Featured Member shines a spotlight on the diverse research interests of, and the exciting projects undertaken by, those affiliated with the Cultural Memory Studies Initiative. In this ninth instalment of the series, we speak to Inge Brinkman, who is a professor of African studies in the Department of Languages and Cultures at Ghent University.
What first attracted you to studying African literature and culture?
When I started with my studies in History way back in the eighties, I was upset that one of the courses was called ‘World History’, but in fact only discussed ‘non-Western’ regions when Europeans arrived there. Therefore I decided to follow a course on African history, to at least acquire a bit of a broader perspective. In the end I finished both my studies in History and in the interdisciplinary field of African Studies.
This interdisciplinary focus marks much of my research: studying the intersections between history, popular culture, and literature in Africa.
Can you tell us a little about your research and how it has developed over the years? What are you currently working on?
In my PhD project (1996) I tried to combine History and Literary Studies in an interdisciplinary manner, relating the history of societal debate on gender norms in Central Kenya to oral as well as written literature.
After that I was engaged in different post-doctoral projects in which I focused on Africa’s cultural history in a history-from-below perspective, based on qualitative fieldwork methods.
Since my appointment at Ghent University in October 2015, I have focused on autobiographical writing from Africa, as this genre (is it a genre really, or more of a proposal for a way of reading?) at once has literary properties, but at the same time claims to refer to history. This ambivalence of autobiographical writing intrigues me, and it suits my interdisciplinary aspirations.
This ambivalence and interdisciplinarity also form the source of my inspiration to study monsters. In the oral narratives that I have listened to over the years there are many indeterminate creatures like ogres and water snakes. Monsters challenge all categorisation, as their point is precisely not to fit. They are often highly sexualised and extremely male or female, but often also show queer attributes that do not clearly place them in any gender category. They are also at once associated with the unnatural (having ‘abnormal’ characteristics), with the wilderness (often living in places where no humans live), and with human culture (as they can act in seemingly human ways). This renders them a sound entry for queer and/or posthuman analysis.
In both projects, one nearing the ‘realistic’ end and the other a fictional extreme, I assume a historical stance, relating the notion of change to these oral and written genres.
Have you experienced any tensions when applying Western models and frameworks to the African context?
As a fan of E. P. Thompson’s The Poverty of Theory, I am not particularly fond of models anyhow and tend to view interpretation as a dialogue between concept and evidence. That said, I think all Africanists should be trained to critically assess the concepts that are taken for granted in academia. Terms like ‘precolonial’ or ‘postcolonial’, for example, place the colonial era centre stage. Given Africa’s long history, we can wonder whether this is justified. A title like The Empire Writes Back (which is a famous title at that) has been criticised for this reason: maybe Africans have had their own agendas and were not only concerned with ‘reacting’ as in ‘writing back’? It is no coincidence that Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi skipped the colonial period in her recent novel Kintu, and drew connections between precolonial Buganda and postcolonial Uganda…
How would you describe the relationship between memory studies and African studies? Also, thinking about African countries as scenes of colonial traumas and postcolonial rebuilding of national identities, what kind of memory work do you see coming out of the particular African literatures and cultural products you’ve worked on?
There is so much to say on the relationship between memory studies and African studies!
A first issue concerns indeed your question on ‘colonial traumas’ and ‘postcolonial national identities’. In his article ‘Conflict and Connection’, Fred Cooper (1994: 1517) wrote: ‘The difficulty is to confront the power behind European expansion without assuming it was all-determining’. This dilemma sums up the potential problem with the question: it points out ‘trauma’ to be a tricky term as it may reduce Africans to passive victims, only busy with suffering from and/or resisting colonial rule. Furthermore, it reasons from a binary opposition between colonisers and colonised, which, in view of processes of sub-imperialism, bricolage, etc., is untenable. In her recent book, Florence Bernault proposes to speak of ‘colonial transactions’, to underline the dynamic and interrelational processes across the categories of colonisers and colonised. I find her concept ‘transaction’ having overly egalitarian connotations to denote these processes, but her point of reasoning beyond a strict division between Europeans and Africans is well taken.
Of course, the nation required an immense amount of building (hardly any ‘rebuilding’ possible, I would say) in postcolonial Africa. After all, the geographical boundaries, the political structures, the state bureaucracies: all of this was a legacy of the colonial era. What past to draw upon? Now of course all nations must get their history wrong, but in Africa the search for an honourable past to imagine the nation was particularly difficult (Renan 1882; Anderson 1983; Lonsdale in Berman & Lonsdale 1992). Drawing on colonial history was impossible: the point was precisely to be independent, while the boundaries and structures during precolonial histories had been very different, with nations that were now called ‘tribes’ or ‘ethnicities’.
