Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Three Pet Peeves on assumptions people make about my research interests

Abbas Sadiq and Zainab Idris

15 June 2006, Tuesday

Things here continue to go swimmingly. Last weekend and this Monday, I went with Director Sango to a couple of fascinating dance productions held at an open air theatre: actors dancing to recordings of the film song and dance numbers to an audience of (mostly) men—and one bench reserved for women, which is where I take my place. I’m not quite sure this is considered “respectable” entertainment, especially for a woman, but since I am a foreigner, I exist in a liminal space anyway. Yesterday Abbas Sadiq and Zainab Idris were there (, so it was fun to see their screen-work translated into real life. Here’s a photo of them.

So, with a positive introduction to let everyone know that I am still having a good time and am not filled with peevishness as my title may indicate, I still wish to take this space to enumerate on three little pet peeves that are starting to grow around assumptions other people make about my research—and this is not just here but in the U.S. as well. And before I start this little rant, let me say ahead of time that no offense is intended to scholars in the fields of linguistics, anthropology, or public health. They are all fine fields, which provide very useful interdisciplinary resources to my own research… they are just not my area of focus….

1) That I am a linguist. Since the name of the department in which I am studying at Wisconsin is the Department of African Languages and Literature, people tend to focus on the “language” bit and leave out the “literature” part. So, since I have begun in the program, I get so many “linguistics” questions about the structure of the language, the future of language, etc. etc. etc. While I have do have two linguistics courses to my name (an introductory one [which nearly killed me—I couldn’t manage the “mathematical” formulas and proofs etc. although for a basic introduction, it was useful] and a literary linguistics course [which I enjoyed a hundred times more]) and while I do understand a few linguistic things about Hausa which helps me figure out why certain sounds turn out the way I do, and while I’m taking a socio-linguistics course next semester because the question of language in society is interesting (and I need to pass the linguistics part of my prelims), I am in no way a linguist. I keep telling people: I am a literary critic—it’s just that I am starting to read and write about literature written in the Hausa language. That does not make me an expert on Hausa grammar, structure, whatever, whatever, any more than being an English major in college made me an expert on English grammar, structure, etc (which was one of those assumptions people used to make about English majors that peeved me back then). So, yes, I am interested in the Hausa language, but mostly as a vehicle for literature and expression and not as an end in itself. Although I am not opposed to using linguistic tools to look at that literature and I have and probably will continue to make use of those tools, my focus is literature.

2) That I am an anthropologist. No offense to my friends in anthropology, but it gets under my skin when people assume that because I am studying Hausa literature that I am somehow an anthropologist. Are people who study British literature anthropologists? Why is there an assumption that if you are interested in Africa, you are somehow an anthropologist rather than a literary critic? While I greatly admire and make use of the work of trained anthropologists like Brian Larkin and Arjun Appadurai, which blur the boundaries between literary and cultural theory and anthropology (and while I think it is very important to try to understand culture alongside literature—and not be a strict structuralist—where everything is just a sign and symbol), I’ve never been interested in being an anthropologist. Of course, the field of anthropology has changed greatly in the past hundred years, and this anxiety of being assumed to be an expert on something of which you have only just scratched the surface also haunts my own work on Hausa literature (how can I ever really be qualified to have a PhD on a topic I’ve only studied for a few years—I think one thing I’m learning about a PhD is that it teaches you your limitations) [...] My anxiety is probably more about the assumptions people have when they assume that I am an anthropologist rather than what most anthropologists do (if that makes sense!), I am (and probably many anthropologists are as well) interested how people represent themselves, in their own words—I’m interested in describing these representations—my concern is not with whether these representations are “true” or “accurate” but with the sign and symbol itself as entwined with culture—and what can that mean?

3. So, this leads me nicely into my third pet peeve, which is a recent one, and one I probably invited upon myself by deciding to study representations of HIV in Hausa literature and film. I’m really, really tired of being introduced as a researcher who is interested in HIV AIDS and reproductive health issues. As bad as this may sound (as I probably really should be), I actually am not interested in reproductive health issues. I’m interested in literature and culture and how HIV-AIDS is used as a symbol.

