Africa and me
I made my first steps in Lusophone African studies at the University of Lisbon in 1993-1996. My modest beginnings crisscrossed the modest beginnings of other people, since I had classes with Inocência Mata in my first course of Portuguese studies for foreigners; obviously she was not yet the conspicuous figure she became later on with the advent of the Lusophony as an official political project in late 90ties; I also had classes with other people shaping the early landscape of the so-called "literaturas de expressão portuguesa". At the early stage of my career, I worked mainly with the Portuguese metropolitan writing, but later on, I progressively developed more consistent research interest in the Portuguese-speaking African literatures, their current impact on the literary life of the former colonial metropolis, as well as new ways of conceptualizing their recent development, disrupting the established boundaries of the postcolonial theory.
Although I did not publish any major monograph dedicated to this literature yet (there exist an editorial proposal in this domain, so it may come true in quite near future), I have been working on Lusophone African topics for over a decade. One of the significant steps was my participation in the collective research project “Silent Intelligentsia. A study of civilizational oppression” financed by the Polish National Science Centre (NCN) in 2006-2009; I contributed to it giving a comparative outlook on the formation of new intellectual elites in different parts of Africa after the breakdown of the Portuguese colonial empire. More recently, I profited from my 10-month-long stay in Portugal as a Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation's fellow in 2016/2017 to develop my Africanist competence, studying in particular the literature of Guinea-Bissau. In December 2016 I travelled to this country for a short term research.
In a 10-year perspective, I have developed a more or less continuous track of publications on African topics, both in Poland and in the international context (I've contributed to the leading German journal of Lusophone studies, Lusorama, as well as several collective volumes). Overall, my African research and reflection is intertwined with other topics, forming a comparativist approach. This is why I've usually presented it in a World Literature contexts rather than typically Africanist one, for instance at the 21st Congress of International Comparative Literature Association in Vienna (in June 2016), where I contributed with a paper on the intertextual relationship of the Mozambican writer Honwana and the Angolan writer Ondjaki. My papers on the emergence of the written culture and the figure of transcolonial intellectual are still examples of such an approach. I've also included the results of my research on African topics in my monographs, such as Imperium i nostalgia (2015) and Humanistyka, która nadchodzi (2018) as they served me to put in the lime-light the development of the hegemonic conception of the Portuguese culture and to consolidate my theoretical outlook on global transcultural humanities. The comparative approaches I develop serve me to build a transcolonial vision, not only mimicking the frontiers of the former Portuguese empire, but also in the regional context of West Africa. I'm also interested in building parallels and comparisons between the cultural dynamics in the sub-Saharan Africa and the Maghreb.
Overall, I've been busy quite a lot with African materials since my last research stay in Lisbon; here in Leiden where I am now, although primarily occupied with an Orientalist project, I also revisit the African topics with a certain assiduity, working on a couple of new papers focusing especially the marginal reality of Guinea-Bissau and developing new projects, as presented below.
papers and chapters
“Mia Couto and his African context: Invention of an origin”, The Worlds of Mia Couto, Kristian Van Haesendonck (ed.), Oxford – Bern – Berlin – Bruxelles – New York – Wien, Peter Lang, 2020, p. 41-59. ISBN 978-1-78874-594-9
The main line of argumentation in this chapter traces the process of “invention of an origin” performed by a white, blue-eyed descendant of the colonisers. In response to the criticism voiced by his African interlocutors at the moment of the publication of Vozes Anoitecidas (1986), Mia Couto legitimises his existence as a forerunner of a genuinely African intellectual, whose advent is announced in Um rio chamado tempo, uma casa chamada terra (2002). The literary construction of autochthonism brings him close to other Lusophone writers such as Pepetela, facing the same racial situation as descendants of the colonisers rather than the colonised. This process involves a creative redefinition of the notions of kinship, paternity and transmission, as well as the work on the Portuguese language. Mia Couto tries to rebuild it in such a way that it might render the African vision of the reality, creating a highly peculiar and recognisable style, implying a translingual dimension of the text. At the same time, this endeavour is interpreted as an echo of the centuries-old Portuguese millenarianist vision of the recuperation of the ideal, pre-Babelian speech of man. Nonetheless, the chapter's conclusion focuses on the paradoxical outcome of Couto's struggle for “Africanization”, putting in the limelight precisely the lowly, maculate origin of language and community.
