Isidore Okpewho’s Myth in Africa (1983)

Some more Okpewho for you today…no introduction needed…

photo (6)

Myth in Africa

Isidore Okpewho

London: Cambridge, 1983


Here, Okpewho takes the opportunity to drive in the point that he concentrated on in the previous work The Epic in Africa (1979), which is that the practices of oral literature are not solely related to religious ritual. He cites well known and respected anthropologist Ruth Finnegan, who has done quite a bit of work in Africa but, according to Okpewho, still gets it wrong. (And I gotta say, I’m starting to have some stray thoughts of possible misogyny in Okpewho’s work. How are there NO WOMEN in this whole book, despite the fact that Harold Scheub’s extremely influential work concentrates HUGELY on women storytellers in South Africa…? Here we have the ONE female scholar cited, and she is swiftly dismissed. Just saying…it’s something to think about…) Anyway, this beginning put a bit of a bad taste in my mouth, because he seems here to be setting Finnegan up as a kind of straw (wo)man. In fact, these words he seems to feed her are not even her words. The statement she makes, which Okpewho finds so objectionable, is actually someone else’s, with whom Finnegan is only tentatively disagreeing.

Why am I mentioning this? Because I think we don’t often enough take the time to really consider the prejudices and the blind spots of our authors. (And by ‘we’ I mean ‘I’…)

Africa and oral narrative theory: a critical survey

This chapter is incredibly useful if you want a quick “state of the discipline and how it got there” refresher on the various scholarly trends that were picked up by those who analyze myth – not necessarily African myth, but myth in general. I have a feeling that this is, literally, the “Oral Literature 101” survey course he was probably teaching at the University of Ibadan. He very usefully goes through several schools of thought, but also organizes them based on categories for which he provides an illustration at the back of the book.

(It may be important to note that by “state of the discipline” I mean the state of the discipline in 1983. Some developments have occurred since then, but I must say, it’s not a popular topic, so what you’re getting in 1983 is probably a pretty accurate contemporary picture…)

Continue reading

Isidore Okpewho’s The Epic in Africa (1979)

After a fair bit of study during my undergrad and MA (the latter with Harold Scheub who has recently retired), I had almost entirely forgotten the fascinating body of work dedicated to African oral literature.

Oral? Literature? Did I hear you right?

Yes. Yes you did. Because despite not being written down, this rich body of tales, legends, myths, epics, folktales and fables are considered “texts” by those who study them.

Cool thing about oral literature? It has no definitive edition. So it’s like the difference between reading Constance Garnett’s Anna Karenin and Pevear and Volokhonsky’s Anna Karenina. (I prefer Garnett, to be totally honest, if for nothing else than the way she translates Russian peasant speech into London cockney.) Except instead of a different word or phrase here and there that leave academics in fisticuffs, vast swaths of the story can change. There are people who spend oodles of their time (like entire academic careers) comparing these different versions of a story. Frankly, that is not my thing. That is far too frustrating. But I do find the questions arising from these different oral texts fascinating.

Who owns the story? Is it an individual work or a collective effort? Is it a object merely in the service of religious ritual or is it an aesthetically informed piece of poetry? (Imagine if you will the difference between reading the Koran for purposes of religious practice or for purposes of analyzing the poetry in which it is composed, which is stunning.)

photo (5)

Okpewho addresses some of these questions and quite a few more. This is a fairly specific text, but if you’re interested in African oral literature – or, actually, in any of the commonly known epics (Beowulf, Gilgamesh, the Illiad and/or the Odyssey)-  you will certainly find some merit. I really enjoy Okpewho’s writing – it’s clear that he is far more concerned with poetry than with the mathematical functions of the folktale like some good Russians we know *ahem*Propp*ahem* and this carries through.

So for your enjoyment, my notes on The Epic in Africa

Continue reading

self-imposed leisure reading

Okay, I did it.

I wrote a dissertation prospectus and passed the defense, which means that in order to be crowned DOCTOR, I have but one tiny, little, no-big-deal hoop to jump through called ‘writing a dissertation’…

I also survived the annual meeting of the American Comparative Literature Association in New York City. (ACLANYC2014) These are some things I learned…

1) Edouard Glissant is very popular among pretty much everyone right now.

2) Apparently Glissant’s writing has nothing to do with the Caribbean.

3) All the men who study his theoretical work are frustrated Deleuzians.

