“Adichie could have put the opportunity to address scholars of African literature to much better use by offering a definition of the postcolonial, for instance…”
The 45th annual conference of the African Literature Association in Columbus, Ohio, proved many things. Two of them: the ALA has come of age (forgive the cliché); the ALA is ready for the future—depending on how one defines the future. The choice of keynote speakers at the conference most obviously indicated this assertion. All three keynote speakers were women—Chimamanda Adichie, Tsitsi Dangarembga, and Carole Boyce Davies. Undoubtedly, the ALA propels African literary studies in important ways, and it is always a great thing to banter about the state of literary studies in and about Africa.
Search far and wide, you are likely to end up with a thin list of speakers qualified to gift the ALA with their gracious presence, and Chimamanda Adichie will top your list. The enchantress came in straight from the airport, we were told, to the gleeful cheer of an excited audience. Ms. Adichie has another engagement, says the moderator, and she has graciously accepted to cut short her address so that we can have ample time for questions. Let us also mention that Ms. Adichie was generous enough to forego her speaking fee which she donated to the ALA. Up ALA! Cheers! Out came admirers and their cameras, and several flashes later, Adichie stood before the lectern and doled out her nuggets, served warmly with gorgeous smiles.
In her light-hearted talk entitled “The Future of African Literature and the Future of African Creative Life,” Adichie reflected on literary writing in Africa and her contribution to the continent through her creative writing workshops. The continent brims with talents. She sees and interacts with these many talents every year in Lagos, Nigeria, at the workshop. But since she was in the presence of scholars of African literature, there was an important point to be addressed—let us humanize African literature. African literature should not be all about the nation state; Half of a Yellow Sun is as much a love story as it is about the Nigerian Civil War. A sample reading in this manner of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Adichie suggested, could trace the love in the story and bear the title “The Metaphysics of Affection in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart”. Indeed, affection works at various levels in the story—Okonkwo’s affection for Ikemefuna, his love for Ekwefi which is masked by his proclivity for violence, and many more other instances. Adichie ended her talk on this note and fielded questions about her experiences and her works.
It must be said that she left some in the audience disappointed—if I count for some. One would have expected some heft to Adichie’s talk. It is not new that African literature has been anthropologized since its inception (see Ato Quayson’s take on the issue in Strategic Transformations in Nigerian Writing as well as Taiye Selasi’s provocative argument along this line in “African Literature Does not Exist”). Adichie could have put the opportunity to address scholars of African literature to much better use by offering a definition of the postcolonial, for instance. She had, last year, opined that postcolonial theory was something that professors made up in order to get a job. Grace Musila, who was also at the ALA conference, had given a befitting counter-opinion, but it would have been rewarding to have Adichie elaborate on her opinion at such a gathering of professors. Nevertheless, her presence was enough to show her affiliation with scholars of African literature, to show that she values what they do. Sometimes, that is all that matters.
It was a weary but engaging Tsitsi Dangarembga who delivered the keynote on the second day. Dangarembga, whom many remember for the novel Nervous Conditions and the Zimbabwean movie Neria, reflected on the stance of literature in Zimbabwe. She noted that post-independence institutions of literature in Zimbabwe are not more inclusive than colonial ones. In fact, Zimbabwean literature is a record of resilience, the resilience of female writers. Her talk went in this direction to wrap up the second day of the conference.
Then came Carole Boyce Davies on the third day. The distinguished scholar addressed the issue of decolonization and the silencing of female voices. She provided a very rich history of the discourse, tracing it through the works of C.L.R. James, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Biodun Jeyifo, and the founding fathers of the African Literature Association. Carole Boyce Davies drew the link between decolonization and the absence of female voices by invoking Frances Watkins Harper’s eternally true assertion: “I know no nation can gain its full measure of enlightenment and happiness if one-half of it is free and the other half is fettered.” Harper, who came of age in the mid-1800s in the United States as a black poet, scholar, and women’s right activists, was a great choice for pushing the argument. In her day, Harper recognized that the quest for gender equality is as important as the quest for racial equality. To put Carole Boyce Davies’ address in a nutshell, it is time that all institutions recognized the important contributions of women for they stand to gain much from doing so.
The stirring keynotes were richly complemented by many of the panel discussions held at the conference. The conference was also an opportunity to pay homage to contributors to the field of African literature. It was altogether thrilling to hear Eustace Palmer, eminent Sierra Leonean scholar, vigorously engage the works of Bernth Lindfors, pouring out his encomium-cum-appraisal in a measured tone. Generally, cut out a few bland presentations from the 2019 ALA conference, and what you have is a wholesome, stimulating gathering. I repeat, the ALA has come of age.
Of the ALA’s readiness for the future, I will point this out. The number of Africa-based scholars at the conference is nowhere near the number of scholars based in North America. There can be no overstating the need for the transcontinental conversation that a forum such as the ALA annual conference affords. While I note that it is not the Association’s fault that Africa-based scholars are denied visas into the US for the conference (indeed, many panels had to be canceled because of this), I would suggest that the conference be held in Africa biennially. If the mountain cannot come to Mahomet, Mahomet should please go to the mountain.
Chimamanda image by Tolu Akinwole