Tag Archives: Books

Diaspora and My Unpackable Library

What does it mean to travel and leave your books behind with only the faintest hope of any reunion? I did not leave only Lagos behind in 2013 when I travelled to Canada for doctoral education; like many people, I left my books too, a forced decision that still haunts today. But isn’t one of the often-overlooked conditions of migrancy the loss of books and personal libraries? Or to paraphrase Walter Benjamin, don’t the diasporic trajectories of the African scholar sometimes involve the loss of piles of volumes that may never see daylight again after years of darkness because of the collector’s willful displacement?

It does not have to be the case, but most of the times, certain economic anxieties impose choices on the African scholar who seeks knowledge outside the continent. His book collection in his new location is almost never complete; his library constantly vulnerable to absence. We don’t want to carry too much luggage when we travel, or we promise ourselves to retrieve them later, even if we never do. As genuine collectors and book lovers, when we pack our bags for the west to study, we want to take along the best of a collection that contains our memories and that catalogues our scribbles and communion with texts, but the uncertainties ahead often mean we must prioritize other symbols of survival, of arrival.

Markus Clemens, Unsplash.

Some must wonder if African urban spaces even have leisurely subjects that worry about the many pleasures of books and bookstores, or that walk in the city as a practice of everyday life; whether there exist flâneurs that delight in sauntering around public spaces in which they encounter different objects. In their many instances of subversive loitering, the flaneur, in moments of walking contemplation of cities like Lagos, produces narratives that are often based on the ancient habit of collecting used books from the dusty grounds of street bookstores and highbrow book spaces But what happens when as academics, they have to travel abroad? How should we read the meanings encoded into the collecting of books, a process that is sometimes the pastime of cosmopolitan African subjects? And how must we unpack, or perhaps recover, “a library languishing” in the homeland, in the words of a Nigerian scholar in the US academe? Are there any meanings to the hastily discarded books in our personal collection just before we left home for study elsewhere?

The art of collecting books and building a library are longings of the soul for many a woman of letters but at the moment we decided it was sacrosanct we leave home to study abroad—often permanently—most of us often leave behind books so meticulously packed after many years of sentimental collecting. So, with a stab to the heart, we are forced to forgo the cherished texts collected over the years, together with the memories, histories, and attachments they evoke. And the economic calculus that determines what we must pack remains long after we have settled in our new location and faced again with a dialectical tension between the poles of order and disorder, in Benjamin’s memorable phrasing. And he adds, “thus is the existence of the collector.”

In his 1931 short essay, “Unpacking My Library: A Speech on Collecting,” Benjamin explores readers’ relationship to their books, using the occasion of unpacking his many books from their boxes to offer insights on a reader’s possessions and on the art of collecting itself. Being then “at the threshold of forty and without property, position, home or assets,” Benjamin assigns usefulness and agency to his books as they provoke critical reflections through the process of unpacking them. The “chaotic memories” that is the passion of the collector overwhelm the room, with memories of cities and bookstores, of bookshelves at conference venues, of the disorder of used books on the streets of Ibadan or Accra. The ownership of these books, the most intimate entanglements that one can have with objects, invites us to disappear into them. Not that the books possess us, but that we own them sufficiently for the renewal of the self, or our existence each time the moment of packing and unpacking reveals itself.

Of course, like Benjamin I speak here of my own close scrutiny of books and the social facts that organize our relations with, and memory of, them. Although when Benjamin notes that the acquisition of books is by no means a matter of money, I would think there is a class dimension to book buying and the ability to transport hundreds and thousands of books to the West when one has to leave. Our libraries are unpackable because of the forces of capital, something to which the bourgeois class is impervious. My meditation chiefly applies to the mostly, young scholar who leaves home for the first time to study in the West. Unable to pack all of his books or any of them for that matter, he sets out on a journey of knowledge, with gaps and silences in his personal archive screaming from behind; with his best books left behind, so are the memories of his collecting and collection. Benjamin is right, “the phenomenon of collecting loses its meaning as it loses its personal owner,” in this case, as it loses its owner to another location.

