A Tale of Two Buildings: African Literature at Yale

When Yale professor of English and American Studies Wai Chee Dimock opined about the sudden, unexpected emergence of African literature and Africanist literary scholarship, she made a lot of people unhappy. I’ll let Aaron Bady’s response speak for itself:

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.

Bady makes several very smart, stinging critiques of Dimock’s piece, but also of higher education’s English departments’ willful ignorance of African literature in general, and I encourage you to read the whole thing. Some passages I was particularly drawn to:

If you can name only three African writers and two of them are white South Africans, you have a very odd sense of the literature. But this myopia is also general: English departments do have a very limited sense of what African literature is.

And on recent shifts to see American literature as global literature:

[I]f 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?

And:

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.

The absence of an Africanist at Yale English is something that was part of my (and others’) broader critique of Yale’s lackluster performance in Africanist scholarship, but Yale is an interesting site for this conversation for another reason.

Not a quarter mile away from the Yale English Department is the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. This library is filled with rare artifacts, a vast majority of them from Europe and America. Working at the library for two years, I saw more German magazines and bibles than I did anything from the Global South. The only thing that ever passed my desk that mentioned Africa was the occasional piece of political ephemera from radical black groups in the U.S. (although it is worth noting that the Beinecke’s African American collections are wonderful, though I digress).

The Beinecke Library, a five minute walk for any Yale English professor, is also the recent home of the Windham Campbell Literary Prize, a huge new prize that recently announced its third set of winners. In 2013, the inaugural nine prize winners included two South Africans, Jonny Steinberg and Zoë Wicomb. The following year Aminatta Forna was a recipient. This third round of winners, announced last week, includes Teju Cole, Helon Habila, and Ivan Vladislavić. In addition, 2013 non-fiction winner Jeremy Scahill’s work has included extensive reporting in Somalia, and 2015 drama winner Jackie Sibblies Drury’s work includes a play about Namibia.

All this to say, a stone’s throw away from the Yale English Department, a prestigious literary prize has been awarded to six African writers (five of them fiction writers), out of only twenty-six recipients. While Yale’s English Department is still looking for African literature, the library down the street has found it and awarded it six times in three years. That a full quarter of Windham Campbell recipients have been African, that over half a million dollars have been awarded to African writers by the library next door, and still people like Wai Chee Dimock are not sufficiently aware of the existing vibrancy of African literature, is a shame. When the department held its job talks a little over a year ago, several of the faculty in attendance were apparently (according to others I’ve spoken to) completely unengaged – some did not seem to understand the importance of the applicants’ scholarship. This is a sad fact for an English department trying to hire its first Africanist.

I am not saying that we should pay attention to African literature because it’s started winning Western prizes. But this fact, on top of the diverse and exciting amount of writing going on in and about Africa and the increasing scholarship about writers from Africa and the diaspora, should make it clear to English Departments across the country that African literature is more than a forgotten step-child not worth studying. It should be seen as part and parcel to the canon. But it isn’t. And, as Aaron says, “the result is predictable. Ignoring a field normalizes ignorance of it, and this kind of ignorance of African literature continues to be utterly normal.”

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