- Introduction to Special Issue: Eastern African Literatures and Cultures
The articles in this special issue are part of a project that culminated in a major conference, held at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa, on 23 and 24 October 2009. The conference attracted scholars from institutions of higher education in Eastern Africa, East African scholars in the diaspora, and scholars whose research is rooted in the literary and cultural imaginaries of the region. Built around a broad thematic structure, “Eastern Literary and Intellectual Landscapes,” the papers were aimed at providing a critical reflection on cultural and intellectual legacies of the region through history. Not all the papers presented at the conference have made it into this volume, nor are the papers published here necessarily representative of the issues that the conference’s deliberations explored, but they are a distinct and important voice, emerging out of a region where cultural and intellectual traditions remain understudied. This volume is therefore an important portal on the region. Some of the papers presented at the conference have been published elsewhere and we are confident that the remaining essays, some of which could not be published in this volume, will see the light of the day.1
Although concerned with disparate and often distinct issues, at least superficially, the papers are connected through strikingly similar tropes and concerns, in a tortured postcolonial context, which has given shape to the issues with which these papers grapple. We use the postcolonial context to mean the totality and effect of the colonial experience from the moment of colonial penetration to the aftermath of political independence. A striking contradiction about colonialism is that it needed both to “civilize” its “others,” and to fix them into perpetual “otherness.” It is therefore unsurprising that a theme running through these papers is the colonial subject’s engagement with colonial modernity, quite often to challenge attempts to fix and consign the colonized to the status of the “other,” but equally to negotiate its own agency by appropriating and redefining received notions of “civilization.” The appropriation of colonial institutional structures such as education and the print media were central to this attempt to find a voice. Even the transcultural impulse, which underpins some of the papers in this volume, is very much part of that attempt to show how difficult it was to police cultural boundaries between people and to reinforce the fixity [End Page v] of identity that the colonial social order sought to impose on the colonized subjects, but it was also about what postcolonial modernity really meant in practice—which is to suggest that it was about collapsing boundaries, motion, and trafficking ideas back and forth across different cultural and geographical scapes. This motion, in the case of East Africa, was initiated by the Indian Ocean fortune-seekers from the Indian subcontinent, long before classical colonial modernity found its way into the continent. These global currents, best captured in the metaphor of Indian Ocean dhows and sails, would be accentuated by the colonial experience in East Africa soon after the partition of the continent into European spheres of influence at the Berlin conference of 1885.
The Berlin conference created putative, if often artificial, nation-states, which have remained some of the most significant sites of dispute in postcolonial writing in Africa. The connection between postcolonial writing and nation is possible only when we realize that a nation itself can be a site of difference and tension—a site for the competing imaginings of different ideological and political interests. Again, some of the papers in this volume return to this site to engage with these differences and concerns that relate to gender, class, ethnicity, and other issues. How power is engaged and deflected through struggles that are manifestly gendered and ethnic is at the heart of some of these papers. The mobilization of oppressive gender structures rooted in patriarchy and the use of politicized ethnicity by the postcolonial political class in Africa is a stark reminder that the imaginings of national communities in Africa remain profoundly gendered and ethnic.
Papers in this volume continue to privilege “texts” as important sources for understanding and...