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Jane Bryce

Jane Bryce

Bryce was born in Tanzania and grew up there. She has since lived in Italy, the UK and Nigeria, where she did her doctoral research on Nigerian women’s writing at Obafemi Awolowo University, 1983-88. Since 1992, she has taught African literature and cinema, and also creative writing, at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill. She publishes in the areas of contemporary African and Caribbean fiction, postcolonial cinema and creative writing, and was founder and Co-director of the Barbados Festival of African and Caribbean Film. She is the author of Chameleon (Peepal Tree Press, 2007) a collection of short fiction, and the editor of Caribbean Dispatches: Inside Stories of the Caribbean (Macmillan, 2006).  She is working on a memoir/travelogue/portrait of a place drawing on her memories and recent experience of Tanzania. She was recently made Professor of African Literature and Film.


 The Face of Africa in the Caribbean
Amatoritsero Ede

Amatoritsero Ede,
born in Nigeria, was a Hindu monk; he has worked as a book editor, and was 2005–2006 Writer-in-Residence at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada, where he is now a SSHRC Fellow and Doctoral Candidate. He is the Publisher and Managing Editor of Maple Tree Literary Supplement. His second collection of poems, Globetrotter & Hitler’s Children (New York: Akashic Books, 2009) is in press.

Amatoritsero Ede: You were born in Africa, in Tanzania. What citizenship do you hold? How does this intersect with questions of identity or the apprehension of self?

Jane Bryce: I have a British passport, because when I was born in Tanzania, it was a British protectorate. We were given the choice of citizenship at ‘Uhuru’ and my father opted for British. As he was deported under the Africanization policy, perhaps it’s as well, but then again, if we’d been Tanzanian citizens we wouldn’t have been deported. Being Tanzanian-born British is a conundrum. My skin colour, my accent – my first language being English – all make me appear to be conventionally British. I suffered terribly from this when I was first sent to school in the UK at the age of 13, because I didn’t FEEL British. I had no roots in England, no common history with anyone there, no affection for a particular place, no understanding of the British class system, no sense of appropriate behaviour. I felt lost and isolated and misrecognised. In a way, though I have grown a thicker skin since then, I still suffer from this sense of misrecognition. In answer to the inevitable question, “Where do you come from?”, I’ve created a category called ‘colonial British-born and brought up in Tanzania.’ In fact, there are thousands of people like me, born one place, educated somewhere else, living somewhere else. The difference in my category’s case is that we shouldn’t have been in Tanzania in the first place, we were interlopers, and so nostalgia for our childhood there is politically vexed. All I can really say in the end is that I’m driven by a feeling stronger than I can control to describe myself as ‘African’, and I justify this to myself by the fact that I’ve maintained my relationship with the continent and built my entire life and career around it. I have actively sought to experience ‘Africa’ as an adult, free of colonial privilege and to engage with African modernity. A long answer shows what a complex question this is!

A.E.: Does your study and teaching of Africa not amount to a further engagement of your African-ness; consider this in the light of the introspection of your collection of short stories, Chameleon (2006).

J.B.: Yes. Obviously teaching about Africa is directly related to my intellectual and academic interests, just as before I became an academic, I was a freelance journalist and editor specializing in Africa. The short stories are different, a much more emotional thing. They lived in my head for years, pushing to get out until I eventually wrote them down. The Tanzania stories are fictionalisations of childhood memories, so not autobiographical but highly personal nonetheless. The Nigeria stories grew out of the writing I did in Nigeria – such as a column I had in Vanguard under the pseudonym Kemi Cole – poems, and the notebooks I kept the entire time I was there. Nigeria was a fantastic place in that it provided ready-made drama at every turn. I have never been so creatively stimulated as when I lived there.

A.E.: In the spirit of current debates in Africanist discourse, what is the state of African studies - especially, the literary aspects of it, in the Caribbean at the moment?

