Thursday, November 29, 2007

Warm Fuzzy teaching moments

So, one wouldn't think, after my post of a couple of days ago, that I would write something like this. But after having taken a couple of days break from grading (too much other stuff to do) I'm back at it, and this time getting warm fuzzies. What is exciting (now that I've gotten past the initial bad papers--I'm sure there are more to come) is to see students learning and writing about things that interest them. We gave them a variety of paper topics and the option to do what they are interested in rather than the "formula" paper, and, although I'm nervous about grading our "creative options" (I've set those aside for last), it's such a joy to read those few stellar papers that are almost perfect: well written, well-researched, intelligently thought out, engaging.... I just wrote on one paper, "I've been reading dozens of papers tonight, and it's so pleasurable to come across a paper that I not only enjoy reading but from which I learn something. You write very well..." On another (a student I know was just accepted into grad school), I wrote "You already sound like a graduate student!"

This is why we teach, I suppose, for those brief moments of joy when we see students synthesizing and connecting with what they are learning. You see all those sources in their works cited, and you think, "They know this now." This is now a part of their knowledge. Perhaps they will bring up the points they've cited in this paper in conversation with family and friends in related conversations.... And in the exceptional papers, you think "I just learned something new." And that is exciting.

I also have students post a comment or question on the readings or lectures to an email listserve once a week, and, despite a few mid-semester evaluation grumbles (most like it; a few don't), it always gets progressively better throughout the semester. I love seeing them think through things and using the tools they've learned to better analyze what they are reading and hearing.

So, even though I have about 50 more papers to grade and even though I'm stressed out of my mind because my prelims dates have been set for January 16 and 18 (sooner than I was planning--I'm not at all ready), I'm happy, sitting here at my kitchen table with papers all around me--sorted into various grades. I'm happy because I have 70+ students, who I really like even if I do still forget their names sometimes, most of whom are smart and interested in Africa. And if some of them still use the word "tribe" and "native," well, hopefully they'll remember my comments on their papers.... WWWD.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007


so... i'm trying to prepare for a short lecture on African popular culture tomorrow before showing Djibril Diop Mambety's film...and...

Monday, November 26, 2007

WWWD: What would Wainaina do....

So, I'm in the midst of grading some 70+ papers and finding myself making loud growling noises--I SWEAR if I see "native Africans" or "tribal" or "nation" (for the continent of Africa) used one more time after I sent an explicit email to my students outlining my peeviest of pet peeves.... And after one dear child ends her otherwise insightful paper about the mis-uses of humanitarian aid in Africa with the phrase "we will start to see a country coming out of the darkness and into the light," I find myself writing: "What would Binyavanga Wainaina say?"

Because, you see, they had to read that Binyavanga Wainaina essay "How to Write About Africa" at the beginning of the semester, and he is my reference point whenever I think the dang textbook Understanding Contemporary Africa (a rather bad textbook trying to condense "understanding" all of Africa [politics, economics, religion, literature, history, etc] to about 200 pages) is over-generalizing, which is most of the time--or we see an old cliched documentary in lecture.... or someone asks in class how "we" can "save" Africa....

"What would Wainaina say?" I ask... WWWS

So, I FINALLY get to teach a film (Mambety) this week and Dangarembga's Nervous Conditions next week--back to African voices--thank GOD! After a semester teaching an African Studies introductory survey course, I am grateful that I chose to follow literature and film and spend the rest of my life teaching what African writers have had to say for themselves rather than what other people have to say for them.... I open each discussion section with a poem by an African writer--whether we are studying economics or politics, and whether it totally relates or not... Just my own little way of trying to remind the students that those voices do exist...

