Bellagio Publishing Network  

 BPN Newsletter Issue No 25, July 1999 


African readerships

Conference at the University of Cambridge, May 1999

Dr Stephanie Newell and Professor Lyn Innes
Dr Stephanie Newell is Smuts Research Fellow in African Studies at the African Studies Centre, University of Cambridge, Free School Lane, Cambridge, CB2 3RQ, England. e-mail:

The African Readerships Conference, attended by 73 people from Britain, South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana and Italy, was based on the simple premise that there are multiple groups of readers both inside and outside Africa, and that discussions of African readerships should include more than two homogenised groups of consumers, one in the West and the other in Africa.

As the programme unfolded this premise was fulfilled; a diversity of positions and approaches to the theme emerged. The production of writings by people of African descent was of central importance to speakers such as Vincent Carretta (Maryland) and Helen Thomas (London), both of whom focused upon the eighteenth century and offered challenging reappraisals of Olaudah Equiano's Interesting Narrative. For T. Akachi-Ezeigbo (Lagos) and Andrew Smith (Glasgow), the imperative was to undertake sociological research into reader responses, to study what Africans prefer to read, and to discuss with readers their responses to particular texts. Other speakers, including Sarah Nuttall (Stellenbosch) and Caroline Rooney (Kent), offered detailed theoretical insights into reading and literature in Africa.

Thirteen short presentations involved postgraduate researchers alongside eminent academics from Africa, the USA and Britain. Curiously, many speakers used the example of Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart to illustrate their comments about African readerships, a phenomenon which provoked an important debate in the plenary session about the persistence of a residual canon of African literature amongst international scholars.

African storytellers were integral to the conference, and several of the delegates were also well-known creative writers. In an animated, thought-provoking presentation, the novelist Buchi Emecheta described the discomfort her views have caused to power-holding elites in Britain, be they publishers or white sisters in the academy: African storytellers often uncover troubling political truths, she argued, and her own narratives continue that tradition from a gender perspective. The emphasis upon storytelling continued beyond the formal close of the conference as Ephson Ngadya, the Zimbabwean entertainer, wove animal stories into his dance routine and invited audience participation in his performance. [end] [BPN, no 25, 1999, p 10.]

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