J.B.: The construction of Africa in the Caribbean generally, and in Barbados in particular, is predicated on factors of history, slavery, race, displacement and return. This does not at all undermine a prevalent belief in African primitivism, an assumption that Africa is somehow outside of modernity. Although this might appear a contradiction, in fact it’s only another manifestation of the thinking that has shaped both diasporic pan-Africanism and Rastafarianism. Royalty and primitivism, the nationalist state and Africa’s inability to rule itself may appear to be binary opposites, but they are all nonetheless posited on the same premise: that Africa is separate, subject to unchanging laws and outside of history. The role of the African humanities in this situation is clear - to demystify, to enable people to see Africa as fundamentally not separate, but a
participant in the global project of modernity.

The difficulty with this view is that it challenges the pieties of racial distinctiveness, and requires a relinquishing of race as the ultimate signifier of ‘Africanness’, the promise of recovery of a lost identity. This tension is seen in the way African Studies was conceived at UWI. UWI, like Ibadan, Makerere and Legon, started as a college of the University of London. The first campus, at Mona, in Jamaica, was, like Ibadan, founded in 1948 to create an educated cadre to serve the colonial administration. The humanities therefore were seen as a way of introducing colonial subjects to the superior civilisation of their colonial masters. A radical overhaul of this concept was intrinsic to the project of Independence and decolonization, and an important element of this at UWI was the recognition of the centrality of Africa to West Indian history and the construction of a West Indian identity.

African Studies at UWI now has both African and Africanist scholars in different disciplines. At Cave Hill, for example, there are currently African scholars teaching Economics, Philosophy, francophone Literature, Education and Law; three Africanist historians, one of whom studied at UI, and me – a graduate of OAU, now Professor of African Literature and Film. At the St Augustine campus (Trinidad), we find another ex-OAU scholar, Professor Funso Aiyejina, teaching literature and creative writing. Although not an African, Professor Maureen Warner-Lewis of Mona has researched in Nigeria and written extensively on Yoruba influences on Trinidadian culture.

Outside of the academy, we should ask what perceptions of ‘Africa’ circulate in the media and popular culture, and who is considered worthy to represent or speak for ‘Africa’ in the Caribbean? The dominant discourse is what Triulzi calls ‘a state-driven politics of memory’, defined by ‘the commemoration of heroic deeds or the nation’s suffering as a way of reformulating the moral boundaries of the social body’. In Barbados, the nation’s suffering is seen in terms of the legacy of slavery, the loss of a homeland, and the conception of Africa as site of an originary identity which remains fixed, unchanging and constituted by the marker of race. The institution in Barbados charged with representing this view of Africa and of its relationship to the island is the Commission for Pan-African Affairs, founded in 1998.

What Zeleza calls a ‘metaphysics of difference’, combined with the compulsory support of ‘heroic’ liberation struggles, can lead to some strange anomalies. In Barbados, it has led to the spectacle of a Pan-African march in support of Mugabe’s policies at the height of the ZANU-PF land reclamation programme in Zimbabwe. It has also seen nonblacks thrown out of the African and African Descendants' World Conference Against Racism in October 2002. At the same time, the Pan-African Commission has invited the young Nigerian/South African director, Akin Omotoso, to its film festival to show his first feature, God is African, a film which critiques the ‘makwerekwere’ phenomenon of black-on-black racism in South Africa and undercuts the simplistic notion of a single black identity and brotherhood based on race. Instead of focusing on an unchanging essence, a more productive way of conceptualizing the humanities is to look at what people in Africa do and make, and to read these product(ions), these texts, for what they tell us about a contemporary African consciousness.

Soon after I started teaching African literature at Cave Hill, I realized that the best route to achieving this – in a context where my students had never heard an African language spoken, never knowingly heard African music, didn’t know that Africa had cities or roads or educated people – was to show them African films. The graphic and kinetic nature of film, and the naturalization of filmic narrative language across cultural barriers, makes film a more seductive medium for diasporic students than literary texts, though both are of an extremely minority interest in the Caribbean. But the primary significance of African film for humanities in the diaspora is the fact that it forces the student to learn to look differently. In this process of learning to look differently in order to read African film language, students are enabled also to look differently at mainstream representations of Africa, and to come to more informed, less credulous conclusions about Africa and its place in the modern world.

A.E.: That is a very elaborate submission on the trajectory of African studies in the Caribbean. What is the impact of your strategy of teaching Africa through films as distinct from textual representations alone?

