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Northeast African Literature Exploratory Seminar

Princeton, NJ, March 19-21, 2010

The purpose of this exploratory seminar is to investigate the possibilities for jointly studying Northeastern African literatures (those of almost 100 million people in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somalia) with colleagues from the United States, Europe, and Africa. Since many of these colleagues have never met, the seminar will provide a chance to bridge the immense distances between scholars working on this understudied and significant body of literatures. Most of the seminar will be dedicated to discussing the parameters and key questions of Northeastern African literatures and imagining the most useful ways for those of us dedicated to these literatures to move forward together.

The region of these literatures is neither obscure nor globally insignificant. Northeastern Africa is a region worthy of study for its large population, millennia of innovation, extensive literature, and participation in global history. Unfortunately, regional studies of African literatures have been few and far between. Rather, African literary studies tend to be split by nation or colonial legacy. Scholars study Nigerian literature, for instance, or Francophone literature, but rarely are African indigenous literatures studied at all and then not by linguistic or cultural commonalities. Yet, the peoples of Northeastern Africa have long had deep connections, many speaking and creating literature in similar Afro-Asiatic languages. Further, these literatures have been embedded in similar empirical realities and thus express similar creatively productive contradictions. Studying these literatures' connections will not only reveal much about them, but also provide tools for studying other regional African literatures in more connected ways.

For instance, the study of the Northeastern African language Ge'ez offers much to the study of oral and written literature more generally. A large indigenous literature exists in this language: the Ethiopians wrote many original books of poetry, theology, history, and biography. Yet, only a handful of these texts have been studied outside of Ethiopia or translated into any European language, despite the real value they hold for literary and historical studies. For instance, one can compare a medieval written text with modern oral texts as a way of gaining understanding of how oral traditions evolve. The story of one of the most famous Ge'ez texts, the Kebra Nagast, redacted in 1321, continued to circulate as an oral text, which is now different from the medieval written version in telling ways. Comparing them aids us in thinking more usefully about the development of other African oral texts. For instance, we might better speculate about what medieval versions of the modern version of the oral West African epic Sunjata might have looked like. Likewise, comparing medieval and early modern Ge'ez texts with modern Amharic and Tigrinya texts aids us in understanding some of the shifting concerns and modes of modern African writing.

The twentieth century has seen an explosion of writing in Northeast African languages. Some of it has been influential, as when the Eritrean poet Reesom Haile's poem in Tigrinya on development, “Beg,” was read at the 2005 G8 summit. Yet, not one of the hundreds of novels written in Amharic in the twentieth century has been translated into a European language, evidence of the dearth of scholarly attention paid to this literature outside of Ethiopia. While a lively scholarship on this literature continues in Ethiopian universities, including many unpublished theses and dissertations, much of this discussion goes unregistered outside the country and thus its findings are lost to global discussions about literature.

Writing in the language of the Oromo, Ethiopia's majority ethnic group, was largely repressed until the end of the twentieth century. Since 1991, when Oromo began to be used in schools in the southern part of Ethiopia and to be written in the Latin alphabet, Oromo written literature has expanded at a tremendous rate, such that ancient oral traditions are being better preserved, yet it also has received little attention from scholars outside of Ethiopia. What discussion is conducted in Oromo rarely informs continental or global debates. Yet study of Oromo literature helps us in understanding the evolution of a written tradition and what affect that is having on oral traditions. Further, it gives us an important perspective amidst the more common study of Ge'ez and Amharic literature.

Another vital literature of this region is in Somali. The Somalis are often referred to as “a nation of poets,” having an ancient oral tradition as well as written literature dating to at least the early 1800s. Its distinct words for spoken-word authors (abwaan, creator) and written-word authors (qoraa, scribe) provide a rhetorical window on to attitudes towards literary production. Somali has a rich literary language, with a vast number of words used only in poetry and rife with symbolism and alliteration. Some genres of Somali poetry include belwo (short lyric love poems), giiraar (chanted poem with short lines and much alliteration, often on the topic of war), and gabei (chanted poems with long lines, considered the highest literary form, often on the topics of love and war). This tremendous body of literature has not received enough scholarly attention. Somali writing in colonial languages also continues, as in the work of William F. Syad, a Christian poet from Somali and Djibouti who writes in French, and Nurrudin Farah, a Somali novelist who writes in English and is one of the best-known African authors of the twentieth century. Since Somali poetry has such a strong critical and theoretical indigenous tradition, study of Somali literature and criticism may offer much to literary studies more generally, much as Henry Louis Gates's study of Nigerian rhetorical traditions led him to the theory of signifying and indirection that has been so important to the study of African American and subaltern literatures.

