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The University of Southampton
EnglishPart of Humanities

Research project: The Textual Worlds of South-Eastern Africa

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This AHRC Networking Grant aims to make early steps towards enabling the historians and theorists of Postcolonial World Literature to learn from the histories, theories and methodologies of African Popular Literature, and vice versa.

The UK-based Caine Prize consolidated its standing as a key broker of African literary merit, helping to pave the way for increasingly influential organisations based on the African continent (the Kwani Trust and Jalada in Kenya, Writivism in Uganda, and many others). The Nigerian publisher Cassava Republic Press pioneered an innovative business model that has helped to make an extended range of titles and genres available to trans-Atlantic audiences. A burgeoning festival scene (led by Aké festival in Nigeria, Abantu in South Africa and London’s Africa Writes) combined with a new generation of literary blogs (Brittle Paper, Africa in Words, James Murua’s African Literature Blog and others) in promoting a new generation of writers and a fresh repertoire of forms and genres. Nigerian authors (Chibundu Onuzo, Leye Adenle, Ayobami Adebayo and more) are, yet again, in the forefront of critical visibility, confirming West African pre-eminence in continental canons. But authors from other parts of Africa have also come to the fore - some from nation-states in the South-Eastern region, previously unnoticed on the global scale. Critically praised fiction by Uganda’s Nansubuga Makumbi and Zambia’s Namwali Serpell, for example, brings into view new cultural contexts and new sets of local antecedents. Elsewhere, texts by emergent authors (such as Zukiswa Wanner in Kenya and Sifiso Mzobe in South Africa) defy easy genre classification. The field of African Literature in English is now bigger, more nationally and formally diverse, and better known to non-specialist audiences than ever before. New scholarly approaches may well be needed to make cultural and historical sense of it. The parallel emergence of two seemingly unrelated scholarly ‘turns’ points at possible ways of articulating fresh research questions and new methodologies of thinking and research. 

The recent academic turn towards decolonial versions of World Literature has broadly paralleled the global rise of African literature. It has taken place alongside an increase in the scholarly interest in popular culture in Africa (of which African Popular Literature is commonly regarded as a sub-set) – an established umbrella term for local non-elite cultural texts and forms, often placed in opposition to elite or ‘postcolonial’ ones. These broad terms are multiple signifiers: they have the capacity to describe and classify types of textual production, but they can also signal researchers’ methodological preferences and  academic locations. Usually institutionally separate and often hierarchically opposed, World Literature and African Popular Literature nevertheless have the potential to speak to each other’s procedures and assumptions, especially with reference to often neglected South-Eastern African contexts. 

The Textual Worlds of South-Eastern Africa network comprises partners from the universities of Southampton and Leeds in the UK, and Rhodes and Witwatersrand in South Africa. The network’s main objective to begin a sustained scholarly conversation about bridging the methodological divide between the study of African 'literary' and 'popular' narrative texts and forms.

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