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What Even is African Literature Anyway

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Is “African Literature” a genre or a curse, a tradition or a cordoning off?





(Aaron Bady: This conversation began, as conversations sometimes do, on twitter. Keguro Macharia and Sofia Samatar are two of the most brilliant thinkers I know, the sort of people that think thoughts that make new thoughts possible. Both are writers and critics at the same time; both are deeply invested in what African literature can be, and for that reason, are both usefully grumpy about the boxes it gets put in, contained, and constrained, and have a whole lot to say about why and how it might be otherwise. In this dialogue, they say some of these things, and I say a few things as well.

This conversation occurred over email–nearly a year ago, now–and has been edited and polished and cleaned up. Over email, Sofia likes to use “&” instead of “and,” but in a high class publication like this one, we’re not having any of that. Some emojis may have been harmed in the process of producing this dialogue. But as a dialogue, as a conversation, this text retains the basically irritated grumpiness of an email exchange between friends with stakes in the question; this is not a position paper or even a debate, but a collective expression of idealistic dissatisfaction, the feeling that “African literature,” as it is imagined to be in academia and publishing, could use a collective re-think, and is, in fact, getting one, if we’d figure out how to listen.) 

SOFIA SAMATAR: Lately I have been thinking about African literature as the literature that becomes nothing.“African subjectivity…is constituted by a perennial lack: lacking souls, lacking civilization, lacking writing, lacking responsibility, lacking development, lacking human rights and lacking democracy. It is an unending discourse that invents particular ‘lacks’ suitable for particular historical epochs so as to justify perpetuation of asymmetrical power relations and to authorize various forms of external interventions into Africa.” (Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni, Empire, Global Coloniality And African Subjectivity)This was kicked off when I read Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni on lack. We know that all literary works are copies, but African literature is a copy in a way that obliterates it (Ouologuem, Camara Laye, whatever, choose your plagiarism scandal). All literature is political, but African literature is political in a way that makes it cease to be literature (it’s “too political,” “didactic,” etc.). All literature is produced to suit a market, but African literature is produced to suit an illegitimate, inauthentic, outside market (it’s always in the wrong language). Its market also makes it nothing…

KEGURO MACHARIA: What a wonderful provocation! Yvonne Owuor wrote an article in the Kenyan papers—or was it in the East African?—where she provided a bibliography of women to read against and with, a wonderful situating of her own work. Her bibliography—provided in December—has all been ignored by people writing about her work.

I find this fascinating, the “void” from which she then must write, a very gendered void where she must always “respond to” Ngugi-Binyavanga, even as her work conjures up worlds neither could envision.

SOFIA SAMATAR: I did not know that. Splendid example of how unnecessary the words of the woman/native are. I mean you’re so legible, why should I actually listen to what you’re saying, I already know that you built your house that way so that it would look like a breast and you had to write lots of books because you’re ugly and single. (Not that people say that about Owuor, they’re just Things That Get Said.) and the person’s actual archive gets lost…
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KEGURO MACHARIA: I’d like to think against and with this “nothing”: as I keep insisting, I am not an Africanist—I wasn’t trained as one and I did not study to be one. Part of this stems from my desire to re-situate many “African” novels as black diaspora novels—to make explicit what many of the novels also do. Cheikh Hamidou Kane’s Ambiguous Adventure heads my list of books to read this way. This, I think, would multiply the “locals” that keep being invoked in what I read, uncharitably, as a project of ethnographic or ethno-social discipline, where one reads a novel in one hand with an ethnographic or sociological study in the other. (Increasingly, an NGO report.)

I’m interested in what approaching African lit as speculative fiction might do—I love the language-concept (concept-metaphor?) of world building and I wonder if it might provide a “method” through which to use “nothing” as a different kind of starting point. (I hope I’m not as cryptic as I suspect I am.)

