Crafts of World Literature at the ASAUK

The African Studies Association UK biennial conference took place at the University of Birmingham, 11-13 September. Jarad Zimbler and I ran a stream called “African Literature: Communities, Collaborations, Crafts & Crossings”. The aim of this stream was to consider the ways in which literary works and their authors have moved within, across, into and out of Africa’s literary environments and domains. We asked for papers that considered national, pan-African and transnational collaborations (and conflicts), as well as connections between different located literary communities, whilst seeking to address literary practices and materials alongside technologies and institutions of production. One of the aims of the stream was to explore, from the perspective of scholarship on African verbal arts, the relevance of recent attempts to theorize literary production and circulation at scales other than the national.

The stream is connected with the Crafts of World Literature project, founded in 2012, which seeks to reorient postcolonial literary studies in the direction of literary technique. This is not in the name of any new formalism, but based on the belief that technique is the way that art thinks, and so is the particular means by which it confronts us with the truths of our world. As with previous events, the stream aimed to further our thinking around these ideas, and the related belief that the artist’s materials are always located, but that a comparison of regional fields emerging in the wake of decolonization helps to identify the forces shaping them.

Over the course of our African Literature stream at the ASAUK, contributors from Nigeria, South Africa, India, Italy, Sweden, the USA and the UK presented papers which responded to the challenges posed in our call for papers. The opening panel, ‘Fields and Networks’ included papers from Jarad Zimbler, Ruth Bush and Corinne Sandwith, and the contributors clearly showed the importance of book history and archival work. Zimbler looked closely at the work of Guy Butler and Richard Wright in his paper on literary tourism and encounter; Bush discussed the African ‘campus novel’, and Sandwith talked about the startling exclusions made by Tomas Mofolo’s publishers. The wider discussion was informed by questions about archival research and Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of the cultural field.

The conversation about archival research, materiality and field theory continued into the second panel, ‘Small-Scale Production’ which included a range of excellent papers on literary magazines. Nathan Suhr-Sytsma discussed Saraba magazine, Stefan Helgesson looked at South African little magazines, and I presented a paper on The Horn, a student poetry magazine at University College, Ibadan, focussing particularly on the work of Minji Karibo.

The stream then turned to performance, with two panels on ‘Ecologies, Orality and Performance’. Brendon Nicholls presented a fascinating paper on indigenous poetry in Southern Africa, Patrick Oloko read a paper by Oyeniyi Okunoye on the poetry of Dike Chukwumerije, and Scott Newman presented research on the ‘scream’ in the work of Dambudzo Marechera and Sony Labou Tansi. In the second panel Jane Plastow presented new research on Somali theatre, Penda Choppy talked about the Seychelles Moutya and Seychelles oral traditions, and Oloko discussed Akeem Lasisi’s Wonderland Eleleture.

The final panel, ‘Crossings and Circulations’, included three papers that looked closely at novels which thematized movements and migrations, and a fourth paper from Marco Bucaioni which looked at the circulation of Portuguese-Speaking African literatures in Europe. Sreya Malika Data discussed narrative ecologies in the work of Cyprian Ekwensi and Amos Tutuola; Oluseun Adekunmi Tanimomo presented a paper on migration and risk in Abu Bakr Khaal’s African Titanics;and Rebecca Fasselt talked about the trans-African Bildungsroman in contemporary South African writing. The contrast between the textual analysis and data analysis in these different papers raised, again, methodological questions about how we begin to synthesize close and distant reading practices in our critical work.

Our final session was a roundtable on Nathan Suhr-Sytsma’s recent book, Poetry, Print and the Making of Postcolonial Literature. A distinguished set of panelists discussed this ambitious book, which provided the basis for a conversation about transnational poetics and the circulation of literary works. James Currey, Rotimi Fasan, Jarad Zimbler and Madhu Krishnan provided eloquent responses, ranging from Currey’s discussion of his experiences as a publisher in Nigeria during this period, to Krishnan’s questions about how literary landscapes intersect with economic questions. The papers in the stream offered valuable contributions to the current field of world literary studies, and in turn the stream as a whole demonstrated the relevance of this burgeoning field to scholars of African literature. The stream also left us with many questions and challenges, particularly relating to the practicalities of pursuing critical work that is attentive to both craft and field, and the realities of synthesizing archival research, materiality, field theory and performance. We will continue to pursue these challenges through the Crafts of World Literature project, and welcome you to join us at future events.

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