by Vincent Ogoti | Nov 27, 2019
How does one tell stories of people whose lives bear scars and wounds of trauma and violence? Jonny Steinberg’s book, Little Liberia (2011), is a testament to the complexities of representing the life of the Other. Steinberg’s book shows the challenges of negotiating the self, the other, and disciplinary norms to craft a story that honors the wishes of the informant without compromising the ethos of scholarly work, which in the case of literary ethnography may include, inter alia, commitment to greater good, taking responsibility for the freedom and the well-being of the other, being open and transparent, and being cognizant of bias. Steinberg’s Little Liberia like his other works – Midlands (2002), The Number (2004), Three-Letter Plague (2008), and A Man of Good Hope (2015) – blends ethnography and biography to tell the stories of Jacob and Rufus whose lives are intertwined in many ways.
I chose Little Liberia for review because Steinberg’s works exemplify what it means to push the boundaries of disciplinary focus to craft narratives that straddle the lived experience of people while remaining anchored in the systematic way of producing knowledge. Steinberg traces Jacob and Rufus’ lives from the present-day streets of Staten Island in New York to Liberia, their country of origin, and back to New York. At the core of the story is the quest for relevance on the part of Rufus and Jacob. They are children of war; born into a tumultuous and chaotic country with a deeply entrenched system of structural violence that limits any form of personal development or fulfillment. They both fight this system, albeit differently. Rufus is the older of the two; a trained tailor with a passion for improving the lives of the youth in Liberia through soccer. Jacob was a student at a university who was keen on taking an active role in liberating his country from the warlords who were tearing it apart. They both fled the conflict, at different times, but ended up in Park Hill in Staten Island – a place where the majority of Liberian refugees in the United States have come to regard as the “Little Liberia.”
Steinberg follows these men as they go about their business of community building in Park Hill. They both work with a large community of Liberian immigrants living in Staten Island, particularly in Park Hill, which has become a microcosm of the country the refugees fled. Here, refugees reenact the very politics that led to their exile and homelessness. Steinberg quickly learns that Jacob and Rufus do not like each other. Even though they share a similar heritage, their trajectories are marred by controversy and back-biting as they compete for attention, influence, and grant money. Steinberg is not a stranger to these kinds of stories. He has remarked in several interviews that his works explore stories of people and communities in transition; that is, he investigates how political transition changes the filigrees of unwritten rules through which people come to understand themselves and the other.
In Little Liberia, Steinberg maps the landscape of Park Hill like a linguistics landscape ethnographer. For instance, as the story unfolds, he lets us into a long shot of the Park Hill neighborhood. The place was quiet. He comments, “perhaps I was on the streets of some abandoned utopia, that this place had once been crowded, but that nobody lived here anymore” (1). He then zooms in to let us see an “ABC Eyewitness News” pitch-black van parked on the side of the road, which lets us into the soundscape, “a disembodied voice, a reply, then another – a veritable commentary tossed from one window to the next.” For several pages, Steinberg does not let us see living bodies; he wants us to take in the landscape and understand its contours. Later in the story, I began to understand that Park Hill neighborhood is as much a character as is Jacob or Rufus. The landscape demands the same attention as do human characters. It is through its description and documentation that we begin to understand how Liberian refugees reenact their lives in the US. Steinberg unravels this landscape in ways that allow us to smell, see, hear, and experience the lives and of people in the neighborhood.
His extraordinary reflective practice draws us into his writing process. He places himself in the story and lets us know of his thoughts. Furthermore, he actively questions his conclusions and even engages his interlocutors to reach a better understanding. For instance, at one point while walking home with Jacob, he says:
I brooded over his (Jacob) last comment: Remember where you are from. The Kids in the room all had American accents and dressed like gang bangers in their low-slung pants, their exposed underwear, and their converse shoes.
‘Was every kid in that workshop African? I asked.
‘They were all Liberian.”
‘Why were there no-African-American there?
He said nothing, and we walked in silence for a long time.
Here, Steinberg honors silence. He wants to understand an issue, but his informant is not willing to diverge any information. He waits for another time to pose the question. This practice is an excellent lesson in literary ethnography – the ability to understand that often, informants do not have a language to articulate their story or even to answer your questions. Steinberg’s practice resists imposing his interpretation on silences. Instead, he waits patiently to reframe the question.