And when books become unpackable because of the pressures of long-distance travel and economic costs, the act of unpacking is infinitely deferred and incomplete. There is no doubt the matter of book collection and leaving them behind press other sociological questions, including why African intellectuals leave their country? One possible answer to this specific problem may be the lack of books themselves, besides other glaring social indices. For instance, until recently, it was constantly said that books written about Africa were sometimes not available in most libraries on the continent. It makes sense then that some of the best African thinkers are pushed away by a culture that misrecognizes the value of books, a culture that is increasingly unfair to books the book fairs that molded an earlier generation of intellectuals. Even the idea of a public library or an institutional archive—supposedly infrastructures of knowledge—are anchored on weak systems. Hence, others are made to question whether bookstores and libraries even exist at all.

Although a country like Nigeria has a national library, one wonders how that space truly governs or contributes to the country’s social and political dynamics. We may buy new books and replace old ones, but the libraries we have left—and which appear to have left us—actually remain as fragments of our past, symbolic objects of our dissociation from the home that, as the Somali-British poet Warsan Shire poetically renders it, is the “mouth of a shark,” the “barrel of a gun”. So it is that every act of packing and unpacking we perform again in our new location necessarily bears traces of a past habit of collecting, having signs of the collection that was unpackable.

Unpacking is not just a symbolic ritual of remembrance and performative identification with books, therefore, it is also a site of loss, of rememory and affective belonging. But as we disappear into new collections and memories in the West or elsewhere, the markings of the past yet unfurl themselves to us. In new editions that contain emendations. In new copies that remind us of past annotations. This too is chaos. One wonders if the few among us who truly able to leave home behind do indeed leave their books too. We may say then that unpacking never ends. And we never can truly unpack a library that was once never indeed packable.

What happens when African scholars travel for education in the West? One of the many costs of this mobility is the loss of books, and we need to talk about this more. So, having collected and accumulated more books by now, my colleague whose library is still languishing in Ibadan will probably gift his once-prized possessions to an institutional library. For now he must continue to contemplate how his books must be unpacked.

Reading Shola Adenekan’s African Literature in the Digital Age

Shola Adenekan’s African Literature in the Digital Age characterizes itself as “the first book-length study on the relationship between African literature and new media.” For a fascinating and inventive volume, this description is both apt and reticent, even if a reminder of the tad neglect of an area of African literary studies that still appears to have a tentative and uncertain reputation among scholars of African literatures. This is, however, not a denial of the evident strides made in literary digital humanities in Africa in the last several years. For instance, there has been a growing body of publications exploring these topics  in the last 5 years, including a recent special issue at Postcolonial Text co-edited by Shola Adenekan himself, together with some of the other prominent scholars in the field—Rhonda Cobham-Sander, Stephanie Bosch Santana, and Kwabena Opoku-Agyemang. A survey of some of the most important volumes of African literary and cultural productions, however, seems to suggest we still encounter the role of digital media hardware and software in African writing as peripheral scholarship to the “serious” work critics are doing in other areas. I can immediately point to three excellent publications that precede Adenekan’s book, all of which either entirely omit or offer a paltry space for a robust engagement with African literary DH.

For instance, the outstanding 2021 volume, A Companion to African Literatures edited by the literary scholar Olakunle George, offers a single chapter which, despite its writer’s characteristically brilliant analyses, appears to be, quite frankly, an afterthought that is supposed to reconstellate the literary forms and meanings in more supposedly ‘serious’ and stable forms like print. Although this gesture is consistent in several other instances, it makes a publication such as Adenekan’s a timely and refreshing work that calibrates and potentially refigures the theoretical canons of African literary criticism.

While studies in the intersections of “new media technologies” and African literary and cultural productions are not uncommon, this lack of sustained engagement with the specific ways computer technology influences and transforms literature is also glaring. In its nuanced attention to the form and aesthetics of the digital, therefore, Adenekan’s book takes seriously the discursive implications of the affordances of digital media for both established African writers and a new generation of young writers using the participatory web and blogging to circulate literary forms. This important book recognizes the ways in which the digital age enables new writerly possibilities and an era of openness, while making legible the agency of new literary voices and sensibilities.

