Research in Progress – and Publications

In progress ...

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.

Two chapters of this book have been published as journal articles:


Brenda Cooper, “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.

“Sightings of a Fox. Anecdotal and Academic Knowledge”, Axon, Issue 9, Vol. 5, No.2, November 2015.

This paper challenges us to rethink the commonly held belief that the anecdote is in opposition to the academic. It is written in a style that is appropriate to its interrogation of dominant forms of academic writing. It proposes that the knowledge that may be gleaned from the metonymic of happenstance, rhyme, experience and anecdote, may add to our archive of meaning in interesting ways. And as anecdotes change how we write this meaning, they also affect knowledge-making and the nature of theory itself. ‘Affect’. A pun. Anecdote is as playful as theory is serious. Their combustion could shatter glass.

The paper is centred around three anecdotes about different occasions on which the author encountered a fox. The first two encounters entwined with reading, in one case a short story by Jackie Kay and in the other the species-meeting book by Donna Haraway. The third lent uncanny interpretations to a Zulu opera performance and was the catalyst for the paper. That opera stage, these books, those encounters, their different times and places, are connected by the happenstance of the author’s idiosyncratic experiences. They segue through her and ignite odd connections between life, play, fiction, politics and theory. They enable the weirdness of lapdogs and laptops to meet as a species in the world of Haraway, whose love of technology and of her dog, Cayenne, enable her to re-order the world and to challenge us to re-think our categories.

Brenda Cooper.  “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: DOI: 10.1177/0021989415592943

Also … 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

A full list of my publications can be found here.

Recent work includes ...

Africa-Centred Knowledges: Crossing Fields and Worlds, James Currey, Oxford, 2014 (edited with Robert Morrell).

‘The Plantation Blood in His Veins’: Syl Cheney-Coker and The Last Harmattan of Alusine Dunbar, in Palmer, Eustace & Cole, Ernest (eds.) Emerging Perspectives on Syl Cheney-Coker, Africa World Press, 2014, 183 – 225.

“The West African Magical Realist Novel: Syl Cheney-Coker’s The Last Harmattan of Alusine Dunbar, Ben Okri’s The Famished Road and Kojo Laing’s Woman of the Aeroplanes”, in Palmer, Eustace & Cole, Ernest (eds.) Emerging Perspectives on Syl Cheney-Coker, Africa World Press, 2014, 121 – 155.

“Both Dead and Alive: Schrödinger’s Cat in the Contact Zone”, in Thesen, Lucia and Cooper, Linda (eds.) Risk in Academic Writing: Postgraduate Students, their Teachers and the Making of Knowledge, Multilingual Matters, 2014, 245 – 251

If the Shoe Fits: Appropriating Identity” in Jackie Stacey and Janet Wolff (eds) Writing Otherwise:  Experiments in Cultural Criticism, University of Manchester Press, 2013, 121 – 134

“Women Dancing on Water: A Diasporic Feminist Fantastic?” in Contemporary Women’s Writing, Volume 6 No. 2, 2012, 140 – 158

“Hunting Factishes and Snarks: The Politics of the Poetics of Nonsense” Axon: Creative Explorations, Edition 1,, 2010.

“Resurgent Spirits, Catholic Echoes of Igbo & Petals of Purple: The Syncretised World of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus”, African Literature Today, 27, 2010, 1 – 12.

“The Signifying Donkey” SAVVY: Art, Contemporary, African, Edition 1, 2010, 108-9.

“Language, Multiple Worlds and Material Culture in the Teaching of African Migrant Fiction”, in Gaurav Desai (ed) Teaching the African Novel, The Modern Languages Association of America, 2009, 246 – 258

“The Middle Passage of the Gods and the New Diaspora: Helen Oyeyemi’s The Opposite House.”, Research in African Literatures, Vol. 40, No. 4, 2009, 108 – 121.

A New Generation of African Writers: Migration, Material Culture and Language, James Currey, Oxford, 2008.

Stories Fly: A Collection of African Fiction Written in Europe and the USA, David Philip, 2003.

Weary Sons of Conrad: White Fiction Against the Grain of Africa’s Dark Heart, Peter Lang Publishers, 2002.