Elisa Scaraggi – ASP 2023 Visiting Research Scholar


Can you share an overview of your current research project and what inspired you to focus on this particular area within African studies?

I have a background in Comparative literature and my interest in African Studies goes back to the time I lived in São Paulo, Brazil, where, almost by chance, I took a course in African Literatures in Portuguese. A whole new world opened up for me! Then, during my Ph.D. I worked on Papéis da Prisão (Prison Papers), a book by the Angolan author José Luandino Vieira that collects the notebooks he kept during his imprisonment under the Portuguese colonial regime. This book led me to think about the entanglement of personal and collective experiences in autobiographies, memoirs, etc., and about how practices of record-keeping intervene in processes of memory building. The book also sparked my interest in the history of the Angolan liberation struggle, which I believe is both unique and paradigmatic in the context of decolonization in Africa. My current research explores the personal archive of Angolan intellectual Mário Pinto de Andrade, a key figure in Angola’s political and cultural history. He was a militant anti-colonialist and intellectual, a politician and a multifaceted thinker whose works are crucial to understanding the evolution of culture in Angola from the end of the 19th century to the liberation war and beyond. However, because of his conflicts with the leadership of the MPLA (the liberation movement of which he was one of the founders and first president), he has suffered what can be defined as a damnatio memoriae and his contribution to the Angolan national project has been largely overlooked by the dominant historical narrative. My research aims to give Andrade’s figure and work the attention they deserve. It was a pleasant coincidence to know that, as I was beginning my project, the filming of a documentary on Andrade by Billy Woodberry was wrapping up. And that a conference dedicated exclusively to Andrade would be held in Brazil next year. I take these signs of renewed interest in his figure as indications that my research is going in the right direction.

How does your work contribute to the broader field of African studies, and what unique perspectives or methodologies are you bringing to it?

In addition to shedding more light on a brilliant pan-Africanist intellectual – and through him on a crucial period in the history of Angola – I hope that my work can make a broader contribution to the field by creating a framework in which personal records take on meaning as part of a complex collective history. I wish to reflect critically on the nature of personal archives, their particularities, the processes that lead to their creation, and their uses for historical research, thus joining a growing number of historians who work by drawing on sources other than those kept in national or institutional archives.

In conducting your research, how do you engage with local communities in Angola and/or Africa at large? Could you share some insights on the importance of community involvement in your work?

One of the developments of my work is meeting and interviewing people who have a personal connection to the records I find in Andrade’s archive. Connecting with these people can be a way to get more personal narratives about Andrade, but also a way to get different people to engage with the archive and give it new life. I spent the first year of my postdoc working in Lisbon, where Andrade’s archive is currently housed in a non-profit foundation. In Portugal, I was able to meet and interview a few people from the Angolan diaspora who knew Andrade well and shared important moments of the liberation struggle with him. Most of them are quite old, but I was surprised to see how eager they were to talk about a period that defined their lives and the life of their country. I recently went on a research trip to Luanda, Angola, where I had the opportunity to meet and interview many more people, including Andrade’s relatives and longtime friends. I also met archivists, artists, activists, and academics with whom I had very stimulating conversations about what remains of the liberation struggle today, the prospects for writing a more inclusive history and building a more shared memory. Something that came out of these conversations and that I bring back to my work is that working to preserve the memory of the Angolan people’s struggle for independence is also a way to work for a more inclusive, democratic, and egalitarian Angola today.

Your research seems to intersect various disciplines. Can you discuss the interdisciplinary nature of your work and how it enriches your understanding of the topic? Are there specific interdisciplinary collaborations that have significantly influenced your research approach or findings?

In my work, I draw from several disciplines, including postcolonial studies, cultural studies, and archival science. Obviously, much of my research draws on history. Although my previous work also involved some historical research, I am not a trained historian, but I am learning more and more about the discipline and its methods. For example, I am learning how to work with sources. I think my background in literary studies helps me to conduct a textual analysis of sources, which is useful for understanding their internal logics. My expertise in life writing also informs my approach to the personal records I find in the archive, leading me to see them not as transparent representations of the self, but as the result of complex negotiations. I am also using oral history in this project, which has been a revelation for me: I love being able to spend time with people who participated in some of the events I am studying and listen to them recalling their own stories in their own words and on their own terms.

What impact do you hope your research will have on both academic circles and the broader communities it concerns? Are there practical applications of your findings that you aim to achieve? How do you plan to disseminate your research findings within the African continent and beyond to ensure they reach a wide audience?

As my project seeks to contribute to thinking about Angola’s recent past, public engagement is essential to make it effective. Before the end of my postdoc, I plan to organize an exhibition at an art research center in Lisbon which will combine material and digital records from Andrade’s archive with works created by artists from Angola and its diaspora. The aim is to explore how the archive can be critically reappropriated by different interpreters and how it can appeal to different audiences. As far as academic circles are concerned, besides publishing articles and participating in international conferences (mostly in English), I am working on editing a selection of unpublished material from Andrade’s archive in collaboration with an academic research center in Angola. I believe it is important to publish in Angola (and in Portuguese) in order to reach the local public. My research is funded by the European Commission through the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA), a program that puts emphasis on open-access research, so this publication will have both a print and a digital version that will be accessible to everyone, in Angola and beyond.

What are some of the main challenges you have faced in your research, and how have you addressed them?

Given that Andrade lived a very rich life, that he worked on different fronts (poetry, sociology, cinema, literary criticism, politics, etc.), that he lived in different countries, wrote in different languages, and had contacts with intellectuals from all over the world, the biggest challenge for me is to deal with a huge amount of archival material and to choose what to focus on! His archive is a real treasure trove, but sometimes it can feel overwhelming. I have given up the impossible ambition to cover everything and now try to focus on a few topics that I find particularly interesting and that I think can stimulate broader debates on the history of the Angolan liberation struggle.

How has your involvement with the African Studies Program at UW-Madison influenced your research and professional development? Can you discuss any collaborative initiatives or projects you have been a part of or plan to initiate with faculty, staff, or students affiliated with the African Studies Program?

Being a visiting scholar in the African Studies Program at UW-Madison has allowed me to get to know a vibrant community of African studies students and scholars. Shortly after my arrival, I was invited to present my research in the Africa at Noon series, which was a real honor and privilege. I try not to miss this weekly event, and I’ve seen how high the standard is, so I’m humbled to see my name on such a list of speakers. I also try not to miss the Africa Talks evenings: I love the informal setting in which these talks take place and I have to say that I am impressed by the variety of topics and approaches that the people in the African Studies Program deal with! In general, I feel that being here I can learn something new every day just by interacting with students, researchers, and professors. I am especially grateful to Prof. Marissa Moorman, with whom I share a deep interest in Angola, and whose advice is really valuable to me. The conversations I have had with her have been very important in guiding my research and, thanks to her contacts in Angola, I was able to meet people and open doors that I would never have had access to otherwise. I would also like to thank Prof. Luís Madureira, who was head of the African Studies Program when I submitted my application to come here as a visiting scholar, and who has supported me from the very beginning.