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  • African Words, Academic Choices: Re-Presenting Interviews and Oral Histories1
  • Anne Reef


There are many things that it is like, this storytelling business. One of them (so she says in one of the paragraphs she has not crossed out yet) is a bottle with a genie in it. When the storyteller opens the bottle, the genie is released into the world, and it costs all hell to get him back in again. Her position . . . better, on the whole, that the genie stay in the bottle.2

So says the narrator of the protagonist of J.M. Coetzee’s novel, Elizabeth Costello. Costello, an aging novelist, philosophizes at a point in the book where Coetzee has conspired to provoke a moment of ethical reflection on the process of telling stories. Irony and paradox cleave to this paragraph’s core—clearly, Coetzee, by continuing to write and to publish, does not really believe that the genie should stay bottled. But, while Costello intends to edit this reflection from her written work, both the narrator and Coetzee consider it worthy of inclusion in the novel, thus endorsing its importance.

Costello’s comment provokes consideration of the nature and effects of narration in other representations. One such site is academic writing that uses interviews and oral histories as source material. Such writing necessitates at least two levels of narration: first, representation of the primary [End Page 419] material and second, the author’s analysis, synthesis, and commentary on it. As in other genres, this distils into two kinds of material: mimesis and diegesis. Here Elizabeth Tonkin’s definitions of these terms are useful. She describes mimesis as “the representation of direct speech” and diegesis as “the description of nonverbal events.”3 Drawing on Gérard Genette, she explains that, “[a] story is a mixture of ‘a non-verbal matter which the narrative must present as well as it can and a verbal matter which presents itself and which the narrative need simply quote’.”4

But there is nothing “simple” about “quot[ing],” or mimesis, when academics write interviews and oral histories, and the implied injunction to present diegetic material “as well [the author] can” is of little practical assistance to an academic writer seeking suitable discursive strategies.5 Further, balancing mimesis and diegesis is challenging. This paper focuses on the representation of African oral histories and interviews in books written by and for academics. Through discussion and close textual analysis, this study argues that in a postmodern milieu, ethical, efficient, and effective strategies for titling and then writing interviews and oral histories, as well as talking about the narrating self, are difficult to establish.

Opportunities to discuss mimetic problems are raised by Kairn Klieman’s “The Pygmies Were Our Compass”: Bantu and Batwa in the History of West Central Africa, Early Times to c.1900 C.E. (2003), Susan Geiger’s TANU Women: Gender and Culture in the Making of Tanganyikan Nationalism, 1955–1965 (1997), and Liisa Malkki’s Purity and Exile: Violence, Memory, and National Cosmology Among Hutu Refugees in Tanzania (1995). Primarily diegetic issues garner attention in Nwando Achebe’s Farmers, Traders, Warriors, and Kings: Female Power and Authority in Northern Igboland, 1900–1960 (2005), and Charles van Onselen’s The Seed Is Mine: the Life of Kas Maine, a South African Sharecropper 1894–1985 (1995). Other texts, like Joe Lunn’s Memoirs of the Maelstrom: a Senegalese Oral History of the First World War (1999), are mentioned in these discussions, and Tonkin’s book, Jan Vansina’s Oral Tradition as History (1985), and other material are used as theory.

A caveat before any critical discussion: these books do succeed as academic projects—each addresses a gap or inconsistency in the previously extant body of research and is successfully persuasive. Several have already been used as the basis of further academic discussion and historiography. As such, these texts are in some way useful to those who accept, study, and teach African oral tradition as history. [End Page 420]


While anthropologists have long used oral material, historians in the first half of the twentieth century contested the legitimacy of oral tradition and testimony as stable evidence; written texts and archeological...


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