My after-Christmas is usually spent in a suit and tie, at the big, 3-day MLA conference — where all the literature professors in North America get together and try to impress one another with advanced theoretical jargon and turtle-neck sweaters in the darkest possible shades of black. For the past six years, the South Asian Literary Association has also had a conference that piggybacks on the main MLA. Everyone calls it the SALA conference (I know, unfortunate acronym; trust me, it’s been noticed before!), and it’s an academic space where no one looks at you funny if you are in a sari or a “FabIndia” khadi kurta.
This year the focus at SALA was on literature of the South Asian diaspora, and the keynote speaker was Gaurav Desai, who gave a talk was closely focused on the literary history of South Asians in East Africa. I won’t say much here about Gaurav’s actual thesis (look for his upcoming book, which is entirely dedicated to the Indo-Africans); instead, I’ll stick to simply mentioning some of the names he mentioned. While Gaurav did make brief reference to some famous Indian Ugandan exiles, like M.G. Vassanji, most of his talk was focused on lesser-known figures, such as Peter Nazareth and Yusuf Dawood. He also gave some helpful leads for others interested in the topic. He mentioned, for instance, Robert Gregory’s 1972 history of “India and East Africa,” as well as Cynthia Salvadori’s We Came in Dhows, which is actually quoted on some Sikh websites for the background on East African Sikhs.
Commentators like Shiva Naipaul (Sir Vidia’s deceased brother) focused earlier on the distance of the Asian community from black Africans before the traumatic exodus of the early 1970s. And indeed, anecdotally, one hears that the Asians in Africa tended to hold themselves aloof from “native” Africans, at least before Idi Amin. Desai argues that there were some members of the Asian community — especially artists, playwrights, and poets — who were trying to envision a sense of shared culture with their black African neighbors.
One name that came up a lot in this regard in Desai’s talk was Rajat Neogy, a Ugandan of Indian descent who started a famous African magazine called Transition. Neogy’s magazine was a freethinking forum for many of the major postcolonial intellectuals in the 1960s and 70s (some of them are named at Wikipedia, while others are named at the Transition website). The magazine went defunct in 1976, when Neogy was arrested by Idi Amin’s henchmen, but it was revived in 1990 by Henry Louis Gates (among the early contributors to the magazine). Transition is now based in the U.S. — as are most of the writers who wrote for the original magazine, not surprisingly.
Another name mentioned by Desai was Peter Nazareth, a writer of Goan and Malaysian ancestry, who actually worked briefly in the Idi Amin regime before getting out in 1973. He wrote a novel about Amin, called The General is Up, that sounds pretty interesting. According to the Wikipedia entry on him, Nazareth now teaches at the University of Iowa.
Has anyone read any of these writers’ works?
While on the subject of east Africa, a quick side-note: at the main MLA, I was thrilled to see Ngugi w’a Thiong’o read from his new novel, The Wizard of the Crow on Friday evening. Parody is one of the best weapons with which to battle the sickening corruption of postcolonial dictatorships, and Ngugi wields it with ferocity and charm. I’m looking forward to getting the book.