One accomplishment of the book is the analytical space it constructs for the enunciation of the digital articulation of literary works that invite us to rethink the ways in which a new regime of digital visibility enables novel understandings of quotidian political and cultural processes. For instance, the inaugurating chapter on network thinking, draws on Adenekan’s previous scholarly background in computing and builds on the work of Manuel Castells and Patrick Jagoda to signal the many layers of relationship and literary networks between the analogue terrain of print publication and that of the digital. Although the philosophical notion of the “rhizome,” developed by Deleuze and Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus, could have greatly enriched Adenekan’s explications of the assemblage of literary connections and authorial multiplicities in African digital spaces, the author makes up for this by invoking metaphors of oral poetics which center on the Anansi trickster spider. Symbolizing the way in which oral networks operated long before print technology, Anansi’s web in Adenekan’s theorizing signifies how networks come into being “through information architecture as well as through the metaphors provided in oral productions and creative writings” (22). In this integration of orality, Adenekan’s volume promotes an understanding of digital media through its connections to the aesthetic strategies of ‘old’ media.

By foregrounding analysis of digital literary networks and their importance to our understanding of literary history in Nigeria and Kenya, African Literature in the Digital Age addresses an important aspect of African literature, astutely explicating the online literary networks that enable an appreciation of global politics, class and literature. Adenekan demonstrates how the digital both reiterates the metaphors of print and connects to oral tradition through the fluidity of textual forms and the dialogic participation of readers in their production and transmission. As rich and middle-class queer Kenyans and Nigerians create communities and find new portals for their work online, they not only transcend the conservative politics of traditional publishing, but also inspire the author’s argument that African digital spaces are marked by class consciousness and sexual politics. Therefore, we encounter imbricating links between discourses of class, sexuality and the body politic in digital texts that center on queerness, and erotic pleasures, born-digital literary forms that challenge the dominance of hetero-normative analyses in African literature. Hence, the volume’s significant dilation on queer politics means we can read it as an important intervention in queer digital studies.

In his closing chapter on social media, the digital emerges as a quotidian zone for the performance of class identities among the literary publics he analyzes. For writers in particular, everyday online experiences are as real and tangible as the dailiness of non-digital spaces. As the author astutely argues, social media for writers such as Chimamanda Adichie and the late Binyavanga Wainana functioned as the location for the free play of literary circulations, personal status updates, and stories conveyed to thousands of followers who may or may not be fans and ‘friends.’ In Adenekan’s brilliant explanation, literary fandoms and friendships as generative sites of artistic practices online often mean that African writers and their publics online socialize both through the written word and through emoticons, emojis, GIFs, and images. Although the book contends that, like linguistic texts, these visual forms of “digital communication all possess aesthetic value” (145), it probably misses a chance here to show the overlapping relations between the ontological visuality of social media and the performative assertion of literary agency among writers. In other words, if African literature online is a class affair among African digital subjects as Adenekan suggests, how are other cultural producers outside of that elite space using selfies, GIFS and other images to equally perform the quotidian? While this question may not be of immediate concerns to the author, it very likely reveals how a disposition for the performative on social media cannot be divorced from both the expression of quotidian aesthetics in literature and the theatrical constructions of comic selves that form a huge archive of political speech on the social web. As the reference to Adichie’s Instagram post in the book’s opening shows, social media offers a playful arena of self-fashioning for writers that suggests that these two latter layers of representation are worthy of more scrutiny.

While this important book restates, and almost romanticizes, the popular idea that “cyberspace represents freedom and democracy” and that “fictional narratives reflect both the restrictions of the printed word and the freedom of online publishing (14), it sometimes takes for granted the extractive relations that exist between the corporate owners of the net’s infrastructures and African digital subjects using these ‘free’ platforms. Indeed, Adenekan recognizes that digital environments are “capitalist commercial mechanisms” and social media are “money-making ventures” that bring artistic practices and commercialization in a “symbiotic relationship” (6). As the author himself might be quick to admit, there is certainly more to be said here. We may ask, who is documenting the large data being produced on social media by African writers and for whom? Also, how does ephemera on social media affect the type and function of the archives produced by writers online?

These questions aside, Adenekan’s African Literature in the Digital Age matters as a field-defining work. It impels the reader to refuse the single story of Africa as a continent that is perpetually confronted with an increasing digital divide. Although digital divide is real, and restates one of Adenekan’s central arguments on class, this book excellently reveals many other stories and narratives. These stories enter on erotic archives, queer subjectivities, the disruptive figure of the modern girl, and other digital subjects whose artistic representations online Adenekan astutely renders legible. The author has done the excellent work the rest of us must now build upon.