The Book in Africa: A Day Symposium

AiW Guest Ruth Bush

This lively one day event took place in London at Senate House on 20 October 2012, was led by Dr Caroline Davis (Oxford Brookes) and brought together a number of researchers working in the broad area of African print cultures and book history. It was funded and co-organised by the Institute for English Studies, the Department of English at the Open University and the Oxford International Centre for Publishing Studies (OICPS) at Oxford Brookes University.

BookInAfricaThe symposium juxtaposed two deliberately open-ended and perennial questions: how to locate Africa and how to define the book? In response, the event presented research on book and print culture in Africa across an impressive range in time and regional focus: from Xhosa praise poetry to Yoruba newspaper serials; from South African University Presses to literary prize culture in francophone West Africa. All of the papers showed the vital contribution that African literary studies can make to the central ideas and preoccupations of book history.

David Johnson’s (Open University) opening paper suggested that the definition of South African nationhood in published books was invariably compromised by actual conditions of production and reception in the early twentieth century. His research pointed to ways in which empirical research could nuance Benedict Anderson’s thesis on the relationship between print capitalism and nation-building. Anderson’s thesis was put further into relief by Karin Barber’s paper on The Life Story of Me, Segilola, by I.B. Thomas, the first novel in Yoruba, originally serialised in Akebe Eko (The Lagos Herald) in 1929-1930 – an epistolary tale of a repentant prostitute. Slow and unreliable rail networks together with uneven levels of literacy prevented the daily rhythm of reading any newspaper. Instead, Barber set out the ways in which Thomas’ book functioned as a repository for certain written forms of Yoruba, crystallised into a kind of monument to the independence of Yoruba culture in counterpoint to oral forms and ephemeral print cultures.

Jeff Opland’s (SOAS) paper on Xhosa praise poetry showed how the book’s negative associations (the Xhosa term for book remains incwadi or “poisonous bulb”) emerged through its associations with “the bible and the musket” of colonial incursion. Describing his (re-)publications of this literature after extensive archival work, Opland also demonstrated how print has been accommodated and assimilated within contemporary Xhosa culture. In the discussion that followed, dominant ideas on orality and print in the work of Martin McLuhan and Walter Ong among others were tested and refuted in the light of literary-historical scholarship that helpfully complicates definitions of “the book”, as well as “the book in Africa”.

Other papers explored a range of topics: the significant, yet little-known journal, New Writing in Zambia (1964-75); South African reading publics of the nineteenth century; South African University Presses; the colonial heritage of the Grand Prix d’Afrique noire; and use of googlegroups to enable and generate new writing during the 2007 election crisis in Kenya. The day concluded with a panel consisting of two leading publishers of African writing, James Currey and Becky Ayebia Clarke. Currey drew on his life’s work as a publisher, reflecting on the intertwined histories of British and African publishing as put forward in his 2009 Africa Writes Back. Becky Clarke drew on her experiences of working as an editor and setting up Ayebia, and evoked the important question of state support for book publishing. Lastly, Peter McDonald (Oxford University) suggested ways in which key terms of literary analysis: author, reader, book, publisher, orality, print, modernity are usefully put under pressure by new forms of archival and empirical research in book history.

We can look forward to an edited volume of proceedings from this event in 2014.


Ruth Bush is Research Fellow in French and Francophone Studies at the University of Westminster, London and Bookman Researcher at the George Padmore Institute, London. She recently completed her DPhil thesis entitled “Publishing sub-Saharan Africa in Paris, 1945–67” at Wolfson College, Oxford.

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  1. Midweek Reading 8 | Writing

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