Academe’s Willful Ignorance of African Literature

Every now and again, people declare that African literature has arrived, or is arriving, or will arrive soon. It’s not surprising that African literature is read as emerging: In the long emergency that seems to define Africa in the eyes of the rest of the world—in which “Africa” is a place of starving children, warring clans, and technological backwardness—the idea of African literature can seem positively utopian. It can be a delightful discovery when it seems to emerge. But that discovery says everything about the person making it, and nothing about the literature, which emerged a long time ago. And as long as critics and publishers frame African literature as always on the cusp, it will continue to be an emerging literature whose emergence is infinitely deferred. It will remain utopian, just out of reach.

It’s long past time to get over this narrative. Its function is, simply, to excuse and legitimize the ignorance of those who have chosen to ignore African literature.

The other day, the Yale English professor Wai Chee Dimock was happy to discover that graduate students in the United States are working on African literature. She made this discovery when Yale ran a search for a professor of 20th-and-21st-century literature. (Full disclosure: I applied for the position, so I don’t pretend to be objective when I read Dimock’s statement that “Already we had hired a senior Africanist, so Africa was not a high priority for us.” This sentiment is the bane of my professional existence.). “To our surprise,” Dimock wrote, “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.”

Dimock continues:

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.

These sentences make for a very unfortunate paragraph. Who is the “one” to whom it seems like African literature has “grown up,” out of nowhere, overnight, unforeseen? How did this ignorance get linked to a presumption of authority (and such a patronizing metaphor)? After all, if books like Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow, NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names, and Helon Habila’s Oil on Water are only “vaguely familiar titles” to you, what you are really saying is that you are totally unfamiliar with both African literature itself and with the field of African literary study as it obtains in the United States.

It’s not exactly surprising that Dimock and her colleagues had never heard of writers like Ebrahim Hussein, Boubacar Boris Diop, Sony Labou Tansi, and Mia Couto, but it does speak volumes about the insularity of their reading practices if they regard these writers as new, or the presence of these names in American academe as novel. These writers are not perennial Nobel nominees like Ngugi, to be sure, but they are quite well-established writers—all in their 60s and 70s (though Tansi died in 1995)—and Africanists have known about these writers for decades, and have been writing about them for decades. To be “vaguely familiar” with names like Ngugi or Habila is to mark your ignorance of African literature; to be surprised that people are writing about Boubacar Boris Diop or Mia Couto is to mark your ignorance of Africanist literary studies.

It’s not surprising that a professor of American literature like Wai Chee Dimock knows little about African literature. English departments do not tend to regard African literature as something a theorist of “World literature” needs to know anything about. But it’s worth underscoring how little a statement like “the field seems to have grown up overnight and turned into something no one had foreseen” has to do with the field in question, and how much work the word “seems” is doing. The field only “seems to have grown up overnight” to people whose eyes have been closed. Ignorance begins with the choice to ignore.

Until now, Yale’s English department has not had a professor of African literature. According to its faculty website, Yale has about 10 faculty members who claim expertise on 19th-century British literature, while no Africanists are listed. Dimock says that they have now hired a senior Africanist, which will give them a grand total of one. When I asked Dimock, in a comment on her original post, how many Africanists a department needs, she replied:

We need more than one, and being the sole Africanist could have an isolating effect. But the senior Africanist in this case—Stephanie Newell from Sussex University—is known for her dynamism and galvanizing effect on institutions. … I’m hoping that her presence would bring in students, collaborators, making the hiring of a second Africanist necessary—more signs of a sea change.

One Africanist is better than none, certainly, but I’m not holding my breath for the second. Being the only Africanist does have an isolating effect, and when a department has 10 faculty members working on British literature from the era in which Britain scrambled for Africa, that department’s picture of “world Anglophone” literature—and what needs to be covered—is likely to be very limited. They are likely to regard one Africanist as being better than none, and to stop there. This curricular limitation is utterly common, however. If an English department has one Africanist, it is ahead of the curve. More likely, a department’s token “Anglophone literature” specialist will be tasked with some variation on “postcolonial” literature, anything from the Caribbean to Africa to South Asia, and also everything in between. The result is predictable. Ignoring a field normalizes ignorance of it, and this kind of ignorance of African literature continues to be utterly normal.

I’m glad that Dimock is sympathetic to the plight of scholars in my position. After observing that “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,” she asks, “What is going to happen to all of those African-languages-speaking, archive-obsessed, genre-discovering graduate students?”

The answer is easy: Nothing will change, and these people will mostly be unemployed. I say this not (only) because I am, myself, staring down the barrel of unemployment. There are a variety of reasons why that might be so, since the employment crisis for junior scholars is general. But English departments will continue to regard African literature as “emerging” as long as the “usual suspects” of African literature, as Dimock puts it, continue to be people like Chinua Achebe, J.M. Coetzee, and Nadine Gordimer. If you can name only three African writers  at and two of them are white South Africans, you have a very odd sense of the literature to write an essay. But this myopia is also general: English departments do have a very limited sense of what African literature is, which is why Dimock can lightly, ironically—even self-deprecatingly—reference her own ignorance of the field.

