A SIN/GIN Dialogue
PEACE ADZO MEDIE & ALICE KANG
Peace Adzo Medie: I met up with you at the African Studies Association’s Annual Meeting in November 2014 and I was very excited to hear you say that you use fiction to teach in your African Politics class. Can you tell me why and how you use fiction?
Alice Kang: Yes, I use a novel in my Intro to Africa class. I’ve thought about using fiction in my African Politics class but haven’t tried it yet, for reasons I’ll explain below.
Why do I use fiction or want to use fiction? When I first started teaching, most of the readings I assigned were scholarly articles and books. Students did not like them! In their evaluations, students said that the readings were “too boring”, “too long”, and had “too much jargon”. I talked with colleagues known for being great teachers and noticed that many of them use fiction and popular non-fiction in their courses, in addition to academic texts. Students do like to read; they just don’t like to read things that are poorly written. So assigning fiction can entice students to read for class, and to remind them that they like reading.
I also think that fiction can do certain things much better than can academic writing. Good fiction can help present a supposedly “foreign” person or someone you might have taken for granted as a complicated, contradictory, and surprising human being. That is, fiction can be very humanizing and can help make a place or time more relatable. Avid readers often say that they love reading because they get to lose themselves in another world or temporarily become another person. Fiction, then, can bring a person, society, or period to three-dimensional life.
Peace Adzo Medie: Absolutely, fiction humanizes and also exposes the complexity of people’s lives. I also introduced fiction into my Gender and International Relations course for the first time this semester. I decided to start with short stories that are freely available on the internet because they are easily accessible to students. The first piece I assigned was “The Landlord” one of my short stories that was published by Four Way Review. It is a story of a young woman in Ghana and how she deals with gender roles and expectations. My students did not find the character’s experiences to be foreign, mostly because they too have spent most of their lives in Ghana and have seen or heard about the phenomena depicted in the story. But I was happy to find that they enjoyed the story and more importantly, that it opened their eyes to gendered discourses and practices that they had come to accept without questioning. It led them to interrogate what they had grown up hearing and seeing and to see the (gendered) world through the lead character’s eyes. The story also illustrated the arguments that had been made in some of the book chapters and journal articles that we read in the class and helped them to grasp this material. What are some of the books that you use and how do students respond to them?
Alice Kang: The novel I’ve used is Xala by Ousmane Sembene. We read discuss the novel in one class period (the book is relatively short), and then we watch Sembene’s film version of Xala and have a discussion where to compare the novel to the movie. This all falls under a section in Introduction to Africa on arts and literatures. In the same course, I also ask students to choose and read one entry from Harold Scheub’s African Tales, a written collection of oral tales. On one day, three students read their chosen tale aloud to the class, and we discuss how each tale can have multiple meanings.
I think students like Xala and hearing some of African Tales. Particularly for Xala, I notice that students that are otherwise quiet in class speak up; they share how they understood the characters and their actions, and their comments are always insightful.
Peace Adzo Medie: I’ve yet to assign a novel in class but when assigning a short story, I want it to explicitly or implicitly cover the theme that is under consideration in the class. I also want the story to give students a window into an issue that they would not normally get from academic sources. I especially like fiction where the character’s motivations and inner conflicts are laid bare, giving students an insider’s view into the person. What do you look for in a novel before assigning it to your students?
Alice Kang: You know, I haven’t seriously evaluated my own evaluation criteria. I’ve used the following questions: does the novel help illustrate or relate a key concept from the class? Does the novel perpetuate stereotypes about Africa or break them down?
Peace Adzo Medie: Do you see fiction in the classroom as a supplement to academic texts or does it offer students a whole new perspective that is distinct from what they get out of textbooks and scholarly journal articles?
Alice Kang: In Introduction to Africa, which is intended to be multidisciplinary, the fiction that we read is central to the unit on African literatures. There is no assigned academic text that accompanies the novel or collection of tales. But for a class like African Politics (or political science classes in general), at least the way I’ve been thinking about it, I have considered fiction to be a supplement to academic texts.
For an African Politics class, I don’t think fiction has to be a supplement. In terms of humanizing people, fiction offers students a whole new perspective. And I would hope any course in comparative politics humanizes all individuals and societies.
Peace Adzo Medie: I too have found that fiction gives student a perspective that they don’t usually get from scholarly articles and books and so it serves as a resource on its own. It enriches the material and does a good job of making abstract ideas concrete. And although I’ve only just began using fiction in the classroom, I hope to incorporate it more. Are there other innovative ways in which fiction can be used in the political science/international studies classroom?
