9th International Janheinz Jahn Symposium (9 − 12 January 2008)
"Beyond 'Murder by Magic': Investigating African Crime Fiction"
The symposium was organised by Anja Oed (Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz) and Christine Matzke (Humboldt University at Berlin) and funded by the Volkswagen Foundation.
From the call for papers:
African crime fiction represents a comparatively new literary genre and an even newer topic in the critical study of African literatures. On the surface, crime fiction is concerned with the detection of crimes (petty as well as large scale), with corruption or political conspiracies. Its capacity for bloodcurdling mystery accounts for part of its popularity. Just as much, however, African crime fiction is concerned with a whole lot of other aspects, such as questions of authority and power within a postcolonial context against potential projections of a (neo-)imperial West; with working up the past of African nations and grappling with order and disorder in postcolonial societies; and with the renegotiation of gender and race relationships. Many authors have thus broadened the theme of investigation to address issues of community, beliefs and identity constructions across geographic and national boundaries. Others have broadened the genre by inventing recognisable sub-categories which relate to the social, political and historical formations of their specific African postcolonies. Dealing with such 'serious' issues in a complex manner has long been regarded as the prerogative of African literary works aimed at elite readerships. Today, however, crime fiction has become one of the most active and ambitious sites of literary investigation. Contemporary African authors deliberately employ the immense popularity of the genre to reach readers from all walks of life. To borrow from an essay on multicultural detective narratives, African crime fiction ingeniously represents "murder with a message" (Gosselin 1999).
Apart from very sporadic and regionally limited exceptions, African crime fiction has only recently begun to be recognised as a rewarding field of scholarly enquiry. We would like to suggest that African crime fiction represents an especially promising new field in the study of African literatures. For reasons that remain to be examined, popular genres more generally and African crime fiction in particular seem to have an astonishing capacity to absorb and appropriate current thematic concerns more immediately than other genres – and to do so in a highly engaging manner. A comparative investigation of African crime fiction therefore not only helps to identify burning social and political issues but also provides clues as to how they are construed by African writers and intellectuals. Drawing on globally recognised narrative formulae, African authors adapt and, in the process, subvert the various (sub-)genres of crime fiction to engage with and negotiate local concerns central to contemporary life in different social-political, cultural, and historical contexts.
Gosselin, Adrienne Johnson (1999) "Multicultural fiction: murder with a message". Multicultural Detective Fiction: Murder from the 'Other' Side. Ed. Adrienne Johnson Gosselin. New York Garland, 3-14.
© Anja Oed and Christine Matzke, 2008
8th International Janheinz Jahn Symposium (November 17 − 20, 2004)
"Creative Writing in African Languages: Production, Mediation, Reception"
The symposium was organised by Anja Oed (Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz) and Uta Reuster-Jahn (Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz) and funded by the Volkswagen Foundation.
From the call for papers:
The symposium will explore the production, mediation, and reception of creative writing in African languages. It thus proposes to move beyond merely pondering and confirming the existence and vitality of written literary expression in these languages. In the past, the issue of the language of African literatures per se has absorbed so much critical attention and energy that the study of African-language literary texts themselves as well as their socio-political and historical contexts was either neglected or marginalised. This symposium is meant to enable writers and scholars working on creative writing in a wide variety of African languages to come together and both present and discuss their research on and visions for African-language literatures. As Alain Ricard and C.F. Swanepoel (1997: 1) have argued, "the prodigious and welcome development of African linguistic studies should not obliterate the need for African philological studies - of course, not in the vein of previous [i.e., 19th]-century philology, trying to prove nebulous and absurd racial theories. We need a new philology, collecting, publishing, and, now especially, interpreting African texts with a clear understanding of the historical context of production, as well as with the mastery of the language medium".
