Additional photos by Toyin Falola: Flickr.

Sunday Reading




Karen Gregory:


Jacob Remes:


Internet K-Holes that Jacqui Shine Has Known:



Bint Battuta:


Nathan Deuel: 

Kofi Awoonor’s “Had Death Not Had Me in Tears”

Had death not had me in tears
I would have seen the barges
on life’s stream sail.
I would have heard sorrow songs
in groves where the road was lost
where men foot prints mix with other men foot prints
By the road I wait
‘death is better, death is better’
came the song
I am by the roadside
looking for the road
death is better, death is much better
Had death not had me in tears
I would have seen the barges
I would have found the road
and heard the sorrow songs.
The land wreathes in rhythm
with your soul, caressed by history
and cruel geography
landscape ineffable yet screaming
eloquent resonance like the drums
of after harvests.
We pile rocks on terracing love
Carry the pithy cloth
to cover the hearths of our mother.

Come now you lucky ones
come to the festival of corn and lamb
to the finest feast of this land
come, now,
your lovers have unfurled
their clothes
their thighs glistening like golden knives
ready for the plunging
for the plentiful loving time
To whom shall I turn
to what shall I tell my woes?
My kinsman, the desert tree
denied us sustenance
long before the drought.
To whom shall I turn
to whom shall I tell my woes?
Some say tell the mother goat
she too is kinswoman
elemental sister of your clan
But I cannot tell the mother goat
for she is not here

New Stories

(This is a rough version of the introductory talk I’m going to give to my first class today; I’ve written it out as a kind of mental rehearsal of what I want to talk about, though in the class itself, I’ll try to be a little more impromptu and informal, even dialogic, if I can manage it. The course is called “Generating African Literature”; I’ll post the syllabus eventually).

I can’t begin by giving you a history of Africa, but one of the difficulties of a course like this is that history is really important, and we often don’t know as much as we probably should about African history. We’re going to be reading works of literature whose authors are dealing with historical events and dramatic cultural changes that you and I, most likely, have no direct experience with, and which we often don’t know very much about. So we have to start by grappling, a little bit, with all of the stuff that we don’t know.

We’ll read Things Fall Apart, for example, a book that was written by Chinua Achebe in the late 1950’s on the eve of Nigerian independence. That historical context informs how and why Achebe wrote it the way he did, and how and why his readers read it in the ways that they did. Even though it was written in the moment when the colonial state was collapsing, as Nigeria was becoming independent, it is about the beginnings of colonialism, in the 1880’s. We’ll only read Things Fall Apart, but it was originally envisioned as part of a trilogy, which Achebe had planned to span three generations: Things Fall Apart was the story of his grandfather—the generation that first confronted British colonialism—and the trilogy was to lead to the story of Achebe’s own generation, the generation who would achieve independence in the 1950’s. (No Longer at Ease is that story)

It’s easy to understand why Achebe wrote a historical novel, why the end of colonialism would prompt him to think about its beginnings. Britain’s colonial rule of Nigeria only lasted about 80 years, but it radically transformed the people and societies in the areas they conquered. We can’t do a blow-by-blow history of that transformation, but it’s important for us to have a sense of how quickly that happened, and how deep and tremendous and violent a transformation that was: in the span of three generations—about 80 years—the entire world changed for people in the part of the world we now call Nigeria, and one of the things Achebe is writing about is that transformation in scale. For Okonkwo, the main character of Things Fall Apart, his world is his village, Umuofia, and “the nine villages” of which it is a part; by the time Achebe was writing his novel, on the other hand, 80 years later, he would be a member of the Ibo tribe, a part of the colony and then nation of Nigeria, and an African, a person who lived on the continent of Africa.

Does anyone know where do these words come from?

Nigeria: Okonkwo, and Achebe’s grandfather and that generation, would never have thought of themselves in these terms. “Nigeria” didn’t even exist until a British journalist coined the term in 1897: Britain had conquered and was trying to govern broad stretches of territory around the Niger river—since rivers were the main access routes to the interior—and since the area of control was defined by the river Niger, it made sense to them to think of all the people in that territory as “Nigeria.” But no one who lived in that region before the British came would have thought of themselves in those terms.

