AiW guest Helen Cousins.
2012 was the year of ‘legacy’ – a notion popularised, of course, by the London 2012 Olympics. Four months on from the African Studies Association UK conference, I want to reflect on my personal ‘legacy’ from attending and presenting at this conference.
A significant aspect of the conference, for me, was the people that I met or re-met. ‘Networking’ seems a cold notion for the interesting conversations I had; to have so many excellent scholars in the same location created an energetic buzz around research in African Studies. However, for me, it was more than an exchange of ideas – many discussions were about how we might collaborate on projects in the future: conferences, workshops, and publications were all mooted. A very material legacy from the conference for me will be those projects that do come to fruition. Yet, there is a broader inheritance: confirmation that, in an environment that appears to promote collaboration but in its structures values individual work in the Humanities (and I am thinking of the REF here!), there is a clear will from academics to work together to share ideas and research. When I spoke to colleagues there was a strong sense that the synergy of collaboration can produce something greater than the sum of its parts.
The more formal aspect – the panels – of the conference was also inspiring. As a literature scholar, the panels I attended were mainly within the ‘new articulations in African literature and cultures’ stream. The very first panel I went to was part of ‘The “post-millennial context” and African writing in English’ series, with a paper from Katie Reid, ‘Defining the ‘post-‘ in the post-millennial context: Ivan Vladislavic and the South African literary marketplace’, and a conversation between Kate Haines and Ugandan writer Goretti Kyomuhendo, ‘Writing, Publishing and Literary Networks in the ‘Post-millennial Context’’; after getting very excited about what I was hearing there, I made sure I attended the second panel in that series the next day, with papers on South African autobiographical writing and Nigerian writing in the new millennium from Paulina Grzeda (University of Warsaw), Nmachika Nwokeabia (University of Wisconsin), and Rebecca Jones (Centre of West African Studies, University of Birmingham). I have been dabbling in the field of production and reception recently, in various ways – an interest in the Richard and Judy Book Club, developing an MA module on Postcolonial Prize Winners and Bestsellers – so I found the expertise underpinning the papers in these panels very helpful, informative and inspiring!
I was taking part in the ‘Indian Ocean Africa’ panel series of the stream. To have panels related over the course of the conference was a great way to continue the conversation about Indian Ocean literature in a more long-term way. The discussions increasingly made links between papers as the longer time frame (a few days rather than the usual one panel) gave the participants time to reflect. For me, this is relatively new research inspired, in fact, by the call for papers that was sent out by the panel organisers. I had been working on a Mauritian writer for some time but within African postcolonial and feminist frameworks. In thinking about the novels within an Indian Ocean scholarship, I have opened aspects of the text that would otherwise have remained obscure to me.
So, to return to my theme of ‘legacy’, the conference inspired me at a point when I am pushing my research in different directions. After quite a lot of years working in African and African diaspora women’s writing through postcolonialism/feminism, it feels like risk to try something new which necessitates getting to grips with theoretical models which often tip into different disciplines. However, seeing that my research did sit in an greater body of work, assured me that – although somewhat embryonic – it was valid, interesting and new. Perhaps the paper I presented was a bit raw and speculative, but it was worth pursuing! It sometimes seems to me that the default position of many academics is self-doubt and the ASAUK12 conference was a healthy forum for sweeping that aside. When I saw the call for papers for the ACLALS Triennial Conference in December, I remembered the ASAUK conference and decided to offer an abstract on this new research again. In fact, with careful thought, I have managed to marry both the Indian Ocean and the production and reception work in my proposed abstract. It might feel a bit scary – and I only have a hazy notion of how the paper will turn out – but I have a legacy of confidence in my research from ASAUK12!
Helen Cousins has research interests in African and African diaspora literature, including Black British writing and African women’s novels. She is developing a newer research interest into popular postcolonial writing wondering how very widely read novels with postcolonial themes or settings might affect discourses of race within English society. She is a long way off answering that particular question but is finding some other interesting things to investigate on the way. She is the membership secretary of the Postcolonial Studies Association and was delighted at ASAUK12 to put faces to some of the names of people she had been chasing for membership dues!
Helen ‘s ASAUK12 paper was entitled ‘Incarceration in Mauritius: motifs of slavery in the literary works of Lindsey Collen’, one in a series of four panels under the ‘Indian Ocean Africa: Cultural, Historical and Literary Re-Orientations’ rubric, in the New articulations in African literature and cultures Stream.
The paper explored literary representations of slavery in Mauritius through the work of Mauritian novelist, Lindsey Collen: well-known for her political activities as a trade unionist and member of the left-wing LALIT party, Collen links the historical conditions of slavery with a contemporary politics of oppression through the trope of incarceration. To illustrate the operation of this trope, the paper drew in particular on her more recent novels, Mutiny (2002) and Boy (2005).
ASAUK12’s ‘Indian Ocean Africa’ panel series was organised by Meg Samuelson and Tina Steiner (University of Stellenbosch). Other presentations on Helen’s panel included Meg Samuelson (University of Stellenbosch), ‘Africa as Fulcrum: Reading the Passage of the Caravels and the Cartographic Imagination in Cameos, Lobos Antunes, Daruwalla, Ghosh and Gurnah’, and Carli Coetzee (SOAS), ‘Postal agents, unopened letters and closed circuits: Africans outside Indian Ocean knowledge networks’.
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