One Story of Arriving at Publishable Ideas
When I, Wendy Laura Belcher, published my book Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks, I received an unexpected negative response. Don’t get me wrong, lots of people loved the book and tens of thousands used it to get published. But first-term, first-year graduate students sometimes complained because the book didn’t help them arrive at ideas. I was surprised at this response because, in twenty years of teaching writing, article conception had never once come up. Those who came to the workshop all had an idea they were trying to shape into publication.
But, on seeing these comments, I began to think about the issue. How do publishable ideas come about? I couldn’t turn to the laboratory of the classroom—as the issue hadn’t arisen there. So, I had to study my own writing process. Here’s what I found: publishable ideas arise from the intersection of our experiences, commitments, and coursework. So, based on this insight, I added a chapter to the second edition of the book about arriving at publishable ideas and writing from scratch. However, I didn’t have space to include the story about my own process and what I realized from studying it. Below, I tell that story.
I am a white American, but I grew up in Gondar, Ethiopia, and Accra, Ghana. When I returned to the United States from Africa at the age of fourteen, I found out that most Americans thought of Africa, when they thought of it at all, as a place of barbarism and “blank darkness,” as Christopher Miller put it. Africa, this continent that I had experienced as a place of intellectual effervescence, was constantly belittled and underestimated.
My life-long project thus started when I was a teenager, as I began to try to explain to Americans that Africa was not what they believed it to be. Knowing little, my explanations were not very good. I spent almost two decades getting better by being a freelance journalist reporting on African arts and politics. Ten years in graduate school pursuing various degrees gave me even better explanations.
As one friend put it, all my arguments, whether before, during, or after graduate school, could be boiled down to one: “give the people of Africa some credit.”
Over the years I’ve noticed that scholars like me, with a commitment to reducing some inequity or correcting some ignorant belief, tend to publish more than those who write out of a mild interest in a topic. Writing is tough, so a topic doesn’t always serve as a good engine.
Even a deep love for something may not help. The very productive academic Michael North once told me that if an undergraduate told him that they wanted to go to graduate school because they loved Victorian novels, he would discourage them. In his opinion, graduate school was calculated to destroy that love. I would add that such loves are rarely outward oriented, they are romantic, one on one—why engage with an audience about the text, when it is the text that provides you pleasure?
Love of a subject can work, but believing that your writing might change something that needs to be changed—that is what gets you up and at your writing desk, that gives you a strong sense of audience, that makes you willing to delay other gratifications. Believing that not enough people know that racism is real and pernicious or that women are equals is an engine. Believing that the discipline of art history suffers because not enough critics are artisans, or that the discipline of comparative literature doesn’t respect translation enough, or that environmental studies lags because it doesn’t acknowledge animal sociality—these beliefs are engines. Another engine is studying a puzzle and being eager to share with others the answer to that puzzle.
At the same time, the danger of commitments is that they can vulgarize your writing, making it a screed or a sermon instead of original research. In my case, I couldn’t just harangue Americans into changing their views of Africa. Most Americans didn’t care about Africa in the first place. I had to learn to write to an often indifferent audience. I had to learn to write about things they did care about to get them to attend to things I cared about. Most of all, I had to study the biases and stereotypes at the heart of their beliefs in order to search for convincing and original proof that they were wrong.
When I started my doctorate at the University of California, Los Angeles, I had a very vague plan on how to prove my point about Africa. In fact, I’m not even sure that I would have articulated that as my reason for going to graduate school. I would probably have said it was because I loved (yes, that word) African literature. Fortunately, UCLA required all graduate students to take a pre-twentieth-century literature course and so I took “Race and Gender in Eighteenth-Century British Literature,” with the renowned scholar Felicity Nussbaum. Her course changed my life.
Through that class, I learned that my having grown up on the African continent had not prevented me from being incredibly ignorant about the past. I had a presentist bias, assuming that African literature started in 1958 with Chinua Achebe’s brilliant novel Things Fall Apart, and that little written African literature existed before the 1950s. In Nussbaum’s class, I learned two ideas that drove my research for years to come. First, I learned that Africans had not just recently started writing, but had been writing in Europe since at least the eighteenth century, as demonstrated by the writing of enslaved Africans like Olaudah Equiano and Jacobus Elisa Johannes Capitein. Further, that writing of Africans was not marginal, but central. For instance, not just African suffering inspired abolition; African writing about the horrors of slavery drove the movement. Second, I learned that scholars seemed to believe that the British colonizers were all-powerful, changing African and Pacific cultures completely and irrevocably without being changed themselves.