Literature is central to the peoples of Northeastern Africa, helping them “to preserve, to question, and to dream through and beyond the harsh …. existence that … shackle[s] the human intellect,” writes Ali Jimale Ahmed, the editor of two volumes of scholarship on Northeast African literature. While much of the region was colonized by the Italians, French, and British in the nineteenth and twentieth century, its peoples maintained its independent traditions and preserved many literary genres, modes, and manuscripts. Scholarly work on these literatures must be conducted if these are to remain alive through the twenty-first century. Without such joint efforts, the real insights that indigenous scholars and authors have to contribute to the study of literature will be lost.

No previous seminar or workshop dedicated to Northeastern African literatures has been held, although Ali Jimale Ahmed published a volume of essays on the topic: The Road Less Travelled: Reflections on the Literatures of the Horn of Africa (Red Sea Press, 2008). This volume frames some of the questions that our seminar will seek to address, giving our work a solid launching pad. We hope, for instance, that some jointly authored articles can emerge out of the seminar, as scholars pool their linguistic and critical resources to write scholarship on more than one body of literature.

The seminar will provide the opportunity to discuss what commonalities the literatures of Eritrea, Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Somalia have and what they have to offer to literary studies. Among the hundreds of questions that can be asked are the following.

  • Can these literatures be fruitfully studied together?
  • What does the study of Ge'ez, a two-thousand-year-old written African language, offer to the study of languages that have only recently be written down?
  • How have ancient narratives that circulated in both oral and written forms influenced each other and crystallized tradition?
  • What does the work on Somali poetics have to offer to the study of poetry more generally?
  • Is gender represented differently in oral folktales performed by women than in oral poetry performed by men?
  • How do Northeastern African literature, identity, self and other, memory, and truth construct each other?
  • What role does ritual and performance play in Northeastern African literary creation and dissemination?
  • How does the literature of this region express the social imaginary and represent a struggle for the peoples' imagination?
  • Are there common memories to be expressed across nation, language, and culture?
  • How do language, persuasion, and discourse interact in the various literatures?
  • How are authors in dialog with official regional narratives or non-African literatures, film, or media?
  • How do these literatures present or question cultural injunctions?
  • Does literature allow various ethnic groups to write themselves into dominant histories or to shape the desires of the nation?
  • Do the literatures of the region hold politically redemptive possibilities?
  • What protean forms does the novel take in this region?

Friday, March 19

  • 9:00-9:15 Wendy Laura Belcher, Princeton, opening remarks
  • 9:15-10:00 Denis Nosnitsin, Univ. of Hamburg, Germany (Ge'ez)
  • 10:00-10:45 Ghirmai Negash, Ohio University (Tigrinya)
  • 10:45-11:00 break
  • 11:00-11:45 Didier Morin, CNRS, France (Afar, Beja, Saho)
  • 12:00-2:00 pm Lunch
  • 2:00-2:45 Shiferaw Bekele, Addis Ababa University (Amharic)
  • 2:45-3:30 Taye Assefa, Forum for Soc Studies, Ethiopia (Amharic)
  • 3:30-3:45 break
  • 3:45-4:30 George Hatke, Princeton University, Loren Stuckenbruck, Princeton Theological Seminary
  • 4:30-5:30 Visit to Princeton Firestone Library Rare Books (for private exhibit of Ethiopian manuscripts)
  • 7:00 pm Dinner

Saturday, March 20

  • 9:00-9:15 Wendy Laura Belcher, Princeton, opening remarks
  • 9:15-10:00 Ali Jimale Ahmed, Queens College, US (Somali)
  • 10:00-10:45 Charles Cantalupo, Pennsylvania State Univ (Tigre)
  • 10:45-11:00 break
  • 11:00-11:45 Mohammed Hassen Ali, Georgia State Univ. (Oromo)
  • 12:00-2:00 pm Lunch
  • 2:00-2:45 Alessandro Gori, Univ degli Studi di Firenze (Arabic)
  • 2:45-3:30 Eiman Osman, Ahfad University for Women (Arabic)
  • 3:30-3:45 break
  • 3:45-4:30 Wendy Laura Belcher, Princeton (European Languages)
  • 5:00-6:30 Visit to Red Sea Press in Trenton, NJ Kassahun Checole, director
  • 7:00 pm Dinner