I’ve been working on a PhD in African literature at the University of Leeds for three years now. I started this blog as a way of sharing my research and hashing out ideas. So often when I’m reading, I’ll get really excited by a strange piece of information or a wonderfully witty ghost story. Sometimes I know it won’t even find its way into the thesis, but I love it all the same. I hope to use this as a space for sharing my excitement and my ideas, in their raw or half-baked informality.
I’m focusing on The Palm-Wine Drinkard by Amos Tutuola and A Question of Power by Bessie Head. One is about monsters, the other is about madness, and both are about their author’s societies. Monsters and madness–escapes from ordinary reality–are ways to gain new perspectives on personal, social and historical problems (as if those could ever be separated from one another!). In the Bush of the Ghosts or in the mental wilderness, we can explore and confront our demons.
Given all this, I think that if you want to talk about literature, you need to talk about culture, history, economics and politics. This is a pretty obvious point, but I think it’s been overlooked in writing about African literature, where postcolonial theory too often masks a lack of specificity rather than facilitating the application of contextual knowledge. Tutuola’s novels about crazy spirit worlds make so much sense if you just visit the Anthropology section and read about how stories about spirits have been used to talk about the slave trade, war, and colonialism. Then you walk to the History section and read about the relevant wars. At Leeds, this journey takes you down a flight of stairs, through a rotunda, down a long corridor, into the basement–then back up, back along that corridor, back through the rotunda, down another flight of stairs into a different basement. English is up in the air, Anthropology is buried in the back of a back basement, and History is the basement upon which English stands. But if you make the treks back and forth, suddenly the connections are sprouting everywhere, and it all makes sense.
My theoretical framework is largely cobbled together from Deleuze and Guattari rather than more conventional postcolonial theory, as I’ve found their concepts particularly nimble in leaping between and connecting spheres: they provide me with a vocabularly whereby I can connect madness, capitalism, agricultural practice, ghosts, and literary devices. Their flexibility comes, however, at the expense of specificity. The idea of ‘vernacular theory’ has helped me to counteract this tendency: vernacular theories are the ways and many languages in which people theorise (and even academic theory is a form of vernacular theory). Ghost stories and hallucinations can be forms of vernacular theorising, for example.