CL History Africa, Film, and Comparative Literary Studies

Rachel Gabara


I have been thinking about Comparative Literature since I was eighteen. My undergraduate and graduate work and first academic job were all in Comparative Literature, in departments and programs in the United States (Yale, Michigan, and Princeton) and in France (Paris III). As an undergraduate, I studied literature in French, a language I began to learn in seventh grade. My Russian language and literature courses in college were made easier by the Polish I heard spoken at home by my parents (and which I went on to study formally in graduate school). I began my graduate studies with the intention to “compare” French and Russian literature, but ended up writing a Ph.D. dissertation that analyzed autobiography in words and images, by French and Francophone African and Caribbean writers and filmmakers. In my first years as an assistant professor, I taught a wide range of courses that either focused on or included African literature and film, an area of study that was new to the Department of Comparative Literature I had joined. More than twenty years after discovering Comparative Literature, I am now on the faculty of the Department of Romance Languages at the University of Georgia, where I teach French and Francophone African and Caribbean literature and film to undergraduates and graduate students without English translations or subtitles.


From this summary of my academic trajectory, it is evident how changing ideas about Comparative Literature in the 1980s and 90s marked my career. My shift from a traditional pairing of two national literatures in different languages to a focus based on what my graduate program called fields — French and Francophone, literature and film – followed from both my evolving interests and an economic imperative. A few years into my graduate studies, one of my advisors looked at my first attempt at a dissertation proposal and told me that I needed to drop a language and prepare myself for a job in a national literature department, since jobs in Comparative Literature were near impossible to get. I followed her advice, and she must have been as surprised as I was when my dissertation on work in French landed me a Comparative Literature job. Since then, my choice of areas of specialization has forced me to confront a number of disciplinary questions around both the “comparative” and the “literature” aspects of Comparative Literature. Does someone writing about Francophone autobiography or documentary film in West and Central Africa (my current book project) belong in a Department of Comparative Literature or, for that matter, of Romance Languages? In what follows, I would like to explore what Albert Gérard, a Belgian scholar of English Romanticism who taught in the Congo in the mid-1950s, called “African Lessons for Traditional European Comparatists” (“Literature” 50) via a brief overview of Africa’s troubled history within the discipline of Comparative Literature.


Comparative Literature was institutionalized in the United States after World War II and the American Comparative Literature Association founded in 1960. Although departments of Comparative Literature were created to work across the boundaries of language established by national literature departments, until relatively recently they, for the most part, limited their scope to Europe. In 1961, Henry Remak defined Comparative Literature very generally as “the comparison of one literature with another or others, and the comparison of literature with other spheres of human expression” (Bassnett 31), but in his 1967 presidential address to the Modern Humanities Research Association, C.L. Wrenn struggled to delimit a discipline that seemed overwhelmingly wide-ranging. Wrenn claimed that “fundamental differences in patterns of thinking among peoples must impose relatively narrow limits. An African language, for example, is incompatible with a European one for joint approaches in Comparative Literature study,” and he concluded that only “European languages, medieval or modern” were appropriate for comparatists (Bassnett 19-20).


This concern about range and comparability has pervaded discussions about Africa’s place in Comparative Literature. The 1965 Report on Professional Standards to the A.C.L.A. stressed the urgency of setting standards “before our subject gets too thinly spread” (Bernheimer 21). And toward the end of the 1970s, Robert Clements devoted three pages of his Comparative Literature as an Academic Discipline to the linguistics of the “African problem.” He made the problem disappear but, unfortunately, African languages had to disappear along with it:

Africa, which would seem at first to present the major language problem, presents fortuitously little difficulty, for the main literary vehicles will remain English and French. Portuguese will surely decline, especially as the chief theme of its poetry, liberation, has been achieved. The same fate awaits Afrikaans .… The languages of Alan Paton in the South and the francophone Kateb Yacine in the North are preferred to a continent-wide Babel (31).

Clements foreclosed any objection to this exclusion of works written in African languages by contending that “one can hardly expect a comparatist to know these minor languages that not even the Africans themselves read” (33). And, he concluded, if anything worthwhile should get written in an African language, it will eventually be translated, a curious and strategic exception to Comparative Literature’s usual requirement of access to the literary object in its original language.


