Elijah, has many commonalities with Lovelace’s The Dragon Can’t Dance. Like Lovelace’s novel, Elijah explores the plight of the working class who are prejudiced against because of colour, race and family background. However, while Lovelace’s literary sociological examination is confined to Trinidad, Asantewa’s analysis of social conditioning is transnational in nature. The major similarity between the works is their striking revelations of capitalism as being a descendant of the colonial political machinery which enslaved their ancestors. More importantly, both works clearly delineate that forms of criminal and deviant behaviour, even those as petty as laziness, can be seen as a form of rebellion against the modern version of the colonial machinery of the postcolonial nations and former colonial powers. Thus, Asantewa’s Elijah depicts Eli as a victim of the social environment and a victor through the natural force of the collective subconscious of Africa.
By Scott Ting-A-Kee Date: 3rd December, 2016
Reprinted with the author, Scott Ting A Kee's permission