Responding to Carli Coetzee’s “Unsettling the Air-conditioned Room”: “Laboratory Building” and Africa-based and focused Literary Activism (2/2)

AiW Guest Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire

AiW note: 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 wanted to keep the conversation going. To that end, we have solicited responses from Rotimi Fasan, and here from Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire; Carli’s keynote has been generously offered in open access by the Journal of the ALA and Taylor & Francis until the end of February 2020 – we hope these reflections will inspire and continue the discussion around these interventions…

The first time I met Dr Carli Coetzee, editor of the Journal of African Cultural Studies, was July 3, 2015 at the British Library. She chaired a panel titled “Emergent Discourse on African Literature” as part of the Africa Writes festival. After the panel ended, Dr. Coetzee gave me her business card and urged me to get in touch.

Looking back, I realize that all the panelists I presented alongside that afternoon were based at universities in England, namely, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of Bristol, University of Birmingham, University College London, and University of Warwick. I had traveled from Kampala, and my “research home” then was a non-profit organization the Centre for African Cultural Excellence (CACE). I should add that I had spent close to three years as a wage-earning “part-time / adjunct” assistant lecturer in five different universities in Uganda.

That first meeting at the British Library led to several other meetings, several friendships and an ongoing dialogue about ideas. Months later, as a student fellow of the African Leadership Centre at King’s College London, I would attend at least one meeting of the Journal of African Cultural Studies reading group that Dr Coetzee convenes. In August 2017 we would meet in Dar es Salaam for the third Eastern African Literary and Cultural Studies conference, this time with me in the role of fellow at an academic writing workshop she had worked closely with Africa-based scholars to bring together.

I therefore came to Dr Coetzee’s keynote address at the 44th Annual African Literature Association conference as one of the beneficiaries of her activist work. Titled “Unsettling the air-conditioned room: Journal work as ethical labour”, the keynote address presents a case for the recognition of the intellectual and activist value of the work that journal editors do. Coetzee pushes back at the labeling of journal work as gatekeeping and housekeeping. She argues that ethical journal editorial work is akin to building a laboratory, and holding the door open. For her, activist journal editors “create corridors or ante-chambers where there is a mingling of the air, and the humidity and atmosphere, of different environments” (106) [from the global North and the global South].

In sitting on an “Emergent Discourse on African Literature” panel at the British Library, I was intruding into the conversations in the “air-conditioned” rooms of global North-based researchers (the British Library room was definitely air-conditioned). I came with different references, gleaned from public intellectual arenas such as blogs, social media sources and banter at literary festivals and other events. Beyond taking advantage of Dr Coetzee’s “holding the door open” into the “air-conditioned” rooms of North-based institutions and networks, at least two of her meetings have been when she has literally left the “air-conditioned room” and found us in our homes. The Dar es Salaam Fellowship indeed created “interstitial spaces” and “opened up new approaches and networks instead of confirming old ones” (112). By now, the reader can tell that as a graduate student, I consider myself as one of those in the laboratory that Dr. Coetzee and her co-conspirators, notably Prof Musila, are building in their various projects.  This response to her keynote builds out from that position, and shows the value of her interventions for thinking not only about African literary studies but the production of African literature more broadly

Beyond Academic Knowledge Production: On Literary Activists and Rockstars

Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire at the Writivism Festival 2019

Coetzee’s keynote establishes a theoretical framework for the intellectual activist work done through journal editing and the building of communities that centre Africa-based scholars and intellectual traditions nurtured on the continent itself. Beyond university-based knowledge production, I find the framework of use, for the understanding of the relationship or lack thereof, between contemporary Africa-based and focused literary activism and the dominant North-based African literary “rockstar” culture. I define literary activism here to mean the work of building Africa-based and focused infrastructure to support literary and cultural production. This is the work I was doing at CACE for the three years I was vending my labour to Ugandan neoliberal universities.

The door-opener and laboratory builder in the context of literary and cultural activism is the editor of an online litmag, curator of a literary festival, administrator of a literary prize, producer of a literary podcast, convener of a creative writing workshop, founder of a publishing concern, and others who work in the “background” to deliver to us the books, writers and other products in the literary and cultural sphere that we love to celebrate. I like to say that these literary activists are the gravel that is crushed to make up the rocks, without which the bulk of contemporary African literary “rockstars” would not exist.

I think of the Africa-based and focused publishers, the creative writing workshop leaders, mentors, curators of literary events, etc., as the ones who do the primary work; the ones who make it possible for the creative writers to not only write, but also to climb the proverbial ladder to fame and in some cases, fortune.

The work literary activists do, the making of the rocks, the building of literary and cultural infrastructure, like that of the journal editors Coetzee talks about, is often derogatively referred to as gatekeeping by its harshest critics and housekeeping by the polite ones. It is not uncommon to hear literary rockstars themselves similarly refer to literary activist work as dull “boring day to day stuff”, that is, when they remember to mention it at all. In acknowledgement sections of books, where we can say a writer reveals their “power base” and “pedigree”, the literary activist is most times missing. The North-based editor, literary agent, publicist has a higher chance of getting a shout that is denied the Africa-based and focused literary activist, revealing which labour is “valued” and what is rendered invisible.

