AiW Guest Rotimi Fasan
Africa in Words has long been engaged with the work of Carli Coetzee, and we particularly admire the care that she takes in thinking through the nature of our work as academics and the structures that reinforce inequalities and vestiges of colonial history. These are conversations we frequently have here “behind the scenes” at AiW, thinking through how we can do better, more ethical work in our little corner of the internet, acknowledging our positionality with editors largely based in Euro-American institutions.
Carli’s keynote at the 2018 African Literature Association Annual Conference in Washington, D.C., “Unsettling the air-conditioned room: journal work as ethical labour,” struck us as a particularly compelling argument for needed shifts in our field of academic/institutionalized criticism of African letters, and we desperately wanted to keep the conversation going. To that end, we have solicited responses from Rotimi Fasan and Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire, published this week and next. We hope you’ll also read Carli’s keynote, generously offered in open access by the Journal of the ALA and Taylor & Francis until the end of February 2020, and continue the discussion with us.
In concluding her keynote address appropriately entitled ‘Unsettling the Air-conditioned Room’ at the African Literature Association conference of 2018, Carli Coetzee alludes to a remark she credited to a former president of the association, the late Tejumola Olaniyan, to the effect that while African literature may be alive, African literary scholarship is not. Olaniyan’s call in a different context for what he describes as ‘interstitial scholars’ who are schooled in and open to diverse modes, genres and practices of literary scholarship, one modeled on ‘a sustained critique and interrogation of all binaries’, provides one entry point into Coetzee’s address that in turn serves as a salutary counter to the current practice that privileges some methodologies and conversations over and above others that are seen as marginal and somewhat below par. One way through which the anomaly between a thriving African literature and a one-sided or in fact comatose African literary scholarship could be corrected, is through a conscious effort at promoting an inclusive programme of publishing literary scholarship that is attentive to the different traditions and methodologies that make up the field. For Coetzee, the editor of the Journal of African Cultural Studies, journal editors have a role to play as mentors and guides to the next generations of African literary scholars. They must be accorded due recognition as door openers rather than their more familiar characterization as gatekeepers, out to restrain and exclude from current conversations those whose methodologies they are unfamiliar with. In this wise, the work of journal editors must in Coetzee’s terms be made ‘visible’ in order for the hard labour that goes into it to be better appreciated.
Coetzee’s is at once an activist as well as an ethical agenda that calls for transparency in editorial practices, empathy and understanding for less entrenched scholarly approaches that are nonetheless steeped in local practices with established tradition and protocols of their own. Carli Coetzee’s activism as an editor of a reputable journal that is based outside Africa brings back into literary scholarship the activist tradition that was for long associated with African literature. Even while this so-called commitment tradition would in certain respects threaten to over-determine the realist perspective that was for a long time at the heart of African literature, it was an important pillar that helped to nurture, sustain and keep alive a literary culture whose existence was for a very long time denied. It stands to reason, therefore, to not only imagine but in fact expect that an editorial approach that exemplifies the interstitial credentials that Olaniyan recommends should be the hallmark of the African literary scholar and writer would go a long way to straighten the otherwise skewed pattern of publishing African literary scholarship.
To the extent that the publishing pattern is often and unfairly measured in terms of presence in many of the prestigious journals hosted in western institutions, it is heavily weighted in favour of practitioners in the global north. Thus the ‘extroverted’ African novel that Eileen Julien perceptively wrote about many years ago has its discursive adjunct in the extroverted African literary scholarship. What this keynote speaker does then, is to draw attention not only to the place and role of the journal editor as an assessor of value or an impartial arbiter that brings together in healthy conversations practitioners of African literary scholarship from different regions of the world. What she advocates is an ethical stance that aligns the different environments in and from which conversations about African literary scholarship are initiated while insisting on the validity and right of existence of the different approaches and perspectives they offer, however marginal they may currently be considered. The value placed on the outcome of the different conversations in the form of published literary scholarship must not be determined by what one might call the politics of location or the assumed infrastructural deficit or socio-political inferiority, in the eyes of some in the global north, of some practitioners in the field.
I wish to highlight three points that stand out for me among others in the keynote address before I close my reflection here. First is Coetzee’s call for cooperation between Africa-based scholars and their counterparts in the West by way of organizing or attendance at workshops, conferences and visits to institutions in Africa. As someone who has participated and collaborated in such projects with Carli Coetzee, I testify to the long-term benefits of such initiatives. At one such writing workshop, as she reported in her ALA address, during the Lagos Studies Association Conference in June 2017, no less than eight early-career scholars from my university among many others from universities spread across the different states and regions of Nigeria participated. It was an eye-opening experience for many of the participants (including senior scholars) who were attending such a workshop where they were in close contact for two full days and throughout the duration of the main conference. The workshop/conference afforded the participants the opportunity to discuss their work and other issues of interest to them with an editor of a prominent journal alongside other senior scholars from Nigeria and other parts of the world. It was a moment of revelation for many of the early career participants for whom the processes of publishing in prestigious journals were demystified by one of the best-known editors currently in the business. This year’s edition of the workshop, sponsored by the British Academy and the ASAUK, was a resounding success with about forty early career scholars from across Africa, Europe and the Americas.
Equally very important is Coetzee’s reminder and call to Africanist scholars to return to those long-gone days when it was considered important for such scholars to publish in journals based in Africa. Coetzee’s call in this wise is of far more relevance and resonance to Africa-based scholars than may be obvious to her and many people based outside the continent. My point here pertains specifically to publication requirements during reviews for promotion. It is a major requirement for promotion purposes in Nigeria, for example, that scholars publish in so-called international journals which by definition are journals located in institutions in the global north. There is thus this invidious dichotomy between so-called off-shore or foreign journals and other ‘local’ journals that are denied the label of ‘international’ for the mere reason that they are hosted by institutions based in Nigeria. All sorts of unethical practices that are beyond the scope of this piece are associated with this practice that was nevertheless emplaced for quality assurance purposes. But is it any less a mark of the mental enslavement of the Africa-based intellectual than the colonized curriculum that s/he misapprehends for cutting edge scholarship that the highly prestigious, profound and qualitative is often associated with the foreign? More than anything else, then, the sometimes unhealthy demand for and straining to publish in foreign outlets, be they journals, monographs or books, is one of the practices that help perpetuate misleading impressions of and skew publication patterns unfavourably against scholarship produced in Africa and by Africans. Adherence to Coetzee’s recommendation for Africanists to publish in journals housed in Africa will help correct the situation.
My third and final point is on Coetzee’s call for collaboration between Africa-based scholars and others in the global north on publication of special issues of journals or sponsoring/hosting of such publications in order, to be clear, to make them visible to an international audience that is very often unaware of such ‘invisible’ scholarship. More importantly, her suggestion for a judicious selection and rich mix of peer-reviewers, particularly those familiar with scholarly traditions other than those dominant in western academies, cannot be timelier. This is an important leeway with ample decolonizing effect into broadening perspectives and approaches to the study of African literature. As she observes in a memorable moment in her talk, ‘The missing reference is not necessarily Foucault or Habermas.’
You can read Carli Coetzee’s article here in open access until the end of February 2020. Come back next week for our second response.
Rotimi Fasan teaches African literature in the Department of English and Literary Studies, Osun State University, Nigeria, where he is also head of department. He has spent post-doctoral fellowship terms at the University of London and the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, and at Rhodes University in South Africa. His journalism is widely read in Nigeria.