Book entitled But is it Academic? Playing with Strategies of Scholarly Writing.
The question, which is the title of the book and drives it in every part, is posed with a forked tongue. Clearly ‘but is it academic?’ Is rhetorical; it is the raised eyebrow of the established scholar, who takes one look at the anecdote, the anger, the faith, the witch as a source, the jazz matazz of experimentation with words as material, as rhythmic, and who says, skeptically, ‘this is all very well, but is it academic?’. In the examples I provide, says, yes it is and, furthermore, it is politically, aesthetically and academically profound. Each chapter explores dimensions – themes and writing craft – that are not part of the mainstream. They work against it; they are often bounced from the archive; they are sometimes benchmarked out.
Bluntly, unambiguously, I am resisting the power of a singular, the one acceptable format or template of writing to dominate the world. But, many thinkers before me have made this point and have contested that dominance and have written differently, and thrived in the academic world where they have become, deservedly, accomplished. The enterprise of knowledge production is cumulative and the obligation to acknowledge the contribution of others is imperative. Also, there are always exceptions and innovations that call for nuance and the qualifiers of ‘in most cases’ or ‘tends’ or ‘usually’. I try hard in my writing not to hedge in order to protect my back; I do so to remember the maelstrom that is the site of knowledge and the chorus of exceptions.
The idea for this book was launched from the site of the global South. It arises out of my own academic expertise in the field of postcolonial and African studies, but is not restricted to these.
§§ Three chapters of this book-in-progress have been published as journal articles:
- “Sightings of a Fox. Anecdotal and Academic Knowledge”, Axon, Issue 9, Vol. 5, No.2, November 2015. http://www.axonjournal.com.au/issue-9/sightings-fox
- “Eight chickens and there was this goat. Academic Knowledge and Not knowing”, Wasafiri 31.1 (March 2016) issue number 85. Published online: 25 Feb 2016.
- “Academic Happenstance – A Rubbish Tip, an Owl and a Boojum” Axon, Vol 10, issue 2, December 2020.https://axonjournal.com.au/issue-vol-10-no-2-dec-2020/academic-happenstance
§§ Floating in an Antibubble. From South Africa to Salford, A Mosaic of Pictures and Stories. Africa World Press, November 2015. More details here
Floating in an Antibubble is a mosaic of literature, art, fiction and memoir. Brenda Cooper draws on her experience of growing up in Apartheid South Africa, on her family and on her decades of research on African and postcolonial writing.
The fragmented focus of the book is on African migration and Diaspora, coinciding with her own recent migration from Cape Town to Salford in Greater Manchester, with echoes of the migrations of her forebears from Eastern Europe and Russia to South Africa. It is situated in the cross current of the space between our shared personhood and our differences, differences of race, of gender, of history and of generation. This space is unstable and shape shifting. It is the space of the antibubble of the title, which is taken from a poem by Jo Shapcott—‘It’s as easy to make an antibubble in your own kitchen/as it is to open up a crease in language.’
The compass throughout the book is writers and artists, some white like Shapcott, most diasporic women, who are living in London, Antwerp or New York, but whose parents— one or both—were born in Africa. Brenda’s stories are catalysed by their provocations and provocative performances of colour, paint, poetry, drama, novels in verse and poetic fictions.
The book bulges with foxes, wolves, Riding Hoods, Apartheid and ancestors having a mid-life crisis. Its stories are European, African and mixed, mangled and manoeuvred by Brenda and by the artists and writers, who are also depicting their complicated lives and inheritances and who are all performing their humanity.
What it means to be human turns out to be the question behind all these fragments. Not a small question. It is a bedevilled question in the colonial context where humanity was benchmarked against a white and male normativity. The question is too big, too hot, too blinding to be looked at full frontal. Brenda, therefore, begins her book small, by peeling carrots in the opening vignette. It turns out that small becomes bigger and the carrots metamorphose into other objects through the succeeding mosaics – a pink hat, a scruffy duffle bag, ‘Ghana must go’ bags, plastic gloves, a plate fit for Jewish chopped herring, bran muffins and her Bobba’s boot. These objects were light as air in their capacity to shape shift. They were dense and weighty in their ability to be portals into history, politics, families, Yiddish humour, happenstance and a lot of song and dance.
These mundane things are not metaphors. Just say the word ‘AFRICA’ and it is a trope, already polished and executed with malice. Instead, the author holds onto magical, material, stuff to steady her passage in the fleeting antibubble. A bucket, a pair of Yiddish underpants, a shoe, a plate, a dog.
Ultimately the vast span that separates our own tiny, gargantuan lives from the flow of the world may be breached with the help of a boot or a bag. This book works on the assumption that it is only by way of the endeavour to get close to individual lives and their miriad stories that we can approach the vastness of the planet. Only with the mechanics of a weird flying antibubble has Brenda been able to confront some of her own worst fears, which, in truth, is what drove this book.
§§ “The politics of the genre of academic writing; or, Professor Curtin, Professor Clegg, and the African Studies network war”. The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 1–17 © The Author(s) 2015 Reprints and permissions: sagepub.co.uk/journalsPermissions.nav DOI: 10.1177/0021989415592943 jcl.sagepub.com
§§ an edited collection with Rob Morrell entitled Africa-Centred Knowledges: Crossing Fields and Worlds. James Currey, 2014. Click here for the introductory first chapter, and here for an extract published in South Africa’s Mail and Guardian
§§Magical Realism in West African Fiction:Seeing with a Third Eye, Routledge 1998
A full list of my publications can be found in my CV here.