Photo Credit: Creative Writing @ EMU

Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Heroism of Ordinary People: An Interview with Helon Habila

Thanksgiving day in America... a cornbread dressing in the tradition of my Louisiana grandmother is in the oven and a pumpkin pie is done and cooling on the counter. I'm going to my advisor's house later for dinner to celebrate with some other African students. My interview with Helon Habila was published this week. I am thankful:

This is the 1000 word (ie. gutted) version of an interview with Helon Habila I conducted via telephone last Tuesday before he left for his book tour in Nigeria. (The easy part was transcribing. I spent hours cutting it to get it to 1000 words... ughh...) The story of the interview itself is a longer one, which perhaps I will post about sometime, but Habila was one of the most gracious people I have met via telephone.... The following was published in Leadership this past Monday, 19 November 2007. Unfortunately, the link is no longer up, but this is how it appeared in the newspaper. (In an interesting aside, my dad met him today after the reading at the University of Jos.) Perhaps I'll post the entire interview on my other blog when I have a chance to edit it properly; it will be published in the journal Abiku early next year. But here is the short version:

"The Heroism of Ordinary People: An Interview with Helon Habila"

Award winning novelist Helon Habila grew up in Gombe State. After earning his BA in English at the University of Jos in 1995, he taught at the Federal Polytechnic, Bauchi. Moving to Lagos in 1999, he became the arts editor at the Vanguard and wrote a novel, published as Waiting for An Angel in 2002, which won the Caine Prize for African Fiction in 2001 and the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 2003. Habila has published stories, articles, and poems in journals world-wide and is currently a PhD candidate at the University of East Anglia. After a stint as the first Chinua Achebe fellow at Bard College in New York, Habila took a position at George Mason University where he teaches creative writing. He is in Nigeria from November 17 to November 24 to promote his second novel Measuring Time. In this interview on behalf of LEADERSHIP, he speaks with Talatu-Carmen [my real name used in the publication; i suppose i should stop this ridiculous attempt to protect my identity--pretty much everybody who reads this blog knows who I am], a PhD student at a university in the USA, about his writing.

Talatu-Carmen: I was wondering what your creative process is like. Where do your stories come from?

HABILA: I really cannot say exactly, but I am really inspired by books. Sometimes I write in reaction to books I have read. Then there is also my experience: Measuring Time has a lot of that—my experiences as a child growing up. There was a time when I realised that I wanted to write about my hometown. From that moment whatever I did I viewed it through the eyes of fiction, thinking of how to represent the people I met, the things I did, the places I saw. I was thinking of them as already a part of my book that I was going to write. I was going to write Measuring Time even before I started writing Waiting for an Angel.

In both of your novels the act of writing itself seems to take on a political significance. What, to you, is the political responsibility of the writer?

Well, quite a lot, especially as an African writer. I think there is that tradition which started from the first generation of African writers. They were writing against the whole colonial system, which was very repressive, very racist, very dictatorial. They actually used to have congresses where they would discuss the best way to write fiction in a way that would address the political issues of the day. Even before that, in traditional African society, from the folk tales, there’s always a kind of moral lesson, a kind of didacticism that is seen as an aesthetic part of that story. So politics more or less becomes an aesthetic in African fiction. There are no boundaries between what is purely political and what is art. Art becomes politics and politics becomes art. So I think people like me who find themselves in that tradition, and have that temperament, that awareness of what is going on, who feel that things shouldn’t be the way they are, have a duty to speak out. It is tradition and it’s also a matter of temperament, because there are definitely writers in Africa who don’t write about politics. They write art for art’s sake, or whatever you want to call it.

Could you say more about the influences of Hausa literature on your writing?

Definitely. I grew up reading the translation of One Thousand and One Nights in Hausa and the works of Abubakar Imam, Magana Jari Ce, Ruwan Bagaja, etc. So there is that magical or folkloric representation of reality, which is very different from pure realism. I was definitely influenced by that. And before that I was also influenced by folktales told to me by women in the compound. So, these Hausa books I discovered later were almost a continuation of that story tradition with the magical elements, spirit figures and things like that.

Both of your novels deal with history. In Measuring Time, the character Mamo wants to write a biographical history. Is this one of your own goals?

Definitely, I think so. Because so much that we have is fast fading away and being taken over by the modern, I see writing itself as cultural conservation. That is exactly what Mamo’s project is, conserving the history of people…, because they were misrepresented by the [missionary] Reverend Drinkwater. If you represent what has been misrepresented, you are putting the records right. And that is what history is supposed be. Taking moments of glory, and also ordinary moments—moments of humanity, of value to the community, and putting it down in books. It doesn’t have to be about generals, it doesn’t have to be about chiefs, it could be about ordinary people, their heroism. That is the whole point of the book, that lives should be celebrated, regardless of what office or what lack of office that person has.

