Literary Studies at the African Studies Association 2014: Review

AiW Guest Nathan Suhr-Sytsma

ASAThe 57th annual meeting of the African Studies Association took place in Indianapolis over the weekend of 20-23rd November, under the theme ‘Rethinking Violence, Reconstruction and Reconciliation’. A large interdisciplinary conference with more than two thousand attendees, it was divided into more than twenty disciplinary sub-themes, with literature playing a relatively small explicit role (ten panels in comparison with more than forty on historical topics). I focus here on two very different sessions that confronted the intellectual and institutional challenges facing those concerned with African writing in the twenty-first century.

First, a well-attended roundtable called ‘The Power of the Critic’. Co-chaired by Kenneth Harrow and Eileen Julien, the roundtable featured Moradewun Adejunmobi, Simon Gikandi, Tejumola Olaniyan and Odile Cazenave reflecting on the dilemmas experienced by North American university-based critics of African literature today. Observing that non-academic critics tend to have the most power to draw attention to new texts in the U.S., as with Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone, Adejunmobi shared her dissatisfaction that academic critics tend to communicate with each other in specialist language and reserve their clearest language for activist work. To engage in activism, she argued, does not fully absolve us of the responsibility to craft publicly accessible literary criticism. Gikandi, meanwhile, highlighted what he sees as the powerlessness of the Africanist literary critic. Rarely do we see new books by African writers reviewed by critics of African literature in major American papers and periodicals. Even within the university, Africanists are seen as essential to any respectable department of anthropology or history but optional for departments of English or literature. Gikandi’s charge was that those of us in the university should insist on African literary criticism as a ‘technical practice’—that we should, in other words, embrace the specialized character of knowledge in order to make claims on the academy.

artoff73716Olaniyan took a more autobiographical approach, hilariously recounting his secondary school encounters with Wole Soyinka’s The Man Died, which he thought to be a (fictional) thriller. Thrilled by Soyinka’s prose on an aesthetic level, Olaniyan also found it to be a trove of rare vocabulary that he could memorize in order to impress his English examiners. For Olaniyan, then, the critic’s power is largely the power to tempt readers to inhabit his or her own position. This power depends, though, not only on the attractions of rhetoric, but also the support of institutions. Our academic institutions are under stress, as Harrow pointed out during the discussion period, as the number of majors in English and foreign languages declines at many universities, making it difficult to fill classes specifically devoted to African literature or even African cinema. At the same time, Cazenave had noted, some recent criticism like Achille Mbembe’s Sortir de la Grande Nuit suggests the power of a personal, even lyrical, voice to reach new kinds of readers. The late Ali Mazrui’s radio broadcasting work was also offered by Harrow as an instance of criticism accessible to publics both within and beyond the university.

ZellA very different kind of session, this one sparsely attended, illustrated more concretely the institutional challenges and prospects for African literary scholarship. ‘A Plan for Revitalizing Publishing, Books & Reading in Sub-Saharan Africa’ focused on the future of this online database, which reputedly contains more than three thousand entries but will no longer be maintained after this year by its founder, Hans Zell. The session was led by David Dorman, Acting University Librarian at Kwara State University in Nigeria, who is spearheading the university’s attempt to assume responsibility for the database with the support of other institutions. Challenges range from the infrastructural—obtaining adequate Internet bandwidth and ensuring a continuous electricity supply—to the curatorial: how can the database be modernized and sustainably maintained through an international effort rather than the labors of one dedicated individual? While Dorman made clear the need for input and financial contributions from other institutions (and I’m sure that he would be happy to hear from you if you would like to be a part of this effort), his proposal offered the exciting prospect of a major bibliography for print literature in Africa being hosted on the continent as an open-access resource. I am eager to see how it may empower the criticism of the future.

QuaysonThe fact that neither of these sessions was listed as part of the conference program’s literature stream suggests the extent to which disciplinary borders are open to negotiation. While such negotiability often provokes anxiety, given how scarce institutional resources can be, it might also prod us toward genuinely exciting intellectual work. Insa Nolte’s ethnographically based project on everyday religious encounters and tolerance in Yorubaland has me thinking in new ways about how to approach literary treatments of religious encounter in Nigeria. At the same time, Ato Quayson’s new book entitled Oxford Street, Accra, which Duke University Press is marketing in its catalogue under the heading ‘Cultural Studies’, attests to the possibility that literary scholars might not only learn from, but also contribute to, disciplines such as anthropology and urban studies. As the CFP for next year’s African Studies Association meeting approaches, I will be reflecting on how else literary scholars—or, more broadly, those involved with African writing—might suggest new paths for the interdisciplinary formation known as African Studies.


Suhr-Sytsma_headshot_Cambridge_HouseNathan Suhr-Sytsma is Assistant Professor of English at Emory University. His current book project examines the publication and circulation of mid-twentieth-century anglophone poetry, focusing on poets from Nigeria, Northern Ireland, and the West Indies. His essays appear in the Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Research in African Literatures and the forthcoming Cambridge Companion to Postcolonial Poetry, among other places.

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1 reply

  1. Thank you for updating us on David Dorman’s work. Good to hear that ‘Publishing, Books and Reading’ will continue (for now).

    Gikandi’s comments on the authority of the critic are intriguing. I shall be looking at my Guardian ‘Review’ section to see if this also applies in the British press.

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