Last Autumn we – Katie and Kate – attended the African Studies Association of the UK (ASAUK) biennial conference, where we co-convened two panels under the rubric ‘The “post-millennial context” and African writing in English: Writing, production and reception since 2000’. ASAUK is the leading scholarly organisation in the UK focused on exchanging ideas in and about Africa, and in September our supervisor Professor Steph Newell became its President. We thought it was therefore important that Africa in Words document and reflect on the conference, and so have spent the last few months planning a series of posts that do just that.
This year’s ASAUK conference was organised jointly with Leeds University Centre of African Studies (LUCAS) and held at Leeds University, 6-8 September 2012. With over 135 panels and around 400 presentations, the conference was organised into thematic ‘streams’, including ‘New Articulations in African Literature and Culture’, convened by Steph Newell and Ranka Primorac, as well as: ‘Africa, Social Media and New Communication Technologies’; ‘Art and Literature’; ‘The Database for African Development’; ‘Extractive Industries and Community Development Challenges in sub-Saharan Africa’; ‘Making New Connections: Mobilities, Roads and Rural Access in Sub-Saharan Africa’; ‘Money in Africa’; ‘New Directions in Malawian Scholarship’. Streams and panels were also organised by the journals Africa and Journal of Southern African Studies, by the Congo Research Network, SCOLMA, Royal African Society and by the Yorkshire African Studies Network. The following publishers also attended the conference: Bergahn Books, Boydell and Brewer (James Currey), Cambridge University Press, Eurospan, Hurst, Taylor and Francis, Zed Press, African Book Collective and Leeds University Press.
The distinguished and charismatic Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o delivered a plenary on ‘Africa in the Language of Scholarship’, reiterating and confirming his strong ties and relationship to LUCAS, and interrogating the audience about how many of them had published research in an African language. A second plenary was delivered by Binyavanga Wainana, writer and founding editor of the Kenyan literary magazine, Kwani?. Wainaina’s lecture ‘I am a Pan Africanist, not an Afropolitan’, organised and chaired by our own Kate Haines, explored the complex relationship between writing, society and economics as well as pointing to exciting future directions for African writing – from the use of new technologies to romance novels.
We put together our own panels, with the title ‘The “post-millennial context” and African writing in English: Writing, production and reception since 2000’, because we wanted to think about the ways in which both national and international events, alongside developments in the publishing industry, might have changed the conditions for African writing in this period. The papers we brought together did, as we’d hoped, give us a chance to explore some of these events and developments – including the establishing of new publishing companies and networks across Africa, the diversification of genre and the impact of 9/11 and the changing politics of Nigeria.
We both presented papers in our first panel, which was chaired by James Graham (Middlesex) who shares an interest in textual production and literary networks in Africa.
Given the focus of our panel on issues of writing, production and reception, Kate’s paper took the form of an interview with Ugandan writer Goretti Kyomuhendo. The interview explored Kyomuhendo’s work as founder and director of African Writers Trust (a body that coordinates and links African writers in the Diaspora and writers on the continent) as well as her experiences of writing and publishing in the post-millenial context. The conversation placed particular emphasis on the materiality of her published novels, and the way in which the location of the writer influences publication, circulation and reception. An extract from this interview will be published on Africa in Words as part of our series of posts about ASAUK.
Katie’s paper, ‘Defining the ‘post-‘ in the post-millennial context: Ivan Vladislavic and the South African literary marketplace’, was based on interviews with a range of South African publishers and editors, exploring the broad meanings that have clustered around the term ‘post-millennial’ in the South African literary market, to contextualise a discussion of Vladislavic’s 2006 text Portrait with Keys – the ways it has ‘travelled’ out and back through this literary market, and its journeys through relative success as a ‘global’ product.
We were then delighted to be able to host and chair the second post-millennial context panel, which brought together a range of PhD scholars, Paulina Grzeda (University of Warsaw), Nmachika Nwokeabia (University of Wisconsin), and Rebecca Jones (Centre of West African Studies, University of Birmingham).
Paulina Grzeda’s ‘‘Towards a New ‘South Africanness’: Autobiographical Writing in the Post-Millennial South Africa’ presented a detailed discussion of the contemporary proliferation of autobiographical South African writings, as intrinsically embedded in the general tendency of post-millennial South African fiction to turn from the public sphere towards the private one, with particular reference to the individual testimonies of three South African writers: fictionalized memoirs by J. M. Coetzee, Youth (2002) and Summertime (2009), André Brink’s Fork in the Road (2009) and Zakes Mda’s Sometimes there is a Void – Memoirs of an Outsider (2011).
In her paper, ‘‘A Perfect Storm’: New Mediums, New Audiences, and Nigerian Writing of the 21st Century’, Nmachika Nwokeabia focused on the convergence of events, both domestically and internationally, that enabled the conditions for the production of Nigerian writing in the post-millennium and inevitably determined its character.
Rebecca Jones, who will be posting her reflections on the experience of ASAUK at Leeds as one of our guests, gave a paper entitled ‘“Nigeria is my playground”: Post-millennial Nigerian travel writing’, which explored the work of contemporary Nigerian travel writers, both local and in the diaspora, focusing in particular on Pelu Awofeso and Noo Saro-Wiwa. The paper also placed contemporary Nigerian travel writing in English within a lineage of travel writing by Nigerians in both English and Yoruba, in light of the considerations of publishing and audience which have shaped Nigerian travel writing right from its inception in early twentieth century Lagos newspapers.
Both panels generated a lively and wide-ranging audience discussion afterwards, with questions that explored the value of the terms ‘post-millennial’ and ‘cosmopolitan’, as well as explored ideas of gender, agency and genre in the context of writing, production and reception. We were only sad that there was not more time to continue some of these conversations and hope bringing ASAUK to Africa in Words will enable us to do so.