43rd Annual Conference of the African Literature Association

Senegalese master-musician Papa Susso plays the kora and Balla Kouyaté the balafon
September 7, 2017

This year’s African Literature Association conference, which took place June 14-17, 2017, was the biggest Africa-focused conference ever to take place at Yale, and we were proud to dedicate it to African literary and cultural scholarship. The conference theme, ‘Africa and the World: Literature, Politics, and Global Geographies’, sought to engage with recent shifts in theoretical frameworks for African literary and cultural studies from postcolonial literature toward world literature models, as well as engaging with the implications of globally oriented analytical models generally.

  • 550 people registered for the conference, plus 40 guests who were practitioners from the fields of African film, literature, music and performance
  • 12 Yale students (6 undergraduate interns, 6 volunteers) assisted at the conference
  • There were 650 separate presentations spread over 165 panels/roundtables
  • Delegates came from 15 different African countries (Nigeria, South Africa, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Cameroon, Benin, Ghana, Ethiopia, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone, Senegal, Morocco, Swaziland, Botswana) and from 26 countries overall

Highlights of the conference

Highlights of the conference included the two keynote lectures. Boubacar Boris Diop’s lecture offered a careful and elegant analysis of how the great Senegalese intellectual, Cheikh Anta Diop, criticized his fellow writers for their ‘deadly illusion … that a borrowed language could frolic beyond borders and translate our genius’. Through his study of Cheikh Anta Diop, and in delivering his critique in the very ‘borrowed language’ of French, Boris Diop warned ‘the worm is in the fruit that you are biting so loudly into’ and made a powerful case for writing in the national languages of Senegal. 

Keynote speaker Boubacar Boris Diop

Simon Gikandi’s keynote took a bite out of a different fruit. Where Diop applauded literatures in national languages, Gikandi cleverly used the term ‘untranslatables’, to describe all those words and concepts in African languages that resist incorporation and translation into English, even when they have been translated into simple English terms. He used the example of the word ‘pumpkin’ in Okot p’Bitek’s famous poem, Song of Lawino: ‘All the European language translators struggled with the pumpkin, not in its literary meaning … but in its figurative sense. Glossaries were hence needed to explain the centrality of the pumpkin as a mark of the homestead, an idea that was as alien to the target audiences as it was familiar within Acholi culture. The pumpkin metaphor would hence come to function as sign of the incommensurable, of ontological difference, of the location of the poem at home and in the world.’ 

Keynote speaker Simon Gikandi

Other highlights of the conference included the film festival at the Whitney Humanities Center where documentaries and new movies were screened alongside discussions with directors. Our four author auditorium events in partnership with the International Festival of Arts and Ideas (IFAI) were also a great success, each attracting audiences of over 100 people. To the great excitement of the audience, Scottish-Sierra Leonean author, and winner of a 2014 Windham Campbell Prize, Aminatta Forna, read unpublished material from her forthcoming novel; Cameroonian author Imbolo Mbue – whose novel, Behold the Dreamers, recently featured in Oprah’s ‘Goodreads’ – described with great honesty how she came to imagine the characters in her bestselling novel; British-Ugandan author Jennifer Makumbi described the challenges of bringing history to life in her debut novel, Kintu; and Nigerian-American author Okey Ndibe held the audience’s attention with details of the stories behind his many novels and recent memoir, Never Look an American in the Eye.

Akachi Ezeigbo performs a dirge

The transformation of the Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscripts Library into a party space for the opening reception, with Senegalese master-musician Papa Susso on kora and Balla Kouyaté on balafon, set the tone for the subsequent days. Another such moment was when Nigerian creative writer and professor Akachi Adimora Ezeigbo performed a dirge in Igbo for the novelist Buchi Emecheta who died earlier this year, and whose son, Sylvester Onwordi, travelled to the conference especially for the events commemorating Emecheta’s life and work.

Crowd at the 43rd Annual Conference of the  African Literature Association

The conference showcased the diversity of African literatures and African literary scholarship. When put under the spotlight as part of our conference theme, we found that key works of ‘world literature theory’ cannot easily accommodate or describe this vibrant literary practice.

Stephanie Newell

Conference Organizer, ALA 2017


Photography: Mara Lavitt

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