This talk considers the zombie in popular occult discourses from sub-Saharan Africa, and analyses how this figure is taken up in contemporary fiction to decolonize the Eurocentric category of the Human. While an established current in speculative literary criticism has argued that zombies provide an image of the posthuman, this assessment offers limited insight in African contexts. Here, the zombie figure precisely registers the persistence of the Human as a colonial institution, serving as an index of the socio-ecological precarity that disproportionately affects regions across Africa into the present day. In this way, the zombie attests to a binary of Humanity and Nature, which – over five centuries of modernity/coloniality – has functioned to construct exploitable or expendable life in racialised terms. To address this relationship between the zombie and the Human, I turn to decolonial thinking, which suggests that, along with an awareness of ongoing coloniality, decolonization entails a re-centring of the modes of being suppressed through the imposition of Eurocentric Humanity. Across the first section of the paper, I outline how African zombies – rooted in indigenous cultures – make possible this kind of engagement. From here, I turn to literary production, identifying a dynamic of de/zombification in a selection of texts, including South African author Masande Ntshanga’s The Reactive (2014) and Senegalese director Mati Diop’s Atlantique (2019). These texts – exemplary of wider trends in contemporary African fiction – capitalise on the critical potential inherent in zombie lore, mobilising this to chart the violent effects of the Human, before enacting a reconstitution of personhood within the framework of an African cosmology.
Rebecca Duncan is postdoctoral researcher at the Linnaeus University Centre for Concurrences in Colonial and Postcolonial Studies (LNUCC, Sweden), where she is director of the research cluster “Aesthetics of Empire”. She is the author of South African Gothic (University of Wales/University of Chicago Press 2018), which was shortlisted for the 2019 Allan Lloyd Smith prize. Her recent work includes articles for ARIEL and Science Fiction Film and Television, and the co-edited projects Patrick McGrath and his Worlds (Routledge 2019), and “The Body Now” (2020), a special issue of Interventions. She is also co-editor of the forthcoming Edinburgh Companion to Global Gothic (Edinburgh University Press, 2022), and editor of the special issue of Gothic Studies entitled “Decolonizing Gothic” (2022). Rebecca has research interests in world literature, political ecology, speculative fiction and decolonial thinking.