Q&A: Professor Nadia Nurhussein – Literatures of the Horn of Africa, a conversation series

AiW Guests
Interviewers: Kyra Webb, Sophia Dermetzis and Kal Harris
Interviewee: Professor Nadia Nurhussein
Interview Date: 7th December 2021. 

AiW note: This is one in a series of interviews, carried out by undergraduate students as part of the module “Ethiopian, Eritrean and Somali literatures in global intellectual history,” taught by Dr Sara Marzagora in the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures of King’s College London in the 2021-2022 academic year. The interview scripts have been transcribed and first-edited by Nadira Ibrahim, who holds a first-class English degree from King’s College London and is proud to have contributed to the wider scholarly discussion surrounding these important literatures.

Nadia Nurhussein is Professor in English and Africana Studies at Johns Hopkins University, specialising  in African American literature and culture. She is the author of Black Land: Imperial Ethiopianism and African America (Princeton University Press, 2019) and Rhetorics of Literacy: The Cultivation of American Dialect Poetry (The Ohio State University Press, 2013)​.


Kyra, Sophia and Kal studied Professor Nurhussein’s Black Land in combination with Claude McKay’s novel, Amiable with Big Teeth: A Novel of the Love Affair between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem, in their class on Ethiopia and Pan-Africanism at King’s.

Nurhussein’s Black Land includes a chapter on McKay, which brings out many discussions on international solidarity and cultural authenticity in the seminars.

Publishing info. on Amiable with Big Teeth: A Novel of the the Love Affair between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem:

“The unexpected discovery in 2012 of a completed manuscript of Claude McKay’s final novel was hailed by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. as ‘a major event which dramatically expands the canon of novels written by Harlem Renaissance writers’. Building on the already extraordinary legacy of McKay’s life and work, this colourful, dramatic novel centres on the effort by Harlem intelligentsia to organise  support for the liberation of Mussolini-occupied Ethiopia, a crucial but largely forgotten event in American history. At once a penetrating satire of political machinations in Depression-era Harlem and a far-reaching story of global intrigue and romance, Amiable with Big Teeth plunges into the concerns, anxieties, hopes and dreams of African-Americans at a moment of crisis for the soul of Harlem.”

[Text – Goodreadsimage – ‘Concordia graduate discovers unpublished novel‘ – an article about the “discovery”, by Jean-Christophe Cloutier, of the novel’s manuscript. (Concordia University News, November 22, 2012, by Scott McCulloch)

Q. Kyra Webb (to Nadia Nurhussein, for KCL):  Academia is a field where women of colour are notoriously underrepresented. Have you ever felt impostor syndrome, or like you’ve had to change the way you are to ‘fit in’?

A. Nadia Nurhussein: Yes, it clearly affected how I approached academia and how I feel I’ve been treated. When I think back, especially when I was younger and just beginning as a professor, I had a hard time feeling like I had the authority to lead a room or seminar. I felt that students weren’t necessarily expecting someone like me to be in front of the room, so it was challenging; many students had a preconceived notion of what a professor should look like, and it was someone who was old, white and male. With age, my imposter syndrome has improved. I don’t feel the need to prove myself to anybody anymore, I know I belong here just as much as anybody else. But those feelings definitely were a part of my experience early on. A lot of my peers and colleagues had professors for parents or relatives — I didn’t have that experience. My father’s a physician and I did grow up with an amount of privilege but becoming an academic and teaching in university was not really understood.

Kyra Webb: As an Ethiopian American, how do you feel your heritage and insights have influenced your work and research choices?

Nadia Nurhussein: My heritage has certainly affected my approach to research, especially with this most recent book. The book essentially started as a kind of curiosity about African American literature that talks about Ethiopia. It started with a poem by African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar called Ode to Ethiopia, published in his 1893 book Oak and Ivy. When I read that for the first time, I realised that there was an abstract way that he was approaching it; when he was talking about Ethiopia he was actually talking about the black race in general, rather than a territorial nation. This led me to wonder if the writers who were talking about Ethiopia in the late nineteenth century were aware of all the news about Ethiopia at the time and if that was somehow influencing this concept of Ethiopia as an abstraction. 

Kyra Webb: What was your experience like of working with archives when researching for Black Land?

Nadia Nurhussein: I loved working with archives. My research has been very archival throughout my career and one of the most wonderful things about archives is the process of discovery and surprise. Sometimes you’ll go looking for something and find something entirely different and it shifts your direction in a way that you couldn’t have anticipated. It’s a little romantic too, there’s this feeling that you get from connecting in a really physical way with the author that you’re examining. I don’t really think there’s any substitute for going into a physical archive and I hope that things won’t become completely digitised although obviously that’s been extremely helpful to have things more widely accessible to people.

