Is Anglophone African Literature foreign literature? What makes literature “foreign”? And how does the designation “African” function? I ask this, in part, as a response to reading Dan Edelstein’s article, in which he asks, “Why do we still partition the literary canon according to nationalist traditions? Is this really the most intellectually satisfying and authentic approach to literary studies?”
Beginning from African literature changes this question, precisely because it makes clear the language-nationality suture that Edelstein seems to presume. Anglophone literatures are not, by any easy measure, English literatures.
Second, the designation “African” makes it very difficult, immensely so, to speak of prioritizing “nationalistic traditions.” Indeed, the challenge of teaching African literature is precisely that one is always teaching comparatively and transnationally (to use those terms). It is difficult, for instance, to teach authors such as M.G. Vassanji and Leila Aboulela (both of whom I teach this semester) as anything other than transnational, as their plots and characters slide and shift across multiple borders, linguistic, spatial, and temporal.
And, I must confess, it is tiring to hear about the “transnational turn” (dated though the term is) that conveniently ignores the always already transnational enterprise that is the teaching of African literature–it doesn’t get more transnational!
At my most polemical, I am suggesting that “African literature,” as an area of study, has a lot to teach scholars who want to teach “beyond” the nation. That, in fact, the “making” of African literature offers broader lessons into the making of literature itself, in its multiple spatial and temporal varieties.
While I do support Edelstein’s call for students to be able to read in more than one language, I worry about the flattening of categories such as anglophone and francophone, when they are taken as monocultural rather than richly diverse.
Are Anglophone African literatures foreign literatures when taught in English departments? I suspect the answer to this might allow a more complex view of literary studies than the current monolingual vs. multilingual debates suggest.