Notes on MLA and SALA: Indo-Africa, Blogging, Arab Lit, Ngugi, etc.

The week started out for me at SALA (South Asian Literary Association), some of which I missed as I was staying home to write a paper for the MLA later in the week.

* * *
The highlight of the part of the SALA conference I was able to attend was Gaurav Desai's solid keynote. Unlike many keynote addresses, which tend to be wide-ranging and thin, Gaurav's talk was closely focused on just one topic: the literary history of South Asians in East Africa. I won't say much here about Gaurav's actual thesis -- look for his upcoming book, which is entirely dedicated to the Indo-Africans -- and stick to just mentioning some of the names he mentioned. While Gaurav did make brief reference to some famous Indian Ugandan exiles, like M.G. Vassanji, most of his talk was focused on lesser-known figures. He also gave some helpful bibliographic leads for others interested in the topic (he mentioned, for instance, Robert Gregory's 1972 history of "India and East Africa," as well as Cynthia Salvadori's We Came in Dhows, which is actually quoted on some Sikh websites for the background on East African Sikhs)

While commentators like Shiva Naipaul (Sir Vidia's brother) focused earlier on the distance of the Asian community from black Africans before the traumatic exodus of the early 1970s, Desai argues that there were some members of the Asian community -- especially artists, playwrights, and poets -- who were trying to envision a sense of shared culture with black Africa.

One name that came up a lot in this regard in Desai's talk was Rajat Neogy, a Ugandan of Indian descent who started a famous African magazine called Transition. Neogy's magazine was a freethinking forum for many of the major postcolonial intellectuals in the 1960s and 70s (some of them are named at Wikipedia, while others are named at the Transition website). The magazine went defunct in 1976, when Neogy was arrested by Idi Amin's henchmen, but it was revived in 1990 by Henry Louis Gates (among the early contributors to the magazine).

Another name mentioned by Desai was Peter Nazareth, a writer of Goan and Malaysian ancestry, who actually worked briefly in the Idi Amin regime before getting out in 1973. He wrote a novel about Amin, called The General is Up, that sounds pretty interesting. According to the Wikipedia entry on him, Nazareth now teaches at the University of Iowa!

Finally, Desai mentioned a writer named Yusuf Dawood, who has also written about the mass exodus of Indians from Uganda in a novel called Return to Paradise.

Has anyone read either Yusuf Dawood or Peter Nazareth?

* * *

At MLA itself I had some professional obligations to attend to, so I missed several panels I would have liked to be at. For instance, I heard that the panel with Richard Serrano, Francoise Lionnet, Simon Gikandi, and Ali Behdad was quite controversial. Richard Serrano has written a book called Against the Postcolonial, where he argues that the narrative of decolonization that dominates in postcolonial studies doesn't really fit the French/Francophone model (see the description here).

The problem at this particular panel, apparently, was that the MLA decided to match up Serrano with the very individuals whose work he criticizes in his book! Normally that should make for a lively discussion, but from the report I heard of the panel the tone of the conversation less than amicable.

* * *

I myself gave a talk on blogging, authorship, and the public sphere at a panel with Michael Berube and Rita Felski on Thursday. It seemed to go ok -- my argument was that the blogging era has, contrary to the predictions of literary theory and despite the dire predictions of digi-skeptics like John Updike, enlarged the cultural power of the "author-function" in some ways. One of the key attributes of that expansion is blog-world's revival of the diary form, in which the figure of the author is always central. I might describe the argument in greater detail in a subsequent post, so stay tuned. For now, let me just say that I was able to work in Samuel Pepys, Susan Sontag, Kaavya Viswanathan (including a New York Times article that mentions Abhi's first post on the subject at Sepia Mutiny), PlagiarismToday, Lionel Trilling, and Jurgen Habermas.

Because I was sitting between two very well-known people, the panel was given a good time-slot, located in a "ballroom," and nearly all the seats (to my eye) were full. Somewhere between 100 and 200 people? (If any of you reading this right now were in attendance, I would welcome any feedback or criticism on the talk)

* * *

On Friday I went to an engaging panel on contemporary Arabic "War Narratives." I didn't expect that blogging would be a topic from the paper titles, but one of the panelists, Carol Fadda-Corney, in light of the war in Lebanon this past summer, decided she needed to change her paper from her original topic. Fadda-Corney talked about the way in which Lebanese bloggers, many of whom are archived now at Electronic Lebanon, created a sense of immediacy and widespread awareness of the situation "on the ground" in Beirut during the Israeli siege of the city through their posts. Fadda-Corney contrasted blogs to literary representations of war, which especially in the Arabic context tend to be somewhat lyrical and abstract (Fadda-Corney didn't mention it, but one thinks of Hanan al-Shaykh's Beirut Blues as suffering from a serious case of "abstractitis").

War blogs give a sense of war that is immediate and raw -- and there can be great power in that, even if not everything that is written on a blog under such circumstances remains meaningful in the long run. Fadda-Corney quoted extensively from "Salti Dispatches from Lebanon", a blog that actually evidenced a serious literary sensibility.

Another good paper on the same panel was by Nouri Gana, from the University of Michigan. Gana talked about the anxiety over aestheticizing war as expressed by some very famous Arab poets, Mahmoud Darwish and Adonis. Every time I hear a translation of one of these poets' work, I find myself wishing I knew Arabic. Here's a few lines of a 1971 poem by Adonis quoted at Wikipedia (this was not in Nouri Gana's talk):

Picture the earth as a pear
or breast.
Between such fruits and death
survives an engineering trick:
New York,
Call it a city on four legs
heading for murder
while the drowned already moan
in the distance.
New York is a woman
holding, according to history,
a rag called liberty with one hand
and strangling the earth with the other. (link)

* * *

I was thrilled to see Ngugi w'a Thiong'o read from his new novel, The Wizard of the Crow on Friday evening. Parody is one of the best weapons with which to battle the sickening corruption of postcolonial dictatorships, and Ngugi wields it with ferocity and charm. I'm looking forward to getting the book.

* * *

I didn't get to do quite as much socializing as I have at previous MLAs, mainly because it was in Philly and I was staying home (=come home on SEPTA & have dinner at a normal hour) rather than at a hotel (=hang out w/grad school buddies until late). But I did get to see many old friends at the Duke party, have coffee with Scott McLemee, and chill with the Valve crew (including of course John Holbo and Scott Eric Kaufmann) at SoleFood Thursday night. There I also had the privilege of meeting the famous BitchPhD in person, though I had to miss her talk at the "other" bloggers' panel. I also met a blogger I hadn't heard of earlier, Amanda of Household Opera (she has a nice recap of her MLA experience here), and Chuck Tryon, a blogger I have known (virtually) for a long time. Nice to meet all of you.

[Update: At least one person has blogged about the "other" bloggers' panel already: "Not of General Interest"]

* * *

And that's about all from my end -- busy week!