Complexities of the In-Between

Ernest Cole, Ph.D.
John Dirk Werkman Associate Professor of English

Dr. Ernest Cole is a man who doesn’t quite belong anywhere.

Cole spent much of 2018 — including a summer trip to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. — researching and writing his third monograph, which explores dislocation, displacement and the trauma of finding oneself in different spaces. In particular, he’s examining the work of five contemporary African writers: Aminatta Forna, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Helon Habila, Yaa Gyasi and Achille Mbembe.

“I myself am a product of displacement and dislocation. It has given me a sense of what it means to be on the outside, to be other, and the struggle to make sense of how it impacts identity and sense of self,” says Cole. “When I read the works of Forna, Adichie and other postcolonial writers, I am in a better situation to contextualize the struggles of characters, to make sense of what matters to them, of what is meaningful to them and why, of the complexities of belonging, and the dignity of being human — or lack thereof.”

These topics aren’t abstract ideas for Cole, who was born in the former British colony of Sierra Leone and experienced firsthand the turmoil of the country’s civil war (1991–2002). As rebel forces fought toward the capital city, Freetown, they systematically amputated with machetes the arms and legs of some 6,000 of Cole’s countrymen.

These amputees became part of the country’s national history — and a part of Cole’s earlier work. His first monograph, Theorizing the Disfigured Body: Mutilation, Amputation, and Disability Culture in Post-Conflict Sierra Leone, published in 2014, explored the trauma experienced by those who had limbs amputated during the conflict.

In his new, as-yet-untitled book, Cole is exploring a different kind of trauma. Not a trauma of the body, necessarily, but the trauma that can come from displacement.

In 1996, within nine months of their wedding, Cole and his wife joined the exodus out of their native land. They lived in The Gambia for seven years before coming to the United States. Cole spent five years in Connecticut, where he earned his Ph.D. from the University of Connecticut, before coming to Michigan and Hope College, where he’s taught English for 11 years. In 2017, he became a U.S. citizen.

But carrying an American passport doesn’t mean Cole is at home here.

He tells a story about returning to Sierra Leone to visit his family. After a few days, his sister asked him, “When are you going back home?” Cole was taken aback. “No,” he said. “I am home.”

But he wasn’t. Not really.

“What is home for me?” he asks. “In what sense am I Sierra Leonean? Is Sierra Leone my home?”

Cole’s questions are voiced by thousands of Sierra Leoneans throughout Guinea, The Gambia, the United States, Canada, Australia, England and other “homes” that aren’t quite home. “We’re all wrestling with these questions of identity, space and place,” Cole says. “What does it mean to occupy a space? To move from one place to another?”

It’s here that spatial theory impacts his work. If you ask Cole to explain spatial theory, he’ll take out a pen and sketch a quick diagram on a scrap of paper. In the middle of the page, a circle.

“You can be on the inside,” he says, scratching a mark in the circle, “or the outside.” Another mark. “You can be on the periphery or in the center. In front or in back.” If you’re on the outside, he says, it represents exclusion, otherness. But at the center are control, power, authority and privilege.

“It’s not so much the nature of these places themselves, but the position we occupy in relation to those spaces,” Cole says. “Positionality creates binaries — us and them, inside and outside, inclusion and exclusion.”

It’s not just true of circles penned on legal pads; it’s also true of geographical space, of institutions, of structures, of countries. And so Cole finds himself occupying the position of “the other” in both America and Sierra Leone.

“I’m looking at writers whose work represents for me the complications of occupying this in-between, this third space, and the impact of that on trauma and identity,” Cole says. He puts a premium on the writings of his countrywoman Aminatta Forna. He explored her work in his 2016 book Space and Trauma in Writings of Aminatta Forna and in a 2018 article in the Journal of the African Literature Association, “Decentering Anthropocentrism: Human-Animal Relations in Aminatta Forna’s Happiness.”

He hopes his work can prove helpful as the people of Sierra Leone — those who stayed in the country and those dispersed throughout the world — continue the difficult task of reimagining the way forward for a new Sierra Leone. This already daunting task is made all the more challenging by the fragmentation of the Sierra Leonean identity and the various perspectives held by those in the diaspora.

“I try to be an active voice in the reconstruction process,” Cole says. “I don’t think the fragmentation is in itself a hindrance; I think it’s what we do with the multiple perspectives. It should be a strength if we can use it for the betterment of self and society.”