Africa: By the same token, the idea of “Africa” is an invention of the West, and an idea that only really begins during the European slave trade: over the four centuries or so in which Europeans bought and sold people of African origin, people whose black skin marked them as subhuman, mere property, the word “African” meant someone who, because they were from the continent of Africa, was condemned to be a beast of burden for white people. Africa is huge, and the idea that people from different corners of the continent are all “African”—with almost nothing in common except the way their skin color made them look different to white people—was only an idea that came into common currency after the slave trade.

(We’ll talk about “Ibo” later).

This is history. You don’t need to know all of this, though t helps if you do. But I go through it to impress upon you the fact that what it meant to be “African”—and what it meant to be “Nigerian”—was always changing, always in flux, and always contested. Before the slave trade was abolished, “African” meant slave, nothing more than property. After abolition, “African” meant something different: officially, Europe colonized Africa in order to stamp out the internal slave trade, essentially to save primitive savages from themselves by bringing them Christianity, Civilization, and Commerce, 3 C’s. For them, Africans were people, just inferior people. By the time of decolonization, which happened in the 1950’s, Africans were refusing to be considered genetically inferior, refusing to be defined by what Europeans believed them to be, and—more to the point—trying to think about what they might have been before Europeans arrived—with guns and chains and money—and began transforming the continent and its peoples beyond recognition. They started looking back, before colonialism, in order to look forward, to the time after it.

This course begins, therefore, in that 1950’s moment, when African writers were struggling to define and re-define themselves, to think about what it meant or could mean to be African, and also to imagine the role of literature in that process. To be an African writer, for someone like Chinua Achebe, was to take part in the struggle to show that Africans were human beings; to replace the stories that were told about Africans by Europeans with their own stories, new stories, different stories. And so, this is the reason why this is a literature course, rather than a history course, and why we can read these books without first learning all about the different countries and peoples these authors come from. History is the problem, the nightmare from which they are all trying to awake. And fiction—or imaginative poetry and drama—is the way they tried and try to do it, to make something new. Instead of accepting the “truth” about Africans and African history, as they would have read about it in European books, African writers wanted to write different truths, new conceptions of history.

To put it differently, “history” is always backwards looking. To understand where “Nigeria” came from, we’d move backwards, looking at the creation of the colonial state—how Europe conquered and ruled the people there—and resistance against it. To understand that, the origins of colonialism, we’d move backwards even farther, to look at the slave trade, why and how that began and what its effects were. And so forth; history is the backward glance, where you use the past to understand the present.

With that in mind, it’s important to remember that just about everything we’re going to read in this class is forward looking. History can tell you why things had to happen the way they did; why the slave trade caused colonialism, for example, and why colonialism caused the contemporary problems of the nation-state of Nigeria. I would propose to you that literature of the kind we’ll be reading does the reverse: instead of explaining why things had to be the way they are, it tries to re-imagine the world in new ways. To explain why and how things could be different.

And so, all of the people we will read are creating something new, and trying to create new conceptions of what it means to be African. They’re trying to put aside all the things that non-Africans have historically said that “Africa” meant, and so, the way to read these books is to put aside everything you know, or think you know about Africa and Africans, and try to hear what it is that the writers are saying about it, what they’re creating and imagining. It’s good to know history. But when history is the problem we’re trying to solve, a certain historical ignorance is not necessarily a bad thing; a lack of preconceived notions can be helpful in helping us learn new truths.

After all, by definition, “fiction” is untrue. We’re reading lies! Okonkwo never existed. And so, if you’re a historian, you can read something like Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and quibble with aspects of how it tells the story of Nigeria in the 1880’s; you can look back and say “it wasn’t really quite exactly like that.” Or, the reverse; we can read this book and say: here is what it was like. This is a book that’s often used in history courses, in fact; where the thing we value in it is what’s true, what really happened.