SOFIA SAMATAR: Not at all cryptic! In fact really wonderful. Last year I completed a dissertation using fantasy/worldbuilding to look at the works of Tayeb Salih, then I read those works beside other ones by Ibrahim al-Koni, Ben Okri & Bessie Head. One of my ideas was that “world literature” stands to learn something from the worlds within texts and how they are built.  I was arguing against the totally tiresome separation of north and sub-Saharan Africa (Tayeb Salih being a great person to do that with). And there were ideas about shifts in scale within the works, and how fantasy is used to wrestle with the world on a scale that’s too large to deal with in any other way… and of course I was trying not to read these books as Nothing (or anthropology or what have you. You are not being uncharitable about that! At all! People say quite shamelessly that they are reading anthropologically! It’s a thing!). I don’t know, did I succeed at all, ugh, of course I ought to go back and revise the thing and try to get it published. But you know I also really approve of laziness…

Anyway, all this to say, I think there’s real potential in the speculative fiction angle, especially if you can (as I tried to do) actually engage with the worlds in the text and not just frame them as blah blah oral tradition, in the way we see so often, a way that MAKES EVERYTHING NOTHING AGAIN.

Curiously it’s making these elements “something” (oral tradition) that actually makes them nothing, while embracing them as nothing (fantasy, made-up) might be a way to see them as something…

I also love the idea of resituating African novels as diaspora novels, because God, authenticity is such a devil, and at the very least, you could cut this African authenticity off at the knees. Then I imagine you’d have more elbow room to do some interesting work.

AARON BADY: I love “the literature that becomes nothing” because it makes me think of the reactive (reactionary?) ways that “African Literature” was originally framed as either a return to tradition (that which had been interrupted by colonial modernity), or a mode of recovery from (neo)colonial trauma. But both of those are conceptual dead-ends, I think. There is always something weird to me in a Ngugi’s traditionalist defiance of global capital, something so undialectical about that way of thinking about literary culture and history.

Or maybe it can only feel weird now, because it’s three decades since he wrote Decolonizing the Mind, and we have a whole new range of facts to think with that he didn’t have in the 1980’s. That text stays the same, while we think and develop from it; we can incorporate its insights and naturalize them, while flaws and problems and contradictions emerge, especially as the world itself changes.

Lately, I’ve been struck by how African Literature has become something no self-respecting writer would want to produce; I am not an African Writer; I’m a WRITER. Everybody says that now, or qualifies the claim with serious reservations. It’s nobody’s favorite term. And there’s a perfectly natural push-back, there, against the categorization impulse of publishing capital, which produces “the African Novel” as a particular kind of commodity for a particular kind of cultivated market (perhaps you should write about FGM? child soldiers? etc). Binyavanga skewered that particular publishing pedagogy years ago, and it has stayed skewered. But what is the term that replaces it? If you aren’t an “African” writer, what adjective(s) are appropriate?

SOFIA SAMATAR: If I have any worries about going for “diasporic literature” instead, it’s that people recoil from African literature because of its nothingness. And even though I want to leap into the nothingness and say THERE IS NO AFRICAN LITERATURE, I am also really terrified of that void. Would an embrace of the nothingness of African lit lead to an escape from nothingness, or would it simply complete the disappearance which our ways of reading and writing have been trying to accomplish from the word go?

AARON BADY: Taiye Selasi got there first, talking about some of the ways that impulse can go wrong. I think of Achebe describing the feeling of being accosted in a parking lot by an American who is pleasantly surprised to learn that Africans have stuff like history and literature. There’s a tempting idealism in demanding that no adjective is necessary, or that the problem is the adjectivizing impulse itself. And yet! Publishers and the market are tawdry and stupid in their application of those adjectives, but seeing it done badly doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done better.

For me, “as a straight white male American” is a phrase I use to mark the place from which my thinking comes (and against which I struggle), but not simply as a guilty admission of privilege imposed by intersectionalist feminists run amok or whatever. It’s also just… who I am. And it’s important to take identity seriously enough to acknowledge its existence, its hugeness; these socially-constructed realities construct the society I live in, and thus, the shape of the “real” that I experience and learn from. It isn’t a handicap or a burden to “check” my privilege; it’s the only thing that makes it possible for me to come to terms with my blind spots. Why would it be any different for “African” writers, broadly speaking?