Kyra Webb: The term “Ethiopianism” hasn’t really been defined in a lot of the work we’re looking at, so we were wondering, what is your definition of Ethiopianism? Would you define it as a body of theory or an ideology? And do you think it’s possible and/or productive to create a definition, or is it better to leave it open ended?

Nadia Nurhussein: That’s a really good question, and I think this is another one of the questions that drove my project because it did seem to me that there was such a wide variety of ways in which the term Ethiopianism was used. There’s a specific context in terms of religion in southern Africa which has one particular use, and then there’s the broader sense of a kind of a racial ideology that’s based partly on biblical references — an ancient Ethiopia that has fallen and will one day rise. 

I think that it is perhaps not that productive to limit oneself to one particular sense of what Ethiopianism is because there are all of these ideas feeding into what people think of when they think of Ethiopia. I tried to allow for some flexibility in how I was understanding the term whilst also looking at when people were using the term and their intentions, but it does end up getting a little slippery throughout my book, because I think it is in itself a slippery term.  

Kyra Webb: You mention in Black Land about the adoption of Ethiopianism by African American communities in the early twentieth century. We were wondering if these communities were aware of some of the internal issues of the country. Were their perceptions of Ethiopia coming at a time when it was a black Promised Land?

Nadia Nurhussein: Certainly, there is a romanticism about Ethiopia, a kind of failure to acknowledge the problematic history and current day internal strife of Ethiopia. At the same time, I was noticing around the late 19th century that there was a lot more awareness of what was happening in Ethiopia because of this broad explosion of periodical coverage of the nation. So, a lot of black readers would have been aware of major events such as the Battle of Adwa, but beyond the events in the country on the world stage, I don’t know how much knowledge there was of internal Ethiopian dynamics and politics. For example, the tensions between ethnicities in Ethiopia – I don’t know if that was widely known by people outside of Ethiopia.  

Kyra Webb: Do you think that the misgivings about Ethiopia fed into the fictionalisation of Ethiopia as a space? In Black Land you wrote that Ethiopia is reconfigured as a negative space but it’s also like a character, so, we were wondering how the fictionalisation of Ethiopia and the negative space lends itself to narrativisations in the work of other African American authors. 

Nadia Nurhussein: I think this potential malleable quality to Ethiopia is what makes it useful as a symbol for a lot of African Americans because it can represent a lot of things. That is what allows for the kind of fictionalisation with shapelessness that you’re talking about. 

Sophia Dermetzis: When you say a lot of people knew about Ethiopia in the States, how did that come to happen? Because they didn’t have social media, for example – it wasn’t information that would have been picked up very easily. Would they have got this through magazines and newspapers? How was this concept crystallised overseas at a time when the internet didn’t exist? 

Nadia Nurhussein: Yes – it would have been through magazines and newspapers. A lot of that information would come specifically from African American newspapers, too. The thirties were kind of the peak of African American interest in Ethiopia because of the invasion of the country by Mussolini. During this time one reporter, J. A. Rogers, went to Ethiopia to interview emperor Haile Selassie. People felt there was an almost direct connection, a reporter on the ground in Ethiopia. That was a big deal. Again, it doesn’t happen until the thirties that we have someone who’s so directly connected to the events in Ethiopia writing about it for the black press. But even before then, there was a lot of interest in investigating what exactly was happening because of the significance of the country. So, in newspapers and magazines you have a lot of articles about Ethiopia. 

Kyra Webb: I suppose that was probably quite productive in tackling the Western bias and the Western lens in more mainstream media forms? 

Nadia Nurhussein: Yes, exactly. I think the black press had a very different angle on what Ethiopia meant and how to treat it in the press than the mainstream newspapers would have.

Kyra Webb: Do you believe an African American could ever truly know what it is to be Ethiopian? I think there’s this very pervasive idea that if you know enough about a country and immerse yourself in the culture, you can really identify as a native.

Nadia Nurhussein: Yeah, that’s a good question. One of the things that I talk about in the book is the fact that there were people who travelled to Ethiopia not just as tourists but actually intending to live there. There were also people who wanted to fight in the Ethiopian armed forces when Italy invaded. People even learnt Amharic in schools in Harlem. So, there was a kind of attempt by some African Americans to closely align themselves with Ethiopian-ness.

The interest in Ethiopia for a lot of African Americans was  partly an interest in nobility and in the imperial culture of the country and so when you say ‘can an African American experience what it is to be an Ethiopian,’ for a lot of people being an Ethiopian meant being an Ethiopian prince or an Ethiopian emperor. It didn’t mean being an average Ethiopian.