This is the history behind this project: when I was in Jos on the Fulbright and stayed an extra year, my Fulbright friend Katie (an anthropologist—so Katie forgive any thing I may have said about anthropologists, they were not meant for you) got me involved with Faith Alive Clinic, one of the most amazing grass-roots level HIV NGOs I have ever seen. The support group (and clinic) has grown exponentially since I left in 2003, and people living with HIV-AIDS are involved in all aspects of counseling, prevention education, and care (many of them are trained nurses). It’s an exciting and impressive initiative, founded and directed by Dr. Chris Isichei. They have since gotten a quite a bit of foreign grant money (which is always a bit of an ambiguous thing, because very little grant money comes without strings attached), but have been able to maintain a lot of control over how the money is used. So, as Katie and I began to interview women living with HIV for a project to allow these women to tell their own stories, I began to think that I wanted to do anything I could do to use my area of expertise to help fight the pandemic. (Something my Dad talks about a lot with his Christian/Muslim faith based education initiatives—Everyone needs to use their area of expertise to approach the pandemic on many different levels—not just use one approach.) And my area of interest is literature, so I thought perhaps at the PhD level, I could look at representations of HIV in African literature. One thing I found as we did the project, was that interviewing these women in English wasn’t “really” letting them tell their own story in their own voice…. It’s so much harder to express what you want to express in a second language—not to say it cannot be done—many African writers have done it admirably—but that in a project of that sort, interviewing in English was extremely limiting.

My thinking was that HIV/AIDS is becoming a deadly and ever more devastating reality in Africa—eventually, it is going to be reflected in literature, just as other social problem are reflected. And that is an angle I can take. How is HIV/AIDS viewed in literature. How is it dealt with in literature? What kind of coping mechanisms does literature provide—what kind of agency in the face of devestation does it provide. (For example, in the South African novelist Zakes Mda’s Ways of Dying [which does not deal with HIV, but is a good example] he uses “magical realism to explore extreme social disfunction and tragedy. It is a painful book to read. I wept for an hour after the first time I read it. However, it is also extremely powerful, beautiful, and touching, and part of the reason I cried so long afterwards was because I was so struck by the courage and hope the characters revealed in the face of despair. In other words, it was able to deal with great tragedy in a way that gave agency to the people who suffered and presented them as human beings and not just National Geographic photos of poverty-stricken masses or as Conradian body parts (hands clapping, teeth glimmering, bodies shrunk to mere shadows on the Congo river banks). So, my interest was and is in looking at representations, agency, and symbols of hope that come out in the literature that deals with the pandemic.

I’m beginning to steer my interests away from this area, though, because I’m tired of being on the HIV/AIDS bandwagon, and I’m tired of didactic NGO sponsored work. (For example, _Akwai Mai Fita_ [There is a Way Out] which was sponsored by John Hopkin’s University (which does not deal with HIV-AIDS but with other reproductive health issues). It has some very clever parts, and by the end I had become engaged with story, but the purpose and function of the film is about as subtle as a sledge hammer—it was obviously promoting Youth Service Centres as a “culturally-appropriate” part of society. It wasn’t a bad message; it just wasn’t necessarily an organically presented and grown piece of literature—and it’s the more organic (non-NGO sponsored) stuff that I’m interested in (although I’d still like to argue that NGO-sponsored films can still reflect older structures of Hausa literature).

This does not mean I won’t write a chapter or a paper on it, but that I don’t want to be a part of the “industry.” I was talking to Dr. Umar Farouk Jibril in the Department of Mass Communications at Bayero University yesterday, and he seemed almost relieved when I expressed my frustration with the didactic nature of the NGO-sponsored films. “I keep telling them,” he said, “that if they let it grow out of what is already in society [which is what I have been interested in] it will be much more powerful than pushing a certain agenda and preconceived ideas about what the film must include.” And actually, I keep hearing a lot of people say they have scripts they have written about HIV. But a lot of them are looking for NGO funding to produce them—and I wonder how that will change them… I guess that might be an interesting thing to research… it’s a question I already have in my interview questions… [One thing that at least two filmmakers have told me is that when they have included strong religious elements into their proposals or films, they have not received outside funding. Whether that had anything to do with why their proposals were rejected I don’t know, but I certainly don’t doubt that it had some influence on donor agencies worried about strict separation of “church and state.”]

So, all that to say, I am a (beginning) literary (and perhaps cultural—which… I know, I know… starts getting into that ambiguous anthropology area) critic. I cannot make any wide and sweeping claims about society—just what I see happening in a text. The text is the only realm I have any authority over. And that authority is only to make observations and suggestions about what it might signify and not to say that this is definitely what the author had in mind or that this then means this is the way society is. The text is an imaginative exploration of possibilities, that I argue, grants agency. My job is to tease out those possibilities.

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