In addition to observation and interviews, Steinberg travels to Liberia to talk with people who knew Rufus and Jacob’s lives before they fled to the US. The visit allows him to present a well-developed story about his informants. It also allows him to ground his interpretation on much wider evidence. His earlier work as a journalist in South Africa plays a role here – he wants evidence, and he goes looking for it. Although this step does not seem necessary, especially if one acknowledges that the value of a literary ethnography does not lie in how well it represents the “objective truth,” it does serve a function in this particular story. Rufus and Jacob make claims about a violent conflict in Liberia that can potentially affect the lives of many families. Thus, it pays to countercheck their claims and the contradictions in their stories.
After spending a year and ten months shadowing Rufus and Jacob around New York, Steinberg completed his manuscript and gave copies to both Jacob and Rufus to comment, clarify, or contest any issue in the manuscript. He told Rufus, “if there are things you disagree with, not just matters of fact, but of perspective, about your fight with Jacob, about your vision for Rosa, about your trip to Monrovia, please share with me” (259). He lets us into his mind to peek on his reason for letting his informants shape the story he will finally publish. “My mind drifted, I felt anxious. I found myself wondering whether I could ever know much about this man’s experiences without being there, next to him, as they unfolded” (259). Here lies Steinberg’s gift as a literary ethnographer – the capacity to understand the limits of your craft. Ethnographers can learn a lot from his practice, that is, allowing the informant to challenge your conclusion and interpretation of their lives.
Later, Jacob called him to complain about problems in the manuscript. Problems that might affect families in the Park Hill neighborhood and even back home in Liberia. How did Steinberg address Jacob’s concerns? He reflects on the role of an ethnographer and the imagination of the informant. I share his reflections here to underscore the complexity of representing the life of the other and how ethnographers can exercise empathy without compromising their ‘agency to represent.’
Reading a book-length depiction of yourself for the first time is shocking, always, for everybody who has had the experience. You have spoken into a voice recorder for months, years. As you talked, you’re censored here and embellished there; you felt increasingly comfortable and in control; you were, in fact, writing a persona into the pages of the book that was still to be written. When you finally open the manuscript, you discover that you never were the one with the pen. The person, the writer, has contrived is recognizably you in detail. But in the spirit, something is awry. The writer has cheated. He has written a you that is not you: certainly not a you that you would care to present. You have given him material that you ought to have kept to yourself, that only you should have the right to clothe and display (260).
This quote underscores the major challenge of literary ethnography: the ethnographer takes the informant’s words (words that may have been carefully selected to build a specific persona), his interpretation of those words, and weaves a story of a persona the informant would rather keep hidden. Steinberg sat with Jacob and tried to understand his complaints. In the end, he managed to change a few passages in the story, but mostly let the story be. He remarks that while a writer of fiction is a master of his house with the freedom to do whatever he wishes; the writer of nonfiction is a renter who must obey the conditions of the lease. It seems then that a literary ethnographer – in this case, a writer who blends ethnography and biography to represent the other has the freedom to use the creative techniques of fiction but must always remember his duty to ethnographic truth (whatever that may be).
by Vincent Ogoti | Oct 18, 2018
The just-concluded 21st Nairobi International Book Fair allows us to reflect on the trends in book publishing in Africa. In a way, international book fairs are a microcosm of the state of publishing in the continent. At the Nairobi International Book Fair, many publishers showcased school textbooks and a few creative or trade books. Save for a few university presses that had tertiary books, it appears that local publishers are not keen on producing knowledge for higher education or for general reading.
In the early 1990s, Philip Altbach argued in his essay, Perspectives on Publishing in Africa, that books were fundamentally significant to the development of African countries. Altbach pointed out that developing local publishing houses will allow African countries to not only create an infrastructure for intellectual culture but also resolve the challenge of sustaining an intellectual life with returns from sharing ideas. His argument underscores the fact that publishing is perhaps the best platform for creating a livelihood for the many Africans who work with ideas.
Altbach wrote his essay in the wake of multiparty democracy campaigns in most of Sub-saharan Africa. He envisioned that in the absence of credible media houses and constant government censorship, publishing houses were well suited to upholding free expression.
Though Altbach was cognizant of the neoliberal forces that privileged international publishing houses to the local ones, he was optimistic that African countries could still build and develop their own knowledge production infrastructure. In addition to South Africa, which had a thriving publishing industry, he singled out Kenya, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe as countries that had made significant progress in developing local publishing industries. He further observed that Tanzania, Ghana, Senegal, and Cote d’Ivoire could build a thriving publishing culture.