What followed Clements’ declaration was a conscious exclusion of African literature in African languages and in non-European genres. The terms of this exclusion manifest an anxiety about the competence of the non-African comparatist. The 1975 Report on Standards made it clear that any consideration of African literature would have to pass through the continent’s contact with Europe:

The growth of interest in the non-European literatures is another development we can welcome, while cautiously searching for ways to accommodate this interest to our own traditions. In the cases of literatures produced by peoples in contact with Europe, this accommodation is easy. (Bernheimer 36)

One of the central issues here seems to be one of common ground. Are there languages and literatures that everyone worthy of a Comparative Literature degree and teaching position needs to know? Harry Levin posed what seemed to him to be a rhetorical question in his 1968 presidential address to the A.C.L.A.: “What shall it profit our students to gain Swahili and have no Latin?” (Bernheimer 131). Can one be a comparatist without Latin and Greek, without French and German, without “accommodating one’s interest” to the European literary tradition?


There is by now a substantial body of work in English, French, and Portuguese that lies somewhere between what we think of as traditionally European and traditionally African modes of written and oral literature, which forces us to rethink not only the conventional divisions of literature by nation or language but those by continent as well. Writers like Chinua Achebe, Ahmadou Kourouma, and Mia Couto have created hybrid literary languages, between Igbo and English, Malinké and French, Creole and Portuguese, as well as hybrid literary forms that blend African oral and European novelistic traditions. Their work calls for nuanced analysis on many levels, requiring a knowledge of both European and African languages and traditions. It is important to note, furthermore, that African literary studies can be comparative without any necessary European involvement. Here I’d like to return to Gérard, who asserted over thirty years ago that “the comparative approach is absolutely necessary for the study of African literature in its relation to the other literatures of the world, but also on its own, as a purely African phenomenon” (Comparative Literature 4).


Gérard began his acquaintance with African literature in English, reading Amos Tutuola, Achebe, and Cyprian Ekwensi but:

After some time, I began to wonder whether African people had really produced no literature except in the languages of their white conquerors. This, of course, is a flattering notion for the European, who likes to entertain the idea that he was the one that brought civilisation to illiterate hordes of black barbarians. I seized most eagerly on Janheinz Jahn’s first [1965] Bibliography [of Neo-African Literature] ... and I noted with surprise that about 50% of the writings he listed were in nearly 50 African languages (Comparative Literature 13).

We have ample proof that Africans produced literature in their own mother tongues long before Clements claimed that comparatists did not need to learn African languages since African writers themselves had rejected them. Jahn, moreover, had included only those modern texts written in the Roman alphabet and not those in Arabic script. Gérard also reminds that language and literary form and genre are intimately connected, in Africa as elsewhere, using praise poetry as one example of the fact that “the preservation of vernacular languages ensures the maintenance of peculiarly African genres, which may become one of the continent’s contributions to world literature” (“Literature”  47). We may investigate the reciprocal relationships between African and European literatures, but we may also “compare” the particularities of African expressive culture, to adopt Mary Louise Pratt’s term (Bernheimer 63), as nourished by local traditions and languages.


In his disciplinary history, Clements recounted that Dylan Thomas once approached Professor Herbert West at Dartmouth College and asked him what he taught. When told “Comparative Literature,” Thomas responded “’Ah! And to what do you compare it?’” (2 n.1). This comical question now seems more appropriate than the traditional (and quite tired) “What do you compare?” Comparatists generally agree that their domain should include relationships between literature and other arts, including music and painting. Film was not explicitly considered to be one of these arts until the late 1970s, at which point the model became one of adaptation or comparative narratology, wherein one was to compare novels and the films based upon them or to teach a “Literature and Cinema” course. Only fifteen years ago, while I was in graduate school, Sandy Petrey argued that the only way for foreign language departments to “restrict their activity to manageable proportions” was to stick to literary criticism, “the area in which most productive scholars in French departments in the United States were trained” (15, 12).


To work against Petrey’s self-fulfilling prophecy, which I suggest constitutes another example of disciplinary performance anxiety, I would like to conclude with an analysis of an African film that has been important for my research and that I’ve taught a number of times, Jean-Marie Teno’s 1992 Afrique, je te plumerai [Africa, I Will Fleece You]. African cinema has engaged from its beginnings in the early 1960s with language choice and interaction, the intermingling of literary and oral traditions, and the mixing of genres, all issues very familiar to comparative literary studies, and Teno’s film is no exception. It combines documentary images in color from Teno’s contemporary investigation into the state of the Cameroonian publishing industry with black and white fictional reenactments of his past and black and white or sepia newsreel documents and excerpts from the Hindi musical films he used to watch as a child. A reflexive documentary, the film calls for detailed formal analysis; Teno has astutely edited together these different media and used disjunctive sound to structure the way we see and understand the images.