That sounds a little harsh, because I did hear some AMAZING papers that made me very psyched to see this body of writing, that I care about SO MUCH, becoming popular. (Okay, to be fair, I got really psyched about it after I had my requisite former indie-kick reflex of whininess that something obscure and cool I used to surprise people with is now mainstream. But whatever, Glissant’s work is so wonderful and everyone should read it. So there.) But it was a wee bit discouraging to hear one or two concepts picked up, taken out of context, and used for a project that is completely unrelated to Glissant’s whole oeuvre. What was more frustrating was to hear people say that taking his words and concepts completely out of context and plugging them in somewhere else was something that he “would have wanted”…I mean, the man has been dead for, like, two seconds. Assuming to know the intellectual wishes of the recently deceased strikes me as being…well…tacky…too soon…

4) Nollywood is a thing.

5) Adichie is much more interesting than I thought she was

6) Judith Butler is not a gracious guest. She introduced her talk “Capital/Punishment” by saying, “I’m not sure why I’ve been asked to speak about this topic. But here is what I have to say…” Dang, JB, are we bothering you? And where are the cats? I don’t understand a thing you’re saying…

7) All food in New York is better than any food anywhere else. Fact.

I also made it from Montreal to Atlanta to New York to Montreal without throwing up or having a panic attack, even when I went through customs and finally fessed up to living with my Canadian husband. They passed me right on through.

So I am now on a much-needed break, before I start writing this dang dissertation. And what did I do? HIT THE LIBRARY!!!

Wait, what?

Yes, I’m hitting the library. The fiction stacks. The fun stuff. The goods. I have to get in a week of everything I just dang feel like reading before it’s back to the history and criticism and theory and random anthropological studies and folktales and novels that seem to be glaring at me, daring me to understand what’s going on…an open book, you see, is also a closed book…

So I ravenously wandered around the English language fiction section at the BANQ (then ravenously wandered up and down St-Denis for some food and discovered that there is banh mi place literally steps away from the library…) and went home with my hands full:

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys because, as a major Jane Eyre fan and a postcolonial literature scholar, I’ve been meaning to read it for ages.

Cakes and Ale by W. Somerset Maughm because this dude cracks me up and because The Magician was batshitcrazy and I want more.

The New Moon’s Arms and The Salt Roads by Haitian-Canadian, Toronto based sci-fi writer Nalo Hopkinson because my very dear friend passed her dissertation defense this week, which means that she’d better be constructing the book proposal RIGHT NOW, and she’s going to need a sounding board.

The Hungry Tide by Amitov Ghosh because I heard approx six people mention this text in relation to the fascinating new genre of criticism called, “The Blue Humanities”…or, as I prefer to call it, “Water n’ Stuff”…

Okay, HERE I GO!!!

this week in books: histoire du Sénégal

This week was largely devoted to brushing up on my Senegalese history. I’m revising an article – crossing my t’s and dotting my i’s (as well as changing most of my which’s to that’s…good lord did I not go to middle school?) and I realized that while the literary premises were sound, the paper was really lacking context. (And by “I realized” I mean “my adviser – the fiercest editor I’ve ever met – suggested that I needed to put all the literary pish-posh into some kind of cohesive historical framework”…) So I went about kicking myself for the thousandth time since I began working on my ‘dissertation project’ proper for having wasted my intellectual youth coming up with clever ideas instead of cracking open a dang history book, and then I hit the library.

Full disclosure: this is not polished thinking…this is the product of skimming a few books before doing more substantive work…if you are a historian (*cough cough* – I know you guys) let me know what’s wrong here and what I need to do to fix it because I’m just wading through books and trying to figure it all out…


I found a few sources that were particularly good. I FINALLY got around to reading  Mamadou Diouf’s L’Histoire du Sénégal: le modèle islamo-wolof et ses péripheries (2001) which is, of course, a fantastic source. Diouf is the dude, as far as I can tell. The dude who knows the stuff.

The most helpful part of this book for me, since I am working on cities, was the brief section related to the establishment of the Quatre Communes in 1848. It’s really important for Diouf to concentrate on this because a big part of his project is looking at the center/periphery model. I think we’re quite accustomed to thinking of colonized spaces in Subsaharan Africa as métropole/vast washes of undeveloped space with a trading post or two. In significant ways, however, Saint-Louis in particular, and the other three cities of the Quatre Communes (Dakar, Rufisque, Gorée) will be as important, if not more, than Paris (or Nantes or Bordeaux). Not forever, but certainly in the 19th century.

