Africa in Our Lives: Carmen McCain

The second of our featured PLEASURE AND THE PLEASURABLE in Africa and the African Diaspora presenters, Carmen McCain has been back and forth between Nigeria and the U.S. since age 11. Drawing on a decade of research on Hausa language films, she shares why the study of pleasure is fundamental to a well-rounded understanding of the African continent.

Field of study: African Languages and Literature/African Cultural Studies/Film
Hometown: The places I “go home” to are Jos, Nigeria and Atlanta, Georgia. I currently live and work in Santa Barbara, California.

“Public perceptions of Africa so often seem to deal with war, disease, and suffering. There is certainly plenty of that, yet people also live their lives and enjoy laughter and love and music and dancing and other pleasures, even in the midst of hardship.” -Carmen McCain (Submitted photo)

How did you first become involved in the study of Africa?

I moved to Nigeria with my parents at age 11, so you could say that my study began as a child observing life around me, writing in my diary, and trying to adapt. At age 14 or 15, initially on the insistence of my parents, I began studying Hausa and reading African literature, and, after finishing college in the U.S. and a couple of years of working, I returned to Jos, Nigeria on the Fulbright IIE to begin my first formal research project in Nigeria.

I then started graduate school in the Department of African Languages and Literature (now African Cultural Studies) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I initially planned to study contemporary Nigerian literature in English, but when I returned to Nigeria on a FLAS in 2005 to study Hausa, my encounter with Hausa-language literature and film completely changed the course of my research. So many of our discussions about African literature both in the American academy and the African academy focus on English or French language literature, yet in northern Nigeria there are hundreds of novels being published in Hausa every year. Even in Nigeria, scholars are more likely to study English-language literature or, if they look at Hausa literature, the first Hausa novels written in the 1930s than the literary movement going on today. Similarly, although Nollywood Studies has become a major field of study in the last few years, very few scholars, at least at that time that I started my research, were studying Hausa language films, which make up 25-30% of the Nigerian film industry. Realizing this as I did pre-dissertation research in 2005 and 2006, I felt a certain urgency in my research.

What is the most-thumbed book on your bookshelf?

The theorist I most often turn to in my research and teaching is Ngugi wa Thiong’o, but I also depend heavily on other scholars working on Hausa language literature and film and cultural production in other African languages: Abdalla Uba Adamu, Graham Furniss, Brian Larkin, Karin Barber, Evan Mwangi. Working between two continents, I’ve had to depend a lot on PDFs and scans, but always seem to travel back and forth across the Atlantic with the 10 pound Bargery Hausa-English dictionary.

How has the time you spent in Africa shaped your interests and career?

I have been back and forth between Nigeria and the U.S. for much of my life. During the two years before graduate school, I become involved with the Association of Nigerian authors, which gave me a lot of the contacts I have now with English-language writers and artists living and working in Nigeria. It was not until I started seriously learning Hausa, because of the requirement in the department in Madison, that I became interested in Hausa-language cultural production. The five years I spent doing dissertation research and writing my dissertation in northern Nigeria shifted my interests from English-language literature to cultural productions happening in African languages more easily accessible to the large majority of people living in Africa.  I think that my friendships with artists and writers living in Nigeria has encouraged me to prioritize research on “grass roots” cultural production and the kinds of choices made about theme, genre, and style made by artists who write and perform for audiences in Nigeria and Africa, over my interests in more cosmopolitan writers and filmmakers who are more well known in the American academy.

Tell us a bit about your field research.

After first realizing the existence of Hausa literature and film during the three months on the FLAS studying Hausa in Sokoto, Nigeria (sadly, I had never heard of any of this as I was growing up in Jos near the beginning of the renaissance in Hausa literature and film), I returned to Nigeria the next year on a West Africa Research Association grant in 2006 to begin pre-dissertation research in the metropolis of Kano, where the Hausa publishing and film industries are centered. I went back to Kano in 2008 to begin dissertation research and did not come back to Madison finish my PhD until nearly five years later.

In 2006, I had met filmmakers and had spent time on film sets, but between the time I did my pre-dissertation research and the time I came back, there had been a scandal involving a phone video of a Hausa actress and her boyfriend having sex that had largely shut down the shooting of films in Kano. The Kano State Censorship Board had been formed after the proclamation of shari’a law in Kano to negotiate between religious conservatives and creative artists, and the next four years following the sex scandal, from 2007 to 2011, became a kind of war between the government-authorized censors board and the filmmakers and writers. I arrived in the middle of this censorship crisis, so my field research ended up being a lot of hanging out in studios with filmmakers, going to literary events, and sometimes reporting for my research blog and local newspapers on court cases and occasional visits to filmmakers being held in prison. Although the censorship restrictions had effectively shut down most film sets in Kano, the editing still largely took place there, and I was also able to travel out of state to visit film sets in Jigawa, Kaduna, Jos and elsewhere, occasionally acting bit parts.