“Wielość Gwinei. W poszukiwaniu kategorii opisu dla transkolonialnej Afryki Zachodniej” [“Plurality of Guineas. In search of analytic categories for the transcolonial West Africa”], Intelektualiści afrykańscy wobec doświadczenia dyktatur, Wojciech Charchalis, Renata Diaz-Szmidt, Marcin Krawczuk, Małgorzata Szupejko (eds), Warszawa – Poznań, ASPRA-JR, 2018, p. 243-256. ISBN 978-83-7545-873-2
“Nowe triangulacje. Literatura portugalskojęzyczna po luzofonii” [“New triangulations. The literature in Portuguese after the Lusophony”], Literatury mniejsze Europy romańskiej, vol. 3: Pośród literatur świata, Barbara Łuczak (ed.), Poznań, Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Adama Mickiewicza, 2017, p. 25-39. ISBN 978-83-232-3270-4
The hegemonic status of the Portuguese literature may be regarded as doubtful, due to the permanent, painful consciousness of being minor in the European context, resumed by Eça de Queirós in the figure of Fradique Mendes, redeemed by José Eduardo Agualusa in the novel Nação Crioula. The future of the literature in Portuguese is thus presented in trans-indigenous terms, exemplified not by the Lusophone project nor by the white African authors, such as Agualusa or Mia Couto, but by those of Guinea Bissau, creating a language inlay composed by the Portuguese matrix and the Creole elements, as well as the traces of the ethnic diversity existing in the country, inserted into it.
“Uma lição portuguesa de multiculturalismo” [“A Portuguese lesson of multiculturalism”], Lusorama. Zeitschrift für Lusitanistik, no 79-80 (November 2009), p. 176-193. ISSN 0931-9484
“Imperial Seduction and ‘Meek’ Forms of Symbolic Oppression”, Silent Intelligentsia. A Study of Civilizational Oppression, Jan Kieniewicz (ed.), Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies "Artes Liberales", Warsaw 2009, p. 108-123. ISBN 978-83-920349-9-5
„Od paternalizmu do luzofonii. Trudna emancypacja inteligencji byłych kolonii portugalskich w Afryce” ["From paternalism to lusophony. Difficult emancipation of the intelligentsia in the former Portuguese colonies in Africa"], Literatura ludowa, nr 1/2008, p. 41-53. ISSN 0024-4708
“«Biała» i «czarna» inteligencja afrykańska – milczenie i gadatliwość” [“'White' and 'black' African intelligentsia: silence and talkativeness”], Inteligencja, imperium i cywilizacje w XIX i XX wieku, Jan Kieniewicz (ed.), Warszawa, Instytut Badań Interdyscyplinarnych "Artes Liberales", 2008, p. 259-269. ISBN 978-83-923482-9-0
"Hegemonia discursiva ou saudade do Outro? Os silêncios angolanos em Yaka, de Pepetela” ["Discursive hegemony or longing for the Other? Angolan silence in Yaka, by Papetela"], Romanica Cracoviensia, nr 5/2005, p. 127-137. ISSN 1732-8705; ISBN 83-233-2139-6
“Rzeczywistości egzotyczne w literaturze afrykańskiej tłumaczonej z języka portugalskiego: strategie tłumacza wobec obcości radykalnej” [“Exotic realities in the African literature translated from Portuguese: strategies of the translator confronted with absolute strangeness”], Między oryginałem a przekładem VII: Radość tłumaczenia. Przekład jako wzbogacenie kultury rodzimej, Maria Filipowicz-Rudek, Jadwiga Konieczna-Twardzikowa (eds.), Kraków, Księgarnia Akademicka, 2002, p. 99-105. ISBN 83-7188-463-X
Writers of Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau
The aim of the project is to study the ways how the aporia of untranslatability of a specific culture and the necessity of appealing to the global reader's comprehension is solved at the level of the writers' strategies implied in the literary texts. Contemporary authors belonging to the minor linguistic and cultural context of the former Portuguese West Africa wish to engage the global readership and build up diverse approaches to the problem of auto-translating their idiosyncratic message. These strategies go from the incrustation of some key terms taken from the minor (Kriol, as well as any of the native African tongues) into the framework of the dominant speech (Portuguese) to the authorial translation of the entire text from the minor into the major language. On the other hand, the phenomenon of translingualism in the literary communication is present both in terms of the literary writing across the languages with which the author is familiar and in terms of the competence of the ideal reader implied in the text. As I claim, translingual texts build up their own audience, transmitting to the readers a certain degree of familiarity with the cultural key notions expressed in minor languages that the writers represent and strive to bring to the limelight of global awareness. The stake of such a literary practice is the formation of a common sphere of literary communication characterised by a non-hegemonic universalism, differing qualitatively from the often criticised, falsified universalisation of the Europocentric values.