Kyra Webb: I think that ties really well into my questions about Claude McKay’s text, Amiable with Big Teeth. How do you view the idea of self-invention in relation to the creative process of African American writers and how their writing may shape their communities and/or their own self-perception? 

Nadia Nurhussein: I have another chapter in my book that talks about real life examples of self-creation and people who passed themselves off as Ethiopian nobility in ways that are very similar to the characters in Amiable with Big Teeth. For example, the woman who is presented as a princess – there were a lot of people who did that in real life. I think about that attempt at self-creation as a kind of imaginative process similar to writing a novel or rewriting oneself. There’s a kind of creativity in adopting a fictive persona that way. I do see a lot of overlap between those real-life examples of self-creation and the way that some authors have used Ethiopia.

Kyra Webb: What do you make of McKay’s parodying of people from his time, especially given the fact that the novel was discovered so long after the real events that it actually related to? 

Nadia Nurhussein: Yeah, that’s wonderful! It’s an irony that he’s written something that really probably would have been best understood by his potential readers in the 1940s, you know, people who may have actually known the characters that were being parodied. But reading it now in the twenty-first century requires us to do a bit of digging to understand what’s being referred to so topically. It would have been a topical novel of the 1940s, so it is interesting that this novel didn’t get published until now because I think that it would have interested a lot of readers at the time.

Kyra Webb: Going back to some of the more sociological questions and perspectives, do you think that the fascination with Ethiopia by African Americans – and you’ve kind of already touched on this in regard to nobility – was based on ethnonationalist stereotypes which created Ethiopians as one linear identity, negating the variety of experiences of Ethiopians, as well as the variety of different identities in Ethiopia? 

Nadia Nurhussein: Yes, I think you could think about this in a broader sense in terms of the European imperialist division of African countries, ignoring ethnic tensions and divisions among peoples. Even though Ethiopia was not technically subjected to European imperialism, we have a lot of the same problems when it comes to one or two ethnic groups subjugating others, this sense of one identity standing in for Ethiopian-ness. So I think, certainly, there’s the fact that this one identity does not stand for all of Ethiopia and yet that’s the pervasive paradigm. 

Kyra Webb: Do you think there’s also an urgency for African American writers to display a variety of African American identities? And how do you see African Americanness as being conceived? Is it important for African Americans to cultivate a sense of identity based on the African American experience and do you see that relationship being reflected in literature? 

Nadia Nurhussein: I think there’s definitely a sense in the early twentieth century of trying to define a sort of canon of African American literature. There was a very important anthology that came out in 1922 called The Book of American Negro Poetry, that was one of the first efforts to anthologise African American poetry and create a genealogy for this literature. Then, of course during the Harlem Renaissance, there was Alain Locke’s The New Negro which did somewhat of the same thing although for one particular moment in literary history. But in both cases, you see this effort to consolidate and create a narrative for African American literature. And that’s not to say that these are the first efforts, because certainly earlier in the twentieth century, even in the late nineteenth century, there were lists made of black writers. And there’s another book by William Wells Brown that kind of anthologises biographies of important figures in black history. So, these kinds of efforts to document what African American history and literature should be, I think, are part of that desire to identify what it is to be African American at this moment. 

Kyra Webb: Going back to McKay’s work and the discussions about black solidarity and solidarity between diasporic black identities and black identities within the continent of Africa as well, we were wondering: what are your perspectives on black solidarity and the correct way to go about it? 

Nadia Nurhussein: Yeah, so one of the critics that I cite quite frequently in Black Land is Brent Hayes Edwards. His book The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation and the Rise of Black Internationalism (Harvard UP) was really useful for my book. I would say that I see things similarly to the way that he says diaspora works in the period that he’s covering, and the fact is that there is difference in the diaspora and that difference should be acknowledged, and solidarity should be, as he puts it, a practice. It’s not as if there’s a kind of effortless connection among all the different, say, black peoples in the world. And so, when we’re talking about racial solidarity among black peoples, there is an effort in making that connection. And that effort should not be dismissed because it’s difficult in some cases but that difference should be acknowledged and respected. So that’s my view: solidarity is important and obviously worth the work, but that it is at times hard work.

Kyra Webb: This question is a little bit more personal. It’s about a project that you were involved in, the digital project called “To Enter Africa from America”: The United States, Africa, and the New Imperialism, 1862−1919, about the US’s engagement with Africa during the so-called “age of empire” (c. 1870−1919). How were these patterns of American movement in Africa influenced by the symbolic meaning assigned to Ethiopia? And what was your experience working on the project? 

Nadia Nurhussein: I’m still working on this project, it’s not over. It was initiated by Jeanette Jones who is a professor at the University of Nebraska and I, along with two other professors, one at George Washington University, Nemata Amelia Ibitayo Blyden, and one at Sam Houston State University, John Gruesser. Did you find the website explaining this or just information that I was involved in it?

