Materials of African literatures

Arts Building 103
Thursday 2 May 2019 (13:30-17:30)

Convenors: Jarad Zimbler ( and Rachel Bower


This half-day CLEMT/DASA workshop aims to explore the making, materials and materiality of African literatures.

In its first session, Rachel Bower (Leeds), Asha Rogers (Birmingham) and Nathan Suhr-Sytsma (Emory) will present on pre-circulated papers*, before inviting questions and remarks from other participants. In the second session, Peter D. McDonald (Oxford) will respond to these papers, and then, in conversation with Jarad Zimbler, discuss the theoretical and methodological frameworks of his books, The Literature Police: Apartheid Censorship and its Cultural Consequences (2009) and Artefacts of Writing: Ideas of the State and Communities of Letters from Matthew Arnold to Xu Bing (2017).

13:30-16:10 - Session I

  • Nathan Suhr-Sytsma (Emory): ‘Christopher Okigbo’s Materials’
  • Asha Rogers (Birmingham): ‘Localities and Globalities in Richard Rive’s Magdalen Library’
  • Rachel Bower (Leeds): ‘Anthologies, Editors and the Materials of Nigerian Poetry’

16:10-16:30 - Coffee break

16.30-17.30 - Session II

  • Peter D. McDonald (Oxford), in conversation with Jarad Zimbler (Birmingham)

* Papers will be available from 23 April. For copies, please contact Jarad Zimbler (


Dr Rachel Bower: ‘Anthologies, Editors and the Materials of Nigerian Poetry’

This paper examines the role of early poetry anthologies in shaping African literary materials, particularly in relation to Nigerian poetry in English. The article re-reads poems by some of the best-known poets of Nigeria, including Wole Soyinka, J.P. Clark and Christopher Okigbo, and considers the effects of literary institutions and networks (including anthologies, editors and markets) on the linguistic materials of their poetry. I also re-read poems across six anthologies by less-established poets, focusing particularly on the work of Michael Echeruo and Okogbule Wonodi. This provides an insight into some of the editorial processes of selection and compilation, and shows how editors and anthologies influence the poetic materials that come to be associated with particular national literatures, especially in relation to Nigeria. Finally, I re-read some of the poems that have since fallen out of fashion, focussing on Adeboye Babalola’s narrative poems in one of the earliest anthologies, A Book of African Verse.  Babalola’s poems rely heavily on Yoruba folk tales, and I ask why such poems rarely appear in subsequent anthologies of Nigerian poetry in English, and what kinds of linguistic materials become most closely associated with ‘great’ Nigerian poetry in English. The paper combines close reading, archival research and Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of the literary field to seek a concept of literary material which includes the linguistic and literary substance of the poems in these anthologies as well as the physical ways in which the anthologies were compiled, produced, circulated and received. 

Dr Asha Rogers: ‘Localities and Globalities in Richard Rive’s Magdalen Library’

Following his death in 1989, Magdalen College (Oxford) received some two hundred books bequeathed by the South African writer Richard Rive, who had studied at the College between 1971-1974 as a Rhodes Scholar working on a PhD thesis on Olive Schreiner. The Rive collection is an archive of world literary networks, structured along relational and affective lines of gift-giving, networked intimacy, and prestige. In it, literary and symbolic capital travels along circuits of peer recognition, as major figures in the canon of world literature (Nobel winners J. M. Coetzee and Doris Lessing) cross paths with anti-apartheid artists, writers and activists (Gavin Jantjes, J. P. Clark, and Es’kia Mphahlele), figures from the black Atlantic (Langston Hughes) and minor, yet crucial, intermediaries of the world literary field such as the translator of Aimé Césaire’s Cahier. Its symbolic presence at Magdalen College, however, invites re-consideration of its local affinities and affiliations, especially given fierce contemporary debates about blackness and decoloniality in Oxford. This paper examines Rive’s Magdalen library from three pertinent perspectives: as an archive of world literary networks; as a prescient contribution to contemporary debates about blackness and decoloniality in Oxford; and as a means of revisiting, by way of anthologisation and adaptation, a familiar text from the Rive corpus: ‘The Bench’, a prize-winning short story of 1954, which helped make his international career.

Professor Nathan Suhr-Sytsma: ‘Christopher Okigbo’s Materials’

‘Once a poet has known the excitement of conceiving a poem and taking it through various drafts, still under the same excitement, the craving will always be with him.’ This sentence, from a lecture by Robert Graves published in 1955, appears in a typescript among the papers of Christopher Okigbo (1930-1967), whose published work is often considered the apex of African modernist poetry. Accounts by his contemporaries suggest that Okigbo practiced what Graves preached. Femi Osofisan has recalled a night of writing during which ‘Uncle Chris’ discarded ‘several rumpled sheets on the floor around him, different versions of the poem he had composed which, when he showed it to me, had only four lean lines!’ Okigbo, so the story goes, ripped up even this draft, saying ‘it was not good enough!’ 

Drawing on the materials of Okigbo’s writing process that are preserved in a private family collection, this paper revisits the two posthumously published sequences on which his reputation rests, Labyrinths and Path of Thunder, in light of the poet’s composition strategies. While many of Okigbo’s papers did not survive the civil war in which he lost his life, extant drafts include revisions to the titles and ordering of poems, as well as to passages within poems. Such attention to the poet as composer may court the charge of fetishizing ‘art for art’s sake,’ a charge of decadence that Robert Stilling has shown to be a persistent intertext for postcolonial poetry. Nevertheless, it also reveals the extent to which Okigbo treated language not just as a tool but as a material on and through which he worked.

Supported by:

Centre for Literary Editing and the Materiality of the Text (CLEMT), The Leverhulme Trust, Marie Curie Actions, Crafts of World Literature