Newton Aduaka, the winner of the Golden Yennenga Stallion at the FESPACO film festival, is making a film based on Waiting for an Angel. How involved have you been with this?

I’m not really involved. I’m just the author of the novel. I see film as being totally different from literature. They are both narrative art forms, but they have different ways of representing their story, their subject. I trust him as an artist. I think my novel is strong enough to stand on its own, even if the movie is a bit different in some of its portrayals.

Have you ever thought of writing a screenplay or becoming involved in film?

I really want to do that some day. Some people approached me to write a movie script. I started writing it and then it became a novel! I’m really enjoying the experience. I don’t know how far it’s going to go, but I’m definitely going to go into movies one of these days. To write, or even direct, if I have the chance. The movie industry is just incredible, and I think this is the moment to get involved.

All right, thank you so much.

Thank you, you’re welcome.

Photo credit: Helon Habila with Jeremiah Gyang and Ola Soyinka. Kudus to amazing middlebelt artists! From Naijablog

Saturday, November 10, 2007

African Film Conference

Having just returned from an absolutely amazing conference on African film at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, I thought I'd share a few photos. In addition to my academic heros, there were representative filmmakers from the continent. Among the academics I was excited to have a chance to talk with further: Abdalla Uba Adamu, Brian Larkin, Matthias Krings, Onookome Okome, Jonathan Haynes, Birgit Meyer, Kenneth Harrow, and many more. "Nollywood" reps: Joke Silva, Madu Chikwendu, Francis Onwochei, Ghanian filmmaker Socrate Safo, and Cameroonian filmmaker Joyce Ashuntantang. Photo 1: Onookome Okome and Abdalla Uba Adamu; Photo 2: Ghanian filmmaker Socrate Safo was passionate about his craft and was a delight to watch "in action" as he grounded the often flighty academic theorizing with practical examples of current issues of technology and practice in the Ghanian film industry; Photo 3: Brian Larkin and Abdalla Uba Adamu on a panel; 4) Socrate Safo presents clips from three of his films; 5) Cameroonian filmmaker and actress Joyce Ashuntantang shows a clip from her film, Potent Secrets, and speaks about her feminist motivations.

One of the best parts of the conference was getting to interact with the filmmakers from Nollywood, Ghana, and Cameroon. Hearing them speak in conjunction with the academic papers, I was particularly struck by their passion and their professionality--the absolutely brilliant business that Nigerian (and Ghanaian) filmmaking has become. But while there were still a few academics who echoed the cliched critiques of "Nollywood" filmmaking being "only about making money," Socrate Safo, Joke Silva, Madu Chikwendu, and Francis Onwochei emphasized (and embodied) the intentionality of the craft. These filmmakers are not greedy amateurs out to just make money (although money is certainly a very practical concern in an artform that is also a business--films cannot be made without money), but artists and performers who love and are passionate about what they do. I was particularly impressed with the few clips I saw of Safo's films--lighting, camera angles, mise en scene, and wonderful use of an original music score.

The main impression I came away from the conference with was that the dichotomy between "African cinema" and the "video film" is a false one, and that while various histories, funding, and technologies must be taken into consideration, films on celluloid and video can and should be put side by side in analysis of African film. This is why (even before this conference) I have been calling Nollywood and Kannywood productions "films" rather than "video films." As digital technology becomes prevalent even among filmmakers coming out of a celluloid training (Jean Pierre Bekolo's Les Saignantes, for example), the technical differentiation between "video" and "film" seems to be a rather useless one. At the conference, the prevalent terms used were "Fespaco films" and "video films;" however, much of the discussion centered around the need to complicate the framework that has so far divided analysis of one from the other.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Rest In Peace Cyprian Ekwensi

This is a little bit late, but a post in honour of the late Cyprian Ekwensi, author of Jagua Nana, Burning Grass, and others. He died at age 86.

Here is a 2006 interview that Basil Okafor conducted with him for the Daily Sun.

Illustration credit: Basil Okafor