These two ideas, run through the processor of my life experiences and commitments, inspired in me some insights, or what might better be called proto arguments. The first was generated in part by having grown up in a former British colony. I knew that the British were not all powerful. Most of the Ghanaians I knew lived without thinking of the British or of anything brought to them by the British. Undoubtedly, colonialism was destructive and had done incalculable harm to millions of people and their access to their own natural resources and governance. But the idea that colonialism had eradicated African cultures or philosophical systems was a pernicious lie. Euro-Americans wringing their hands over how overwhelming their power to conquer and eradicate other cultures was a fantasy with more than a whiff of narcissism to it. In my experience, little was eradicated. Furthermore, I knew that the British were not conquerors who returned home unchanged. Their experiences affected them in profound ways. I knew a white British woman who had married a Ghanaian man, raised Ghanaian children, wore Ghanaian clothes, ate Ghanaian food, spoke a Ghanaian language, and worked hard to be more Ghanaian than many Ghanaians. Indeed, I knew more than one foreigner like this who lived in Africa with little connection to their colonizing country of origin or its cultural practices. They were, of course, still white, with all of its attendant privileges, but they were not unchanged by their encounter with Africa and Africans. In short, my insight was that the colonial encounter had had more impact on the colonizer than previously recognized.
Now, with this insight, I could make an argument that Africa was not just a backwater, a place many could ignore, but a place that had shaped other places, other peoples. My challenge was how to go about proving that. Although my insight started from my own experience, and was girded up by my coursework, no academic argument could rest on such a slim foundation. I couldn’t just say, “hey, look, I knew people who went native, be convinced!” So, I read a lot, searching for persuasive evidence, discarding a lot of evidence along the way.
One thing I found out is that some people had already made the argument that what happened on the African continent shaped other places: for instance, that the Boer War had shaped global geopolitics. Reading these arguments, however, I was very dissatisfied. They seemed to be arguing that it was not Africans, but what the British did in Africa, that had an effect on the world. That was hardly what I was trying to prove. Africa was not just a staging ground to me.
This helped me to see that what I wanted to prove was not just that Africa the place was important, but that Africans themselves were important. I read some more and realized that was also not enough. Some had argued that the influx of Africans into Britain had shaped Britain’s industrializing process, cheap labor making certain innovations possible. That was also not what I was trying to prove, that Africans were mere bodies and it was British responses to them that had an impact. This helped me to see that I wanted to make an argument not just about Africans, but about African thought. I wanted to argue that it was the way that Africans conceptualized that the world was important. I came to see that it was Africans’ intellectual contributions to global history and culture that would most reduce stereotypes—since the strongest stereotypes were of Africans as people without history, without writing, without language, without even thought.
I then found that African American scholars had already made arguments about the influence on the Americas of African languages, religion, music, and culture. But, I couldn’t find anyone who had made an argument about the influence of African thought on Europe or Britain. I could find a few making arguments about how Africans took and adapted European books and thought (e.g., Pilgrim’s Progress), but not about how African thought shaped European thought. Scholars sometimes depicted Europeans as shaping themselves in response to their encounter with Africans, but in these scenarios, Africans were prompts, not agents. If one read the vast scholarship on encounter, one would be forced to conclude that all these Europeans encountered Africans with ideas so weak that they shaped no one but themselves. But I remembered those British Ghanaians who had been utterly changed by their encounter with African thought. They were hardly agents, I thought. They were acted upon. And this proto-argument was very satisfying to me. The British were not an all-powerful conqueror, but a people and nation that Africans and African thought had changed. Focusing on this interactive intellectual history would make for the most convincing argument about the importance of Africans, I believed.
So, I had an argument: pre-twentieth-century Africans were writers and thinkers who did not live on the margins of British history, but rather were central to it. But I didn’t yet have evidence. I knew in my heart that my argument was right, but I still had to prove it. I will tell you that there was many a day when I despaired of proving this. So little scholarship had been done, the recorded archive was so slim. But for me, to give up on the project would be tantamount to admitting that Africans had not had this impact. That was unbearable. And, little by little, I began to put together my case, almost all of it constructed out of tiny pieces of evidence I had scoured from other people’s footnotes.
