The Outsider and the Idea of Africa

[This is part of a continuing series of posts on a class I teach at Plymouth State University, "The Outsider".  I am one of many people who teach the course, and each instructor fits their own ideas and interests into a fairly general catalogue description.  All the posts related to this one can be found via the Outsider label.  Eventually, I'll even update the course's website, since it's now completely out of date.]

The last time I blathered on about my ideas for The Outsider, I was still a few weeks away from having to order the books for the class, and so the syllabus was still very much in flux. I hadn't even plotted it out day by day, so I didn't know if I could fit in all the various books I was thinking about fitting in.

After reading my post, the great and glorious Aaron Bady sent me a note, since much of what I was thinking about -- representations of the idea of "Africa" in colonial and then post-colonial fiction -- was stuff he's spent a lot of time studying. I felt a little embarrassed, because he actually knows what he's talking about, and I'm just following yet another of my many obsessions (really, I should rename this blog The Dilettante). But this obsession has been with me for at least a decade, and though there have been years in that time when I've not indulged it, it always comes back, and whenever it does it comes back stronger than before. (Actually, no. The strongest moment was a period of about three days when I was determined to visit and analyze the entire inventory of every bookstore in Nairobi. That was a period of temporary insanity. It began innocently and miraculously, but then...)

Anyway, Aaron made a marvelous suggestion: "What about Tarzan?" Tarzan is something Aaron knows a bit about, and more importantly, he's thought about Tarzan using just the sorts of templates and questions I want to use to think about that iconic guy. Aaron kindly sent me a paper he's working on about the Tarzan image and phenomenon, and I promptly plundered it for references and started burrowing (and Burroughsing ... ugh, sorry) around in the Plymouth State library, the Dartmouth library, Google Books, and, when desperate or particularly intrigued, various used book dealers.

My basic concept of the course is one I soon discovered is discussed in detail in a wonderful book, Artificial Africas: Colonial Images in the Times of Globalization by Ruth Mayer. Or, rather, Mayer writes about some of the ideas I'll be using during the first half of the course: How, for instance, do people who come into the place they (or their authors) think of as Africa then represent that idea of Africa to their audiences? Or, to make it more obvious how the course material and course title go together: What happens when outsiders come in and start telling stories about the place they've come into? Do the stories they tell work to assuage their feelings of outsiderness, or even to reconfigure them as the insiders and the people who are natives as the outsiders? (With a colonialist mentality, is everything outside Europe or the USA? And so no matter where they are, will a European or American always be, or at least assume themselves to be, an insider?) And then, in the second half of the course, we'll turn things around a bit and look at other perspectives -- the empire writing back, to use the familiar postcolonial phrase. Finding ways for the silenced to speak, the erased to be recovered. For the insiders who have been represented as outsiders by colonialism to reclaim their insider status. (Or, I will ask the students eventually, is the binary itself too limiting? What does it hide from us?)

(These, at least, are my aspirations. Once the actual class begins, once we're into the work, things will go in whatever direction they seem to need to go, and much depends upon the students' skills, knowledge, and interests.)

After lots of hemming and hawing -- much of which was spent on a doomed attempt to convince myself that I could somehow fit Ngugi's Petals of Blood into the class -- I settled on a basic set of texts that I would then attempt to reconcile with the calendar: King Solomon's Mines, Story of an African Farm, Tarzan of the Apes, Heart of Darkness, Things Fall Apart, David's Story, Life & Times of Michael K, and In the United States of Africa. I also really wanted to fit in a couple of readings from Modern African Drama, but I was pretty certain there wouldn't be time.

I charted it out week by week and figured we could do it, but it would be tight, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized it was insane to try to fit some really difficult books (particularly David's Story and Michael K) into a tight schedule. It would just lead to too much confusion. And much as I liked the idea of ending with In the United States of Africa, it also shifted things to another region of the continent that none of our previous readings visited. This particularly bothered me, because I want the course to offer as much mirroring and echoing as possible, particularly between the first and second halves of the term, and I want to focus on only a few geographical locations so that we're able to get multiple perspectives on them.

With the deadline for placing book orders only days away, I decided to re-think everything.  Did I need both  King Solomon's Mines and Tarzan? (Yes, because their differences and similarities are instructive, and at the beginning of the course we really need as much practice as possible with analyzing the sorts of problems and pleasures they provide.) What about replacing Story of an African Farm with Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen, which would be interesting to pair with something in the second half of the term by Ngugi, who called it "one of the most dangerous books ever written about Africa", and which offers a more complex example of a mythologized Africa than Haggard or Burroughs do. (A tempting idea, but no -- it's ostensibly nonfiction, which none of the other books are, and while that would make for some interesting discussions about the porousness of genre boundaries, I must remember this is an intro-level class and the ideas I'm planning on introducing are complex enough already.) And, biggest question of all: If I cut David's Story, Michael K, and In the United States of Africa, what best replaces them?

To answer the last question, I decided first to add Marjorie Macgoye's The Present Moment, a somewhat more straightforward and accessible novel than David's Story, and an interesting study of Kenyan history through the eyes of a bunch of different women. It also offers lots of connections to many of the books in the first half of the term, particularly in that it is a book by a white outsider who has become culturally as much of an insider as her circumstances allow, and who has deliberately written with a desire to recover and distribute the lost and polyphonous histories of the place she has made her home. I also decided to bring back Modern African Drama, mostly because it includes Ngugi's play (written with Ngugi wa Mirii and the peasants and workers who first performed it) I Will Marry When I Want. I figured I could probably also fit in Wole Soyinka's Death and the King's Horseman, which is also in the book.

I wanted a final text to bring things back to some of what the students might already know, things that were familiar to them, yet might now, because of the journey of the term, be, I hoped, defamiliarized or complicated in new ways. Finally, I settled on Zakes Mda's Cion, which brings the South African professional mourner Toloki (from Mda's Ways of Dying, a book I'm quite fond of and have taught in the past) to Ohio and also adds a parallel story of two boys in 19th century Virginia who escape from slavery and head north to Ohio. It does just about everything I could hope for the final book of the course to do.

Once I charted it all out day by day, I discovered I could fit everything except Cion. But I was determined to use it. There was enough time to read the first 100 pages or so together, and then I thought I'd just make Cion central to the final exam, and have the students finish reading it in the days between our last class and the final. Indeed, I may make the final not an exam but rather a project, and have us share the projects and continue our conversations during the exam period, which I much prefer to sitting around and monitoring students while they write answers to test questions.

In the last moments before I submitted my book order, I decided to add one final, small book: African History: A Very Short Introduction by John Parker and Richard Rathbone. It's a meaty little book that doesn't really lay out the history of the continent so much as it presents the ways that the idea of African history has been conceived and perceived through the centuries. I'll only require the students to read a couple of chapters (I only have two or three days during the term where I can fit the book in), but I hope they'll see it as a resource and companion to their investigations. We shall see...

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