I find it incredibly interesting to study the mythologisation of ‘African tradition’ at the national level, but especially also the way in which individuals reconstructed their life histories in accordance with this project of national imagining. I am for example carrying out research on the author Gakaara wa Wanjaũ. He was detained during the Mau Mau period in colonial Kenya (1950s). His detention diary, published in Gikuyu in 1983 with an English translation appearing in 1988, was praised as a prime example of national resistance and a moving description of the British terror in the camps. But in the camps Gakaara also wrote a book on clans, and, at the request of the colonial officials, he organised a camp magazine and wrote various anti-Mau Mau plays.
Firstly, how does this ‘cultural work’ in the camps fit the image of terror and trauma? And secondly, of course, how do the anti-Mau Mau plays and the camp magazine fit the later image of anti-colonial heroism? Such questions – apart from being profoundly unsettling – are to me at the heart of memory studies.
A second issue concerns research on oral genres and oral traditions. While not particular to the African continent, I think the prominence of orality in memory work in Africa requires much more attention in memory studies than is presently the case. Since the 1960s, there are debates in African studies on the relations between oral traditions, history, and memory, but these debates have hardly impinged on memory studies more generally speaking. With a growing interest in the history of imagination in African Studies, largely based on oral stories, rumours, popular culture, etc., this field of orality becomes ever more relevant for memory studies.
Are there any specific texts, concepts, or methods from memory studies that you have found particularly useful?
A lot of ink has been spilled over the problems in historical interpretation in Fussell’s A Great War and Modern Memory, and probably rightly so. Still, I believe it is a great book as it combines the interpretation of a paradigm shift in aesthetics with an analysis of how categories for memory come into being. This idea, that not only the contents of memory have a history, but also memory’s very structure, I find really innovative.
Although strictly speaking not within the domain of memory studies, the work of Karin Barber on African oral literatures, self-writing, and early colonial print cultures is always useful.
Scholars in the Western world often show a limited engagement with areas outside of the global North. An example is environmental humanities scholarship, which tends to focus on narratives and viewpoints of the global North even though environmental issues are global problems, with regions such as the African continent being more vulnerable to threats like climate change. What can be done to expand the research focus of Western academia and to ensure a broader outlook informed by other cultural perspectives and postcolonial awareness?
For a number of reasons, environmental humanities are regarded with a healthy suspicion by many African scholars. A first reason is of course that many conservation policies have their roots in the colonial era: it was colonial governments that set up nature reserves, often at extreme losses for colonised subjects. Furthermore, as Evan Mwangi (2019: 25) puts it, reasoning from an isolated ecocritical stance ‘runs the risk of appearing to play down the problems African human populations have suffered under slavery, colonialism, and neo-colonialism.’ Some African scholars even regarded the environmentalist agenda as ‘green imperialism’ (cf. Slaymaker).
Mwangi’s way out is to propose a radically intersectional approach, viewing the various modes of oppression as interlocked, as interacting, and as mutually constitutive systems of marginalisation.
Another fruitful way to connect ecocriticism and a postcolonial stance is to study and practice ways of dehierarchising knowledge production. After all, the ways in which (academic) knowledge is produced at present often marginalises forms of knowledge from subaltern groups, and, at the same time, it privileges humans’ control over nature, even by the categories used. Maybe James Scott’s differentiation between techne – universal, stable, theoretical knowledge aimed at explanation and verification, and mētis – dynamic, cooperative, and practical knowledge imbued with memories, local contexts, and experience, could be helpful in the case of memory studies?
Are there any recent or forthcoming conferences, exhibitions, or other events that you are particularly enthusiastic about?
In October 2020 the University of Nairobi organises its research week, and I hope to participate in the Eastern African Literary Conference as well as the African Women and Environment Conference. My plan was to visit Kenya for this occasion, but now everything will be organised online. It would have been much nicer to meet the colleagues in East Africa, but I am still looking forward to the occasion.
Another event that I am really looking forward to is the international workshop ‘Rethinking Time and Gender in African History’, organised by Jonna Katto, on 29-30 April 2021 at Ghent University.
Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (1983).
Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths & Helen Tiffin, The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literature (1989).
Berman, Bruce, and John Lonsdale, Unhappy Valley: Conflict in Kenya and Africa (1992).
Bernault, Florence, Colonial Transactions: Imaginaries, Bodies, and Histories in Gabon (2019).
Cooper, Frederick, ‘Conflict and Connection: Rethinking Colonial African History’, American Historical Review 99, l5 (1994) 1516-45.
Fussell, Paul, The Great War and Modern Memory (1975).
Gakaara wa Wanjaũ, Mau Mau Author in Detention (1988).
Makumbi, Jennifer Nansubuga, Kintu (2014).
Mwangi, Evan Maina, The Postcolonial Animal: African Literature and Posthuman Ethics (2019).
Renan, Ernest, ‘Qu’est-ce qu’une nation?’ (Conference Sorbonne 1882).
Scott, James C., Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (1998).
Slaymaker, William, ‘Echoing the Other(s): The Call of Global Green and Black African Responses’, in: Ato Quayson & Olaniyan,
Tejumola (eds.), African Literature: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory (2007).
Thompson, E. P., The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays (1978).
Interview conducted via email by Ida Marie Olsen.