Meanwhile, it is true that the field has exploded. African literature is in the midst of a renaissance, whether American English departments know about it or not. Dimock also mentioned “Uganda’s Monica Arac de Nyeko” and “Malawi’s Shadreck Chikoti,” two of the 39 writers (under the age of 40) collected in the anthology Africa39, and that collection is a good snapshot of where African literature is going. But between venerable figures like Ebrahim Hussein and Ngugi wa Thiong’o and the Africa39 writers (which includes literary stars like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Dinaw Mengestu, Taiye Selasi, and Chika Unigwe), there is a host of writers in the primes of their careers who have already produced some of the most powerful literature of the 21st century. Writers like Chris Abani, Leila Aboulela, Teju Cole, Laila Lalami, Alain Mabanckou, Hisham Matar, Maaza Mengiste, Okey Ndibe, Nnedi Okorafor, Ben Okri, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, Sofia Samatar, Veronique Tadjo, Miral al-Tahawi, Abdourahman Waberi, and Binyavanga Wainaina are where the action is, to say nothing of all the stunning talents who were silenced too soon, people like Yvonne Vera or Ken Saro-Wiwa. It is also to say nothing of literatures written in non-European languages, a universe of textuality that American literary departments are almost totally ignorant of.

Can “a professor of English and American studies” be ignorant of Africa literature? In practice, she certainly can, and there are too many books in the world to read all of them. But what about a professor of “World Anglophone” literature, which is one of the other things that Yale’s faculty page lists Wai Chee Dimock as being? Here, I would be less charitable, and observe what a problem it is that she can. Dimock is one of the many American academics who have, in the age of globalization, begun to think about the ways in which American literature is a world literature, which it obviously is, and this is a salutary development for a field that’s traditionally taken pride in its own parochial insularity. Her own work is important, and the essay collection she co-edited, Shades of the Planet: American Literature as a World Literature, marks a broader change in American studies. But if American becomes a “world” literature, what happens to all the literature that used to occupy that space? Is the globalization of American literature a growing cosmopolitanism or a new kind of Eurocentrism? If American literature becomes a world literature, then is world literature just a new name for the old canon?

I worry that as Americanists move into “World Anglophone” literature, the world outside of Britain and the United States gets included in theory, but will continue to be excluded in practice. As crass it might be to use “world literature” as a shorthand for “the rest of the world,” the alternative might be worse. I worry that the actual effect of rebranding English departments as “World Anglophone literature departments” would only normalize the status quo. Will their survey of Anglophone letters still consist of dozens of scholars working on British and American literatures and a single, token Africanist? That might be the best-case scenario. For all its flaws, at least the term “postcolonial literature” recognized on which side of the global color line it located its subject, and recognized how much work was yet to be done. I suspect that global Anglophone literature prefers to be “post-racial.”

I’m glad Dimock started this conversation because it’s a good conversation to have. But if this conversation is to proceed, we should be clear about what the status quo is, and how little it is actually changing. It does not seem to me that “literature departments are getting into the act” or showing any signs of doing so. If you go down the list of top-ranked English departments, you will find more professors researching and teaching the works of J.M. Coetzee, all by himself, than the combined work of the rest of the African continent. (That’s assuming that Coetzee, now an Australian citizen, “counts” as African; he put it, ”My intellectual allegiances are clearly European, not African.”) This is a rough calculation, but it’s not hyperbole: In American English departments, “John Maxwell Coetzee” is a larger research agenda than “Africa.” Moreover, especially at the top of the rankings, nearly every department’s “Africanist” is primarily something else. If they also cover Africa, it’s almost never their primary research agenda, which tells you a lot about what departments regard as acceptable “coverage.”

Feel free to dismiss this essay as the sour grapes of a precarious academic. But this not about me, and it’s certainly not about Yale. It’s about the way English departments would like to call themselves “worldly” without earning it. In the future, I suspect that “world literature” will continue to be theorized by scholars like Dimock, and our “world literature” will continue to look much too much like Goethe’s: the usual suspects plus a novel in translation. I hope that Dimock is less ignorant than that article makes her sound; I hope that her “vague” familiarity with the title of Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow is a rhetorical affectation, and that she’s making fun of anyone who would be quite that insular. But I fear that the vagueness of this familiarity is a precise description of the status quo, and a status quo that does not want to change very much.

For a shift from “English departments” to departments of “Anglophone World Literature” to mean anything, structural change would be required, but I suspect only superficial change is on offer, at best. For anything to change, a ratio of 10 professors of 19th-century British literature to one Africanist would have to seem like a damning and embarrassing (and essentially colonial) hierarchy of value. I find few signs that more than a small minority sees it this way. I have heard too many anecdotes from friends whose departments lack an Africanist but regard their coverage of antebellum American literature, or postwar British literature, to be their glaring gap. I have spent too much time going through faculty rosters and seeing a chapter on Coetzee count as “coverage” of African literature. Racism is not the only word for this tendency, but it’s one of them, along with inertia and a self-satisfied lack of intellectual curiosity.  The world of literature has changed much faster than literary studies, and an essay like Dimock’s demonstrates it. To even begin to catch up, we have to be honest about how far behind we are right now.

Aaron Bady is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Texas at Austin, teaching African and other contemporary Anglophone literatures.

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