Literary Journalism and Africa's Wars, 5-6 June 2015, Nancy (France)

full name / name of organization: 
John S. Bak, Université de Lorraine / IALJS

Working in partnership with various research centers -- Oxford Centre for Life-Writing (Wolfson College, Oxford University), Medill School of Journalism (Northwestern University), ReSIC (Université Libre de Bruxelles), and the Experimental Media Lab (Academy of Fine Arts Saar) -- the Lorraine research groups I.D.E.A. (EA 2338: Interdisciplinarité dans les études anglophones), C.R.E.M. (EA 3476: Centre de recherche sur les médiations) et Écriture (EA 3943: Centre lorrain de recherches interdisciplinaires dans les domaines des littératures, des cultures et de la théologie) are announcing a call for papers for a conference, "Literary Journalism and Africa's Wars: Colonialist, Decolonialist and Postcolonialist Perspectives."

The conference, which will be held on the Nancy campus of the Université de Lorraine from 5-6 June 2015, hopes to bring together scholars of literary journalism, reportage, le journalisme littéraire, jornalismo literário, el periodismo literario, literaire non-fictie, giornalismo letterario and literarische Reportage from England, the U.S., France, Belgium, Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, Italy and Germany to discuss a topic that has received little attention in the academic community: Africa's colonial wars at the interdisciplinary crossroads of literature, history and journalism.

The three keynote speakers will be:

- Patrick de Saint-Exupéry, cofounder and editor-in-chief of the magazine XXI and author of three reportages on the Rwandan genocides, L'inavouable, La France au Rwanda and Complices de l'inavouable.

- Mark Bowden (confirmation pending), author of Black Hawk Down on the Battle of Mogadishu.

- Jean Hatzfeld, author of three reportages on the genocide in Rwanda, collectively entitled Récits des marais rwandais.

"All news out of Africa is bad," writes literary journalist Paul Theroux in the opening line of Dark Star Safari (2002), the account of his journey through contemporary Africa. The legacy of the Berlin Conference of 1884-85 -- the "Scramble for Africa" between the French, Portuguese, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Belgian, German and English -- has left the continent scarred by assassinations, coups, pogroms and genocides. The two fin de siècle Boer Wars secured England's control over South Africa but presaged the end of the British Empire elsewhere in the world. The Herero wars against German colonial rule in present-day Namibia resulted in the first genocide of the 20th century -- a genocide for which a member of the German government officially apologized as late as 2004. Portugal's Guerra do Ultramar with Angola, Mozambique and Guinea Bissau/Cape Verde reached home when a coup engineered by the Portuguese army overthrew the Estado Novo government and left the colonies to the African guerrillas. The Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya, the Algerian War of Independence against France, the Rwanda genocide of ethnic Tutsis by ethnic Hutus, Joseph Kony's guerrilla war in Uganda and South Sudan... The list is seemingly endless. Each of these conflicts has attested to the continent's growing pains before, during and after colonialism – and has fed the affluent West's insatiable appetite for, in Theroux's words, "proof of savagery on Earth."

Western history and literature have, of course, largely captured the wars that ensued from colonization, decolonialization and postcolonialization in Africa. So too has its press. The general trend has been either to romanticize Africa as some Jungian shadow of the West's darker self or to reduce the entire continent to a patchwork of backwards peoples more loyal to tribalism than national identity. Different from these media, literary journalism tries to overcome what Hannah Arendt has termed the "banality of evil," that indifference to violence resulting from its overexposure. By bringing readers closer to the actors that make and oppose the wars that devastate the continent, successors of colonial rulers, children soldiers, volunteers of international humanitarian NGOs, the military and terrorist guerrillas, corrupt government officers, tribal leaders and witch-doctors turned prophets, literary journalists seek to renew awareness to the plight of Africans and to stress that, ultimately, war is about individual stories.

Reporting at the crossroads of documentary and opinion, literary journalism is a fertile ground from whence to apprehend war from both Western and African perspectives. American reporters Richard Harding Davis and Howard C. Hillegas offer their first-hand accounts of the Second Boer War in With Both Armies in South Africa and With the Boer Forces, and Mark Bowden covers the U.S. military's involvement in Somalia during the Battle of Mogadishu in Black Hawk Down. War correspondent Henry T. Gorell covers the American and British fronts in North Africa during World War II in his memoir Soldier of the Press. Celebrated Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński recounts his experiences of the Angolan Civil War in Another Day of Life, a controversial book that some see as reproducing the Western biases found in colonialist literature and history. Another Polish journalist, Wojciech Jagielski, describes in The Night Wanderers the Lord's Resistance Army on-going military use of children in Northern Uganda and South Sudan. As for two of France's grand reporters, Jean Hatzfeld details the gruesome atrocities of the Rwanda genocide by both the survivors and their attackers in Récits des marais rwandais, and Patrick de Saint-Exupéry denounces France's role in the genocide in L'inavouable, La France au Rwanda and Complices de l'inavouable.

African literary journalists are fewer, partly because they would be seen as writing within a Western tradition of "New Journalism," but their work can still be found in newspapers or magazines, such as South Africa's Drum writers Can Themba and Nat Nakasa. Yet Kenyan author and journalist Binyavanga Wainaina's Granta piece "How to Write about Africa" -- published in the reportage magazine's 2005 issue, The Views from Africa -- still denounces the clichéd reporting on Africa that has been largely produced in the West. As anti-colonialist prejudices dissipate over time, literary journalism will eventually gains gravitas among African journalists and writers, and there will no doubt be many more reportages written in the near future. Perhaps there are already several reportages out there that we are unaware of today.

Suggested topics:

1) What qualifies reporting in Africa as "literary journalism"? How does it differ from traditional models produced in the US or in Europe? What makes African journalism about war particularly "literary" and can African literary aesthetics be appreciated on their own merits or must they adhere to Western standards?

2) Does this "literary" nature of African journalism feed into white colonialist fantasies about black Africa (as Kapuściński has been charged)? Is it voyeuristic? Or does it capture the realities of war better than traditional journalism?

3) Do literary journalists in Africa maintain an objective stance in their reportages? What is their relationship with their readers? Their newspapers? Their publishers? Their countries? What ideological changes take place when the literary journalist writing in Africa is African, European or American?

4) Why use literary journalism instead of traditional news reporting when covering wars in Africa? How does one become a literary journalist in Africa and what are the consequences?

5) What noticeable changes take place in the literary journalism written during colonial, decolonial and postcolonial times? How do the differing natures of the wars shape the reportage that they produce? Do these reportages follow European models, or have distinct nationalist models emerged over the years? If so, what has instigated the changes?

Please send abstracts of 300 words and a brief cv to John S. Bak by 15 November 2014.

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