The literature of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde is a neglected reality, even in the studies dealing with the West-African context, in which French and English postcolonial expression is predominant. Both countries not only gained their independence relatively late, as the outcome of a devastating colonial war and the Portuguese Carnation Revolution (1975), but also developed their original literary voice only in the recent decades. Even if the beginnings of literary activity in Cape Verde may be related to the review “Claridade” (1936), the statement is valid especially for Guinea-Bissau. Fully articulated literary system arguably appeared in this country as late as the last decade of the 20th century, with the novelistic work of Abdulá Silá and Filinto de Barros.
The literary projects of both countries build up a tension between the search for the idiosyncratic expression in local Kriol languages (similar, yet divergent in the archipelago and in the mainland Guinea-Bissau) and the integration in a larger Portuguese-speaking world. While the development of Kriol played an important role in the nationalistic projects of the early postcolonial period, the return to Portuguese – paradoxically or not – is to be observed in the first decades of the 21st century; a constant oscillation between the local dimension of Kriol and the globalising standard Portuguese is visible. Strategies of auto-translation are typical for such authors as Odete Costa Semedo or Tony Tcheka. While the former published the parallel versions of her poems simultaneously, in a bilingual volume, the latter often creates them across years and decades of his literary evolution, rather as creative rewriting than literal translations. A subtle modulation of the poetic voice is to be observed, as the author does not say exactly the same in both linguistic versions. This procedure gives thus a large margin for critical interpretation of the interplay between both tongues of literary expression, as well as their relation to the “silent” African languages. Especially in the case of Guinea-Bissau, this background is very reach, as the country is a hot-spot of linguistic diversity, with more than 20 native tongues attested. Although virtually no written literature has ever been published in any of these (except samples of oral literature collected by the Portuguese in the beginning of the 20th century), their presence manifests itself through key terms invoking crucial culture-specific meanings, encrusted in both Portuguese and Kriol texts. The analysis of the creative ways of granting their understandability for non-local readers will be inspired by the methodological contribution of global native literary studies (cf. Allen 2012).
As I claim, the recent literary creation, tending to adopt standard Portuguese expression at least as the main framework enabling translingual experimentation, is not – or not exclusively – addressed to the former colonial metropolis and transcends the boundaries of the Lusophone project that has been promoted by Portugal since the late nineties. It appeals to new literary circuits, sometimes designated as “Atlantic convergence” (“convergência atlântica”), exploiting the historical routes of dislocation and resettlement across the Atlantic, both those of the West-African slaves and the colonial deportations from Guinea-Bissau and the archipelago of Cape Verde to the islands of São Tomé and Príncipe. At the same time, Cape-Verdean writers such as Filinto Elísio aspire to unhindered participation in World Literature as a limitless, universalistic sphere of global exchange.