In this class, we’re not going to read it that way. We’re going to think about literary writing as a creative endeavor: instead of judging it by whether or not it’s true, we want to think about how fictional stories about Africans, by Africans—precisely because they aren’t true—work to re-imagine the world, to create new stories.


I’ve been posting most of my online writing to the New Inquiry these days–with a handful of exceptions–but since people still hitch me to the post of ye old wordpress web-log, I’m re-posting my ZZ’s best of 2012 list here, a year which felt like it happened in the passive voice:

Some films were reviewed:

Some books were written about:

Some television was watched:

And of course, a lot of writing on higher education was done:

In an election year, some America stuff happened:

As Occupy was ended, the violence of the state was considered:

And the intersections of speech and forbidden speech:

Finally, A Breather was taken.

Everything is Different Now, maybe, or not

I asked twitter what counts as “post-9/11” American literature, with or without the “American.” This is what they and I came up with:

  • Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent (1906)
  • Don DeLillo, The Names (1982)
  • Hanif Kureishi, The Black Album (1996)
  • Suheir Hammad, “First Writing Since” (2001)
  • Orhan Pamuk, “The Anger of the Damned” (2001)
  • Salman Rushdie, “Yes, This is About Islam” (2001)
  • Arundhati Roy, “The Algebra of Infinite Justice” (2001)
  • Ward Churchill “Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens” (2001)
  • Wells Tower, “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned” (2002)
  • Granta 77 “What We Think of America” (2002)
  • Amiri Baraka, “Somebody Blew Up America” (2002)
  • Spike Lee, 25th Hour (2002)
  • Slavoj Zizek, “Welcome to the Desert of the Real” (2002)
  • William Gibson, Pattern Recognition (2003)
  • Donald Rumsfeld, occasional poetry. (2003)
  • Michael Muhammad Knight, The Taqwacores (2003)
  • Tom Junod, “The Falling Man” (2003)
  • David Foster Wallace, “The Suffering Channel” (2004)
  • The 9/11 Commission Report (2004)
  • Art Spiegelman, In the Shadow of No Towers (2004)
  • Tony Kushner, Only We Who Guard The Mystery Shall Be Unhappy (2004)
  • Battlestar Galactica (2004-8)
  • Brian K. Vaughan, Ex Machina (2004-2010)
  • Christopher Nolan, Batman Begins (2005)
  • Wes Craven, Red Eye (2005)
  • Interrogation Log of Detainee 063 at Guantanamo Bay (2005)
  • Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005)
  • Rattawut Lapcharoensap, Sightseeing (2005)
  • Frédéric Beigbeder, Windows on the World (2005)
  • Juliana Spahr, This Connection of Everyone With Lungs (2005)
  • Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner (2005)
  • Erik Saar and Viveca Novak, Inside The Wire: Inside the Wire, A Military Intelligence Soldier’s Eyewitness Account of Life at Guantanamo (2005)
  • Ken Kalfus, A Disorder Peculiar to the Country (2006)
  • Alfonso Cuaron, Children of Men (2006)
  • Richard Powers, The Echo Maker (2006)
  • Jess Walter, The Zero (2006)
  • Jonathan Raban, Surveillance (2006)
  • Max Brooks, World War ZAn Oral History of the Zombie War (2006)
  • Laird Hunt, The Exquisite (2006)
  • Nell Freudenberger, The Dissident (2006)
  • Ashis Nandy, “The Other 9/11” (2006)
  • John Updike, Terrorist (2006)
  • Claire Messud, The Emperor’s Children (2006)
  • David Hare, Stuff Happens (2006)
  • Don DeLillo, Falling Man (2007)
  • Juliana Spahr, The Transformation (2007)
  • Denis Johnson, Tree of Smoke (2007)
  • Mohsin Hamid, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007)
  • Paul Haggis, In the Valley of Elah (2007)
  • Sinan Antoon, I’jaam (2007)
  • William Gibson, Spook Country (2007)
  • Phillip Roth, Exit Ghost (2007)
  • Verso, War With No End (2007)
  • Pankaj Mishra, “The End of Innocence” (2007)
  • Yasmina Khadra, The Swallows of Kabul (2008)
  • Christopher Nolan, The Dark Knight (2008)
  • Martin Amis, The Second Plane (2008)
  • Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker (2008)
  • James Marsh, Man on Wire (2008)
  • Coen Brothers, The, Burn After Reading (2008)
  •  Chris Adrian, A Better Angel (2008)
  • Nadeem Aslam, Wasted Vigil (2008)
  • Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (2008)
  • Joseph O’Neill Netherland (2008)
  • Aleksandar Hemon, The Lazarus Project (2008)
  • Neill Blomkamp, District 9 (2009)
  • Armando Iannucci, In the Loop (2009)
  • Jonathan Lethem, Chronic City (2009)
  • Chuck Palahniuk, Pygmy (2009)
  • David Finkel, The Good Soldiers (2009)
  • Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin (2009)
  • Amitava Kumar, A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb (2010)
  • Rachel Zolf, Neighbour Procedure (2010)
  • George W. Bush, Decision Points (2010)
  • William Gibson, Zero History (2010)
  • Lorraine Adams, Harbor (2010)
  • Lorraine Adams, The Room and the Chair (2011)
  • Amy Waldman, The Submission (2011)
  • Lorrie Moore, A Gate at the Stairs (2009)
  • Hari Kunzru, Gods Without Men (2011)
  • Lavie Tidhar, Osama (2011)
  • Edmund Caldwell, Human Wishes/Enemy Combatant (2011)
  • Daisy Rockwell, Little Book of Terror (2011)
  • Lavie Tidhar, Osama (2011)
  • Claudia Rankine, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric (2011)
  • Jarett Kobek, ATTA (2011)
  • Kathryn Cramer, “Am I Free To Go?” (2012)
  • Sam Thompson, Communion Town (2012)
  • Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
  • Poetry of the Taliban (2012)
  • Tabish Khair, How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position (2012)
  • Rowan Ricardo Phillips, The Ground: Poems (2012)
  • Teju Cole, Open City (2012)
  • Azadeh Moaveni, Lipstick Jihad: A Memoir of Growing up Iranian in America and American in Iran (2012)