Although there are some research and a lot of policy reports that explore ways of developing new reading publics in Africa, most of these studies are either written from a neoliberal perspective that privileges books as commercial entities and authors as self-entrepreneurs or from a western perspective of knowledge production. While there is nothing wrong with publishers getting returns on their investments or authors earning a livelihood from their works, it is troubling when publishers limit themselves to producing school textbooks for basic education because they are more likely to be bought by parents or governments.
In my view, publishers who rely on government tenders undermine their ability to shape a reading public. Instead of producing books that engage society and issues that affect it, these publishers wonder in corridors of hotel conferences conducting workshops on how to write for governments. They are forever chasing government tenders and have no time to innovate or shape the educational agenda. Of course, there is nothing wrong with the act of gaining government tenders, after all, are governments not the major funders of basic education in most African countries? What is wrong are the models of publishing that are specifically geared in meeting government book demand.
If publishing houses are to develop into meaningful knowledge producing platforms, they must redefine their business models. They need to think beyond producing for basic education because most research is conducted at the university level. Since it is already established that few governments are keen on promoting local publishing industries beyond buying textbooks, publishers must devise ways of getting ahead of governments in shaping the reading public. Investments made in tertiary, trade books, and creative books publishing while may seem unprofitable in the short-term, have the potential of shaping the public psyche and developing new reading publics in the long-term, a situation that would be both beneficial to the business interests of publishers and authors, and the development of a nation.
Most publishers are quick to complain that the public does not read books, and therefore, they cannot waste their resources publishing books that will never sell. However, the reality is that many readers face challenges accessing books from the continent because of poor distribution. Many publishers are stuck with orthodox means of publishing that do not match the reading habits of the modern world. Whereas most of the world is doubling their efforts to have books on multiple platforms, most publishers in Africa restrict themselves to print publishing. It appears then that what is mostly construed as a lack of market for books can be addressed by developing better distribution channels.
In most African countries, publishing industries enjoy low entry requirement and have the privilege of autonomy and lack of constant government interference or regulation. This is the kind of freedom that enables innovation and allows creativity to flourish. It then seems to me that there are many opportunities for publishers to build the much-needed infrastructure for knowledge production in Africa. But if publishers participate in promoting neoliberalism, they risk being its first casualty.
by Vincent Ogoti | Sep 24, 2018
Carol Cohn’s Women and War has challenged me to reflect on the following questions: With all the legislation and resolutions calling for a more participatory role for women in peacebuilding, how come peace negotiation tables or peace processes are dominated by men? Will peace agreements be effective if more women were involved? During the 2008 peace negotiations in Kenya, there was a 33% women representation in the mediation team and 25% representation at the negotiation table. The peace agreement signed resulted in a new constitution that gave a very critical treatment to gender. It rejected the historical exclusion of women from the mainstream society and struck at the socio-legal barriers that Kenyan women have faced over history. The new constitution created space for women to maneuver their way in the private and public sphere on an equal footing with men, but also institutionalized direct gender-specific measures that sought to correct the consequences of women’s historical exclusion from the society. Such measures included affirmative actions that sought to elevate women to a pedestal that had hitherto been the preserve of men.
Whether the women negotiators made all this possible is hard to tell, but we can clearly deduce that women did gain a lot from this new constitution. However, the implementation process was clearly designed in a way that involves both genders, that is, no state department or commission can be headed and deputized by people of the same gender. Has this solved the problem of gender imbalance in my country? No. Unfortunately, most agencies headed by women have been criticized in the recent past for underperforming. The public, which does not take into account the fact that the women who were appointed into the offices were either politicians or friends of politicians and that their performance does not in any way reflect the ability of women to hold higher offices, have already expressed their stereotypes that women cannot do certain jobs.
Some initiatives such as affirmative actions have backfired. For instance, when you lower university points for female students, you give them an opportunity to join university but force them to compete with male students for certain majors considered “good” e.g. Medicine, Law and Engineering etc., you haven’t improved their future as much.
I think the best way of involving women in peace processes is to go back to the basics. We first have to educate the society on the critical position a woman occupies. It is not enough that individual women know their rights, the whole society must be educated in this to the extent that they cease from making gender distinctions consciously or unconsciously. When this is done, people will remember to involve women in pre-negotiations, which mostly determines who gets a seat at the table, which in turn determines the affairs of a post-conflict society.
by Vincent Ogoti | Jun 18, 2018
Contrapuntal analysis will show that even when the lives of enslaved Africans were located at the opposite pole of modern identity and when their objectification was at odds with the triumphant subjectivism of modernity, slaves were intimately connected to the political and moral economy of the modern world. It was difficult to imagine a modern identity that was totally detached from the Africans’ subjection (Gikandi, 2011: 81).