We do not want to advocate African languages as the only, or the only legitimate, medium for African literary expression. We certainly do not want to suggest that all African writers should use African languages to create literary works. However, as Ricard and Swanepoel (ibid.) have pointed out, literature "written in African languages too often suffers from a lack of comparative criticism – for obvious reasons of linguistic competence – but often for less obvious and stronger reasons of cultural arrogance and political resignation, posing as postcolonial theory". We believe that it is time to recognise that creative writing in African languages forms an integral, vital, innovative and exciting part of African literatures and, accordingly, deserves as much informed critical attention as African creative writing in English, French, or Portuguese. By focusing on the production, mediation, and reception of African-language literatures, we hope to create a forum for new, comparative critical perspectives on these literatures.
In what follows, we shall begin by briefly reviewing the issue of the language of African literatures that has occupied so much space in critical discussions of literary production in Africa. Drawing on Karin Barber's work, we shall continue by examining the reception of African literatures in the West, which has led to various misconceptions about creative writing in African languages, some of which still prevail in critical discourses on African literatures today. Finally, we shall discuss the relevance of exploring the production, mediation and reception of creative writing in African languages.
African literatures and the issue of language
One of the most central and also one of the most heated debates in critical discourses on African literatures in the second half of the twentieth century was concerned with the issue in which language African writers should express themselves. On the one hand, were they not, as some writers and critics felt, forced to write in English, French or Portuguese, as there was no literary tradition or even any writing at all in their own languages? Were they not obliged, as many argued, to use the languages of the (former) colonial powers to have any chance of being published and read at all? Was it not natural for them to express themselves in the languages in which they had been taught at school and studied abroad? Was it not preferable or even desirable to write in English or French to reach a wider national and international readership and thus be able to contribute to the great tradition of world literature, to be rewarded by international recognition and acclaim? But was it, on the other hand, politically correct or even just acceptable to use the languages of the former colonial masters, or should African writers compose their literary work in 'their own', indigenous African languages? Was it possible, as writers such as Chinua Achebe (1975: 62) suggested, to appropriate the languages of the former colonial powers and make them "carry the weight of [the writer's] African experience"? Could the various strategies of appropriation be regarded as subversive and liberating acts of cultural emancipation, as suggested by Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin in The Empire Writes Back (1989)? Or was it necessary to "return to" African languages in order to "decolonise the mind" and "move the centre" as Ngugi wa Thiong'o put it in his two influential collections of essays, Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (1981) and Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedom (1993)? Whom were African writers writing for? Was African literature merely a commodity produced for the western academic machinery and general consumption in the West, dependent on the money, aesthetic opinion and political interests of the West? These were, in short, some of the questions raised regarding the issue of language and African creative writing. How they were answered by different writers and critics at different times depended very much on theoretical trends arising from certain intellectual and political contexts.
Language and the reception of African literatures in the West
As early as 1966, Janheinz Jahn's widely influential Geschichte der neoafrikanischen Literatur already devoted several chapters to individual literary traditions in languages such as Swahili, Hausa, Sotho, Xhosa and Zulu. Nevertheless, many critics of African literatures still take it for granted that the majority of African literary production would be in English or French. In a brilliant and groundbreaking article on "African-Language Literature and Postcolonial Criticism", Karin Barber (1995) examines the development of the reception of African creative writing in the West, from the era of 'Commonwealth'-criticism in the 1960s to the era of postcolonial criticism in the 1980s and 1990s. As she argues, western-oriented discourses on African literatures tended to marginalise African-language literatures while foregrounding creative writing in the former colonial languages, disregarding the fact that a great and steadily increasing part of literary production in Africa was actually taking place in African languages.
