Theory Teacher's Blog

Transnational Communities, Multi-Ethnic Literature, and the New Issue of Ogina

I’m happy to report that the fourth issue of Ogina: Oromo Arts in Diaspora has been released on the internet just in time for Christmas. The new issue almost instantly got some play on [here] and [here]. It kinda rocks.

And as always, it reminds me of some theoretical questions. One of the things in this issue is a review of Dinaw Mengestu’s recent novel, The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears. I’ve taught this novel a few times in my classes, and as far as I know, the review in Ogina is the only one that says anything critical about it. Why is that? Why has no other magazine or newspaper criticized that novel?

It’s impossible to say for certain why. For one thing, it is a really well-written novel, which is why it has won awards, and consequently reviewers will tend to praise it. Mengestu has got some skills. For another, there are very few African immigrants publishing novels with the major publishing companies, and so, at this particular moment of literary history, reviewers want to nurture this talent, not squash it. But I think the real reason has to do with the critical perspective and the location of the reception. Since the novel was published by one the largest British-American publishing companies, most of the reviews likewise take place in the mainstream American and English media, so for them, this is an immigrant story — contributing to the diversity of these nations and supported institutionally by a variety of academic associations including MELUS and MESEA. From this perspective, Mengestu’s novel is superb, despite a few aspects of the plot that are a bit improbable (aspects that, as the Ogina editors point out in their review, the predominently middle-class readership might not notice.)

But Ogina has a different critical perspective than the mainstream media and academic institutions of the United States and Europe. Its perspective comes from a transnational politics — Oromos maintaining their affiliation with Oromos around the world and back home in Ethiopia (or, in Oromia as they might say.) Many of the contributors were born in the Oromia region. So, its review of a novel published by a major British-American publishing house (Penguin) appears alongside interviews of Oromo pop-musicians, artworks both traditional and contemporary, poetry in the Oromo language, and an essay about how art is a tool for political resistance. The difference between a review appearing in the NY Times and one appearing in an Oromo publication is pretty obvious. For a webzine like Ogina, art is not just about some multicultural identity politics; rather, as Demitu Argo’s essay about resistance intelligently discusses, it’s about struggle — a struggle that is sometimes violent.

There is quite a lot more to say about these different perspectives, and I have blogged about them elsewhere [here]. There is especially more to say about the question of violence. But I defer both of these questions to another time.


December 22, 2009 - Posted by | global, Oromia, race, teaching

1 Comment »

  1. I want to add a comment to my own post because somebody recently asked a question that gets asked a lot — what does “Ogina” mean? It’s not a word that’s familiar to most Oromos even. A more detailed explanation of what it means and how that word came to be is in the editorial of the first issue called “About Us”. But of course, my blog being what it is, I want to add my own theoretical spin to what that editorial says.

    First, to briefly summarize the editorial. It says that the word Ogina is kind of a made-up word meaning “arts.” The editors discovered it in an Oromo-English dictionary, but soon found out that it is not a word ever used by Oromos in practice and was probably invented by the author of the dictionary for the sake of translation. Linguistically, it’s an adaptation of the word “ogumma” which means something like “skills.” The question that the editors raised in their first issue was why use this made-up word for their new webzine?

    How to answer this question? The theoretical spin I want to give to their answer is based on a book I’m currently reading by Negri and Hardt called Commonwealth (which I mentioned in my blog about two months ago.)

    In one chapter of that book, Negri and Hardt distinguish among modernity, anti-modernity, and alter-modernity. Modernity is usually identified with the technology, industrial revolution, and imperial expansion of Europe. Forms of anti-modernity are often articulated by people resisting the imperialist colonization and economic exploitation by European-American capitalism. The famous theorist of anti-colonial struggle Frantz Fanon identifies this tendency of anti-modern rhetoric to romanticize the primitive, pre-colonial past. But Fanon says this is a trap. People don’t really want to stay stuck in the past, especially a mythical past. In addition to Fanon’s point, Negri and Hardt point out that this is one of the problems with European-American anthropology that focuses on the identity of Africans as a “past” pre-modern identity even though it was precisely the interaction between Europeans and Africans all along that allowed BOTH to enter “modernity.” For Negri and Hardt, “modernity” has always been a “power relation” not an identity. Similarly, alongside that backward anthropology, European-American liberals have a misguided sense of cultural “authenticity” that locates African identity in a pre-modern era. While liberals may believe they are celebrating authentic African culture, they are in effect re-asserting a colonialist power relation. (The Kenyan writer Wainaina hilariously exposes this power relation in his satirical parody “How to Write about Africa”.) Against this power relation, Fanon argues that anti-colonial revolutions need to be forward looking not backward looking. And Negri and Hardt pick up Fanon’s line of reasoning to theorize an alternative to the trap of modernity vs. anti-modernity that they call “alter-modernity.”

    The basic idea of alter-modernity is that another world is possible. We can creatively invent a new world that’s different from the one we are in. Negri and Hardt point out that this is also the slogan of the people protesting the WTO and IMF policies. Although the mainstream media calls those people the “anti-globalization protesters,” the protesters themselves don’t label themselves that way and instead argue that they are not anti-globalization; they are “alter-globalization.” Their slogan is not that we should return to a pre-globalization time. Rather, their slogan is that “another world is possible.” But that possibility asks that we all become artists — that we experiment with our “skills” and innovate something new.

    And for me, that is what Ogina means.

    Comment by steventhomas | December 23, 2009 | Reply

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