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.”

On Gender in Language

As I often do at this blog, I’m going to write about something that I know virtually nothing about. Keep that in mind – and feel free to comment – if you have anything to add. But I’d like to take a brief moment to talk about language, because I find linguistics fascinating despite my amateur experience with it. I speak a couple of languages at a fluent or near fluent level, and I speak a couple at a very, very basic level, and every once in a while I notice differences between them.

In Through the Language Glass, my first (and only) foray into linguistics – and a very introductory one at that – Guy Deutscher gives a broad overview of culture’s influence on language and language’s influence on culture. I read the book a couple of years ago, and every once in a while I think back to the studies that Deutscher mentions when I notice differences between the languages I speak or study. Recently, I’ve been learning Swahili, and it reminded me of something that Deutscher wrote about German, the language I learned in high school and college. In the book Deutscher quotes anthropologist Franz Boas as writing that “[Grammar] determines those aspects of each experience that must be expressed.” He then goes on to quote linguist Roman Jakobson: “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.” Deutscher continues:

If I say in English, “I spent yesterday evening with a neighbor,” you may well wonder whether my companion was male or female, but I have the right to tell you politely that it’s none of your business. But if we are speaking French or German or Russian, I don’t have the privilege to equivocate, because I am obliged by the language to choose between voisin or voisineNachbar or Nachbarinsosed or sossedka. So French, German, and Russian would compel me to inform you about the sex of my companion whether or not I felt it was your business. [151-2]

I found this really interesting, as I had never seen the constrictions of some languages from the gendered point of view. In Mandarin Chinese, I have very specific words for family members: my mother’s older brother has a different name than my mother’s younger brother, and their names differ from my father’s older and younger brother as well. Chinese is particularly specific when it comes to kinship terms, but broader nouns don’t carry such specificity. All neighbors are neighbors, in other words.

Fast forward a year and a half, and read this wonderful piece by Angus Johnston about the time he was asked his preferred gender pronoun at a party:

[I]t was actually a great question that I was asked that night. It was an exciting question. I’m a “he.” I’ve always thought of myself as a he, and I expect I always will. I’m a man, I’m a guy, I’m a dad, I’m a son, I’m a brother.

But in that moment, I got to choose. I was asked to choose, asked to pick whether for the duration of that conversation I wanted to be approached as a he or as something else. And I knew that whatever answer I gave, it would be honored, respected, taken seriously. And that recognition, far more than any of the rote rounds of he/she/they/ze responses I’ve seen given at the start of workshops, opened something up in me. It wasn’t a door — at least not a door I was tempted to walk through — but it was a window.

And I liked the view.

I attended a conference in February that was dominated by English graduate students, many of whom worked on queer theory. (Jack Halberstam gave the keynote, if that’s any indication of the audience). There were some situations in which I awkwardly didn’t know how to refer to people because I didn’t know what their preferred gender pronoun was. One of my hosts with whom I spent a lot of time tended to use “they” to refer to a person, and I picked up on that when I needed something to default to. At the time, though, I also reflected on how other languages deal with gender pronouns.

In Swahili, there is no “he,” no “she,” no “it.” There is only yeye. There are plenty of nouns that carry gender: there are men and women, brides and grooms. But both waiters and waitresses are wanunuzi. Your neighbor is a jirani. And you don’t have a boyfriend or a girlfriend, you have a mpenzi. And using that language everyday for fifty minutes is a window into a life under a different gender system. Obviously this doesn’t mean that it’s easier being trans* or queer in a Swahili-speaking society, but it means that living in that type of setting might be in some ways different. In Mandarin Chinese there is no difference between the third person pronouns. Whether you mean he, she, or it, you say ta. But, oddly enough, when you tried to write about him, her, and it, you would be compelled to write 他, 她, and 它. And so, in a way, talking about people may give you more privacy than writing about them if you’re interacting in Mandarin.

There’s not an argument that I’m building to, I suppose. I’m just processing how the different languages I know use gender, and how they allow speakers some freedom or privacy, but also how they constrict.