While literary criticism in the 1960s celebrated African oral traditions in the so-called vernacular languages it was assumed that modern writers would prefer to write in one of the former colonial languages. At the same time, it was made clear that they had hardly any other choice if they wanted more than just a few readers. In a seemingly radical reversal of the assumptions of Commonwealth-criticism, postcolonial criticism problematised the languages of the former colonial powers as instruments of imperial domination: "The genial model of Commonwealth literature, where the newcomer gladly offers contributions to a welcoming Great Tradition, is shown to mask stark power relations between the center and the periphery ... Indigenous languages and literatures were devalued and displaced, and the colonial subject culturally and linguistically dispossessed, leading to deep loss of self-esteem and cultural confidence" (Barber 1995: 4). Nonetheless, as Barber points out, what postcolonial criticism shares with Commonwealth criticism is "its effacement of modern indigenous-language expression in colonized countries. Indeed, it goes further than Commonwealth criticism, replacing a well-meaning confusion with a definite theoretical lock-out. If Commonwealth criticism felt that African writers had no alternative but to choose to write in English, post-colonial criticism eliminates virtually all hint of a choice: the discourses of empire were apparently all-encompassing and inescapable" (ibid.). The postcolonial criticism of the 1980s and 1990s has thus "promoted a binarized, generalized model of the world which has had the effect of eliminating African-language expression from view. This model has produced an impoverished and distorted picture of 'the colonial experience' and the place of languages in that experience. It has maintained a center-periphery polarity which both exaggerates and simplifies the effects of the colonial imposition of European languages" (Barber 1995: 3).
Furthermore, both Commonwealth and postcolonial criticism have tended to uphold a fundamental distinction between 'traditional', oral forms of poetic expression – commonly referred to as orature – which are generally associated with African languages, and modern literature, written in the (former) colonial languages and influenced by western traditions of creative writing. Creative writing in African languages – if its existence was acknowledged at all – has not only been regarded as marginal but also as transitional phenomenon, as poetic expression of a nostalgic belief in the values of the past, a model without much hope of a future in a modern, dynamic, forward-looking world. Creative writing in African languages has, therefore, sometimes seemed little deserving of support, especially since – beyond the political function it was conceded in its immediate indigenous-language contexts – it was, mostly without deeper knowledge, assumed to be of doubtful literary or aesthetic quality. But, as Barber (1995:12) has succinctly argued, the "paradigm that conflates, on the one hand, indigenous-language expression with the oral, the traditional, and the precolonial, and, on the other hand, europhone expression with writing, modernity and colonial/postcoloniality" does not hold "under the glare" of the facts that "the African past was not exclusively 'oral'; 'oral' literature nowadays does not deal with an exclusively 'traditional' world of experience; and modern written literature is not exclusively in European languages. Contemporary African-language written literature, gaining additional resonance and extension from its location in huge, heterogenous, popular cultures, is fully as capable of confronting contemporary 'postcolonial' experience as European-language literature". The ignorance of the contemporaneity, the aesthetic qualities and the innovative aspects of creative writing in African languages and its significance in and relevance to modern life and culture may be comprehensible considering the challenges of the interdisciplinary approach essential to its analysis and interpretation. These, beyond mere linguistic competence - which often represents the greatest barrier - require a more than superficial knowledge and understanding of the various cultural, historical, social and political contexts and processes in which it is produced, mediated and received. By focusing on the production, mediation and reception of creative writing in African languages, the planned symposium is meant to take discourse on African-language literatures to a new level of critical awareness.
