Indiana University      Research & Creative Activity      January 1999 Volume XXI Number 3


A Topic as Vast as a Continent

by Lucianne Englert

Just as the single continent of Africa contains more than fifty countries and inspires unique interpretations for every visitor or student, so does a conversation about African literature extend into a myriad of subtopics. Conversing with Eileen Julien, professor of comparative literature and of French at Indiana University Bloomington, adds layer upon layer of understanding on the topic- or topics, if you prefer.

Eileen Julien, professor of comparative literature and French, Indiana University Bloomington, sits in front of a painting by her husband, Kalidou Sy. Julien recently received a Guggenhim fellowship to look at dynamism in African creativity. --credit

A Single "African Literature?"

"In the West, we have a habit of speaking of 'African literature' as though it's all one thing," Julien says. "We focus on Eurolanguage literature, texts written in English, French, and sometimes Portuguese, but the literature of Africa is really quite broad. African literature includes oral traditions (which are still very much alive), national language literatures (such as material written in Swahili in Kenya or Tanzania or Yoruba in Nigeria), Eurolanguage literatures, and especially because of literacy problems in Africa, many film and theater presentations."

The Empire Writes Back

Many Africans began writing in European languages during the 1950s in response to colonialist anthropology, history, fiction, and travel narratives. "Intellectuals throughout Africa thought their cultures were being misrepresented in these European texts, so they wrote their own perspectives," she explains. Westerners then began using those texts because they were widely available and written in the languages of Europe.

"Eurolanguage texts are still the most prominent 'African literature' texts in the U.S. and Europe, and so many academics in social sciences use them since they focus on colonial culture and conflict and racial politics. Once formal independence was achieved in each African country, the emphasis on responding to colonialism diminished, and we began to see local politics, gender politics, ethnic politics all coming into play. Eurolanguage texts coming out of Africa today are much more visibly anchored locally," Julien says. "There are at least three moments to consider whenever one reads literature: the moment you, the individual, are sitting in your chair, reading; the moment the author of that particular text is sitting in his or her chair, writing; and the moment of time the author is writing about in the text," Julien says. "Readers, including social scientists, must not ignore this layering. The context, the consideration of the author's self-positioning, the audience, the tensions and aesthetics of the particular ethnic tradition are often lost."


African Writing, Charged with Vitality

In some African countries, availability of texts is curtailed by government repression and censorship, imprisonment, and exile. Criticism of the current government- "dictators and elites who are impoverishing their own people," Julien notes--isn't tolerated in countries such as Nigeria. "Just last year we had Wole Soyinka here at IU," Julien says, speaking of the Nobel laureate for literature in 1986. "He has been unable to return to Nigeria because the military dictatorship convicted him of treason for his writing and activism and had promised to execute him if he returned." [ed.--After a change in government, Soyinka was just invited back to Nigeria as we go to press.]

At the same time, new literature creates a whirlwind of discussion in African countries. In Dakar, the capital of Senegal, where Julien spent two years as a Fulbright senior scholar, there is a lively cultural scene. In 1993, she founded the West African Research Center (WARC) in Dakar to allow Westerners to collaborate in research with West African scholars. "Whenever a new book or film comes out, the news media hotly debate the ideas and quality of the story," Julien says. "It's not like the standard movie or book review in the U.S., but really serious cultural debate. The Senegalese people are very sophisticated culturally and intellectually." Julien describes "a flurry of creative activity in African cities. What really makes this literature so extraordinarily vibrant is that it is extremely rooted in ethnic traditions, in cosmologies and legends, and often it's also taking on international traditions. Writers like Wole Soyinka are as immersed in Shakespeare and classical Greek theater as in Yoruba mythologies. You've got Malian writers who are immersed in the Dogon and its traditions as well as the European traditions of anthropology and sociology," Julien says.

Supple and Inquiring Minds

Another in Kalidou Sy's recent series of paintings in which he has experimented with the use of clay. Sy is from Senegal. --credit

Julien says African scholars who come to teach in the States are "often in a privileged position with respect to doing research. Those who travel have access to wider perspectives that they can then bring to bear on the people and places they study. They know the local traditions and local values, and they have access to the most exciting theoretical currents that characterize many U.S. literature departments today, to the books that are coming in from South Africa, from East Africa, from intellectual currents as diverse as Toni Morrison to Derek Walcott to Michel Foucault," she continues. On the other hand, remarkably, African texts are much more abundantly available in the United States than in Africa. "Whenever scholars visit me from Africa, they're incredulous when they see our library. One visitor from Zimbabwe said we have more books on Zimbabwean literature here than there are in the library of the University of Zimbabwe," Julien says. Many African books are published in New York and other Western cities, although they are beginning to be more widely published in Africa, as well.

