Cajetan Iheka is Associate Professor of English in the Department of English at Yale University, United States.
In the following conversation with Uchechukwu Peter Umezurike – PhD Candidate and Vanier Scholar in the English and Film Studies department of the University of Alberta, Canada – Prof. Iheka discusses his book Naturalizing Africa: Ecological Violence, Agency, and Postcolonial Resistance in African Literature – an analysis of the ways that African literary texts have engaged with problems of environmental degradation on the African continent; and the volume co-edited with Jack Taylor, African Migration Narratives: Politics, Race, and Space – a collection examining the representations of migration in African literature, film, and other visual media (both Cambridge UP, 2017 and 2018 respectively). The exchange also touches on Iheka’s latest article, “Ecologies of Oil and Trauma of the Future in Curse of the Black Gold” (Jan, 2020).
Iheka is currently editing the MLA volume, Teaching Postcolonial Environmental Literature and Media, while working on two new books.
Umezurike: First, I would like to thank you for giving me the opportunity to have this conversation with you. Your book Naturalizing Africa has been well received among literary scholars. It marks an important intervention in (postcolonial) ecocritical studies in two obvious ways. First, it focuses on literary narratives rather than on poetry, which is the dominant genre in Nigeria, in particular, for exploring the tropes of “environmental tragedies” and “environmental justice”. Second, it shifts the focus from the human to the nonhuman, thus establishing the “interlinking of human and nonhuman lives.” What sparked your interests in “posthuman ethics,” if I may borrow Evan Mwangi’s phrase? What do you think accounts for the remarkable reception your book has so far attracted?
Cajetan: Uche, thank you so much for the opportunity to discuss my work and for everything you do to promote the literary arts. I am a fan of your absolute commitment to literary production and its criticism; it is a delight to be sharing this space with you. My interest in the environmental humanities was sparked in an introductory course with Dr. Chris Onyema at the Imo State University in Nigeria. We were reading these powerful renditions on the Niger Delta—Ogaga Ifowodo’s poetry collection The Oil Lamp, Tanure Ojaide’s novel The Activist, and Ahmed Yerima’s Hard Ground. This interest coalesced around questions of environmental justice for the human inhabitants of the region, which was an extension of my passion for understanding social inequalities in Nigeria. But as I refined my research questions in graduate school after reading the early work in African ecocriticism, it became clear to me that the scholarship had not sufficiently attended to the entanglement of humans and other beings in African literary texts, a strategy that was itself motivated by cultural practices across the continent. Naturalizing Africa represents my attempt to capture this practice of entanglement or what I call “aesthetics of proximity” in the book. The book provided a vehicle for intertwining the needs, interests, and obligations to various beings in African literary ecosystems. It struck me too that African cultures and the literary expressions they inspire have much to tell us about the nonhuman turn in the environmental humanities. It mattered to me that the monograph showcases the continent’s contribution to that discourse. I must say though that I am wary of the term posthuman ethics, even though it applies to some of the preoccupations of my work. I like to think more in terms of a rehabilitated human located at the interstice with the nonhuman with all the rights and responsibilities to the nexus. The epilogue to Naturalizing Africa lays bare my thinking on this subject. The second half to your question is a more difficult one. It has been a humbling experience to see the engagement with the book within African studies and beyond. I am amazed at how much the book has traveled and places where it has been cited. But I only have conjectures as to the book’s impact. I will leave it to the readers to explain the reason for what you call its “remarkable reception.” But the reception humbles and inspires me to do more. I will remain in the debt of my readers as well as mentors and colleagues who nurtured my scholarship.
Umezurike: Naturalizing Africa serves to rehabilitate the nonhuman Other, therefore stressing the vitality in interspecies relations and challenging received notions about human agency. Can I ask you to say a bit about your concept of “proximity” and “distributed agency”? In what ways do you see your work as having a conversation with Evan Mwangi’s The Postcolonial Animal and Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter? How are the ethical concerns articulated in your book different from theirs?
Cajetan: I have deep respect for the scholars you mention, and it is gratifying to see my work placed alongside theirs. I returned a lot to Bennett’s Vibrant Matter as I wrote my book and really enjoyed reading Mwangi’s The Postcolonial Animal. I think our shared project is decentering the human in order to make possible the apprehension of the nonhuman—animals in Mwangi’s case and things more generally in Bennett’s fantastic example of object-oriented ontology. Our approaches and methodologies may differ, but it seems to me that the ethical concerns are similar. However, as I note earlier, I retain the category of the human—a rehabilitated human—as a being in relation with other beings and things to whom is owed ethical obligation and responsibility. Adhering to the saying that we don’t throw away the baby with the bath water, I cling to the redemptive possibility of the human in the Anthropocene.
Umezurike: Given your interests in reframing our understandings of “the proximity of humans and nonhumans” and the ramifications of this within the context of ecological damage, what do you think has encouraged a number of African poets to deploy animal imagery to represent the failures of postcolonial leadership?
Cajetan: One reason for this phenomenon is the animalization of the African in colonial discourse, as Frantz Fanon and Sylvia Wynter aptly remind us in their writings. Animals were considered inferior to the rational western subject, so it made sense to link Africans to the state of animality. This denigration carried into postcolonial discourse with writers drawing on animals to metaphorize their abjection. It is also true that animals have always been at the core of African societies, so they make various forms of appearances in African letters, including as symbols of failures of postcolonial leadership. One must register the various forms of animal representations to appreciate the complexities and to understand positive attributions of animality as well. I am mesmerized by those instances where human animality is on display in African texts to remind us of our shared vulnerability with Others.