J.B.: The impact has been considerable, on two fronts specifically. First, when I started and for several years afterwards there was no such thing as Film Studies being taught on this campus, and the students who took my African Film course were almost always engaging in film as an object of intellectual analysis for the first time. They were often amazed at the insights that could be gained by acquiring a basic understanding of film theory and terminology. Second, they were being introduced to a world of representation with which they were quite unfamiliar – i.e. that of African film-makers. Many of them over the years had seen Hollywood films like Black Hawk Down, Tears of the Sun, Hotel Rwanda, etc, and were immediately struck by the difference it makes when the point of view is that of an African film-maker.

Then, they had to come to terms with the difference in production values, to consider such things as funding sources and how they might affect editorial choices/ideological representation, they had to attune their ears to African languages and struggle with sub-titles (most people here don’t watch ‘foreign’ films but subsist on a diet of American blockbusters). But I think the most rewarding thing, for me, has been the powerful effect of visual images of urbanization, of African cities teeming with cars and people (‘Africa’ is either a village or a refugee camp to people brought up on CNN), of the beauty of actors’ bodies and faces (again, ‘Africans’ are people suffering from AIDS or starvation or war or displacement, so Africans as fashion-conscious members of a prosperous middle-class are a surprise).

I should say were a surprise, because in the last couple of years Nollywood has become a big thing in parts of the English-speaking Caribbean, including here in Barbados. I walked into my local video shop one day and was amazed to see a whole shelf of videos labeled ‘African Film’. When I looked closer, I saw that in fact it was all Nollywood. I discovered that the craze began in nearby Guyana where tapes were sold in the marketplace, as in Lagos, and spread to neighbouring islands. They are pirated, reproduced and sold cheaply; and people are making money, I hear, reproducing them. The result has been a complete change in the understanding of ‘Africa’ by the populace at large. Suddenly, through these films they’ve found out that people in Africa are dealing with issues of modernity and many of the same problems they are wrestling with here, perhaps in more dramatic form, and I’m told that more Nollywood than American films are now being watched at home in people’s houses.

This almost overnight achievement can be compared with my painstaking efforts over years to introduce the Barbadian public to African cinema, through teaching and through running a film festival which brought directors such as Newton Aduaka (Nigeria), Moussa Sene Absa (Senegal), Balufu Bakupa-Kanyinda (Congo), Ousmane Sembene (Senegal), Tunde Kelani (Nigeria), Mweze Ngangura (Congo) and the actor, Eriq Ebouaney (Cameroon, title role in Lumumba) to Barbados. That’s the power of popular cinema, but I still persist with the ‘arthouse’ cinema because it too has a lot to teach. Through the undergraduate course in African Film and courses which mix film and literature like African Literature and Orality, African Narrative in Film and Text, and the graduate courses: Postcolonial Cinema and Women Writing, I have created a context in which students are encouraged to research and write about film, and I regularly supervise undergraduate and MA projects in film. I am particularly proud of the fact that a student of mine, Andrew Armstrong, produced the first ever PhD in African Literature at this campus in 2006, Negotiations: Narrative Strategies and the Negotiation of Selfhood in Late Twentieth Century African Literature and Film, a thesis which dealt with both literary and filmic texts, described by the External Examiner, Professor Teju Olaniyan, as ‘lucid in composition, tight in structure and meticulous in argumentation.’ As Andrew now teaches in my Department you could say we have established a discourse, which profoundly troubles the old simplistic view of ‘Africa’.

A.E.: The beginnings of modern Caribbean and African writing was energized by certain cultural movements in the trans-Atlantic ambience of early 20th-century Paris, where Harlem Renaissance met Negritude and Indigeneity. Claude Mckay, Rene Maran, Leopold Senghor, Aime Cesaire are some of the writers who came out of that black international ferment. Do you see or note that kind of pan-African inspiration in contemporary Caribbean/African writing in a different, more global configuration?

J.B.: Not really. I think that moment has passed and what we have now is a more atomized and individualistic ethos, with writers focusing on the specificity of their own situations, albeit within a social context. And this, I think, is a good thing. I’m with Njabulo Ndebele in prioritizing a diversity of subjectivities rather than an overarching and ideologically determined collective identity.