So, in case you were curious, the Quatre Communes were the major four cities in Senegal during the 19th century, the majorest one being Saint-Louis (not Dakar, as you might think). According to Diouf, a distinct population is developing here that is removed from both the ‘traditions autochtones sénégambiennes’ as well as the dictates of the ‘mission civilatrice’ (135). These four cities are inhabited by “originaires’ – people who inhabited these spaces before France, mostly comprised of an Islamo-Wolof population, as well as French colonists and traders. The demographics are the French, the increasingly powerful population of mulâtres that I will talk more about, freed slaves and servants.

Here’s the thing, everyone living in these cities falls under the category of French citizen, while everyone in the intérieur is going to fall into the category of French subject. This is important. These originaires are going to be the roots of the future class of évolués who will take over power from the French after independence in 1960.

These places are pretty well urbanized. I would argue that, if you think real hard about what French cities looked like in the 19th century, they are probably not too far off from a Saint-Louis. Remember, France is in the middle of various bloody revolutions that distract from the building of proper infrastructure. There are no sidewalks or plumbing. Live chickens are being sold at the market. People are rampantly dying from disease. The Industrial Revolution is only just beginning. We’re not exactly in “tradition vs. modernity” here yet. Time has not split.


Right now I’m still going through Jean-Pierre Biondi’s Saint-Louis du Sénégal: mémoires d’un métissage (1987) and I’m not sure how sound it is academically (there are no citations…is this something historians get away with that I don’t know about? y’all are a rebellious bunch), but I’m intrigued by the premise that the singular aspect that made this town thrive was its ability to adapt in the form of métissage. Off the top of my head, I’m not totally sure how people are translating this term, so I’m going to leave it in the French because it gets real tricky real fast in the English.

Most importantly, this  book discusses the rise and fall of a powerful class of mulâtres (again, untranslatable) who essentially controlled the town. Not French traders, not African warlords, but in point of fact, it was mostly the children of white French traders and their Wolof concubines who ran the town until the arrival of Faidherbe in the 1850’s. This is mainly due to the legal status that they were, in fact, granted. It was perfectly acceptable for French traders/settlers to “marry” a local gal and, upon leaving, to give her a fair amount of the profit/property accrued during his stay in Saint-Louis, which would then pass on to any children. (Which is still not exactly just compensation for, you know, forced concubinage but that’s not really at issue right here right now…) This isn’t far off from the situation of the legendary ‘octoroon’ character of New Orleans (à la George Cable) except that these signares would become exceedingly influential due to their accruing of funds and then their participation in local trade.

I’ve mentioned that this had to do with their right to seize their French ‘husband’s’ property when he made his merry way back to France, and the right of their children to inherit, but what is the status of these relationships? In fact, because it was seen by the French to be absolutely detrimental and impossible for men to have their delicate French wives tagging along to the colonies with them, these ‘marriages à la mode du pays – concubinage – were entirely (by law, probably not my the fledgling Saint-Louisian Catholic Church and less so by any of the Muslim/Wolof population) accepted. Biondi also puts some emphasis on the fact that these ‘marriages’ were made not between French citizens and, say, daughters of the local (African) ruling class, but rather between French citizens and female slaves. What this indicates is that for these signares, throughout several generations, you have a powerful class of women emerging out of a position of complete subjection. This IS NOT to romanticize the situation. What is important is that this particular space, Saint-Louis, seemed outside of any hierarchical dualisms that were guiding, well, the rest of the world, in this one specific case. It is not ideal, and this class of métissage is not to be commended or condemned. They were slave-holding and exploitative individuals to the same extent the French were. It’s more a representation of this crazy anything-goes urban space of Saint Louis in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.


All right, this final book, Jean-Pierre Dozon’s Saint-Louis du Sénégal : palimpseste d’une ville (2012) I can’t spend that much time on here (remember when I said that I was working on an article? Yeah, that’s still happening…) but out of these three texts, it absolutely has the most interesting premise. In his intro, Dozon calls Saint-Louis a kind of “hyperville” and by this he means a place of extraordinary qualities – emPHAsis on EXTRAordinary – in the same sense we would say EXTRAterrestrial. He gets there by mentioning the very buzz-word-y ‘lieu de mémoire’ – a concept developed by Pierre Nora and others which essentially implies that objects/places have overlapping layers of meaning, developed throughout time, that become a charged space where memory continues to live. EmPHAsis on presentness instead of pastness of memory, right?

For Dozon, the whole of Saint-Louis would best be examined as a space of overlapping temporalities, overlapping collective memories, overlapping populations, traditions, religions, artistic practices, economic systems, political infrastructures, etc etc etc… This renders it a space that is not France and not Africa and certainly not just a ‘hybrid’ combination of both but something truly à part.