Umezurike: In African Migration Narratives, you examined how cultural productions engage with the “migration turn” in African scholarship. Why was the theme of migration or the “new diaspora” important for you?
Cajetan: That book emerged in graduate school conversations with my friend Jack Taylor, of the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. By the time we picked up the subject again post-graduation, the topic had become much more important: with the migrant crisis and the preponderance of African texts devoted to the subject. We were struck by the number of migrant texts being published by major imprints in the United States and England, a corpus including Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah, Taiye Selasi Ghana Must Go, Dinaw Mengestu’s All Our Names, Okey Ndibe’s Foreign Gods, Inc., and Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers. I am also a first-generation immigrant, so the narratives resonated well.
Umezurike: I noticed that none of the contributors in African Migration Narratives quite discussed the subject of what I could describe as the crossings across the African space. Such movements or local migrations likewise unveil oppressive modes of social relations, such as we have seen in the Libyan slave market. In your view, how do local migration narratives recirculate Africa as a site of fractured and contested identities? What do such narratives tell us about the post-colonial African subject?
Cajetan: Intra-African migration is a complex terrain and a vexed site of identitarian enunciation, especially when we consider the Libyan example and the (mis)treatment of black migrants—the so-called makwereres—in South Africa. These examples disclose that the question of African subjectivity remains unsettled. The resurgence of Pan-Africanism as a critical concept and the popularity of Afropolitanism, in both cultural and intellectual circles, are indicators of continuous attempts to grapple with what it means to be an African in the 21st century. My thinking on this, as an African, concurs with Achille Mbembe when he writes: “No African is a foreigner in Africa! No African is a migrant in Africa! Africa is where we all belong, notwithstanding the foolishness of our boundaries.” My scholarly take on the subject of intra-African migration can be gleaned from the ethical stakes of the edited volume on African Migration Narratives. As we assert in the introduction, “the world faces not a crisis in immigration, but a crisis in our capacity to offer hospitality, to welcome those in need.” The challenge within Africa and everywhere is to “welcome in advance those who have yet to come.”
Umezurike: Your latest article “Ecologies of Oil and Trauma of the Future in Curse of the Black Gold” focuses on multimedia representations of the oil violence in the Niger Delta “as a site of trauma.” What is it that a photograph does better than a narrative text? Is the spectacle of suffering better represented in a photograph than in a literary text? How did the visual poetics in Michael Watts and Ed Kashi’s Curse of the Black Gold help you appreciate the “multiplicities of violence, suffering, and abuses” of (neo)colonialism in the Niger Delta? Would you be exploring more multimedia archives to illustrate the relationship between interspecies relations in postcolonial Africa?
Cajetan: Uche, the truth is that I am not interested in the Olympics of representation to determine which is better equipped to grapple with exploitation or suffering. I consider such consideration irrelevant. I turn to multimedia in the essay because the complexity attends to the multi-pronged challenges in the Niger Delta. Watts and Kashi’s work interests me because it features literature, essays, interviews, photographs, just to mention some genres; a compendium of genres offering illuminating insights into the Niger Delta condition. More specifically, I see a fascinating collaboration between image-text in the elucidation of ecologies of oil and trauma in Curse of the Black Gold. The general turn to visual material in my ongoing work represents an effort to engage with interesting materials being produced on/in the continent that are yet to receive consideration in the environmental humanities. There is a literary bias in the environmental humanities—at least in the postcolonial context—that the project seeks to address. The answer to your question on whether I will be exploring more multimedia archive is yes. I am doing a whole book on these materials and it has been a rewarding exercise as I grapple with the language and discourses of visual culture and media studies. I like to think that my cosmopolitan wandering away from my literary home into the land of multimedia continues my research into migration as an epistemological and socio-political issue with productive possibilities and tensions.
Umezurike: Finally, I am aware that you have a forthcoming book. Can you say a bit about it? When is it due in print? Is there any advice you have for aspiring scholars of African literature?
Cajetan: The book is at the intersections of visual culture, media, and ecology in Africa. The article on the Niger Delta is part of a larger chapter in this book that moves from oceanic imaginaries of waste to the ecologies of electronic recycling through sites of resource extraction, ultimately ending with visual transcriptions of urbanism in Africa. It is an in-disciplined book with a range of critical interlocutors from across fields and spaces. The expected publication date is late 2021. My advice for aspiring scholars of African literature: Read widely, write steadily, and cultivate mentors.
Uchechukwu Peter Umezurike is a PhD Candidate and Vanier Scholar in the English and Film Studies department of the University of Alberta, Canada. His critical writing has appeared in Tydskrif vir Letterkunde, Postcolonial Text, Journal of African Cultural Studies, Cultural Studies, Journal of African Literature Association, and African Literature Today. He is a co-editor of Wreaths for Wayfarers, an anthology of poems.
Umezurike has been a long-time generous contributor and friend to AiW, part of what Cajetan recognises in the opening response of this interview above as his deep “commitment to literary production and its criticism”.
For more of his AiW posts, including his Words on the Times – a Q&A set intended to connect our communities up during the challenges of the pandemic – please click through to his AiW Guest posts here.