A.E.: Would you say this is a reflection of the concentration of continental intellectual African Diaspora in North America and Europe rather than in the Caribbean and vice versa?

J.B.: That’s too big a generalization to make. I think it’s to do with the nature of modernity as it’s experienced today – that moment of collective idealism belongs to the pre and early-Independence period, and we are now faced with the systemic failure of post-Independence African regimes, and the subjective experiences of suffering this has engendered. African writing today is highly self-critical and self-reflexive. If you want to trace lines of affinity between Africa and the Caribbean, it might be better to think in terms of particular types of narrative – narratives of migration, for example, or of betrayal, or cultural alienation. Leaky boats are a trope for both Haitians and Senegalese…

A.E.: Where would you say Africa meets the Caribbean today, where do these two long lost siblings hold their conversations.

J.B.: The terms of the question are romantic, and I don’t think like that! I don’t assume an essential connection and parity between the two. I think each needs to learn about the other as a site of difference rather than sameness, and the places for that are what they’ve always been – creative fiction, drama, poetry, cinema, critical thinking and theorizing, and now too the Internet.

A.E.: On a more general level does the Caribbean consider its fate to be now separate from that of Africa – that is, if we are to ignore those symbolic gestures at different kinds of residual Pan-Africanisms, which energize the study of Africa, high school curricula or inspire the consumption of Nollywood and sundry filmic productions.

J.B.: Again, I find it hard to speak of what ‘the Caribbean considers’. This is a region, which, to a far greater extent than Africa, is marked by colonial differences. People in the Spanish, English, French and Dutch speaking territories have to make a big effort to speak to each other across language barriers. Some places geographically located in the Caribbean are politically elsewhere – Martinique and Guadeloupe are in France; Anguilla is in the UK; Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao, Saba, St Eustatius and Saint Maarten are in Holland; Puerto Rico is in the US, etc. Even the Anglophone Caribbean struggles to come together, as is witnessed by the infighting over the Caricom Single Market and the lifting of border restrictions.

A.E.: Should Africa not also study the Caribbean in systematic way to complete the conversation between the two?

J.B.: Yes, African people should be aware of and study the Caribbean just as they should other parts of the world – Brazil, Bangladesh, Bulgaria…

A.E.: In terms of Nollywood, for example, we see a cultural traffic from Africa to the Caribbean. What cultural traffic is there, in concrete terms, from the Caribbean to Africa?

J.B.: It is mainly piecemeal and depends to a large extent on individual initiatives. It also differs from place to place. Trinidad, for example, has a vibrant orisha-worshipping tradition with festivals and religious practices, which are familiar to the whole populace regardless of whether they participate. The same is true of Vodou in Haiti and Santeria in Cuba. These are genuine African retentions, which inform West Indian culture at many levels – religious rites, beliefs, music and myths. Haitian visual art is shot through with vodou imagery, which is recognizably African. In Trinidad, one of the most senior and respected artists has taken a Yoruba name. Jamaica has a version too in the form of pocomania, with its balm-yards and traditional healers, its extended funeral rites lasting for nine nights, and so on. Barbados, where I live, was the first island to be colonized back in the 17th century, and has only the merest vestiges of anything you could identify as ‘African’ – some of the foods, e.g. ‘accra’ which are a form of ‘akara’, and some musical and dance elements.

In terms of contemporary culture though, one thinks of the (Trinidadian) calypsonian David Rudder, who greatly admires Fela and has sung about him and ‘sampled’ Fela’s music in his own compositions. The resonances between calypso and highlife show how influences have crossed and recrossed the Atlantic; the same is true of African reggae. Last time I was in Jo’burg I went to a concert where Andy Narell, a celebrated steel pan player, was playing, and the audience adored him. Last weekend in Barbados I attended a concert by the Malian group Ngoni Ba, and they amazed the audience. But is this in reality any different from the global circulation of culture, which is going on all the time? The truth is, it’s a minority of people who care about such things, and the dominant influence is from North America. More people are listening to hip hop than to kora music.

A.E.: Thank you for kindly taking the time to talk to me.

  Jane Bryce
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