The scholarly context in which this research is inscribed has been determined by the influential criticism of Gayatri Spivak (2003), accentuating the divergence between, on the one hand, the exhaustive study and interpretation of cultures in the so called Area Studies and, on the other hand, the universalistic domain of Comparative Literature, forgetful of cultural singularity and specificity. What seems to be derived is a vision of the global literary space as built up by the scholarly discipline alone. In other words, Comparative Literature may appear as constructing its own object of studies (World Literature abusively taken for an organic whole, while the only reality is the pattern of specific local literatures embedded in mutually untranslatable cultures). Spivak's seminal book has inspired a new paradigm of Comparative Literature focusing on radical specificity and untranslatability, based on the claim that one culture “cannot access another directly and with a guarantee” (Spivak 2003: 30); it seems to over-accentuate the particularism of literatures inscribed in local conditions, as well as idiosyncrasy of languages beyond any perspective of full translatability (cf. Apter 2011). Nonetheless, these approaches overlook the effort of developing an intra-textual dimension of translatability, performed by the writers representing non-dominant languages and cultures. Even if, as Spivak admits, there is no “guaranteed accessibility” or automatic mutual comprehension between cultures, I claim that a consistent effort of building a common sphere of literary communication is promoted by the writers. It is through their original creation that the non-hegemonic universalism of World Literature comes true; a global literary system is a reality in which even radically marginalized writers such as those of Guinea-Bissau are embedded. Those minor global writers overcome the specificity of their backgrounds in a constant creative effort of transmitting precisely the most unexpected and idiosyncratic aspects of their cultural origins. Addressing the major questions of this scholarly debate through the lens of a novel, little studied exemplification that is usually out of the scope of the mainstream criticism.
Allen, Chadwick, Trans-indigenous: Methodologies for Global Native Literary Studies, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012.
Apter, Emily, Against World Literature. On the Politics of Intranslatability, London – New York, Verso, 2013.
Augel, Moema Parente, A nova literatura da Guiné-Bissau, Bissau: INEP, 1998.
Augel, Moema Parente, O desafio do escombro. Nação, identidade e pós-colonialismo na literatura da Guiné-Bissau, Rio de Janeiro: Garamond, 2007.
Elisio, Filinto, Zen Limites, Lisboa: Rosa de Porcelana Editora, 2016.
Elisio, Filinto, Das Hespérides, Lisboa: Caminho, 2005.
Elisio, Filinto, Li Cores & Ad Vinhos, Lisboa: Letras Várias, 2009.
Barros, Filinto de, Kikia Matcho, Lisboa, Caminho, 1999.
Damrosch, David, What is World Literature?, Princeton – Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2003.
Gomes, Simone Caputo, Cabo Verde: Literatura em Chão de Cultura, Praia: Instituto da Biblioteca e do Livro, 2008.
Kellman, Steven G., Switching Languages: Translingual Writers Reflect on Their Craft, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003.
Ribeiro, Margarida Calafate, Semedo, Odete Costa (ed.), Literaturas da Guiné-Bissau. Cantando os escritos da história, Porto: Afrontamento, 2011.
Semedo, Odete Costa, Entre o Ser e o Amar, Bissau: INEP, 1996.
Semedo, Rui Jorge, Sem intenção. Poesia e crítica literária, S.l.: Corubal, 2013.
Silá, Abudulai, Mistida, Bissau: Ku Si Mon, 1997.
Spivak, Gayatri, Death of a Discipline, New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.
Tavares, Eugène, Littératures lusophones des archipels atlantiques : Açores, Madère, Cap-Vert, São Tomé e Príncipe, Paris: L'Harmattan, 2009.
Tcheka, Tony, Desesperança no chão de medo e dor, S.l.: Corubal, 2015.
Tcheka, Tony, Guiné sabura que dói, São Tomé e Príncipe: UNEAS, 2008.
Tcheka, Tony, Noites de insónia na terra adormecida, Bissau: INEP, 1996.