Especially when it comes to male African writers, in fact. Which maybe is Keguro’s point: an engagement with the injustice of being categorized as “African” sometimes pushes the privilege and blindness of masculinity out of the frame. 1962 in Makerere represents this shining moment of possibility for African Culture, after all, despite the fact that there are basically no women there. I think Efua Sutherland couldn’t get a visa or something? The point might be broader than that. Or maybe it isn’t.

KEGURO MACHARIA: I’m wondering if the resistance to “African writer” is, in many ways, a desire to re-introduce dissonant histories or disparate entanglements that complicate both the linguistic divisions (anglophone/francophone/lusophone/arabic/vernacular) and also the geographic ones (North/sub-Saharan/Southern/Western). At least it complicates these schemas in much richer spatio-temporal ways. After reading Gilroy and Brent Edwards, I became very interested in where books/stories were written, the specific geo-histories that inflected them and that were often hidden by their reception. What, I wondered, would it mean to localize textual production? What kinds of conversations might ensue? What additional contexts?

My test case for this was Kenyatta’s Facing Mount Kenya—a book whose textual production is everywhere acknowledged (written for Malinowski, published in 1938 by Hogarth—Woolf and her husband’s company, written while Kenyatta was part of an Afro-Caribbean collective, but re-published in the 1950’s), but nowhere considered as important. So that “context” was always “irrelevant.” We are back to the “nothing” that is, I think, this absence of any complicating context.

I think part of what I’m getting to is how the designation “African writer” generates a limited range of reception methods and interpretive methods, but also carries a certain “burden,” where one is juxtaposed against the “giants” of one’s region, whether or not one’s work is in dialogue with them thematically, formally, or politically. Which might be to say, on the one hand, the market (reception) and, on the other, literary history (reviews, articles, books). Of course, part of what’s interesting about so much recent writing is its awareness of the market (helped by international competitions and prizes) in a very different way from the African Writers Series. No one ever got rich from African Writers Series or even generated a comfortable lifestyle.

SOFIA SAMATAR: Yes, because why do you even need more than one African writer? I mean, at least in the US where you’re reading and teaching according to this sort of world lit structure (and I do not hate the idea of world lit, in fact I think it’s exciting, but the practice of it is shit), what you want is to just have one of each thing. I teach a course called “Major Non-Western Authors.” That’s the model! For God’s sake, give us the major ones, because the others are certain not to be worth our time, they’re just going to be small Ngugis and Achebes and Soyinkas. (Unless they’re Adichie! We love her TED talk! Let us show it in every class.)

It’s weird too because I see this among smart people who are very good readers, who are always seeking out obscure small-press books in the US and Europe. They ASSUME that the best books in these places are not Amazon bestsellers, but when it comes to African literature, our literature of nothing, they would never consider wasting their time on something that was not “major.”

KEGURO MACHARIA: I remain stuck at what it would mean to introduce “dissonant histories” into the stories we already have of African literature and of the “African writer”? I’m not quite sure what I mean, and I know it’s more than simply about locations of production/circulation/reception. And I also know it’s got something to do with music (blame Robin James for that).

SOFIA SAMATAR: Down with major authors. I believe there ARE dissonant histories and that they are not entirely tied to production/circulation/etc. But the context for African literature is so horribly overdetermined, much MUCH more so than Arabic lit, which is my other area. It takes a great effort to read differently. It makes me want to start with something very, very small actually. A tiny and weird idea, like “let us read Gayl Jones through Yambo Ouologuem.” Like making a very small crack in a wall. I don’t know, no guarantee it wouldn’t get plastered over.

