African Literature Association at 40: A Brief Conference Report

African Literature Association at 40: A Brief Conference Report

Tuesday, April 22, 2014 2:10 pm

Adeleke Adeeko
At the April 13, 2014 banquet that closed its recently concluded 40th annual meeting and conference held at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, Nigeria’s Tejumola Olaniyan, Louise Durham Mead Professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, became the president of the African Literature Association (ALA) and challenged his colleagues to ask themselves why African literary and cultural criticism has not matched the steady ascendancy of African literature and culture. The theme of the four day conference, the first to be held in South Africa, was “Texts, Modes, and Repertoires of Living in and Beyond the Shadows of Apartheid” and drew participants from across Africa, Europe, Asia, and the United States.

The conference kicked off formally at a reception held on the evening of Wednesday, April 9, and at which Professor Adam Habib, Vice-Chancellor and Principal, gave a riveting speech about the place of Witwatersrand, South Africa, and Africa in the world and the particular functions that literary and cultural expressions serve in securing those locations. Earlier in the day, there has been sessions on “Official and Informal Apartheids,” “Ethics, Morality, and Politics,” “Institutions of Literature and the Arts,” “Post-Apartheid Fiction,” “Ghost, Zombies and the Uncanny,” “Land and Ecological Politics,” “Nelson Mandela in Autobiography, “Journeys Migration and Displacements.”
Subsequent days witnessed several sessions on the great names in African writing: Chinua Achebe (“Arrow of God at 50,” “Politics and Aesthetics of There Was a County”), Ngugi (“Weep Not, Child at 50”), Athol Fugard, Nadine Gordimer, Lewis Nkosi, Kofi Awoonor, Nuruddin Farah. (It cannot but be noted, if only as an aside, that this is one African literature conference at which the Soyinka that appeared more than once on the program is not the Nobelist but some other person named Omofolabo Ajayi-Soyinka!) The presentations revealed that on top of the critical agendas facing African literatures and cultures at the present time are ecology, the rise of regionalism as a heuristic parameter, understanding violence and trauma (Rwandan genocide, apartheid, civil wars, child soldiers, etc.) as they affect individual bodies and cultures at large, appreciating new forms of domination and the attendant resistance paradigms, consolidating and expanding institutions of cultural knowledge and production, translating and translations, cultural and literary repercussions of new migrations, dilemmas of racial identification in a post-racial milieu, and theorizing the cultural locations—particularly the city—of African literature now and in the future. Interdiciplinarity dominates the emerging topics, the most prominent of which are Pleasure in/and Africa; New Media, Mediation, and Consumption; the Circulation Networks of Music; and also Cinema and Video.

Besides guest speakers at lunches hosted by different caucuses (Liz Gunner for the Translation Caucus; Sindiwe Magona for the Women’s Studies Caucus, and Tanella Boni for the Francophone Caucus) the conference was treated to two heavy hitting keynote speeches, one by the novelist, Professor Njabulo Ndebele, former Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Cape Town and now Chancellor of the University of Johannesburg, the other by Simon Gikandi, Robert Schirmer Professor of English at Princeton University. The titles of the lecturers say it all.

Ndebele, speaking like a self-conscious organic scholar deeply involved in the affairs of his environment, anchored his talk in the travails of Obi Okonkwo in Achebe’s No Longer at Ease and impressed it upon the audience to embrace non-racialism, teach the world how to identify and reject the political buffoon, and promote ethical relations towards all. Doing all these are necessary for Africa to proceed towards being at ease. The current political concerns and leanings of the top echelon of South Africa’s elite seeped through the speech. No listener could not but know that Jacob Zuma is the buffoon of the speech. Professor Gikandi’s stimulating lecture followed a clearly scholarly path in the way it identified the manifestations of numerous Nelson Mandelas in music, photography, (auto)biography, and fiction. Gikandi pointed out that poetry, however, is a different beast. There, Mandela seems unnameable.

The outgoing president, Professor Soraya Mekerta of Spelman College in Atlanta, chaired the business meeting of the association on Saturday, April 12. In addition to taking care of routine matters like finance, membership, caucuses, future meeting cities and institutions, the Human Rights committee presented two resolutions that were adopted, following animated discussions, by an overwhelming majority. One resolution condemns anti-gay violence in Nigeria and Uganda, and the other supports the goals of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sactions) movement in support of Israel’s discriminations against Palestinian people.

The conference closed with a grand dinner and Professor Tejumola Olaniyan’s tenure as president began with a question he posed thus in his address: “African literature is doing well, thank you; but is African literary studies?” Professor Olaniyan noted that African writing, despite challenges of daily existence, is thriving in national and other languages, across genres, addressing old and new themes, inhabiting various media, and winning prizes all over the world. In contrast, however, “African literary criticism, that is, literary criticism carried out by scholars who identify themselves as specialists in African literary studies, is in an anemic state.” The current crop of scholars is failing badly to keep up legacy of the vigorous critical tradition inherited from the previous generation. Avoiding “theory,” after misnaming it as Western and willfully denying the theoretical ramifications of Dan Izevbaye’s practical criticism, the “pragmatic sociological historical bent of Abiola Irele, Bernth Lindfors [who was in the audience], Emmanuel Obiechina, and Isidore Okpewho,” and also the “Marxist sociology of Molara Ogundipe and Omafume Onogie,” contemporary African literary criticism has practically ceded “the most arresting conceptual and philosophical engagement with the works of African writers” to those outside the field. As a result, Professor Olaniyan observed, “widely suggestive and provocative scholarship” on African writing is produced by those with vague entanglements with the tradition. To meet these challenges, Professor Olaniyan urged the association to: (i) “re-energize” its membership by attracting bright, newer scholars and luring back “leading scholars who have” left over the years; (ii) institute, far more than it does currently, ways of mentoring graduate students and other new entrants into the discipline; (iii) formulate ways of exploiting digital publication and distribution technologies (optical drives, pdf files, etc.) for enhancing intellectual exchanges across the many global locations of African literary criticism.

The next meeting and conference of the the association will convene June next year at Bayreuth University in Germany.

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