Ghirmai Negash, Ohio University
Localizing the Transnational, Transnationalizing the Local
Dear ALA Members, Distinguished Guests, Colleagues, Students, and Friends,
As both member and convener of the 37th Annual Conference of the African Literature Association, I am very pleased to stand before you today and to welcome you to Ohio University, and to our beautiful city, Athens, Ohio. As an annual event, the Conference of the African Literature Association is a demonstration of a four-decade long tradition of academic excellence, hard work, and participation of its members, and I am moved indeed by the interest, the quality, and diversity of presentations and speakers who are attending this conference.
First and foremost, I would like therefore to express my deepest thanks and appreciation to all of you—members of this conference—present here today (and those who will be arriving in the coming days), who, by responding to our call for papers in such an impressive number and manner, have come to Athens from far and near to participate in this academic gathering and celebration of African Arts, and thereby to carry on the central mission of the ALA. According to its declared mandate, the ALA's mission is: "[to] primarily facilitate the attempts of a worldwide audience to appreciate the efforts of African writers and artists," by welcoming "the participation of all who produce the object of our study and hopes for a constructive interaction between scholars and artists." Thank you all indeed again for honoring us with your presence, for we would not have had this convention without you!
I want also to thank Professor Janice Spleth, current President of the ALA, and Professor Omofolabo Ajayi-Soyinka, past ALA President, for their leadership and support, and for their encouragement and thoughtful guidance and suggestions, which have been most valuable at critical times.
Allow me also to thank publicly my compatriot Eritrean-Canadian artist, Dawit Petros, for the generous permission he has granted us to use the wonderful image he created as a conference logo. The image of the extended African hand expresses motion or movement, which is a perfect metaphor for the special theme of this conference, which deals with issues of space and time, but also for bigger demographic and cultural transformations that are taking place both on the African continent and world-wide in this era of globalization.
I have never met artist Dawit Petros before; and I have not yet asked him what this image stands for from his artistic perspective, as the creator of the piece. But, viewing and thinking about the image at different moments, it has occurred to me that this is a potentially rich and complex image open for multi-interpretations, in ways relevant to the thematic interest of our conference.
• First: At the most obvious level, it is about the migration of the African body—or bodies—from the South to the "icy, snowy" North, and in that sense can be read as a recasting of Tayeb Salih's Season of Migration to the North. In particular, the black hand carrying white snow is a synecdoche standing for the whole of an African body, or people, and is an aptly dramatic fabulation of the spectacular movement of Africans in the recent decades from their local spaces to new, familiar and less familiar, spaces.
• Second: If one thinks of the white matter as "cotton," rather than snow, the image evokes resonances of historical slavery, in this case, with the depiction of the diasporic, black hand working in the cotton fields.
• Third: If one thinks of the white matter as "salt," the image also allows for a Biblical interpretation that perceives the black body as the "salt of the earth," attributing reliability, trustworthiness, and honesty"--in the sense the Biblical Jesus used it in the Sermon on the Mount. An additional connotation of the black hand carrying salt is, of course, also the trans-Saharan salt trade that has for millennia connected Africa economically, culturally, and politically.
• Fourth: If one thinks of the "white matter" in the person's hand as C17H21NO4 (that is the scientific name for "Cocaine"), one may end up constructing and deconstructing contentious nonetheless thought-provoking readings of the black body as perceived by the eyes of spectators, who have stigmatized the black personality—across time and space. And if one pursues that interpretation to its logical conclusion, what Petros seems to be doing with this notion of the cocaine trafficking black body is killing two birds with one stone; first, documenting the stereotype, and concurrently exposing the stigma by shocking the sensibilities of viewers, so that the racial undertones behind the stigma are not left without being problematized or debated.
In short, whatever you make of it, this is a complex and loaded image, in many ways suggestive of the themes of the conference. And thank you, Dawit, for allowing us to use it, and for challenging us with your defamiliarizing and fine piece of art. I am looking forward to your presentation tomorrow, and I hope you will unveil some of the mystery to us! Thank you, again.
I will not be able to mention all the other wonderful people as well as institutions that made this conference possible. However, I do want to extend my heartfelt thanks here to all our Speakers, the Moderators of the Keynote Lectures, Sponsors, Ohio University Administration, my co-conveners, colleagues, students, and members of the Conference Planning Committee for their tremendous commitment and hard work towards achieving the goal of the conference.
• In particular, I am very much indebted to Professors Steve Howard, the Director of African Studies Program, and Joe McLaughlin, past chair of the Department of English, who took part in the initial conversations and decision making, when I was mulling over the idea of hosting the event. Steve Howard has been involved throughout the organization of the conference, and I want to thank him for being a wonderful champion of African Languages, Literatures, and Arts, in Ohio University.
