Friday, 24 May 2013

African writers in 2013: what has changed and what hasn't

Pleased as I was to read Taiye Selasi's new novel, Ghana Must Go, I could not help thinking too little has changed since the writers I described in Ending British Rule in Africa struggled to get their books published in London in the 1930s and '40s. Despite the many honors paid to Chinua Achebe on his death, the truth is that writers from sub-Saharan Africa still face great obstacles to getting into print, or, if published in their home countries, drawing attention on the world stage.

Thus one of the "hot" African novels of 2013 may turn out to be this novel by a writer of West African parentage who was born in London, grew up and attended college in the United States, earned a master's degree in England, and now lives in Rome. Like the writers I described in Ending British Rule, living in the urban west has given her a leg up on the ladder to publication.

Of a recent Guardian list of thirteen "African writers" to keep an eye on in 2013, seven live outside Africa, with six of those seven in the United States. Of the other six, three live in South Africa, with its relatively well-developed publishing scene.

There is in this fact something both to grieve and to celebrate. It is sad that sub-Saharan Africa, on the whole, still does not offer a hospitable climate for writers, and not only because publishing economies are not well developed and books too often unaffordable and unavailable. Significant portions of populations cannot read, and those that can may be more likely to read books published only in the colonial languages of English and French than in the rich array of native languages. The arrest of four journalists in Nigeria in April reminds us of another obstacle: life can be politically perilous for African writers.

On the other hand, the increased visibility of work by writers of at least African origin is a cause for celebration. Growing up in Nigeria in the 1950s, though I heard the Bible read in Yoruba in church and sang hymns from Yoruba songbooks, the only book by an African writer I remember reading was a novel by white South African Alan Paton. Igbo writer Chinua Achebe's pathbreaking Things Fall Apart did not appear until 1958, two years before I left Nigeria.

At least now increasing numbers of writers in the African diaspora, experienced in the milieus of two or even three continents, are finding their way to publication. And the internet is opening doors to wider distribution of books by African writers. Booksellers on the web, like the African Books Collective, are making books from African publishers more widely available. A promising new audio book project called e-book Africa has launched with Senegalese writer Boubacar Boris Diop reading his novel Doomi Golo (The Monkey's Kids) in Wolof. There is reason to hope that more African writers in the future will not need to grow up, study, or live abroad in order to find their way to publication and readers, both in their own communities and the larger world.

Professor Carol Polsgrove is author of Ending British rule in Africa: Writers in a common cause

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Gordon Pirie on African colonial aviation hybridity

I have been a victim of the colonial cringe. Even in post-colonial times it has felt strange to be an Africa-based author of books on British imperial aviation. Ought a British historian to have written Air Empire (2009) and Cultures and Caricatures (2012)? How might the analysis have been different? How might it have dealt with Africa?

The research started two decades ago in South Africa, a British Imperial Airways terminus in the 1930s, and an endpoint of second-generation and fabled Cape-to-Cairo journeys. Working in Johannesburg, my academic curiosity collided with childhood fascination with flying. Later, a decade of working in Britain gave access to more archival and library sources and enabled the fleshing out of sketchy ideas based from an out-of-print, second-hand book about Imperial Airways airmailed from the USA, and from a limited range of official reports and correspondence in South African archives and newspapers.

My African roots – and some post-colonial consciousness – predisposed a new point of departure for scrutinising British overseas aviation. Taking up the threads of research critical of railway enterprise in southern Africa, I wanted an ‘outsider’ inquiry to be more than a celebration of another First World technology being applied overseas. Some research experience in a humanist mould also prompted search for the human experiences and meanings of flight, its dissonances, and its representations. The historical geographer in me had to resist that felt impurity too and to fend off thoughts that dyed-in-the-wool metropolitan imperial historians would do a better job. Different, yes.

The proudly multi-disciplinary (hybridised?) end products of the research, the two monographs Air Empire and Cultures and Caricatures, ‘take off’ from the familiar argument that transportation played a significant part in the creation of extractive colonial economies in Africa, and in the culture and symbolism of imperialism there. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, shipping, porterage and railway trains were crucial ‘tools of Empire’ on the continent. In the 1920s and 1930s the technology of aviation seemed set to start a new era of European domination of African communications and trade. Political and commercial interests in Britain were especially hopeful that the speed and reach of commercial flying would prolong and extend British imperial influence in Africa where overland transport was so weakly developed. The dash for air route and market prominence was palpable; the race to beat Dutch and Belgian colonial rivals into African skies echoed old geopolitics.
In practice it was difficult to transfer the infant technology into African spaces where long distances, high altitude, and weather extremes were significant obstacles. Imperial discourses of adventure and conquest resurfaced. Notions of superiority and caricatures of ‘civilisation’ and ‘backwardness’ re-appeared in connection with the new class of aeromobile British citizens and expatriates. Africans, for their part, were variously amazed and phlegmatic about the new mobility they serviced as aircraft cleaners and re-fuelers, airfield labourers, and occasional rescuers of passengers and crews after aircraft accidents in remote places. Africans spoke of ‘white man’s madness’. They used biblical and avian references to comprehend flight; their mechanical innocence made them figures of fun. African people, customs and speech were used as counterpoints for caricatures of modernity associated with flying.

