African Literatures and Beyond: A Florilegium. Bernth Lindfors and Geoffrey V. Davis (eds). Rodopi B.V., Amsterdam & New York, 2013. Pp. 426. ISBN: 978-90-420-3738-0 (HB), € 92 / US$ 129.
This anthology, volume 168 in Rodopi’s series ‘Cross/Cultures: Readings in Post / Colonial Literature and Cultures in English’, honours and celebrates the academic achievements of scholar of African literatures, James Gibbs. Bringing together critical essays alongside creative writing by 26 of his colleagues and collaborators, the impressive line-up of scholars and writers represented from across different scholarly communities and geographies (from Eustace Palmer to C.L. Innes to Eckhard Breitinger to Jack Mapanje) is testament in itself to his work in the field.
The collection is at its strongest where the contributions most directly engage with or reflect Gibbs’s strengths and interests as a scholar. He wrote his doctoral dissertation at Leeds University on Wole Soyinka, and the anthology fittingly opens with two essays on Soyinka. Mpalive-Hangson Msiska compellingly reads Soyinka’s creative and critical work in dialogue with cultural studies, using this to highlight the important contribution African critics and writers have made to the ways in which power is read and understood today. Sola Adeyemi offers a reading of The Interpreters that explores the narrative strategies used to represent sex and violence, showing how these ‘capture the birthing pains of a violently disruptive and cancerous growth’ on the idea and realities of nation.
Gibbs was one of the founding editors of the series African Theatre and, while the anthology is framed as reflecting the diversity of his interests, perhaps unsurprisingly it provides particularly rich resources for students and scholars in this area. Eustace Palmer highlights the importance of 2008 collection Theater in Sierra Leone: Five Popular Plays, edited by Iyunolu Osagie, and his essay offers a serious critical engagement with these five play texts. Several contributions on African theatre also pay homage to Gibbs’s careful and important work ‘sleuthing’ (336) in archives. Awo Mana Asiedu writes engagingly about the contemporary relevance of Kobina Sekyi’s play The Blinkards, building out from an essay by Gibbs which recreated the conditions under which the play was first produced in Cape Coast in 1916. Femi Osofisan makes available in print for the first time his 1968 one act play ‘Odùduwà, Don’t Go’, dedicated to Col. Adékúnlé Fajuyi who died during the Biafra war, and writes passionately in a brief introduction about his friendship with Gibbs and his hope that this contribution will appeal to his interest in the archive.
The collection also highlights the important work of Gibbs as an editor. An essay by James Currey and Lynn Taylor provides an overview of the evolution and economics of the book series African Theatre (for which Gibbs edited issues on ‘Festivals’ and ‘Companies’), and African Literature Today, one of the longest running and most influential resources for scholarship on African literature and for which Gibbs continues to serve as Reviews Editor. Kofi Anyidoho in ‘Literature and Orality’ writes vividly about how editing a special issue of Matatu with Gibbs forced him to wrestle with ways of finding appropriate critical methodology and vocabulary to express the communicative impact of performance, and shares an experience on the ‘L train’ that enabled him to move forward his thinking.
The economics of scholarly publishing mean that very few commercial presses are now able to publish festschrifts unless these cohere as a collection of essays or an intervention in the field on its own terms. As the subtitle ‘florilegium’ perhaps signals, this anthology however is built on the eclectic, putting alongside each other a wide range of diverse contributions and geographies – from Anne Adams interview with German Africanist Theodor Wonja Micheal and Bernth Lindfors on Ira Aldridge in Stockholm to short fiction by Robert Fraser and Charles R. Larson. The editors argue for this diversity reflecting the range of Gibbs’s interests and as I have highlighted the names of the contributors alone act as a mark of respect for Gibbs’s achievements. And yet I can’t help thinking a more coherent collection built around the strengths of his work highlighted here – archival research, editing, theatre and Wole Soyinka – would have done Gibbs more justice. Or perhaps this is another project?
Reviewed by: Kate Haines, University of Sussex