• My special thanks also go to Dean Ben Ogles, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and Dan Weiner, Director of the Center of International Studies, who have been supportive and enthusiastic about the conference throughout.
• I have also been greatly helped and inspired by my co-conveners, Professors, Andrea Frohne and Arthur Hughes, whose encouragement and contributions have been most decisive in many visible and invisible ways.
• I offer my very special thanks to my colleague and friend, Bose Maposa. Bose first worked with me for months as a researching graduate student on the theme of localism and transnationalism; then, she assisted in setting up the call for papers; and, since then, she has worked on practically every aspect of the organization. I honestly don't know how I would have survived it, without her on my side. A big "thank you to" Bose!
• And last but not least of course, I want to acknowledge Nikki Ohm's exemplary efficiency, patience, and work ethic as the Event Planner of this conference. Thank you Nikki for all the work you have done and continue to do!
And finally, please allow me to conclude with a few remarks and express my hopes about the 37th ALA Annual Conference.
As postulated in the conference's call for papers, we initially came up with the idea of organizing an ALA conference with the theme of "local and transnational spaces," because we felt that it was time the field of African literature and arts moved from their eminent fixation on postcolonialty. To be sure, there is no doubt that post-colonial theory and practice, both in its hard core, adversarial variant of writing-back, and its soft-version of "mimicry," which allows for subversion under the disguise of glorification, have been salient and useful in many ways⎼and mainly in revealing both the "center" and the "margin" of what they are not. However, as one of our finest contemporary writers, Chimamanda Adichie, recently put it, there is also a clear danger in believing in a "Single Story," and many of us working in the field of African literature and arts have increasingly come to feel that post-colonial theory was becoming a monotonous "theoretical single story" in the field of African literature and arts.
And hence, the impulse to explore newer theoretical perspectives. This is not to suggest a total break with post-colonial thinking, but rather a gesture, if you like, to take stock, revise responsibly wherever we can and, perhaps, explore new theoretical territories. For example, it may not be relevant for us anymore as Africanists to ask the question: "Can the Subaltern Speak," as the answer is clearly provided, especially now, by what Cornell West in his interview with Aljazeera has called the "sublime moment" in the Middle East and North Africa, where the subaltern(s) have spoken out—and continue to speak out—clear and loud with word and deed, as we speak today (http://english.aljazeera.net/programmes/ rizkhan/2011/03). It does not seem sustainable either to put African local languages, cultural productions and their receptions in a hierarchical disadvantage with the relatively privileged African diasporic cultural productions and their receptions. The problematic will need to be attended to with more emphasis on both sides of the same coin, since both the local and the diasporic just as importantly influence and are impacted by a complex web of transnational trajectories and routes. Acknowledging the fact that local cultures are not static and have been impinged and continue to impinge upon the global helps to not lose sight of the local as an epistemological and inspirational source in the rush for the new, the glittering. All that glitters is not necessarily gold. On the other hand, extreme exceptionalism has heavy costs. It is therefore just as important to thoughtfully question and deconstruct the local premises with the diasporic impulses and knowledge, so that well-known dangers associated with the notions of absolute singularity and irreplaceablity break open for the construction of new pluralistic and dynamic meanings.
In short, it is necessary that we bring the transnational and the local into a serious dialogue, by localizing the transnational, and transnationalizing the local. Transnationalizing the local entails a sustained and conscious effort, for it means, among other things, writing it out of the imagined locus of "post-colonial marginality," and starting to think of any locality or site as a center that speaks "for itself" to all who dare to listen and acknowledge. In an attempt to go beyond the categories set up by post-colonial thinking of the local and the metropolis, but also in a bold move to problematize as well as to let the local speak for itself (in all its beauty and vulgarity), a well-known African thinker, Achille Mbembe, has used the notion of mutual "zombification," to essentially periodize the phase of African history we are in, and has concluded with sadness that these were depressing times of "unhappiness" and melancholy for the peoples of the post-colony. In envisaging an open yet confident dialogue between the local and the transnational, I see possibilities of rejuvenation in which local and transnational techniques, technologies of knowledge, and human experiences could be theorized, in such a way that frames the current individual and collective African melancholies not only as signs of loss, but also as signs of simultaneous rebirth as the continent moves forward, rather than stagnate, in multiple complex directions in a search of a new future. For, to borrow Ayi Kwei Armah's prophetic phrase in The Beautiful Ones Aren't Yet Born, "Africa's future is [indeed] still in the future." And my hope is that, in this new critical phase of rethinking, our reflections and conversations in this conference will constructively contribute to achieving that important end.
Thank you, and welcome to the ALA-2011 Conference!