I can’t be bothered to demand that MLA abolish itself

I like the MLA and I enjoy job interviews; I like seeing old friends, and meeting new ones, and I enjoy talking about job interviews with them. Complaining about the MLA is always a good bonding experience, and commiserating over our depressing collective and individual future is something that brings together my class of precarious graduate students. If I am offered an academic position, I will look forward, each year, to joining with new and old friends in some forsaken strip-mall convention center and finding new problems to commiserate over. But if MLA collapses into the dustbin of institutional history, I might be  first in line to throw a shovelful of dirt on the casket.

“Disruption” is usually a code word for privatization, after all, or its stalking horse: when we anticipate “disrupting the classroom,” what we look forward to will be a mode of pedagogy that is cheaper and more profitable, and almost certainly worse for the students involved. I’ve made this case elsewhere, so I won’t rehearse it here. But it’s a fate I want to avoid because it will be worse for those involved.  In the sense by which education is a good thing, I believe it will become a worse thing.

“Disrupting” the MLA, by contrast, will take a thing which is terrible, by many standards, and make it… well, how much worse? I’m really not sure. MLA and its convention have value. I enjoy it. I enjoy seeing my friends, I’ve been at some great panels (amid the many stinkers), and if I get a job at a school where I’ve interviewed, I will certainly be glad that I did. Going there gets me excited about the profession, and I do value that. But I have also paid through the nose for that value. When you make $15k a year, and your future employment prospects are murky, it’s pretty hard to drop a thousand dollars on plane tickets, hotels, overpriced food, and all the other hidden costs that are involved. One must buy a nice suit so you look like you deserve the job that will allow you to pay for that suit, and nine out of ten people who buy that suit and interview for that job, will not get it. They will simply pay to look like they deserve a job that does not exist for them.

