Accepted paper:

The philosopher also laughs: subversive traditions in Senegalese writing


Jonathon Repinecz (University of California, Berkeley)

Paper short abstract:

This paper analyzes how the work of Senegalese writer Boubacar Boris Diop mobilizes the potential of oral traditions to be self-reflexive, dynamic, and critical of the modern world.

Paper long abstract:

Outside of anthropology, the place of oral traditions in West African cultural inspiration is often either neglected or flattened. This is especially true in scholarly discussions of written literature. "Traditionality" is construed as an object of wistful reminiscence, the authentic but dying remedy for modernity's discontents, or as the proof of Africa's specifity. Far from embracing these views, contemporary practitioners of written literature in West Africa explore, question, and adapt the relevance of oral narrative traditions in particular, and the category of "traditionality" more generally. Rather than framing this category as a "new nativism" (Mbembe) or a return to authenticity, the goal of writers like Boubacar Boris Diop of Senegal is to show that such a source of cultural inspiration has always been capable of change, social and political criticism, and self-reflexivity, while mobilizing its often subversive potential in their writing. Diop aligns the critical power of Senegalese oral epics and folktales with that of the written novel genre, long associated with a certain literary modernity because of its power to challenge dominant cultural discourses, practices, and regimes of knowledge. This paper proposes to identify a "modernist" literary approach to traditionality, exemplified by Diop, which draws inspiration from anthropological insights into the dynamism of oral narrative traditions. In this aesthetic, tradition and modernity become not polarized opposites, but mutually constitutive terms. Examples from Diop's Wolof-language novel Doomi Golo [The Monkey's Offspring] (2003) and French-language novel Le Cavalier et son ombre [The Knight and his Shadow] (1997) will illuminate this analysis.

panel P031
The evolving social role of oral literatures in 21st century African communities