Alice Kang: Yes! I can think of two specific examples of innovate teaching. In an African Politics Conference Group newsletter, Kristin Michelitch wrote about teaching a freshman seminar on African development by assigning only films and no readings. An avid fan of cinema, Michelitch hoped that films would provide a rich, engaging, and different way for students to learn, that African-directed films would help bring African points of view in the classroom, that films would help connect macro-level events to individual-level stories, and that films would help avoid “impatient questions” (e.g., why don’t people just use condoms or stop corruption?).
Gretchen Bauer teaches a course that I believe is entirely based on African novels. That sounds like a lot of fun, and I’d be very interested to learn more about how she teaches the course!
Peace Adzo Medie: There’s been a lot of debate in fiction circles about the representation of Africa. I’ve read that short stories and novels that narrate suffering, war, etc. are more likely to find an audience in the Global West. What are your thoughts on this debate and do you take it into consideration when assigning books to your students?
Alice Kang: This is a great question. Yes, it seems that stories and novels that talk about violence and suffering in Africa are more likely to get published and widely read, at least in the U.S. But some of those stories and novels are wonderfully written and touch on universal themes. Suffering, war, poverty – these problems are not unique to Africa.
Still, I worry that my students will pick up on and remember the most “exotic” parts of books set in a time of conflict or war. Several months ago, I finally started reading What is the What, by Dave Eggers. I heard from several non-African studies friends that they loved the book. So I thought, maybe it would be a good one to assign to my African Politics class. I started reading and got to a point where the narrator mentions that boys got eaten by lions, and I remember thinking, “I can’t assign this! This is only going to confirm stereotypes that wild animals roam the continent!” I went through a similar thought process with Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Adichie. If my students were to read just one novel in a class on African politics, is it “right” to assign one set in a civil war?
Peace Adzo Medie: Well, I think one way to get around this is to assign short stories. Assigning short stories would make it possible for students to read about different time periods, countries, issues, and people within a single course. And there are many excellent short story collections that span the breadth of Africa. Two that I’ve read recently and enjoyed are Ama Ata Aidoo’s Diplomatic Pounds and A. Igoni Barrett’s Love is Power or Something Like That . Literary journals are also excellent sources of fiction from Africa. Journals such as Kwani? and Chirumenga are being published on the continent and authors from Africa are publishing in journals that are based outside Africa. Transition’s most recent issue features new fiction from Africa, including my short story, Over Seas . But how have you otherwise dealt with the problem of stereotypes in your courses?
Alice Kang: I know I can give my students more credit. Maybe the best approach is to pose your question to the students. I try to give discussion questions ahead of the day on which we discuss a book. A good discussion question could be: Does this book reinforce stereotypes about Africa? In what ways does the book challenge stereotypes or make you think about [X place/time period] in a new light?
Peace Adzo Medie: Are there any forthcoming novels that you are excited about?
Alice Kang: I have to admit I don’t know much about forthcoming novels; I turn to question back to you on that one. I’m excited to read Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen, which just came out (he is joining UNL in the next academic year!). But first, I need to finish Americanah. I started reading it and found it so good, that I didn’t want it to end! Have you ever read a book you liked so much, that you stopped reading it?! Usually, when I love a book, I binge read it until late at night. With Americanah, so many sentences and scenes were so beautifully written, I want to savor it as long as possible.
Peace Adzo Medie: I’m also reading Americanah and enjoying it and I’ve heard good things about Chigozie Obioma’s The Fisherman. In fact, there are several new African authors who are coming out with novels and I’m looking forward to reading them. I recently read a novel excerpt, Welcome to the Big Apple by Marame Gueye, published in Transition 117, and I’m excited to read the book. I like that there are so many African stories being told and readers who are not familiar with the continent and/or have been repeatedly exposed to stereotypical images have the opportunities to see a diverse array of characters. Readers are getting to see people in Africa doing the ordinary: falling in love, arguing about money, raising rebellious teenagers, studying for examinations, and fretting over how they look in clothes. They are also being exposed to the extraordinary: superhumans and robots and spaceships and interplanetary travel. And it is these and many other stories combined that constitute Africa and its people.
Alice Kang is an assistant professor of political science and ethnic studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her book, Bargaining for Women’s Rights: Activism in an Aspiring Muslim Democracy, University of Minnesota Press (2015) is about the impact of women’s movements in Niger.