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  • Nicht nur Mythen und Märchen: Afrika-Literaturwissenschaft als Herausforderung
  • Nina Berman
Nicht nur Mythen und Märchen: Afrika-Literaturwissenschaft als Herausforderung Ed. Flora Veit-Wild Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 2003. ISBN 3-88476-618-X paper. 211 pp.

This informative anthology (the title translates to "Not only Myths and Fairy Tales: African Literary Studies as Challenge") contains contributions by leading German Africanists who critically assess the evolution of African literary studies in Germany from the colonial period to the current situation in unified Germany and Austria. Several analyses shed light on the early period and review the ways in which research on Africa was initially tied to colonial interests. Scholars of literature and culture had to struggle against the prevailing focus on linguistic research that directly aided the aspirations of the state.

The study of African literatures was closely related to the work of individual figures, most of them controversial by today's accounts. One of the first linguists who also studied literatures was Carl Gotthelf Büttner, who gathered and published Swahili literature in Arabic and Latin script. Carl Velten also collected Swahili literature and even commissioned poetry writing. Carl Meinhof and Leo Frobenius, who added significant literary and cultural material to the growing corpus, exemplify the ways in which the German study of Africa was structured by Christian and colonialist ideology. Janheinz Jahn was a crucial figure popularizing African literatures in Germany in the postwar period; his collection of poetry from 1960, Schwarzer Orpheus, was a milestone in this regard and translated into many languages. This publication was preceded in 1957 by the founding of the journal Black Orpheus, which was co-edited by Jahn and Ulli Beier, another pivotal figure in the promotion of African literature, until Jahn was replaced in 1960 by Ezekiel Mphahlele and Wole Soyinka. [End Page 179]

The influence of institutional contexts on the development of the field is at the center of another set of essays. African literary studies were and continue to be particularly prominent at universities in Berlin, Hamburg, Vienna, Leipzig, and, more recently, Bayreuth. The recounting of the parallel histories of these institutions provides insight into the transformations the respective departments or programs underwent as a result of changing political situations. Readers unfamiliar with the German context might be surprised to read about the conceptualization of African Studies in the German Democratic Republic. At Leipzig University, the discipline was conceived in ways comparable to those advocated by today's cultural studies or area studies approaches. Literature and culture were studied in light of political, economic, and social developments, and the program's conception was clearly influenced by postcolonial writers and intellectuals of the first generation. Unfortunately, some of the most qualified GDR experts on African literatures were not allowed to keep their positions in unified Germany, and the curriculum was replaced by a West German model that excluded the study of African literatures.

Apart from the setback observable in Leipzig, however, African literary studies, both in African languages and in European languages, has clearly gained legitimacy as an independent field at German universities. One thought that emerges consistently throughout the anthology is an early realization among German scholars that African literatures have to be understood in their relation to orality. From Frobenius and Jahn to the African Studies concept at Leipzig University during GDR times, scholars
acknowledged the centrality of oral culture in their studies of African literatures.

The anthology includes excellent bibliographies that feature important dissertations and other titles in German and French often not considered by researchers who focus on critical literature from the anglophone world. Nicht nur Mythen und Märchen is an enlightening account of the history of a discipline, and the views voiced here on questions of, among others, ideology and institutions, postcolonial and diaspora studies, and the teaching of African languages raise issues that are at the center of debates beyond the German context.

Nina Berman
The Ohio State University


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pp. 179-180
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