African skies and landing grounds were an important testing ground for the design and implementation of long-distance and intercontinental commercial aviation in late colonial times. The air routes developed across Africa in the 1930s formed the template for decades of air transport on the continent. Just as important, solo and commercial flying to, from and across Africa – and the plentiful writing, illustration and filming associated with it – are a window onto late colonialism in the continent. Stereotyping of place and people persisted: Europeans continued to regard Africa as an imperial playground and resource, and to treat Africans as servants. Colonial resistance to the specifics of the new aviation enterprise was mostly about shouldering expenses imposed by London, and not about African exclusion from the benefits of aviation.

Air Empire and Cultures and Caricatures are not only about British imperial aviation in Africa. They also refer to private and commercial flying in the Middle East, India, South East Asia and Australia. But, because of my own roots and familiarities, Africa does feature prominently. This might not have been the case had the research started in Britain. It might not have been the case had the enquiry begun after electronic access to archive materials in places far from Africa. Yet, attending to the African case as a braid is geographically corrective itself, and is appropriate because of the supposed universal and universalising aspect of air transportation.

There is certainly more to uncover about colonial aviation in Africa from African archive sources. The stage is also now set for research into links between commercial aviation and decolonisation in Africa in the 1950s and 1960s. Step forward yet more hybrid researchers?

Gordon Pirie is author of British imperial civil aviation, 1919-39 and Cultures and caricatures of British imperial aviation. He is Deputy Director of the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

The white South Africans who opposed apartheid

As South Africa approaches the twentieth anniversary of the country’s first non-racial, democratic election in 1994, there is a reassessment of the iconic liberation struggle and the extent to which the legacies of apartheid continue to define everyday life. In particular, white South Africans’ place in the country remains controversial and the extent to which  they should be held to account for their complicity in apartheid continues to be hotly debated. White South Africans who opposed apartheid were the exception to the rule, but some did defy the norm and did so publicly and forcefully.

I interviewed white men who refused to serve in the South African Defence Force (SADF) in the 1980s and white men and women in the End Conscription Campaign (ECC) who campaigned against conscription and apartheid. Through this I became aware of how politically and socially significant the histories of these men and women continue to be in contemporary South Africa. The men who objected to military service did so for diverse personal, religious and political reasons, but what united them was both their rejection of apartheid and commitment to creating a non-racial, democratic country.

The ECC highlighted and amplified the unease in white society about the violent direction of the country under President PW Botha. A key argument of the ECC was that conscription and apartheid were inextricably linked and neither were in white self-interest. The growing loss of confidence, division and the open rejection of apartheid in white society were important factors leading to the release of Nelson Mandela and the beginning of the transition to democracy. Objectors to conscription and ECC activists also helped make Mandela’s call for reconciliation between races, and a South Africa where whites would have a home regardless of the past, more credible.

While the BBC’s John Simpson questions whether white people have a future in South Africa, the commitment of war resisters and ECC activists to the liberation struggle, sometimes at considerable personal cost, demonstrates the desire of these white South Africans for non-racial democracy. The fact that many have gone on to become politically influential in the new South Africa, refutes the simplistic assumption that whites cannot have a home or play a constructive role in the country. Indeed, Helen Zille, once vice chair of the ECC in the Western Cape, is now Premier of the Wester Cape province and leader of the Democratic Alliance political party.

Thinking about the ECC and conscientious objection in South Africa is important because we continue to live in a world where compulsory conscription defines the lives of men and women. In countries such as Israel, Turkey and Eritrea, the social and political dynamics of militarisation are remarkably similar to those in apartheid South Africa. Soldiers like Joe Glenton in the UK have also been imprisoned after objecting to what they consider to be the political use of the military in an unjust war.

The ECC was a highly creative protest movement that challenged the notion that to be a man you had to be a soldier and also helped to expose and destabilise apartheid. The men who refused to serve in the SADF for political reasons made personal, but very public acts of defiance, risking not only their freedom but their acceptance in white society and identities as men. When reflecting on the South African liberation struggle it is important to consider the defiance shown by these white men and women in order to help non-racial democracy happen and to end military conscription as a requirement of South African citizenship.

