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Literary methodologies and the african european author

Laura Murphy

My dissertation research focuses on West African literary representations of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. In my work, I seek to counteract the notion that a seeming silence or hesitance regarding the trade indicates that there is an ignorance of its effects. Using alternative means of communication such as those divination practices, cautionary tales, and oral histories uncovered by Rosalind Shaw and Anne Bailey to decode the way literary authors explore the memory of the trade, I seek to better analyze the way memory works in Africa and the ways in which people have managed to keep their past alive in their present.

Identity and Hybridity
As a result of my interest in the effects of the trade on Africa, I find myself attempting to erase or ignore the European identity of some of the authors I study. I, along with much of the literary academic community, wish to somehow “authenticate” these authors as African, disregarding their European homes and their hybrid identities. In our work, however, we must ask ourselves “How do nations manage to lay claim to specific authors?” Equiano, for instance, is generally included in African American literature anthologies though he was born in Nigeria, only briefly landed in America, lived much of his life on the seas and in Europe, and died in England. Ben Okri, an author I discuss at length, is generally read in the West African literary canon, though he has spent most of his life outside of his birthplace of Nigeria.

Okri often describes his relationship to England as complicated and painful. It is a place where he attended college and read his literary heroes, but it also a place where he was forced out of school for lack of funds and was compelled to live on the street. Even more recently, Okri has criticized England for failing to recognize its literary geniuses and thereby suffering as a nation. Is this Okri’s confession that he, too, is a British author, unrecognized by his adopted homeland? What does this identification mean for the literary critic studying African writing? Who is authorized to decide in which canon a black European author resides? How do we write critically and truthfully of the experiences of these authors if their identities are thus hybridized? Do they force us to create a paradigm of reading which transcends the confines of nationality? Or do they in fact reinforce the need to understand the complicated national identification(s) of the authors we read?
Comparative Methodologies
In my work reading Okri and others, I study the traumatic impact of the slave trade as it is revealed through alternative forms of communication such as dreams, bodily illness, gossip, and metaphor. In order to understand authors such as Okri, I am forced to interact with their residence and interest in Europe which necessitates reading trauma through a more trans-Atlantic lens. Ama Ata Aidoo, a Ghanaian author who wrote about the trade, makes explicit comparisons between Africa and Europe, particularly concerning the trauma of the slave trade as it relates to the trauma of the Holocaust. Increasingly, scholars of the slave trade look to the research on the Holocaust for models to understand the pain and silence that accompanies traumatic memory. Is this line of inquiry productive? Can we use a relatively recent event such as the Holocaust to read a temporally distant historical event such as the slave trade? I am interested in discussing the merits of such a comparative methodology.
The BEST workshop will provide a forum through which we can discuss the trends in recent scholarship regarding hybrid identities and hybrid methodologies. Though much more research is being conducted regarding African and European historical involvement in the slave trade, it is often overlooked because of North America’s somewhat overwhelming (academic and popular) concern with unmasking the slave trade in its own nation. This conference’s intersection of European and African interests allows a new light to shine on a history which is complicated to tell and to uncover. Participating in this conference will allow me the opportunity to discuss the implications of discussing Africa through the perspectives of transatlantic authors and transatlantic histories.

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