I like this. I think it’s groovy. And if you ever actually go to Saint-Louis this is EXACTLY what it feels like. You are truly in a different time and I do not mean that in the study abroad, urban safari, “Africa is so ‘traditional'” sense. Where you are is both no-where and now-here, and you have a hard time figuring out whose historical trajectory you’re standing in the middle of. People will tell you – it’s Saint-Louis’s.

because it was there…

Hi, how are you today? I’m fine, you know, surviving the sudden blizzard, rocking some Boubacar Traoré, and…oh yeah…wait…not fine at all – eating puréed lentils!!!

Why, you ask?

Gentle reader, (is that phrase trademarked? can I use that?) because I lost my mind for about five minutes and decided that lentil soup was fine, but puréed lentil soup would be better. That it would be creamy and soupy and wintery and delightful.

It is freaking baby food, gentle reader. Baby food.

And if you’re into that kind of thing, I have the recipe for you! But the rest of us will be over here, eating a hot, steaming plate of ANYTHING BUT THAT.

So what inspired this moment of madness? Why did I take a perfectly decent pot full of lentils and turn it into a green slushy? Because I had made a smoothie that morning, and the immersion blender was sitting RIGHT THERE on the counter. I seized it without thinking and before I knew it, green baby food.

The reason I’m bringing this up – and I have a reason besides the useful advice that should accompany every culinary pitfall – is that I’m sitting here, eating my lentils, writing a conference paper for what seems like the fourth time, and I have a suspicion that whatever regrettable moment of thoughtless overconfidence ruined the soup project is also at the heart of why I seem to be still…writing…this paper…

photo (4)

Continue reading

RIDM Screening 122: Atalaku

Directed by Dieudo Hammadi, Atalaku is set during the latest elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Here’s a quick timeline:

1960: Patrice Lumumba becomes the first Prime Minister of the newly independent Republic of Congo (the one that becomes the DRC, not the other one). He is deposed by the president, Joseph Kasa-Vubu, and then eventually placed under house arrest with the military leader Joseph Mobutu (remember him – this is the one Bob Dylan wrote a song about – it’s called “Leopard Skin PillBox Hat” …right…)

1961: Lumumba is brutally assassinated, (there’s a fantastic film about it directed by Raoul Peck if you’re interesting…) and Mobutu beginshis assent into power.

1965-1997: Mobutu (monsieur coup d’etat himself) is in power and becomes the archetype of many African dictatorships to follow…

1996: Laurent Kabila leads Tutsi factions against Hutus in Eastern DRC – thus begins the First Congo War.

1997: Laurent Kabila comes to power after the invasions of the DRC (then Zaire) by Rwanda, defeats Mobutu’s forces. This ends with First Congo War, but we have another one…

1998: Second Congo War, which lasts until 2003 (officially). This involves several nations and effectively rips the enter of Africa apart.

2001: Joseph Kabila succeeds his father in office after the latter’s assassination.

2006: First free elections in 46 years. Kabila wins. (Which is a lot like more of the same thing…)

2011: Another multi-party election…

Continue reading

RIDM Screening 84: A jamais, pour toujours

Confession: I am basically posting this for good form, because it is a documentary that I saw, and thus feel obligated to include it in the series. (Plus, duh, I like bragging about all these awesome films I’m seeing. Aren’t you tempted to move to Montreal now so you can watch great documentaries and go to jazz festivals and, oh man, just wait ’til you see the book festival coverage I’m going to throw your way…they’re doing a spotlight on Haitian authors this year…I know, right?)

Alexandra Sicotte-Lévesque directed this film, which is confusingly titled “A jamais, pour toujours” in French and “The Longest Kiss” in English. The latter refers to a pronouncement that the Nile River joins (sort of?) Sudan to the newly created South Sudan, in a long goodbye kiss. Which is beautiful. The narration that went along with the film (we never have any idea who is speaking it) is a wonderful poetic reflection on the history of Sudan’s conflicts and the recent secession of South Sudan. Another beautiful thing: the cinematography. The webpage description (and I’m endlessly fascinated by these) describes the film as a “an essential look at an often misunderstood and tragically ignored country.” I would say that for all of the random media flashes we get that loudly proclaim the “genocide” and “chaos” and “cautious optimism” and “tribal clashes” and many other things that you typically hear about African countries in the news, it is, indeed, necessary to stop for a minute and see an intelligent exploration of how people are going about their daily lives in current Sudan and South Sudan. Yes, people are killed, and violence disrupts an entire country, but there are people who live as well. And that seems to be the goal of this film – to show that people continue to live.

Continue reading