Sophia Dermetzis: I found various articles on things in relation to the project, I didn’t access a website though…

Nadia Nurhussein: Yeah, I don’t think it’s up yet as we’re still working on it, but the finished product will have all of these digitised documents of delegates and other travellers, people who visited Africa in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It’s been really informative for me, because obviously we’re not only working on Ethiopia – a lot of the travel has been in West Africa – so I’ve learned a lot. For example, there’s a lot of interaction at that time between the US and Liberia, a lot of travel in what would become South Africa. I have not been involved in a lot of that research because two of the professors involved on the project – Jeanette Jones and Nemata Amelia Ibitayo Blyden – are historians, so they’ve been doing a lot of the work with documents about official delegations and things like that. I, along with one of the other professors, John Gruesser, am working on the literature about Africa at the time. Similar to what I’m doing in my book, it’s mostly African American writers, and in some cases white American writers who are writing about Africa. They’re not always people who have visited Africa a lot of the time, they might just have an idea of what it is. My contribution to the project is finding and writing little synopses of these poems and novels and stories about Africa.

Sophia Dermetzis: Is it very evident when you read something by someone who has had a lot of personal contact within Africa and someone who has just written from an outside perspective?

Nadia Nurhussein: Yes sometimes, but in some cases the person has done a lot of research. I talked about Walt Whitman [in Black Land]. One of his poems, “Ethiopia Saluting the Colors” talks about Ethiopia in a way that indicates some serious familiarity with things like agriculture. I can’t imagine how he came across this information unless he did some deep research as he never went to Africa, as far as I know. So, there are certain things that I am surprised sometimes to find in the writings of people who have never been to Africa, but generally, if someone’s had direct experience with Africa you can probably tell, versus someone inventing or imagining something.

Kyra Webb: Is there anything you would like to ask us?

Nadia Nurhussein: Yes, I’m really curious about this degree in general and also what your research interests are.

Sophia Dermetzis: I think what is very unique about our Comparative Literature degree is that instead of focusing on work that tends to be very Eurocentric, we break down cultural and linguistic barriers across the globe. And then, at the same time, learn about the history that created certain literatures in different parts of the world. So, it just makes you more aware of the past and present throughout the word as opposed to the typical literary canon.

Kyra Webb: We were discussing a little bit, before our call, our ideas for our end of year essay for this module ‘Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Somali Literatures in Global Intellectual History’. I’m thinking about doing one about Tobbya by Ghebreyesus and doing a comparison between that and Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night as they’ve got a very similar plotline running through them with quite different implications. So that was my idea and I suppose, for me, it summarises how the module and how the course works — trying to combine perspectives to investigate the idea that periphery cultures aren’t always the product of centre cultures and thinking about how periphery cultures can evolve by themselves.

Nadia Nurhussein: That sounds great! Well, it was a pleasure talking to both of you.

Kyra Webb: Thank you so much again for doing this interview with us! 

For more on, and to buy copies of Black Land: Imperial Ethiopianism and African America (Princeton University Press, 2019), with some words from Professor Nurhussein about the book’s genesis and personal its personal connections, see the publisher’s website, Princeton University Press

Amiable with Big Teeth: A Novel of the Love Affair between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem is published in a Penguin Classics edition, and the audio book is available through Audible and on CD.

Poetry Foundation has a number of poems by Claude McKay available to read on their website and their short article on McKay’s writing life begins with this…

“Claude McKay, born Festus Claudius McKay in Sunny Ville, Jamaica in 1889, was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, a prominent literary movement of the 1920s. His work ranged from vernacular verse celebrating peasant life in Jamaica to poems that protested racial and economic inequities. His philosophically ambitious fiction, including tales of Black life in both Jamaica and America, addresses instinctual/intellectual duality, which McKay found central to the Black individual’s efforts to cope in a racist society. He is the author of The Passion of Claude McKay: Selected Poetry and Prose (1973), The Dialectic Poetry of Claude McKay (1972), Selected Poems (1953), Harlem Shadows (1922), Constab Ballads (1912), and Songs of Jamaica (1912), among many other books of poetry and prose.”

Nadira Ibrahim

This, and the accompanying interviews in the new Conversations series on the Literatures of the Horn of Africa, come out of an undergraduate module taught by Dr Sara Marzagora, “Ethiopian, Eritrean and Somali literatures in global intellectual history,” in the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures of King’s College London in the 2021-2022 academic year. The conversations have been transcribed and first-edited by Nadira Ibrahim.

Watch this space for more in the series – coming soon…

Categories: Conversations with - interview, dialogue, Q&A

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