"Many of the best African intellectuals know Western thought inside and out, and they're anchored in their roots in their own spaces. It's not simply local color and variables; these people are rethinking theories of world culture. When you put into motion supple and inquiring minds that have been exposed to a great variety of places and ways of thinking, they come up with very broadening ideas," Julien concludes.

Always Something New from Africa

This year, Julien received a Guggenheim fellowship to look at dynamism in African creativity. "I want to demonstrate the ways in which African writers and artists are inventive and appropriate various modern forms and modes rather than simply playing catch-up--which tends to be the dominant view." Julien explains that in part, one's view of African dynamism and inventiveness depends on the particular perspectives and assumptions of the reader's or viewer's location. "With European modernist plastic arts, for instance, scholars very carefully relegate African cultural influences on Picasso and Matisse to the margins of their discussions. Furthermore, they basically disavow these influences by stating that the European artists saw in African statues and masks a kind of raw data that the artists then transformed into high art. On the other hand, when scholars speak of the novel in Africa--the novel in particular because there is perhaps no indigenous co-equivalent or antecedent in Africa--what you will hear is a debate on whether the novel is authentic or too European," she concludes.


Julien's two years in Senegal dramatically affected her understanding of African literature and society. "I believe Africa is quintessentially syncretic. Despite popular Western opinion, the Senegalese, for example, aren't shy about appropriating new media, they have no fear of new things," she says. "They're very ready to embrace and use new developments, new technologies, new thought. Rabelais borrows the phrase from Herodotus, I believe, when he says, 'Always something new from Africa,' and it's absolutely true in Senegal."

"Women Make Africa Run"

Julien pays particular attention to women's writing. She says "Women in Africa are probably the most dynamic segment of all. Women writers, women activists, women's agricultural labor, women's trading, women's literacy . . . this is where the action is. People have finally understood that women make Africa run."

She says the most exciting dimension of African literature today is women's writing. "Previously, the nationalist agenda in anti-colonial, male writing generally excluded women or made them into symbols of the nation. Mothers, supporters, the hearth, the home, tradition, nature--all of those were associated with the African woman. The male sphere was the nation, public space, and so forth."


To describe the change in perspective, Julien relates the themes covered in one of the first popular books written by a Senegalese woman, Mariana Bâ, called So Long a Letter. "It's the story of a woman's betrayal, written in post-colonial Senegal and set in the '40s and '50s. Her husband takes a second wife without telling her or asking her, which traditionally he would have had to do. The second wife turns out to be her daughter's friend, a high school classmate. It's about her triumph over that betrayal, her coming to her own salvation."

The story is set up as a long series of letters to a friend, reading much like a journal. "This was the first book that really talked about women's coming into their own, where the character's narrative itself was an act of coming into her own," Julien says.

"This book is probably the most studied book by an African woman today. It's a moving book because of its story and the quality of its writing. Students loved it, many feminists embrace it. Now we're beginning to see some tensions in its structure, some of its own prejudices." She continues, "It's mightily class prejudiced, follows 'colonial' thinking in the way it shows Africa moving from 'superstition' to 'enlightenment.' One sees some serious flaws in the heroine. Because it's a diary in the form of letters, you don't have another narrator telling you what you should think about this person. You're left wondering whether these are flaws in the character or the writer's limited vision."

On the other hand, another important book, Nervous Conditions, written by Tsitsi Dargarembga of Zimbabwe is the story of a young girl who's going off to school in Rhodesia of the 1960s and '70s. "The first line grabs everyone: 'I was not sorry when my brother died.' Because the protagonist's brother dies, the door is opened for her," Julien says. "The story is all about her coming of age, going to colonial schools, missionary schools. It's a critique, essentially, of patriarchy, patriarchal nationalism, and patriarchal colonialism."

Nervous Conditions shows a range of women, both empowered and limited. "And at story's end, there is no 'resolution.' Challenges lie ahead for the heroine and the discerning leaders."


The Political Aspect of Literature

Julien describes a conference years ago at which she gave a paper on "Dominance and Discourse in La vie & demie (A Life and a Half)" by Congolese writer Sony Labou Tansi. After her presentation, she was asked to be on a panel on politics and literature. "I was floored because I had presented a paper about the conventions of writing and the way in which the writer was using the narrative, the rhetoric," she says. "This person saw that it was also about politics. I realized that, well, yes it is about politics, and it's also very much about the way in which language, apart from what it says, is itself meaningful. I think this dichotomy between what's aesthetic and what's political is greatly exaggerated." Julien's experience at the conference exemplifies the varied meanings individuals can take from any piece of African literature--one continent, more than fifty countries, and possibly, as many perspectives as there are readers.

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