AARON BADY: But that act, of taking writers who are not non-major (Ouloguem, say) and centering them, that’s a really useful gesture, isn’t it? What does African literature mean if Bound to Violence is the central text, displacing Achebe? There isn’t a right answer, but there are lots of interesting things that come out of it. What if Bessie Head is the central writer?

KEGURO MACHARIA: I was thinking of dissonant histories because of this opening from an early essay (1964) by Esk’ia Mphahlele:

“Music floats in the night across the vast complex of African townships (or “locations” as they are called in South Africa). It is heard in all parts of this black metropolis because it is a loud and robust music. The singing dancers–all young men and women and boys and girls–stamp it out on the street each night for a whole month before a wedding until it sounds as if the musicians were trapped in a sunset to-midnight orgy. The friends of the prospective groom and bride come and join in the dance and song. And so the theme of the music unfolds…”

Somewhere else in a dance hall a jazz combo is creating music; music taken from American Negro jazz and hammered out on the anvil of the South African experience: slum living, thuggery, police raids, job-hunting, shifting ghettos, and so on. The penny whistle takes the key melody, with bass and drums keeping the rhythm. On and off the sax weaves its way through the penny whistle notes. The musicians grope their way through the notes, expressing by this improvisation the uncertainty and restlessness of urban life which rejects the Negro: its expectations, its violence. They play in order to escape from the pain of rejection and to assert their human dignity. Those who dance to this music are also caught up in the tangle. They also improvise, although this is not immediately important. But there is something distinctly physical about their dance idiom, the way in which the bodies move–physical in a way the European idiom is not.”

The essay is called “Fabric of African Cultures,” and I’m intrigued by the opening movements, the lovely mix and meld of histories and cultures, and what this opens as a method for thinking. Part of what I’ve been trying to imagine over the past many years is how periodization might complicate the “traditional,” “pre-colonial,” “colonial,” “postcolonial” paradigms, which slice time in strange ways (traditional being atemporal; pre-colonial being an entry into legible temporality; colonial being the disciplining/regulating of time; and a cleverer mind than mine needs to figure out how time works in the postcolonial). For me, part of the silliness of the Afropolitan discussions has been their willingness to anchor cosmopolitanism in Euro-America (as it always is), in ways that make Africa a country and Asia irrelevant. So that, for instance, Afropolitanism as conceived could never recognize the border-crossing, culture-blending work of figures like Nyipir or Ali Dida Hada in Dust. (Before I “settled” on diaspora as my key term, I spent some time immersed in writing on cosmopolitanism—discovering why it couldn’t quite work for what I needed to do.)

AARON BADY: You know, the relative subordination of East Africa to West and South Africa has to be a real part of the problem, because there’s no East Africa without the Indian Ocean and Asia. Did you know that Christopher Okigbo called East Africa a literary desert years before Taban lo Liyong so much more infamously did? When Okigbo says it, it scans very differently. Also, is South African writing really part of “African Literature”? Or is it only allowed to be so to the extent that it resembles Achebe?

Anyway, I was struck by how Ghana Must Go is so interestingly thoughtful about the affinities and antagonisms between American-Africans and American-Asians, at least insofar as those subjects are often imagined to obtain. I think, too, of Professor Saito’s place in Julius’ mindscape, in Open City. But there’s also a kind of disconnect there; it’s a relation of comparison, not a historical relationship. If Lagos is the capitol of the Black Atlantic, it is on the other side of the world from Asia. But “Swahili” is as Asian as it is African, and so forth; the connections are so raw and direct, so old and also vital and evolving. I’d like to read an In an Antique Land that was more cognizant of Egypt as African, or was set in Zanzibar. Maybe Migritude is that.

KEGURO MACHARIA: When I was thinking about Binya’s One Day, I spent a little time reading about histories of music in East Africa—which, I discovered, were histories that stretched from Cuba to South Africa to the Congo, and this does not even count the coastal influences. What, I wonder, would it mean to listen for the music in African literature and African literary histories, not only on the level of content, but also on the level of form. Kimani Njogu has done some of this with Ngugi, and I think it’s intriguing, but I also wonder about the need to match African authors with “indigenous” musical forms: what would it mean to hear highlife in Ngugi?