Exploring the production, mediation, and reception of creative writing in African languages
alain Ricard (2002: 1) recently observed that the interest in "African language writing is often viewed with suspicion by scholars working on Europhone texts. It is as if they felt threatened by an even purer approach to Africa. Flora Veit-Wild (1997: 554) analysed very clearly this kind of attitude stemming from a militant, protective attitude of scholars coming to the rescue of Africa and confusing humanitarian and humanistic perspectives. I do not come to the rescue of African literatures and Flora Veit-Wild is right to point out the dangers present in this idealisation of the other". It is Ricard's intention to call for the redressing of "the crooked timber of African literary scholarship, inebriated with Europhonia, to the extent of neglecting African written literary expression" (ibid.). While not wanting to slight or even demonise African creative writing in English, French or Portuguese in any way, we agree with Ricard that it is high time to move beyond exclusionist approaches to African literatures. Neither creative writing in the former colonial languages nor creative writing in indigenous African languages is inherently better or worse, recommendable or damnable. The various forms of contemporary literary expression co-exist, many aspects of their art overlap and interact with each other, and both deserve to be taken seriously as works of art, as reconfigurations – to use Ricoeur's term – of social and cultural experience. It is high time to acknowledge that creative writing in African languages is by no means a marginal phenomenon. As Bernth Lindfors (1990: vii) points out, "there were about fifty of these African written literatures in existence by the middle decades of the twentieth century, several of them in unique scripts". In the 1980s, Ulla Schild (1988:16) was already able to assert: "Immerhin werden 40% der afrikanischen Literatur in afrikanischen Sprachen geschrieben, keine quantité négligeable". Finally, Barber's evidence demonstrates that by the end of the twentieth century, "African-language written literature dealing with contemporary experience often dwarfs literary production in English" (1995: 12).
There exist various book-length studies of creative writing in African languages (e.g., Gérard 1971 and 1981; Andrzejewski, Pilaszewicz and Tyloch 1985, Ngandu Nkashama 1992; Ricard 1995). For the most part, the interest and emphasis of these pioneering studies has been historical. Their critical achievement was to have made possible a general introduction to the diverse and powerful realities of African-language literatures, some of which boast traditions spanning several centuries. These studies represent the necessary basis and starting-point for any further comparative exploration of creative writing in African languages, and more of them will still be needed as new critical perspectives are developed. It will be equally and increasingly important, however, to explore the present of African-language literatures, their presence, significance and relevance in contemporary African societies. To this effect, it will be crucial to investigate all aspects of the production, mediation and reception of creative writing in African languages.
Part of the challenge of this endeavour is that creative writing in African languages and the conditions under which it is created, mediated and received are as diverse as the languages in which it is produced; that, where critical discourses on African-language literatures have developed, these are often isolated both in relation to critical discourses on African literatures more generally and in relation to critical discourses on other African-language literatures; and that, consequently, there is no ready-made, clear-cut methodological approach or theoretical framework available as yet. While some traditions of literary expression in African languages have cultivated their own literary aesthetics and traditions, other African-language literatures are only just emerging and taking on increasing importance. The different panels of the planned symposium are designed to do justice to the heterogeneity of creative writing in African languages, to the diversity of concerns and issues arising in relation to its production, mediation and reception, and thus to stimulate comparative dialogue.
© Anja Oed, 2004
7th International Janheinz Jahn Symposium
"Popular Culture in Africa"
The 7th Janheinz Jahn Symposium was organised by Ulla Schild and Anna-Maria Brandstetter.
The programme included papers by Bernth Lindfors, Rose-Marie Beck, Werner Graebner, Zamenga Batukezanga, Wolfgang Bender, Günther Rusch, Johannes Fabian, Daniel P. Kunene, Thomas Geider, Joachim Fiebach and Heinz Jockers. Due to the untimely death of Ulla Schild, the proceedings of this symposium have remained unpublished.
6th International Janheinz Jahn Symposium
"Autobiographical Genres in Africa"
The 6th Janheinz Jahn Symposium was organised by the Department of Anthropology and African Studies in cooperation with the SFB 214 "Identity in Africa" of the University of Bayreuth.
5th International Janheinz Jahn Symposium
"On Stage: Theatre in Africa"
4th International Janheinz Jahn Symposium
"The Woman in Africa as Writer and Literary Figure"
3rd International Janheinz Jahn Symposium
"Opposition and Exile: Aspects of African Literature"
2nd International Janheinz Jahn Symposium
"The Literature of East Africa"
1st International Janheinz Jahn Symposium (April 7 - 8, 1975)
"The Social Significance of Modern African Literature"
In Memory of Janheinz Jahn