I’ve been lucky; generous friends and family have shielded me from having to pay a full price I’m not sure how I would afford. But most people do pay that full price. And at the most basic level, MLA exists because of the money that job candidates spend as a category, this money that many or most simply cannot afford. Those job candidates fill the hotel rooms that feed the convention’s profit margin, directly subsidizing the ability of the convention center and participating hotels to give MLA a rate that it can afford to pay. Your dues are not nothing—and even paying the reduced graduate student rate is a kick in the teeth—but the cost of the hotel rooms is where the Sheraton gets the money it needs to profitably host the conference. Every lazy tenured professor that gets up and delivers a paper they’ve barely written and hardly prepared—and I’ve seen quite a few in my time—is able to do that because of all the hotel bills that subsidize the convention.

What would happen to the MLA if every single search committee switched to Skype interviews? I am opposed to online education—in at least many of its potential forms—because I think it will be cheaper *and* worse. But would universal Skype interviews be worse enough to justify not absolving all future job candidates of the debt they will accrue applying for jobs they won’t get? It’s a little cheaper for the search committee, and that cheapness would come at the cost of the ability to ascertain whether candidates had achieved appropriate levels of personal hygiene, dress, and conversational grace. It would also impede their ability to judge the things you can judge about a person when you have a spirited and high-stakes conversation about literature, pedagogy, and themselves. These are not nothings. These are somethings. But they are very expensive somethings. And if every job search doesn’t require ten candidates to fly to MLA and stay in an expensive hotel room—if every job search instead conducts the first set of interviews over Skype—they will, collectively, save nine out of ten job candidates the many hundreds of dollars that those job candidates would have spent on a job they wouldn’t have gotten. That’s a lot of un-bought plane tickets and un-bought hotel rooms, a lot of suits un-purchased and un-laundered, and a great many graduate students, adjuncts, and postdocs who can instead spend money on things like rent, food, and not being in debt.

This would have to be a decision that was made collectively, of course; if half the universities conduct Skype interviews and half of them do it the old-fashioned way, a two-tiered hiring process takes shape, a new hierarchy of academic respectability (though is it new? Maybe we’re already there). It might become a point of pride for schools that can afford it to conduct interviews at MLA, and people who can’t afford those interviews won’t apply for those jobs, won’t also wander into cutting edge panels, network with new friends, etc. Moreover, if it isn’t system-wide, it’s more of a savings for the interviewer than the interviewee. A friend was told by a hiring committee that they had switched to Skype interviews to save money for job candidates; he did the Skype interview with them, and then he flew to MLA to do his other interviews—his fourth year on the market—and saved exactly zero dollars on the ticket he had bought and the room he had reserved months ago.

I’m not going to go around calling for a collective switch to Skype interviews, because “calling for” a huge change in a profession I haven’t managed to join—yet? or am I wrong to pretend that I haven’t joined?—is sot of an absurd rhetorical position to assume. And others have made such calls before, and will in the future. But I am in the part of my career where I still pay an arm and a leg and receive a few trinkets in exchange, so I enjoy the trinkets while my attention is drawn to the arm and the leg, and then grumble about it. If I advance to a position where my school flies me to a new city each year and pays my hotel bill, I imagine I’ll probably enjoy the good parts and endure the unpleasant parts (like interviewing a dozen job candidates in a cramped hotel room). But I wonder if I’ll also forget who pays that cost in my place, were I to acquire the position from which I could theoretically call for change? Or would I just enjoy being on the top half of the pile? If I had some kind of voice in the MLA, would I call for its abolition? I won’t waste my breath on having an opinion here; I’m just enjoying having a good grumble. As someone once put it—who was that guy again?—institutions are usually not very interested in solving problems that will make themselves unnecessary. And maybe next year will be the year I’ll register early enough to get the early registration rate.

Published Elsewhere!