I’m not sure how music would “cut” African literatures—if such cutting even matters that much.

I’ve also thought about “remittance” as a way to frame African literature—as a kind of materialist approach that is not necessarily historicist (if that makes sense). I’ve yet to even start the conceptual work such an approach might require—and might not because I also value laziness. Plus, I want Aaron to do it!

In addition to the “nothing,” I’d also like to think of how “cutting” works and what it accomplishes.

AARON BADY: That Mphaphlele essay makes me think of what Yvonne Vera does with music, kwela in Butterfly Burning. Music as expression of structural violence, both a release and escape from it, and yet also (unsettlingly) a kind of acceptance of it.  “Kwela means to climb into the waiting police jeeps.” Another project I keep meaning to do

SOFIA SAMATAR: Aaron, please write on Vera and kwela. “To climb into the waiting police jeeps.” Is this not also gangsta rap?

I mean, I feel like an idiot for not having gone here myself since I studied African American literature, especially Harlem Renaissance, before going into African lit, and lord, look at what’s been done with music in that field. Why would it not occur to me to think African literature that way? I am either very well-trained, very stupid, or both. Please write on this!

It makes me think of my friend at UW-Madison (John Nimis) who works on Congolese music, but interestingly, he is not at all trying to “cut” literature with music. Rather he’s studying music as if it were literature, which is a way of saying that yes there is literature in the DRC, and he’s doing super-interesting work (esp. on gender-bending & the term mawa, which he says is similar to nostalgia), but it is also very much in an old-school mode that clings to orality as evidence of African creativity/humanity/whatever. What would be even more interesting to me right now would be to cut the other way. Ngugi as highlife, as you say. Or what about looking for the “seben” in literary works–you know that moment when a Congolese track switches rhythm & they start doing all the shout-outs? That’s fascinating!

AARON BADY: I found myself thinking, this morning, about the ways that musical genealogies like “Cuba to South Africa to the Congo” trace histories of global movements, the stickiness and detritus of the past, which the narrative of the solitary artist–or cultural “leader,” Great Writer as Great Man–often tend to suppress. AFRICAN CULTURE, BURSTING FROM THE MIND OF THE GENIUS NOVELIST

Or if not that, then “recovered,” intact, from The Culture of The Past. In either case, again, utterly un-dialectical and un-settlingly reactionary, a response to a history (of colonialism? of tradition?) that it disavows and repudiates, rather than embodies and grows through. But maybe it’s easier to understand music as a layered, labored, embodied product of all sorts of different things aggregated and harmonizing/dissonizing together, because the meta-discourse is all about identifying “influences.” In this sense, music is culture as worked over, “taken from American Negro jazz and hammered out on the anvil of the South African experience.”

SOFIA SAMATAR: The other piece that’s very interesting to me in all this is the role of technology… those Cuban records… and the recording studio… Which brings us back to cutting. I’m using “cutting,” because I like it but are we cutting as in making cracks, like I was saying before, or is it more like cutting our whiskey with soda?

KEGURO MACHARIA: “Cut” I take from Fred Moten—it’s a cleaving, a joining and splitting, but also an interruption within the formal logics and practices of classification. I simply like the way it looks as a word and what it might offer.

AARON BADY: Yet would “the African novel” ever be theorized in those kinds of terms? Instead of thinking of the ways Langston Hughes and James Baldwin (and the very American-minded Mphahlele) presided over conferences like 1962 in Makerere, or the intense engagement with uber-diasporic negritude that they tried to disavow, the Africa novel is this thing that “emerges” out of colonialism, or bursts into existence when oral stories get written down.

