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  • Introduction:Tracing the Visible and the Invisible through African Literature, Publishing, Film, and Performance Art
  • Zoe Norridge, Charlotte Baker, and Elleke Boehmer

Looking with the eyes only. Idiots can do that. If you look at things that way they're always separate and you never really see any sense in what you see. It's all right to look at things that way, separate. It's relaxing. But after that I always want to see what brings them together so they make sense. Then I understand. Seeing like that makes me happiest.

(Armah 29-30)

In Ayi Kwei Armah's extraordinary 1978 novel The Healers, one of the young characters, Anan, shows the main protagonist, Densu, how to gaze at the bottom of the river by using a bamboo stick to breathe underwater. An appealing and graceful explorer of his surroundings, Anan's principle joy is in "seeing." He wishes not only to perceive new aspects of the world around him, but also to relate them as complex systems, as elements that influence each other, as networks of relations. The visual remains a strong current throughout the unfolding novel. Training as a healer, Densu learns to see the world differently—to look for what would otherwise remain unperceived. The chapter entitled "The Water Gazer" describes Densu peering into a clay bowl of water to find answers to his questions (262). The act of looking is intricately intertwined with the search for both knowledge and understanding. At times this comes from astute observation of the visible world, at others through imagining the world in response to visual stimuli.

Armah's novel is a meditation on perception—on diverging readings of the world and the very serious consequences such interpretations may have for the [End Page V] characters involved. His words reveal complex angles to the question of visibility and invisibility in African cultures that we will be examining in this special issue of Research in African Literatures. Firstly, we could extend the idea of what is or isn't seen—from the details of the river bed to the reflections in the bowl of water—to the aspects of African cultures that enter public consciousness, both in and outside of Africa. Next, we might consider the ways in which images work together—how we "make sense" of cultures, how cultures are read, and what the roles of critics are in bringing together related or, indeed, disparate elements. Finally, we can reflect on how tropes of visibility enable artists to approach what is precisely invisible in our world—emotions, thoughts, unspoken motivations, the lost past—and the languages with which we might approach these topics as cultural commentators.

Armah's comments about the connectedness of the visual formed the opening of the call for papers from which this special issue stems. We were inviting proposals for a conference stream entitled "(In)Visibility in African Cultures" at the African Studies Association of the UK (ASAUK) biannual conference in Oxford in September 2010. This initial call was divided into three subthemes: visibility and the academy, visibility and the act of representation, and visibility and aesthetics. The first was, in many ways, our least successful. We had hoped to explore how African cultures are taught in educational establishments in the UK and beyond. Why do certain texts find their way into school curricula and how could we work to encourage wider reading at both primary (ages 5-11) and secondary (ages 11-18) level? The question stemmed from a growing frustration with the low profile of African literature in university courses across the UK, but this situation is gradually changing. For example, in the 2010-11 academic year, the University of York began running a compulsory undergraduate course that introduces first-year students to Tayeb Salih, Chinua Achebe, Assia Djebar, and J. M. Coetzee alongside writers from the Caribbean, Pacific, the Middle East, and India and at Oxford, a master's course in African literature has been available to students in both English literature and African studies since 2009. But work remains to be done mapping the lack of literary diversity in the British educational system (our conference was UK based) and beyond.

If we...


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