To be honest—and this seems relevant to thinking about research on “pleasure”—part of the reason I spent so long back in Nigeria rather than finishing up my PhD, was because I was enjoying myself—taking great pleasure in living life and being a part of the film and literary communities. In my current research, I am exploring creative responses to Boko Haram in Hausa language music and film.  I am particularly interested in pursuing research with the small Christian Hausa-language film and music video industry based in Jos and how it interacts with the more hegemonic Hausa Muslim entertainment industries.

What do you enjoy about teaching?

In both Nigeria and America, I love those moments when the students stay after class discussing what they are learning, when they go out and do research on their own to contribute to the discussion, the sense that they have caught some of the fire of research, that their minds have been expanded, that they have been able to grasp tools that help them better understand the world around them. I’m also excited by those moments when the students teach me, through their knowledge of popular culture and their insights from encountering materials with fresh eyes.

At Bayero University, it was great fun to teach media and gender and feminist theory to a class that was predominantly populated by men, and at Kwara State University getting to design a seminar where my students brought in and presented on contemporary Nigerian films, teaching me more about what was going on in recent filmmaking than I could teach them. In America, the satisfaction comes in seeing the students move beyond their stereotypes about Africa to be able to speak about the details of specific countries and authors, the displacement of a kind of closed American culture and the realization of how discussions about colonialism, imperialism are connected to our American context as well. Considering the current state of politics in the U.S., I think that teaching history, culture, and politics and encouraging students to think beyond the narrow confines of the place they’ve been brought up are some of the most important things we can do in this country.

What would you tell students who are debating whether or not to study Africa?

In the next 30 years, Africa is projected to account for a quarter of the world’s population.  You cannot hope to understand the world or even your own country without having some understanding of the role Africa has played and continues to play in it. I have often been part amused, part offended when I have heard from both students and (sadly) occasionally even faculty their surprise at my “narrow focus” when, as a “world literature” professor, I teach a class on African literature. You do not hear similar surprise on anyone’s “narrow focus” on medieval or Early Modern British literature, yet a class focusing on the literature of the entire continent of Africa strikes people as “narrow.” This is exactly why we need more people studying the dozens of countries and hundreds of languages and cultures that currently make up Africa.

Why is the study of pleasure in Africa and the African Diaspora important?

At least in America, public perceptions of Africa so often seem to deal with war, disease, and suffering. There is certainly plenty of that, yet people also live their lives and enjoy laughter and love and music and dancing and other pleasures, even in the midst of hardship. This is something that became particularly real to me while living in northern Nigeria during the early days of Boko Haram, as bombs were going off all around us, and observing the jokes and cartoons and music, the wry sardonic humour, that came out in response to Boko Haram. It’s not either/or but both/and. I think that the sort of “Afropolitan” response to push aside and ignore stories of atrocities because Western stereotypes about Africa exist is wrong-headed, but so is sensationalizing suffering or a dwelling on suffering without the full context of how people live.

Focusing on pleasure in Africa can help us contextualize for Western audiences the larger picture of life in Africa, as well as encouraging more study of those things that are often seen as “frivolous” and “unserious” in African universities. I began my own study of Hausa literature and film in part because of the pleasure I took in the stories of love and romance in the novels and the joy of the song and dance that filled the films, and I think communicating the joy of research and the pleasures people take in cultural expression can do a lot to inspire students to push further and engage in their own research.

Give us a teaser for your presentation at PLEASURE AND THE PLEASURABLE in Africa and the African Diaspora.

I am still working on the exact boundaries of the presentation! But in brief, I am thinking about how the censorship crisis and its continuing reverberations in northern Nigeria so often have to do with the disciplining of a kind of illicit pleasure in singing and dancing and sexuality.

And yet to merely make this a contest between dour censors and fun-loving artists, as I sometimes tried to do at the beginning of my field work, is too simplistic. There have long been tensions between those who would discipline celebrations of illicit pleasures in order to place more emphasis on the righteous pleasures of the peaceful home and the spiritual pleasures of seeking God. The 19th century poet, scholar and translator Nana Asma’a preaches against “worldly” drumming and dancing, but she also writes passionate verse on the almost incomprehensible pleasure of communion with the Almighty that make even the “inhabitants of Paradise” forget the pleasures around them. Likewise, writers and filmmakers often frame their artistic endeavors in these familiar terms: how husbands and wives can find pleasure in godly relationships, and the spiritual ecstasy that comes with seeking God. There is a constant tension between the pleasures of the world and the pleasures of following and seeking God, and this is something that contemporary artists are constantly grappling with.

Registration is now open for PLEASURE AND THE PLEASURABLE in Africa and the African Diaspora! Visit the conference website to learn more and register.

Profile produced by Kyra Fox.

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