A literary scramble for Africa



Hiring: an annual ritual at the MLA. This year the Yale English department advertised a position in the 20th and 21st centuries. What we were really looking for, though, was something much more specific: Anglophone world literature. Already we had hired a senior Africanist, so Africa was not a high priority for us; we were looking for (and were sure we would be inundated with) work on South Asia and the Caribbean—the admittedly great but hardly eyebrow-raising trinity of Salman Rushdie, Derek Walcott, and Michael Ondaajte, or the next generation, Amitav Ghosh, Arundhati Roy, and Mohsin Hamid.

To our surprise, almost one-third of the people we ended up interviewing were again working on Africa, and not even the usual suspects: Chinua Achebe, J.M. Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer. The field seems to have grown up overnight and turned into something no one had foreseen. Here and there we ran into some vaguely familiar titles—Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow, NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names, Helon Habila’s Oil on Water—but, for the most part, people were writing about authors we had never heard of: Senegal’s Boubacar Boris Diop, Tanzania’s Ebrahim Hussein, Congo’s Sony Labou Tansi, Uganda’s Monica Arac de Nyeko, Mozambique’s Mia Couto, Malawi’s Shadreck Chikoti.

Since English is not the only language spoken in those African countries, some of the job applicants also knew French, Portuguese, Hindi, Spanish, Chinese, or regional languages such as Swahili, Wolof, Chichewa/Chinyanja, and Zulu. Through these, they gained access to a number of vernacular genres also peculiar to Africa: township tales, newspaper short stories, bus-travel blogs, time-machine fantasies. And the archives they were looking at? Well, among others, the archives of the Afro-Asian Writers’ Bureau, founded in Bali in 1957—a logical extension of the 1955 Bandung Conference, a historic meeting hosted by Indonesia, featuring 25 nonaligned nations in Africa and Asia. The current rapprochement between Africa and China gave the Afro-Asian Writers’ Bureau a timeliness one would scarcely have suspected a generation ago.

This “scramble for Africa” is of course nothing new. Since the late 19th century, the natural resources of the continent—rubber, ivory, gold, diamonds, coffee, cotton—had fueled European colonialism, to be topped only by oil in the 20th century. In the 21st century, multinational corporations once again have their eyes fixed on Africa, knowing that their state-sponsored rivals from China—the biggest investor—are already far ahead, building roads, clinics, and soccer stadiums, and reaping huge profits from energy extraction. If this year’s MLA is any indication, literature departments are also getting into the act, playing catchup perhaps but also hoping to do things a little differently.

The flow of global capital is not to be ignored, but equally interesting are the grass-roots networks linking African writers to other regional writers—in South Asia, say, or Latin America—without necessarily going through metropolitan centers such as London, Paris, or New York. This is not the centralized and hierarchical “world republic of letters” that Pascale Casanova equates with world literature. It is a very different paradigm. And those who are spearheading this kind of research are not tenured professors but unemployed graduate students, the hundreds of people who applied for the job we advertised.

What is going to happen to all of those African-languages-speaking, archive-obsessed, genre-discovering graduate students? When job seekers are writing about authors the search committee knows nothing about, things could be dicey. But the risk might be less than how it appears just now. For one thing, the MLA, moving with what seems like unprecedented speed and savvy, not only has appointed a World Anglophone scholar (Simon Gikandi of Princeton) as the editor of its flagship journal, PMLA, but has also, just this year, created a whole new executive division, called the “Global South,” to promote that kind of African-Asian and African-Latin American dialogue. Literature departments tend to move more slowly, but even they, sooner or later, will need to adjust.

Change is in the air. It could be that, in just a few years, “English” departments will be calling themselves “World Anglophone” departments—not the sexiest name, but at least making it clear that the literature being studied is not just from two countries but from every conceivable place of origin, from every part of the world where English is actively used and imaginatively modified by readers and writers with other tongues at their disposal. And even if that drastic change were to fail to happen, the languages learned and the genres discovered are too interesting and too robustly empirical to disappear from the body of knowledge humanists call their own.

After all, who is to say a World Literature Forum would never materialize, if only as a foil to the World Economic Forum?

Author Bio: Wai Chee Dimock is a professor of English and American studies at Yale University.