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Research in African Literatures 33.4 (2002) 180-198

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Review Essay

Lilyan Kesteloot and the History of African Literature

Guy Ossito Midiohouan

For specialists as well as for African students, indeed even for the merely curious, Lilyan Kesteloot has been indisputably, among European critics of African literature, one of the most defining figures of the literary life of the black world for the past forty years. Moreover, Africa has not been, for this scholar of Belgian origin, a simple object of study to be examined in the cold light of "science," which, as we furthermore all know, is often the shamefully derelict excuse that is proffered. She chose very early on to burn with passion for Africa . . . . But was it truly a choice? Rather, it might be said that Africa was imposed on her through force of circumstance; her fate has been linked to it; she settled in; she lives and she works there; Africa is very much a part of her.

Since 1963, the date of publication of her first work, Les écrivains noirs de langue française: naissance d'une littérature, the result of research for her thesis defended two years earlier at the Institute of Sociology at the University of Brussels, Lilyan Kesteloot's contribution to African literary criticism has been considerable. Beyond that first work of literary history, many other essays, an anthology, and critical studies with a pedagogical purpose have made her, with the passing of time, the most internationally recognized specialist of the Negritude movement: Aimé Césaire, poète d'aujourd'hui (1963), Anthologie négro-africaine:Panorama critique des prosateurs, poètes et dramaturges noirs du XXème siècle (1967), Négritude et situation coloniale (1968), Aimé Césaire, l'homme et l'oeuvre (1973), Comprendre le Cahier d'un retour au pays natal d'Aimé Césaire (1982), Comprendre les poèmes de Léopold Sédar Senghor (1986).

But Lilyan Kesteloot demonstrated quite early the will to offer, beyond the "Negritude movement," the broadest possible view of literary life in Africa and the black world, as can be seen in her Neuf poètes camerounais (1965), the successive reissues (1981 and 1983), with revisions and additions, of her Anthology négro-africaine, and the Mémento de littérature africaine et antillaise. Histoire, oeuvres et auteurs (1995), written as a textbook for use in schools and universities.

This will to broaden her scope and this constant concern to update her work are also seen in her efforts to study in depth, efforts that are particularly meritorious for this European, who gallantly taking upon herself the serious objective and personal difficulties of her project very quickly set out—mostly in collaboration with the best African specialists, including the illustrious Amadou Hampaté Bâ—to collect and study African oral literature—"milléaire et toujours en activité" 'thousands of years old and still practiced' (Mémento 3)—in order to better understand, in their permanence as well as in their rupture, the forms of literary activity from the Africa of yesterday to that of tomorrow: Kaïdara, récit initiatique peul (1968; [End Page 180] in collaboration with Amadou Hampaté Bâ), L'épopée traditionnelle (1971), La poésie traditionnelle (1971), L'épopée bambara de Ségou, Da Monzon (1972, 1993; in collaboration with Ahmadou Traoré, J. B. Traoré, and Amadou Hampaté Bâ), L'éclat de la grande étoile suivi du Bain rituel (1974; in collaboration with Amadou Hampaté Bâ, Christiane Seydou, and Alfa Ibrahim), La prise de Dionkoloni, épisode de l'épopée bambara (1975; in collaboration with G. Dumestre and J. B. Traoré), Contes et mythes wolof (1980; in collaboration with Chérif Mbodj), Du tieddo au talibé, the second volume of Wolof tales and myths (1992; in collaboration with Bassirou Dieng), Les épopées d'Afrique noire (1997; in collaboration with Bassirou Dieng), and Contes et mythes du Sénégal (2001; in collaboration with Bassirou Dieng). In her studies on oral literature can be seen Lilyan Kesteloot's distinct desire to...


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