The narrative framework of Afrique draws on and innovates within an African oral tradition; Teno plays the role of a griot, jeli, or storyteller, but with quite a few twists. He links his personal history to an analysis of the legacy of French colonialism, while also reminding us that an indigenous written language existed in what is now Cameroon before the successive colonizing efforts of Germany, Great Britain, and France. King Njoya developed the Shumom language from a hieroglyphic system with 510 signs into a system of 70 phonemes, and the language was taught in schools which were later closed by the French, who forced children to attend French-language schools. Teno does not reject French, however, in an oppositional move that might replace an exclusion of the African with a repudiation of all that is non-African; not only is his film narrated in French, but he closes with praise for a Cameroonian father whom he films on the side of the road teaching his children to write French. His film is, among other things, a comparative study of languages and literatures, and demands as much of its spectators and critics.


The 1993 “Bernheimer Report” included in Comparative Literature in the Age of Multiculturalism marked an important turning point for the discipline. And over the past twenty years or so, comparatists have begun to include African texts in their curricula. These, and most often Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, were at first tacked onto the end of introductory survey courses and figure most often in courses called “World Literature(s),” “World Literature(s) in French,” etc. Even now, the globe all too often remains divided between center and others, “English” and “Anglophone,” “French” and “Francophone,” “Portuguese” and “Lusophone.” However, inspired by the work of Stuart Hall, Edouard Glissant, and others, in collections such as Comparative Literature in an Age of Globalization and A Companion to Comparative Literature, a number of comparatists now encourage us to think more seriously about flows and relations of people and ideas and forms, located either in specific historical contacts or in a thematic bringing together of incongruous spaces.


I have learned since my first years in Comparative Literature that African literature and film offer us models not only for a more global or transnational study of literary forms and genres, but also for the comparative study of verbal and visual narrative. I do not mean to argue for a particular comparative approach with respect to African expressive culture, since every scholar has to work within his or her fields of interest and expertise. Moreover, departments of groups of national languages are becoming much more common than national language departments and have opened themselves to new geographies and media as has Comparative Literature. Institutional considerations aside, we perhaps need to reflect on theories and modes of comparative analysis across languages and boundaries of nation and medium instead of thinking of Comparative Literature as a discipline to which specific texts, kinds of texts, or comparisons of texts would belong.


Works Cited


Bassnett, Susan. Comparative Literature: A Critical Introduction. Oxford, Blackwell, 1993. Print.

Behdad, Ali and Dominic Thomas, eds. A Companion to Comparative Literature. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011. Print.

Bernheimer, Charles, ed. Comparative Literature in the Age of Multiculturalism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1995. Print.

Clements, Robert J. Comparative Literature as an Academic Discipline. New York: Modern Language Association, 1978. Print.

Gérard, Albert. Comparative Literature and African Literatures. Via Afrika Limited, 1981. Print.

Gérard, Albert. “Literature Emergent: The Euro-African Experience.” Comparative Literary Theory: New Perspectives. Council on National Literatures, 1989. Print.

Petrey, Sandy. “When Did Literature Stop Being Cultural?” Diacritics 28.3 (1998): 12-22. Print.

Saussy, Haun, ed. Comparative Literature in an Age of Globalization. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2006. Print.




Rachel Gabara is Associate Professor of French at the University of Georgia. She is the author of From Split to Screened Selves: French and Francophone Autobiography in the Third Person (Stanford, 2006) as well as articles on African film in Global Art Cinema: New Theories And Histories (Oxford, 2010) and Italian Neorealism and Global Cinema (Wayne State, 2007). She is currently writing “Reclaiming Realism: From Documentary Film in Africa to African Documentary Film,” a book-length study of post-independence documentary in relation to the history of French colonial film in West and Central Africa.



Inquire: Journal of Comparative Literature

Brought to you by Graduate Students from the Program in Comparative Literature
at the University of Alberta

ISSN 1923-5879
Email: inquire [at]

Join the Discussion