Writing Spatiality in West Africa

Winner of the 2020 ALA Book of the Year Award – Scholarship Writing Spatiality in West Africa examines the ways in which space and spatial structures have been constituted, contested and re-imagined in Francophone and Anglophone West African literature since the early 1950s. With a paperback edition due to be published next year, we are excited to re-share parts of this interview with Madhu Krishnan, originally published in the African Griot.  

You said the first spark for this work came when you were finishing your doctoral research at the University of Nottingham, can you elaborate on this and give further insight as to where your initial idea for this research project came from? 

The very, very earliest ideas and research that eventually turned into the basis for this project came about when I was in the late stages of my PhD. I was mostly finished writing up and, naturally, started thinking about what I wanted to work on next. My doctoral research focused on the ways in which the Nigerian-Biafran War of 1967-1970 has been re-imagined in a range of contemporary writing by Nigerian and Nigerian diaspora authors, and it focused explicitly on the myriad forms of identification and textualisation that appears in this body of work. I started to get interested in the idea of space because of its centrality for how contemporary writers were grappling with Biafra and its legacies, as both a physical and a symbolic space, and I knew that it was something I wanted to explore in a lot more detail. At the same time, I was heading onto the job market and had to think fairly practically about that. I had one idea for a way to transform my thesis into a more textually-oriented book which expanded beyond the specific context of that conflict to think about the ways in which the idea of ‘Africa’ as a site of meaning-making and identity-constitution, more broadly, has been articulated in contemporary writing, which I published in 2014. While I was working on this project, I started reading a lot of spatial theory and engaging in the critical literature around spatiality. I knew from before I finished my PhD that I wanted my next large-scale project to draw on my training in both English and French writing contexts, rather than being strictly Anglophone (my first MA was from Stanford University in Modern Thought and Literature, and I focused mostly on French and German inter- and post-war thought). I’m a big believer in the value of comparative literary frameworks, and West Africa, as place that was central to late imperialism in both the French and British contexts, and a place that I myself was familiar with from my work on Nigeria, seemed a natural subject. While my earliest attempts at working on this project were largely textual, I quickly realised that to understand the dynamics of spatiality in the literary text, I would need to go further, integrating historical and archival sources as texts in their own right to think about how a range of different actors and agents were both conceptualising and instantiating different, and sometimes oppositional, spatial regimes. 

What would you say was the most difficult part of the process from research to published book? 

The most difficult aspect of this project was definitely the archival work which went into it and which is central to my readings and arguments. Over the course of about four years I spent as much of my time as possible outside of the teaching term visiting a range of archives in North America, Europe and Africa. My aim in doing this was to try to reconstruct the cultural history of space in West Africa from a variety of perspectives and, by so doing, to think about how writers were engaging in this same range of debates and claims-making, both explicitly and implicitly. At the time that I started this project, I had little to no training in using archives, and there was definitely a learning curve there. More than that, however, was the sheer breadth of material I found. I wasn’t interested in limited myself to specific subsets of information, and I tried to engage with was wide a set of material as I could, which means that by the time I actually got to writing the book I had several thousand pages of notes from archival visits alone. Processing this was a huge task, but I am really pleased with how it came out. There are particular moments, for instance when I was able to consult original planning documents for Sekondo-Takoradi and, especially, Takoradi Harbour, that this entire constellation of articulations across the text (The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born) and what was happening on the ground became clear to me. This enriched my readings and understanding of the text in ways that would otherwise not have been possible, as it allowed me to come as close to experiencing the actual context and landscape in which the text is situated and with which it registers. 

How do you think your work fits into the African Articulations series? 

My favourite thing about the African Articulations series is how it allows us to unmoor the cultural object (the literary text, music, etc.) from a reified position in the realm of the aesthetic and instead think about it as something which actually exists in the world, comes from a place and articulates (as the series title indicates!) with a range of other discourses, structures and constellations of knowledge production. While my own work is broadly materialist in its focus, this ethos of drawing connections and links across seemingly-disparate texts is central to how I frame what I do. While my work is definitely literary and critical, it is also historical, archival and material, and African Articulations is exactly the kind of series that celebrates these sorts of inter-disciplinary and cross-field methods. 

What are the three main things you would like your readers to take away from your work? 

1. That literature is not disinterested or outside of the world. Even the most seemingly disinterested, philosophical and meditative texts remain rooted in and disseminated through a range of concrete, material contexts.

2. Discourse is as real a thing as anything else and the relationship between the discursive and the material is multifaceted, complex and vital for understanding the demarcations of the world we live in.

3. Comparative studies are a vital way of understanding the complexity of cultural production in Africa and elsewhere. There are shockingly few studies which genuinely engage across linguistic borders, and this needs to change, as writers and the contexts in which they work as nowhere nearly as siloed as our reading and critical practices might suggest. I only hope to see comparative work extend beyond Europhone languages to include African languages and other media beyond the novel. 

Any last comments you would like to add for your readers? 

From its first inception to publication, I spent 6-7 years working on this book. I would want to emphasise that there is real value in slower scholarship that attempts to carefully handle a range of texts and contexts, even where that means opening into new disciplinary areas and fields. I hope that this book can help spark more critical engagement with the text as a living and lived object, which actively participating in the practices of worlding – while itself worlded by its own situatedness – which constitute the larger landscapes of our experiences. 

This interview was originally published in the African Griot.

Writing Spatiality in West Africa
by Madhu Krishnan
9781847011909, hardback, £39 or $58.50

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