Daniel Conway is author of Masculinities, militarisation and the End Conscription campaign and Lecturer in Politics and International Studies in the Department of Politics and International Studies (POLIS) at the Open University

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Africa Day and Algerian National Cinema

Algeria is a complex society which remains little known or understood in the UK. This lack of knowledge was highlighted recently when Nick Robinson, the BBC’s lead political reporter, remarked half seriously that neither he nor his viewers knew very much about the country--or could even find it on the map! But Algeria is of increasing global geo-political significance, as recent events have indicated. That BBC report and David Cameron’s visit in the spring to Algiers—the first British prime minster ever to visit Algeria—were sparked by the hostage crisis in the Algerian desert which saw dozens of foreign nationals kidnapped by Al Qaida In The Islamic Maghreb. Algeria—like Mali—can be construed to some degree as an ideological battleground. But Algeria’s significance is not limited to its position with regard to security and its alliance with the West in the so-called war on terror. It is a country with major energy resources, great linguistic diversity, and numerous cultural treasures whether literary (renowned writers such as Assia Djebar), musical (Algeria gave the world raï) or cinematic (see below).  

Algeria ‘s history is informed by a wave of invasions, occupations and settlements—by Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Turks, and French. As one commentator has put it, “Algeria has the most complicated history of citizenship in the world” (Ranjana Khanna). Or as one its presidents, Mohamed Boudiaf, declared in 1992, Algeria is “between East and West, between Arab and Berber, between tradition and modernity”. Algeria still seems like a country at a crossroads. For good or ill, Algeria failed to join its neighbours Tunisia and Libya in the ‘Arab Spring’, and the state has an uneasy relationship with the populace. Connections with France in particular are close but can be sensitive, with French influence viewed by some as neo-colonial. The French fought a long and bloody war between 1954 and 1962 to try and retain a colony which they had occupied by force since 1830. Although the memory of the liberation struggle is of little relevance to Algeria’s vast youth population, the current head of state, President Bouteflika, is like all Algerian presidents before him a veteran of that war. 

To celebrate fifty years of Algerian independence, 2012 saw the release of Algerian National Cinema, the first book length study of filmmaking in Algeria to be published in English since the seventies.  Embracing key themes such as the war against France, gender relations, the place of the Berbers in Algerian society, and the representation of memory, it introduces and analyses films from the sixties to the 2000s, from The Battle of Algiers to Mascarades, and provides a window on this neglected but fascinating society.          

Guy Austin is author of Algerian National Cinema, Professor of French Studies and Director of the Research Centre in Film and Digital Media at Newcastle University 

Monday, 20 May 2013

Every Day is Africa Day

By Graham Harrison, author of The African presence

For Britain – and Britons – every day is Africa day. This might seem like a wild claim, but think again. We may all have different ideas about what being British is, but outside of the most blinkered or racist mindsets, being British is connected to a long-standing, diverse, and complex net of interactions between Britain and Africa.

Take Africa Day itself as a starting point. It commemorates the founding of the Organisation of African Unity in 1963. The driving force behind the formation of the OAU was a body of intellectuals and statesmen (there were no women) who had forged a politics of self-determination and ‘Africanness’ after the end of the Second World War. If there was a single moment when the activism that led to the formation of the OAU commenced, it was Manchester, 1945. This was where the Fifth Pan African Congress took place, hosting the ideas of many who would go on to lead countries to Independence. It also reflected a radical political current that emerged in the UK, informed by ideologies and discussions within and between African and Caribbean diasporas, various progressive Christian groups, and the Fabian political left in the UK, all of which pushed decolonisation forward and contributed to a broader narrative about Britain’s place in a post-imperial world.

African independence has defined British politics and public culture, even up to the present day. If British governments felt the anxiety of losing Empire, some succour was gained from the politics of aid which was largely focussed on Africa from the 1960s. Imperial visions were replaced by those of British donor and African recipient. Since the mid 1980s, aid giving has become spectacular: driven my powerful images and emotional appeals, all of which encourage us to think of Britain as being a uniquely virtuous and altruistic nation. Two of the largest political campaigns in British history were largely Africa campaigns: the campaign to abolish the slave trade and Make Poverty History in 2005. The association of British virtue, aid, and British-Africa relations remains today as George Osborne defends the ring-fencing of aid budgets during recessionary pressures to cut budgets.

British popular culture is intrinsically a negotiation of ideas and aesthetics from Africa, black British people who came from Africa via the Caribbean, and of African diasporas: from the smart modernism of Jamaicans in 1950s London through to the sprawling aesthetics of dubstep that evoke the sink estate and the nightbus. Let me type out a disorderly list: the emergence of new churches and mosques; innovations in art; vibrant community associations; participation in local and national government policy (often flippantly derided as ‘multiculturalism’); Olympic gold medal winners, Africa in films, museums, public exhibitions, ‘world music’; tourist and gap year fantasies; Red Nose Day… It seems to me that we might be struck by how British public culture has been changed by Americanisation, but we should also note some Africanisation as well.

If you are disposed to celebrate Africa Day, remember how thoroughly British you are being.

We're offering discounts on all our Africa related titles this month, visit the MUP website for more details.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

'Irish women in medicine, c.1880s−1920s' - Irish launch photos

Last month Laura Kelly launched Irish women in medicine, c.1880s−1920s: Origins, education and careers in her native Ireland. The photos below demonstrate the enthusiasm for the book and the reception which it received. Congratulations Laura!