Simon Gikandi’s Slavery and the Culture of Taste explores eighteenth-century European and American archive to identify what was excluded from the “discourse of taste and the series of omissions, repressions, and conceptual failures that were its condition of possibility” (25). Gikandi’s uses this century as a reference point because it marks a period when issues of slavery and culture of taste were more prominent. This was also the age of enlightenment in Europe when individuals discovered the increasing significance of personal liberty. Moreover, this was the century when more slaves were shipped from Africa. As Olaniyan writes, “over half of all the enslaved Africans in 366 years of slavery were shipped out or disembarked” in that century. Arguably, this century was the most affected by the phenomenon of slavery. The presence of so many slaves in Euro-American society was bound to shape the lives of people in many ways.
Gikandi uses “culture of taste” to refer to institutions, norms, and practices of high culture in Europe and America. He notes that during this time to refer to one as a “person of taste” meant that the person is “highly cultured and of refined or sophisticated sensibilities” (xii). He reads the eighteenth-century archive contrapuntally to show that modernity cannot be read without incorporating slavery because they are two sides of the same coin. He demonstrates this point by pointing out that “slavery and the culture of taste were connected by the theories and practices that emerged in the modern period” (xiii). Gikandi aims to allegorically engage the archive through interrogating a series of following questions, such as:
What was the relation between aesthetic objects and the political economy of slavery? How do we read these two spheres of social life-one rooted in the realm of the aesthetic, civility, and taste, and the other in the political economy of slavery in the same register (Gikandi, 2011:35).
This essay explores some of the ways Gikandi has tried to respond to those questions. Gikandi reads Euro-American modernity, which is conceptualized as an era of personal freedom that allowed individuals to develop faculties for appreciating art, against the institution of slavery in Africa and the Caribbean. He discusses the story of Anna Margaretta Larpent, icon of social mobility in the culture of taste, writer of voluminous diaries, a woman attuned to the cultural sensibilities of her time; and Nealee, a faceless African woman slave in a coffle, bought for gold dust in a Bambara slave market, destined to die somewhere between Sego and the Gambia. On the one hand, Larpent enjoys her freedom – she goes to galleries, keeps a diary, has coffee in cafes and enjoys art. On the other hand, in Africa, Neale a slave woman howls across the Sahara Desert as her captors are determined to get her to the shore where she will be shipped across the Atlantic. Nealee and Larpent are players in the same era of modernity, albeit playing different roles. They show that although the slave master and the slaves occupied distinct geographies, they were connected through a single political economy.
Gikandi establishes that Nealee’s life, in a way, enables Larpent’s life. In other words, slavery produced sugar and other commodities that allowed and fueled a Euro-American culture of taste. As Gikandi points out, sugar more than anything was a major commodity of modernity. But while we can easily read Larpent’s story, Neale’s story is buried in accounts narrated by European masters, which raises a question about the extent to which we can rely on these narratives. How can we engage the archive when it is solely a product of European hegemony and racism? Gikandi examines this phenomenon through what he calls “the paradox of presence/absence.” Here, he notes that “the very social classes that were considered to be outside the domain of taste functioned as counterpoints of the ideals of polite behavior or even as figures of desires” (27). He shows that even though European masters wrote the archive, we can read it contrapuntally to reveal what is omitted.
Nealee’s life negates the achievement of European modernity. It questions the assumptions of the enlightenment and contests the whole idea of modernity. This kind of reading is conspicuously absent from European accounts of this century. Perhaps the absence of slaves in Britain made it difficult for Europeans to conceptualize or represent slaves as integral to their society (Gikandi, 2011). It made it even harder for them to interrogate their freedom as a product of modernity of which slavery was a significant part. As Gikandi reflects, “it is clear to him that one of the reasons that slavery could not be included in the discourse of taste, even when it pervaded its cultural forms, is because it was not compatible with the epistemological categories that defined high culture” (37). For such a society, Larpent’s story of self-fashioning takes precedence as a visible form of life. Nealee’s story is invisible and has no place in such a society. Larpent’s way of life was important to her self-fashioning in public space, and this centers her in a “historical moment in which the rise of a culture of taste as the mediator of social position constituted an important mode of freedom” – an essential element of the age of Enlightenment (56).
In conclusion, Gikandi’s project shows that the eighteenth-century archive is still relevant in African cultural studies. Engaging the archive creatively as Gikandi has achieved through allegory will lead us to new ways of understanding slavery and colonialism.