KEGURO MACHARIA: The recursive part of me—all of me—wants to go back to the question, “what even is African literature”? In part because of the “swerve” that always accompanies this question, that turn away from it everywhere, whether by focusing on how the category of African writer functions or how markets function, and so on. Or how African literature functions not simply in geo-historical terms but as a genre category in a way that, perhaps, is really quite distinct from how, say, European literature or U.S. literature functions. And I think the “nothing” I’m finding useful is, perhaps, the constant way that African literary criticism (which does not exist, I insist) always starts by negating the presumed “is” of African literature: not ethnography, not tradition, not sociology, not western, not autocthonous, not essentialist, not hybrid, not (choose your term).

This is even more true of the African writer—at least of the contemporary African writer. Even as I find the constant negations by writers sophomoric, at best.

SOFIA SAMATAR: Keguro, YES, this is exactly how I think of the “nothing,” as more of an action than a (no)thing, a swerve, a MAKING-nothing. Every piece of criticism begins with No. That’s why I think of African lit as the lit that is made nothing, in different ways, over and over… and I wonder if anything can be done with that. Like, is it the kind of thing that has to be overcome in some way, or is there a different response to it that would yield, well, something?

I have a dead essay on Le Regard du roi that’s sort of about this. What do you do with a novel when you don’t even know who wrote it? It seems impossible to say anything about that book post-plagiarism scandal, which is what makes it interesting to me. It’s so EMPHATICALLY nothing, because it can’t be fully African or European. Although, like I said the essay is pretty much dead. Who knows, there may be all kinds of new info on that book now, I haven’t looked in years.

KEGURO MACHARIA: I wonder if, in part, the problem—for writers, for categories—is that “they” (writers/categories) are always being imagined or referenced within the most narrow traditions. Achebe, Soyinka, Ngugi, Coetzee… so narrow that even a Saro-Wiwa or Aidoo or Rives (and who ever talks about Richard Rives?) is unimaginable. It doesn’t help that so many of the African Writers Series books went out of print and are inaccessible unless one has access to a fantastic library that has very good African literature holdings. (Amherst College has amazing holdings—really exceptional.) Where, for instance, would one go to make sense of Leila Aboulela’s love stories?

When I’m not being conceptually lazy, I’ll argue that African literature has always been transnational and comparative that, in fact, African Writers Series is one of the richest archives for thinking about transnationalism. But that feels lazy, as though I’m trying to slot African literature into a legible category in the U.S. literary imagination. That slotting is, inevitably, doomed to fail; these categories are so often created (and function) as though African literature cannot be imagined—which isn’t to say African works might not be mentioned, but the rich sense of a literature composed of multiple types of work is so often absent.

I think this is where I get stuck: that while individual African writers and individual books can be “imagined” and are used, “African literature” remains difficult to imagine. And it seems to me that the ways the literature is “cut,” often generationally, as opposed to, say, by formal strategies or even political affiliations (think modernism, romanticism, the Harlem renaissance), makes it even more difficult to imagine a “literature.” After all, what does the continual production of generation do if not simply tether anthropological time to literature (via coincidence)?

I’m waiting for Aaron to think about remittance for me: It is tethered to Migritude, where Shailja writes.

“The question asked of those who return, voiced or implicit, is always: what have you brought? What do you have to show for your years abroad? You’re expected to display wealth. Achievement, accomplishment, accumulation. And to come laden with gifts: German cars, iPods, and designer handbags are all good. I brought Migritude. A tapestry of poetry, history, politics, packed into a suitcase, embedded in my body, rolled out into theatre. An accounting of empire enacted on the bodies of women.”

I wanted to think about texts as circulation within a long-established history of circulation: remittance as this “bringing back” and “traveling with.” When I started trying to think about the term, I thought it was tied to the international—I was wrong. It was widely used to discuss urban-rural movements in earlier literature (and is still used that way). And then I thought about Ngugi’s Makerere novels; Salih’s UK novel; Soyinka’s U.S. novel—and so on. How do these works embody a remittance economy? Never written in the countries they engage, but taken to represent those spaces. (I think remittance does something that exile does not.)

