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August Debut

Issue 2; October/November


Elleke Boehmer


Elleke Boehmer
was born in Durban, South Africa, to Dutch parents, but has since been settled in the UK, teaching in several of the universities. Her current position at the University of Oxford is a return of sorts to an academic environment she had an earlier experience of as an Oxford student. Her works of fiction include Screens against the Sky (1990), An Immaculate Figure (1993) and Bloodlines (2000). Boehmer has also published many articles, reviews and essays, and is editor or author of several texts, including Altered State (1994) and Colonial and Postcolonial Literatures: Migrant Metaphors (1995).

Photograph credit: University of Oxford.

 AW Online Guest: Elleke Boehmer  
Elleke Boehmer is busy. Her bibliography says so. A scholar-writer's career is in business if apart from the obligatory teaching and research, and creative and critical writing, and any number of literary festivals, conferences, seminars and lecture tours, it also engages activism of the kind that has sometimes seen her move into key policy making and implementation roles in arts administration and development, finding time too to judge literary competitions. Our brief online encounter also had to do with staying focused, being busy. With an already packed 2007 schedule she was still able to see through two publications, which will be out in 2008. The two books are Nile Baby, “ a novella set in Britain but with a strong African subtext”. It is being published by Ayebia Books Ltd, the Oxfordshire based company. Another Oxfordshire publisher, this time Oxford University Press, is bringing out Boehmer’s second 2008 publication, Nelson Mandela: A Very Short Introduction, offered as an “iconographic study of Mandela… as national hero and myth.”

How does this University of Oxford scholar, biographer and novelist blend or bleed all that writing, thinking and work out of one life? This was surely the first of many human interest stories we might have asked, just adequate for the light holiday reading of some African Writing fans in distant Cape Town, South Africa, or closer to our base in Oxford, England. But we were only a moment away from deadlines and production. So we chose to do the serious stuff. We asked more questions about her new publications, and then towards the end tried to get a free comment on contemporary African writing from Boehmer, who is a Professor of World Literature in English and a noted scholar in Colonial and Postcolonial Studies:

: What prompted the writing of Nile Baby? What story are you trying to tell there?

Elleke Boehmer: In Nile Baby, two twelve-year-old children, Alice Khan and Arnie Binns, stumble upon the deep-seated presence of Africa in Britain. In an old laboratory attached to their school they find an ancient preserved foetus and set out on a journey that takes them to Leeds and Heathrow to return it to its rightful home. On their journey they repeatedly discover how Africa is embedded in the heart of England, in similar ways to how Europe’s dreams were often said to be invested at the heart of Africa.

: With so many books out there on Nelson Mandela what new material will your expected book on the South African statesman offer?

Elleke Boehmer:: There will be plenty of new material. In fact I would say that my Very Short Introduction: Nelson Mandela will offer an unprecedented take on the man and the myth! The book is essentially an iconographic study of Mandela, that is, it looks at Mandela as a symbol, as a dream and as a global ethical presence: how has Mandela figured not only in the struggle against apartheid, but also in people’s imaginations. In particular the study examines Mandela in his roles of performer, guerrilla, prisoner-gardener, and statesman, and looks closely at his humanism – a humanism based on reciprocity and understanding. I contend that his is essentially and radically an African humanism. In the colonial era the human was defined in opposition to and rejection of Africa. Mandela shows in contrast that his Africanness guarantees his humanness. This may represent the link with my other book, Nile Baby: both books look at the intensely African dimensions of the human.

: What excites or bothers you most about African Literature and writers today?

Elleke Boehmer:: I’m excited about the new diasporic architecture of African Literature – as represented by Chimamanda Adichie, for example. On occasion African literary study still becomes bogged down in a restless quest for authenticity (understandable as this is). To me African writers are citizens of international spaces, as well as of Africa: they belong to the world.

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