AFRICA: Literature scholars pledge support for rights

Hundreds of academics, writers and critics of African literature pledged to intensify support for human rights and good governance in Africa, at the 34th annual conference of the African Literature Association held at Western Illinois University recently. Many of around 360 papers presented rejected the worn-out philosophy of 'Afro-pessimism' and expressed faith in the cultural creativity of African people.

The African Literature Association (ALA) 2008 gathering took place at Western Illinois University's Macomb Campus from 22 to 27 April. It was titled "African and African diaspora women writers, global challenges and cultural identity".

The vast majority of participants were literature teachers in American universities but there were also many lectures from European, Caribbean, Indian and - of course - African universities and dozens of scholars and writers of African literature spanning three generations. It was a successful pilgrimage for creative writers, literary and film critics and book publishers who, characteristically, agreed to disagree on all themes at the conference

The organisers had two objectives. The first was to "celebrate the creativity, versatility and vibrancy" of African women on the continent and in the diaspora by foregrounding their writings, oratories and creative imaginations through all forms of literary genres - books, performances, cultures, languages, styles and critical paradigms. Second, the conference was - as it traditionally is - open to all areas and approaches of literature from Africa and its diaspora, "in all its traditions and inter-disciplinary scholarships".

This multi-faceted approach to African literature was strictly adhered to at the plenary and roundtable sessions. There were around 15 panels a day at the six-day gathering, and in each an average of four papers were presented and debated in English or French, the two major languages of communication in the production and reproduction of written modern African literature studied in universities in Africa and elsewhere. French was introduced into ALA conferences to accommodate the diverse nature of African literatures.

University of Cape Town lecturer Harry Garuba, in his paper titled "Is there a text in African literature written English (in English)?" examined constant tensions and misrepresentations in literary texts written by African writers.

He argued that texts written in English (and French) do not convey the essence of African authors who think and conceptualise in their mother tongues. Consequently, these texts are mentally and conceptually translated, in the mind of these authors, from African to European languages. The 'language question' which has haunted African writers since the issue was debated at the famous Makarere conference in 1962 has refused to go away.

However, the 'language question' has perhaps found a partial solution in emerging African cinematography. Films in African and European languages were screened for observation and comment by participants. Odun Balogun, who teaches history of African literature at Deleware State University in the US, pointed out that in most films languages are themselves representations of the different social strata existing in contemporary African countries. "And audiences easily identity with actors and actresses." Thus while the 'language question' was complex, it was not the main focus of debate in this field of literature.

The complex image and role of women in African literature, written by male and female writers, featured prominently in many papers. Women as subject and active participants of social change is now an integral part of African aesthetics and literary discourses in post-colonial literature as opposed to the near absence of women in colonial literature. Writings by several female writers, who are widely studied in universities, were subjected to debate - including works by Bessie Head from South Africa, Maryse Conde of the Carribean, Akachi Ezeigbo from Nigeria, Ama Ata Aidoo of Ghana and Egypt's Nawal El Saadawi.

Delegates also held thought-provoking debates on the past, present and future of African literary theories and African aesthetics. A highlight in this regard was the presentation of a new book, African literature - An anthology of criticism and theory.

The 774-page tome, edited by Tejumola Olaniyan and Ato Quayson and published by Blackwell, is a collection of 97 essays on a vast range of topics written by Africans and non-African scholars from the end of World War II to the beginning of the 21st Century. The writers include Franz Fanon, Amilcar Cabral, Agostino Neto, Flora Nwapa, Breyten Breytenbach, Ngugi Wa Thiongo, Bernth Linfords and Nurrudin Farah, among many others.

The goal of the anthology, its authors state in their introduction, is to redress a glaring lack of construct and to provide an easily accessible home for the canonical statements of African literary criticism and theory, "and thereby help foster a more vigorous discursive tradition".

"In other words," said literary critic Shola Olorunyomi, "there is a multiplicity and divergence in African literature; a reflection of the diverse nature of African people and cultures. This book simply shows that the old debates in African literature are still relevant in this era of globalisation."

There were panels marking the 50th anniversary of Chinua Achebe's masterpiece, Things fall apart and debates about the significance of it being translated into many languages and taught in universities around the world as one of Africa's literary classics:

"Achebe's Things Fall Apart is not only an African response to colonisation of Africa, it is also a demonstration of the vitality, creativity and resourcefulness of African people in the face of adversary," said Obiora Udechuwku, an African visual arts expert at Saint Lawrence University in New York.

There were special sessions commemorating the recent death of Sembene Ousmane, one of Africa's pioneering novelists and filmmakers. Some participants who spoke had known him intimately, such as Abiola Irele, Kenneth Harrow, Manthia Diawara and Seletta Boyd. They pointed out that his literary and cinematographic works are among the most studied in universities in Africa.

Further, there was a focus on teaching African literature as an integral part of world and post-colonial literature in American universities.

Globalisation places enormous pressure on African literature because it must compete with the literatures of Asia's emerging economic powers, argued Lokanga Losambe of the University of Vermont in a paper titled "Teaching African literature as world literature".

University of Kansas scholar Omofolabo Ajayi-Soyinka contended that African literature could become more marginalised if the continent did not rapidly transform its economies and education systems.

A striking feature of the conference was the absence, despite historical and cultural ties, of leading African-American literary scholars and a dearth of debates on African-American writing. While in the US there is communication between African and African-American musicians and filmmakers, this is not happening between literary scholars, said Jean Jacque Bokanga, an African literary critic who called on the ALA to stimulate communication: "This dialogue would enrich the teaching of literatures in American and African universities."