Anglophone African Literature

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.

4 thoughts on “Anglophone African Literature

  1. You’ve been blogging a long time and never have seemed intent on driving the hoi polloi from your site. That’s a wonderful thing for someone like me who wouldn’t have much exposure to discussion about literature otherwise.

    You make a good point about “African Literature” having much to offer scholars wanting to teach “beyond” the nation. And “Queer Literature” seems to me to accomplish something like that in re dominant cultures.

    At Pambazuka Amir Kheir has a piece Why the nation-state is wrong for Africa that provoked an aha! As a white-bread American talking with Africans online is meaningful to me, as is talking to other Americans about talking with Africans. But the talk is often strange. Americans talking about “tribe” is offensive to many Africans. What amazes me about it when Americans talk is how infrequently “tribe” is seen as a great accomplishment when at least in terms of Native American culture there is some respect for it among many Americans.

    Amir Kheir’s state without nation is I think something people everywhere are beginning to contemplate. Our identities are plural and our existential predicament is global rather than national. So your point that African Literature offers important lessons resonates with me.

  2. John,

    Thanks for pointing me to the essay–which I promptly shared with my students. I have, somewhere in my history, an argument that Africa precedes the various geographical boundaries that divide it up. For this reason, I think a judicious use of the term “African” has a really radical meaning, a really fascinating way to think “beyond” the nation-state. But I also think about what it means to make that particular kind of historical claim and whether it is even a claim worth making, or a cheap point.

    I would claim to be hoi polloi, but my heritage is not Greek! Plus, I’m not famous enough to chase anyone anywhere!

  3. Beating a dead horse… Right around the time of reading your post I read an essay at NYRblog The Dull New Global Novel by Tim Parks which lays out dullness as a consequence of globalization. Somewhere along the line, and I maybe misstating your intention, you mentioned you were interested in a project to get chapbooks published in Kenya. I think that’s a splendid idea. My sense is for a variety of reasons there’s a trend towards more localization. Book publishing in the main really never made sense as mass media.

    It’s really hard to maintain a blog from an Internet cafe so African bloggers have tended to be well enough off to have a PC. But there are more bloggers blogging from shared computers now. It gives me great pleasure to read points being made through local dialog. One way or another literature is becoming more diverse rather than less.

    Anyhow my wish is for something between zine culture and chapbooks to take off in Africa and other parts of the world. Looking at the economics of it, publication runs of about 5,000 seem the most economic. But it’s relatively a trivial matter for digital copies to be promulgated via the Internet. So the potential is for very local literatures to be shared globally.

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