Coetzee tells us that “invisible labour is labour that is unacknowledged and without thanks”. In the context of a conference, “the work performed by the hands that clean hotel bathrooms each day, those that replace soaps and paper cups, the hands that timetable the conference, select the venue and send all the emails from a generalised anonymised email account” (102). In literary activism terms, think of begging airlines to offer discounted rates for flights for festival speakers, writing grant proposals so writers can have a room of their own to write, requesting friends, lovers and family to please not use the unreliable internet service tonight so a magazine issue can be uploaded in one night, asking old students, village mates to volunteer as slushpile readers, pleading with superstar writer-acquaintances to judge prizes for no pay, even borrowing old classmates’ cars to drive workshop participants from point A to point B, the relatives who give up their rooms for a podcast recording to happen, the Old Girl who designs a book cover for no fee, the ex-lover who offers to design the website for the magazine, etc. This entire community is that gravel in the rock.

For the countless invisible jobs and roles a literary activist does in the “African” (to mean north of the Limpopo, and south of the Sahara) context, their equivalent in the Western Publishing Industrial Complex is recognized, regularised and remunerated (however poorly at times). In most of our African countries, the market economy has dealt a big blow to what passes for the literary and cultural industry. The literary activist often times is simultaneously the creative head and logistical hand, driven by the ideological convictions that saw them set up a prize, festival, podcast, publishing house, online litmag, even a bookshop among other initiatives. This is why this labour is “activist” rather than “professional”.

A professional is engaged in a trade; they provide a service for which they are paid. In some way, professional work is antithetical to activist work. Activist work is political. The work of literary activism is therefore inherently ideological. It is aimed at bringing forth change in the production, and circulation of literature. There is no monetary price that can be attached to the work of the literary activist. It is an oxymoron to talk of a professional activist. Recognition in the one or two acknowledgments page/s of a book written by a person who benefited from the labours of the literary activist is not even compensation, it is a mere act of solidarity. But the lack of mention in the acknowledgments section quickly turns into erasure, and invisibilization, which further sets back the struggle to create an Africa-based and focused, self-sustaining and freely-operating literary production and circulation ecosystem.

In 2016, CACE formed the Arts Managers and Literary Activists (AMLA) Network to recognize the labour of literary and cultural activists and to treat it as the intellectual labour it is, in part by building connections to university-based academics. As Coetzee informs us, “invisible labour is unregulated, which makes it hard for those performing it to organise” (102). In forming the AMLA Network, CACE’s hope is that Africa-based and focused literary activists will organise and self-regulate. In Coetzee’s words, “even more importantly, by making visible this invisible labour and by valuing this work, we can ensure that ethical and activist protocols are developed for evaluating knowledge production from different parts of the world” (102).

Coetzee’s argument that “the food, the accommodation, the transport all form part of the intellectual project” at conferences, can’t be any truer. Intellectual labour is not only sitting alone on the verge of a depressive episode to write brilliant prose. What some might demean as the “housekeeping” of literary activists is the work that makes it possible for literary rockstars to exist and flourish. This “housekeeping” is knowledge. It is intellectual production. As Coetzee shows, the housekeeping metaphor falls short in describing the work that journal editors do. Similarly housekeeping as a metaphor “feminizes” and devalues the work literary activists do: dehumanizing and alienating literary activists from the products of their labour.

Coetzee’s engagement with my work as part of the “Emergent Discourse on African Literature” panel at the British Library on the afternoon of July 3, 2015 was an activist act, bringing not only the continent-based non-university based researcher into the air-conditioned room but also recognising that literary activism is a form of knowledge creation. Coetzee’s praxis and theory therefore “holds the door to the air conditioned room open” in more than one way. In acknowledging the intellectual nature of the labour that literary activists perform, Coetzee is challenging the domination of certain discourses by rockstars anointed by the Western Publishing Industrial Complex and their friends who over-circulate in the air-conditioned rooms of North-based academic research.

You can read Carli Coetzee’s article here in open access until the end of February 2020.

You can read Rotimi Fasan’s response to this for Africa in Words ‘Journal Work as Ethos’ here.

Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire is the cofounder of the Centre for African Cultural Excellence (CACE), which curates the Writivism Literary Initiative. He has published commentary, academic research, fiction and poetry in various periodicals and blogs including African Arguments, Chimurenga Chronic, This is Africa, Africa in Words, Africa is a Country and Saraba among others. He studied Law at Makerere University and Security at the African Leadership Centre (King’s College, London). He is a recipient of various fellowships among them the Harry Frank Guggenheim Young African Scholars Award. He is currently studying for a doctorate in English Literature at Cornell University.

Carli Coetzee is the editor of Negotiating the Past and Afropolitanism: Reboot, and the author of Accented Futures: Language Activism and the Ending of Apartheid and many articles on African literature and on the ethics of north-south interactions. Her monograph Written Under the Skin: Blood and Transgenerational Memory in South Africa was published in 2019 in the African Articulations Series (Boydell & Brewer/James Currey). In early 2019 the Routledge Handbook of African Literature was published, which she co-edited with Moradewun Adejunmobi. Her work as the editor of the Journal of African Cultural Studies is part of a larger activist project that seeks to change publishing patterns that privilege northern-based scholars and institutions. She frequently takes part in research and early career mentoring workshops hosted by African universities and organisations.



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