Fortunately, I took another course that changed my life, Helen Deutch’s course on the famous eighteenth-century British author Samuel Johnson. There I found out that his first professional act was translating a tome on Ethiopia and that he had later written a novel about Ethiopia. Samuel Johnson is widely considered, still, as the most English of English authors—I realized that if I could prove that African thought had influenced him, that would be very powerful. But, my problem was that Samuel Johnson had never been to Ethiopia, never knew any Ethiopians, never read any Ethiopian languages, never read any Ethiopian text. Everything he knew, he knew at third-hand from the Jesuits’ travel accounts about Ethiopia. Could I still argue that Johnson had encountered African thought? That would require me to argue that African thought was strong enough to survive being articulated by Europeans, which flew in the face of one of the theorists I admired most, Edward Said. Did I really want to take on his argument that European representations of other people and places had nothing to do with those people and places?
I decided that I was Foucauldian enough to believe that discourse did create the world. And I knew in my soul that African discourse was not eradicated through contact with the British. But I had to arrive at a way of articulating my idea about how Johnson could have been affected without dismissing Said’s ideas about Western representation, which I still believed to be right. I thought back on those Europeans I knew in Ghana who seemed taken over by Ghanaian languages, religions, and cultures. Theirs seemed like unwilled, unconscious change to me. And the most powerful paradigm I knew of for talking about mediated agency was spirit possession, which I knew about through experiences both in Africa and in the United States among evangelicals.
I invented the concept of “discursive possession” to talk about how the discourse of a subjugated, colonized group could possess the thought of a dominant, colonial group (Belcher 2012). I argued that, in the context of asymmetrical power relationships, an author might be taken over by the representations of the other and produce an “energumen,” a text through which others spoke. I made this argument using Johnson’s novel about Ethiopia Rasselas—showing how this problematically orientalist text, by an author who had never been to Africa, was nevertheless animated by Ethiopians’ own self-conceptions. That is, African discourse animated the British canon and one of Britain’s most famous authors.
To be honest, one of the main appeals of this argument was saying that Johnson was possessed by African thought, but I soon saw that such claims, however ordinary among some of my African and American friends, convinced academics that I had lost my mind. So, I had to work to clarify my argument that spirit possession was an apt metaphor for talking about how something from outside can shape thought and I published Abyssinia’s Samuel Johnson: Ethiopian Thought in the Making of an English Author (2012). Meanwhile, Johnson had a sentence about how Ethiopian royal women were known to be powerful, and since I’m always interested in proving that African women are more powerful than they are given credit for, I started pulling on that thread. That one sentence lead me to research that produced an entire 500+-page book, The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros: A Seventeenth-Century African Biography of an Ethiopian Woman (Gälawdewos 2015), which in turn lead me to writing “Same-Sex Intimacies in the Early African Text the Gädlä Wälättä P̣eṭros (1672): Queer Reading an Ethiopian Female Saint” (2016).
In other words, if you are just starting off in your scholarly career, the good news is that getting ideas will get easier, as many flow from previous research. I am now at work on another book, The Black Queen of Sheba: A Global History of an African Idea, arguing that an African invention circulated throughout the world, changing a broad range of representations and history itself. Through such work, I achieve my aim of showing the importance of Africans and African thought to the world.
Belcher, Wendy Laura. 2012. Abyssinia’s Samuel Johnson: Ethiopian Thought in the Making of an English Author. New York: Oxford University Press.
Belcher, Wendy Laura. 2016. “Same-Sex Intimacies in the Early African Text the Gädlä Wälättä P̣eṭros (1672): Queer Reading an Ethiopian Female Saint.” Research in African Literatures 47 (2):20-45. doi: doi: 10.2979/reseafrilite.47.2.03.
Miller, Christopher L. 1985. Blank Darkness: Africanist Discourse in French. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Gälawdewos. 2015. The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros: A Seventeenth-Century African Biography of an Ethiopian Woman. Translated by Wendy Laura Belcher and Michael Kleiner. Edited by Wendy Laura Belcher and Michael Kleiner. Princeton: Princeton University Press.