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Euphrase Kezilahabi’s Kiswahili Poetics: In Translation and in the Global South Curriculum

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Organizer: Ludwig Schmitz

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In surveys of modern Kiswahili literature, Tanzanian novelist, scholar, and poet Euphrase Kezilahabi is generally described as a singularity in terms of his literary ambitions. Between the social-critical debut novel Rosa Mistika from 1974 to the experimental and philosophical novels Nagona and Mzingile from the late 1980s and early 1990s, Kezilahabi appears to have willed a Kiswahili, Tanzanian, and East-African “modernism” and even “postmodernism” into existence. Inspired by nihilistic and existentialist tendencies in the European tradition, Kezilahabi’s writing, as a whole, defies many expectations established by the canonized anglophone African novel, reaching far beyond the didactic into moral ambivalences that deny local metanarratives – of tradition and modernization, dependence and independence, individual and collective. In his later experimental novels, in particular, Kezilahabi even troubles the unmediated notion, now prevailing in popular and academic discourse, of the Global South as a concept understood through its distinction to the West, as its negative sign. Instead, these novels offer an original literary phenomenology that situates truth in a specifically European and African history and experience, in which truth is bound by and to violence and madness. While such reflections may fail to give a full account of the philosophy and poetics of Kezilahabi, even their possibility indicate the urgency of making his writing more accessible, read, and known to students and scholars in the growing field and subfields of Global South studies.

Given the ascendancy of the anglophone in US-influenced academic discourses on African and Global South literatures, the issue is not only translation itself but also the distribution of the skill of reading indigenous African literature in translation. The extant translations of Kezilahabi – a selection of poetry excellently translated into English and a French translation of Nagona and Mzingile – have not sufficed for promoting his writing beyond the already admiring audience of Kiswahili readers. The seminar’s contributions to the unduly small field of Kezilahabi studies will thus be guided by the very practical ambition to not only promote further translation of Kezilahabi, but to develop a scholarly language – a set of historical and theoretical perspectives and questions – for engaging with his writing. Preliminarily, we wish that papers align with one of the following areas: 1) phenomenology, philosophy of history, nihilism and existentialism, 2) Kezilahabi place in Tanzanian and East-African literary history and sociology, and 3) translating and teaching Kezilahabi in curricula of African diasporic and Global South literatures. As a step toward these aims, we will conduct the seminar with a view to publishing an anthology – the first of its kind – on the topic of Kezilahabi.

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