Last week, Jacobin ran my review essay of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, entitled Lincoln Against the Radicals.

And today, Inside Higher Education ran my article critiquing Clay Shirky’s advocacy of MOOC’s in higher education.


Tarzan’s White Flights: Terrorism and Fantasy before and after the Airplane

In honor of Gilad Sharon’s statement, yesterday, that the point of attacking Gaza is a barbaric display of dominance, “A Tarzan-like cry that lets the entire jungle know in no uncertain terms just who won, and just who was defeated,” I’m posting my American Literature essay on Tarzan and the deep history of aerial bombardment here:

“Tarzan’s White Flights: Terrorism and Fantasy before and after the Airplane”

The argument is built on the coincidence that Edgar Rice Burroughs started writing his first Tarzan novel a month after the first use of aerial bombardment against “primitive tribes” in North Africa, and the ways the original Tarzan’s “death from above” style blends an American enthusiasm for racialized lynch mob violence with a British desire to take gunboat diplomacy into the skies:

R. P. Hearne’s 1910 Airships in Peace and War, for example, suggested that “in savage lands the moral effect of such an instrument is impossible to conceive,” because “[t]he appearance of the airship would strike terror into the tribes.”…The airplane, as Hearne imagined it, would “enable an expedition to be made with astounding rapidity [and] create the most terrifying effect on savage races, and the awful wastage of life occasioned to white troops by such expeditionary work would be avoided.” And in 1910, Major Baden F. S. Baden-Powell had predicted that airships would be a great asset in “savage warfare” because “the moral effect on an ignorant enemy would be great, and a few bombs would cause serious panics.”…The dream was, almost without exception, that creating nightmarish terror among natives would make it unnecessary to actually exert costly military force. As a British official claimed in 1914, “[I]n a few years aeroplanes or airships will be used in West Africa . . . . They would be invaluable against the hill pagans, and the terror caused by them would probably do away with bloodshed.”

It is a fantasy that has endured; that U.S. imperial strategists in 2003 named the first bombing campaign in Iraq “Shock and Awe” only demonstrates the extent to which the utility of airpower is still, explicitly, its ability to create terror from above. However, while hopeful military thinkers in the teens created the imaginative terms through which fictions of racialized airpower would be articulated for a century to come, technologies get defined both through hopeful fantasies and also through practical use. When the RAF first deployed airpower on a large scale—in Mesopotamia, present-day Iraq—they hoped it would provide the perfect solution to two different problems: on the one hand, a surge in Arab “intransigence” after World War I, and on the other, the need to quell it cheaply, since postwar demobilization of the exhausted military made resources for colonial policing extremely scarce. The fantasy, then as now, was that airpower could deter Arabs into passivity by terror, a bloodless imperial pacification that would proceed by playing on the savage inability to control their own fear, the same “wonderful moral effect” the Italians had hopefully imagined themselves to have produced in North Africa in 1912.

But the interesting part of the essay, to me, is the ways the film Tarzan’s run away from this legacy, as racial violence goes out of style in the 1930’s.

For further context, you may also find these interesting:


“It has been fully contained, but it is not yet extinguished”

“Residents in Richmond. North Richmond and San Pablo. Are advised to shelter in place. Go inside. Close All windows and doors. Turn off all heaters. Air conditioners and fans. If not using the fireplace. Close fireplace dampers and vents. And cover cracks around doors and windows with tape or damped towels. Media news networks will continue to carry updated emergency information. Stay Off the telephone unless you have a life threatening emergency.”

Remember. Remain indoors. Take shelter in your home. Keep duct tape on hand. In case a refinery explodes. Have a home. The homeless have only themselves to blame. Take shelter in a Community. Without refineries. Do not go out in public. Stay off the Phone. Close your windows and await instructions. The people of Richmond. Have only themselves to Blame. Trust. It is Important that you do not politicize a tragedy. Do not politicize a tragedy. Do not politicize a tragedy. Do not politicize a tragedy. Do not politicize a tragedyThe fire is contained.

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