Interview: Studying Literature in the Global South

African Scholars
Dr Lynda Gichanda Spencer

Anna Fraine

Studying literature in the Global South was much different from my experience throughout school in the UK and whilst in my first year at York. During the end of my Study Abroad exchange in South Africa for second year, I sat down with my South African lecturer, Dr Lynda Gichanda Spencer, to talk about studying literature in South Africa and the value of doing an exchange as part of an English literature degree.

Anna Fraine: What relevance do you see in an English literature student going on exchange to South Africa?

Dr Lynda Gichanda Spencer: When students from overseas come onto the continent [of Africa], they experience their studies not just from a theoretical perspective but from a practical perspective. The people who are teaching you are embedded in the culture of the continent, they know and experience literature in different ways than you would when you are abroad. I could come and teach you in York, but the way I interact with you would be completely different. [Your peers] experience is completely different from your own. There is something about being in this space. Ultimately, you gain more than ‘book’ knowledge, you actually have a lived experience. When you experience and deal with the realities, and look at the way things have happened in another country, you begin to articulate alternative theories.

AF: Should exchange be part of a literature degree?

Lynda Spencer: I think it should, I would encourage my students to go on exchange. Students need to be made uncomfortable and travelling gives you that experience. I regret that in South Africa we don’t have exchanges within the continent. Especially at this time with the protests and call for decolonisation. South Africa is about twenty years behind most [African] countries [only being decolonised in 1994], they have obviously gone through these experiences- what can we learn from them? Students sometimes think they are reinventing the world, but they need to look to the rest of the continent and see how other countries have dealt with these problems. The South African idea of exceptionalism, thinking that we know it all and we don’t need to look to the rest of the continent needs to be eradicated. When we studied Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s ‘A Grain of Wheat’, you can see it has so much relevance to the situation in South Africa now, though it was written by a Kenyan author in 1967. It is a good thing to expose yourself to the different ways in which things are done in other places; that is a very enriching experience.

AF: Last year during the #FeesMustFall protests there was a call for the decolonisation of the curriculum in South African universities. What do you foresee as the impacts of ‘decolonisation’ on the study of literature in South African universities?

Lynda Spencer: Last year I won a grant that has enabled me to give scholarships to some masters and Ph.D students who want to specifically look at the way in which Africans see themselves, and articulate themselves, in relation to any literary or cultural product. I’m interested in looking at the [African] people who don’t get recognised. For example, everyone knows Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie but there are other contemporary African writers, black feminist writers. You studied some last year in the ‘South African Post-Apartheid Writing’ paper, writers who people don’t know outside of the continent. I’m encouraging students to write about these authors because that’s the only way we can begin to produce knowledge on the continent about people on the continent. Another aspect is that we think literary studies is just about the canon, but in my module I try to bring in things like Xhosa oral literature. If there was time I would also bring in African comedy, African popular literature, African crime fiction, African romance, cinema in Africa; it exists and we should be studying these forms too. I hope decolonisation would broaden the spectrum, we still need to read the cannon but whilst we are situated here and are looking at it from our own perspective we also have our own interpretations to offer. Hopefully the impact would be more critical engagement, diversity and allowing different perspectives to be heard.

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