SOFIA SAMATAR: The idea of remittance you describe is so strong and has so much possibility.

As for music–well look, music is lovely and unburdened despite being exuberantly transnational because music is popular. The means of production and distribution are in African hands and the product is being consumed primarily on the continent, by people of all classes. Isn’t this sort of the elephant in the room of this African literature we’re trying to talk about? Class (education, language) seems like a place to link both making-nothing and remittance. Because making-nothing often comes out of a defensive posture that’s linked to anxieties about language and audience. And remittance–which can talk about urban-rural relationships, generational relationships, etc., as well as transnational ones–seems like it could help here.

KEGURO MACHARIA: I keep circling back to this idea of whether or not African fiction can actually exist—in a way that is not judged by fidelity to 1. history 2. cosmology 3. tradition—whatever the fuck that is. Will African writers ever stop being told their works are historically “inaccurate”?

AARON BADY: At Makerere in 1962, Gerald Moore gave this paper complaining about the revolutionary romanticism in Cesaire and Senghor (“the problem with that is”), and he says he’s very happy that they’ve started doing satiric realism. So much of the anti-negritude rhetoric is generational angst and anti-communism but it’s also anti-romanticism, and feels like an effort to fix African literature in place by finding a stable reality for it to be objectively measured against; there’s a lot of talk of “Africa, today, is this way, therefore, its literature must.”

KEGURO MACHARIA: Even as I’m honestly not down with Senghor’s version of negritude. (That was part of the chapter I wrote in three weeks or so and was completely unnecessary.) What seems paradoxical about Senghor’s aesthetics is that against the French claim that Africans have no history worth remembering, Senghor posits an aestheticized version of the past that, as mediated through the poet’s mind, becomes ahistorical. We will now consign this to the dustbin of history!

I really love Césaire’s version, though.

Were the proceedings published separately from the Transition issue? If so, I didn’t encounter them. (Though, in my defense, I have never claimed to know anything published after 1940—periodization is the BEST defense.) I have no clue what to say about contemporary authors—they are too much alive and they might “respond.” Best to stick with dead ones.

SOFIA SAMATAR: The whole notion of fidelity (to history, tradition, whatever) is a curse. Note how easily it can be used to “nothing” a work out of existence. Unfaithful? BZZZT YOU ARE NOTHING.

It’s also inseparable from that “authenticity” business that turns African literature into tourist wares & makes it hell to teach. You find your students saying “the people over there think” or “according to their culture”–sorry, I know you guys know this so no need for me to rant.margin-ad-left

Completely agree about Senghor and Césaire! Love the latter; can hardly even read the former (“Femme Noire” makes me want to die. Negritude such a boys’ club). Fidelity is oppressive, and so is the need to be positive–as in, tending toward the uplift of one’s people, or always making them win in the end. (This is something I see and deal with all the time among writers of color today. Maybe because I write sci-fi…) The burden of uplifting the race is so deadly, cuts off a whole range of human feeling. This is why I love Césaire’s “négraille” (used also by Ouologuem, of course, and I prefer the translation “niggertrash” to the more sanitary “black rabble”). There must be a place for hatred, self-hatred too, fierce negativity. My other favorite Césaire word is “morne”: where slaves ran away to, where slums are now. “The morne crouching before bulimia… slowly vomiting out its human fatigue…”

Césaire is ready to be sick over things in a way that Senghor is not.

I guess this is my main concern in debates about “what is a real African writer.” The debates always seem so extroverted to me, so anxious about being represented to the other, about who has the right to represent “us” to the other, about how “we” are represented. I don’t know. Is that too harsh? Maybe. Or is it even weirder than what I’ve said… is “the other” not actually other at all, but ourselves-in-the-position-of-the-other, ourselves-viewing-ourselves-as-other? Who is the tourist? And is there a displacement and anxiety there that may account for the desire for stability and fidelity?

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