Georgetown University Assistant Professor of English and Women and Gender Studies Samantha Pinto is a fellow in the African and American Diaspora Studies Department at The University of Texas at Austin for the 2011–2012 year. She writes about her research in the Transcription Centre, an organization founded for African Literature and Culture based in London during the 1960s.
Pinto’s article explains the historical context of the Transcription Centre and the contemporary voices of the time. Her discoveries stem from her thorough examination of the Centre’s radio program “Africa Abroad.”
The Ransom Center annually awards more than 50 fellowships to support scholarly research projects that require on-site use of its collections.
Even though HIV/AIDS has been influencing American cultural production since the 1980s, only in the last ten years or so has the Ransom Center begun to acquire collections with materials documenting the effects of the pandemic.
One recent acquisition that highlights the consequences of the disease on African literature is the Charles R. Larson collection of African and African-American literature. Larson is a professor of literature at American University, as well as a writer and editor. His papers include correspondence and manuscripts by Yvonne Vera (1964–2005), the prolific Zimbabwean novelist and short story writer who died of AIDS in 2005.
In 1987, Vera moved to Toronto, where she lived with her husband and earned her undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral degrees at York University. She tested positive for HIV in 1989, and wrote her first short story, “Independence Day,” in 1991. “I want to be a writer who can give you the illusion that you have two hearts,” Vera said in a 2002 interview with Grace Mutandwa. “My tales are tragic, rather than sad, meaning they have a catastrophic force. Some writers can give you two heartbeats—one for the beauty of the words, another for the event. I want to be a writer who can give you the illusion that you have two hearts.”
During her lifetime, she published five novels, a short story collection, and an edited anthology of African women’s writing. Vera’s novel Under the Tongue (1996) won the 1997 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Africa region) for best novel, and her last published novel, The Stone Virgins (2002), won the Macmillan Writer’s Prize for Africa for best unpublished manuscript. She moved back to Zimbabwe in 1995 and served as Director of the National Gallery in Bulawayo from 1997 until 2003.
The Larson collection contains important correspondence between Charles Larson and John Jose, Vera’s husband, regarding her life and work. At the time of her death, Vera was working on a novel called Obedience, which remains unpublished. The novel was written before she returned to Canada in 2004, and the fragmented manuscript and deteriorating quality of her writing reflect the AIDS-related cognitive difficulties she was experiencing at the time. The Larson papers contain drafts of the manuscript, as well as notes by Jose about Vera’s planned revisions.
Vera’s death and the work she left behind are reminders of the literary cost of the AIDS pandemic in Zimbabwe and southern Africa, in particular, as well as worldwide.
Tonight, Charles R. Larson of American University speaks about his collection of African, African American, and Native American literature, acquired by the Harry Ransom Center in 2009. Bernth Lindfors, University of Texas at Austin emeritus professor of English, hosts the conversation, which will be webcast live. Here Larson shares how he became interested in African literature and began collecting.
This collection of books and manuscripts would not exist if I had not gone to Nigeria in 1962 as a Peace Corps volunteer. Prior to my departure, I had earned both a B.A. and an M.A. in American literature and written my thesis on William Faulkner’s Snopes trilogy. I fully intended to return to the United States and pursue a Ph.D. in American literature. Fortunately, the summer before my departure for Nigeria, I read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard.
Nigeria totally altered my worldview, mostly by showing me the failure of my earlier education. Not only did I begin reading emerging works by African writers, but I realized that in the many American literature courses that I had taken, I had never read a work by a minority writer. I began ordering books from the United States and reading Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and other African American writers. How ironic that the man who directed my M.A. thesis and taught the American literature survey course I took never mentioned a single African American writer, yet he was an African American. After I returned to the United States, I discovered that he had one of the most extensive private collections of African American literature, but he obviously never felt comfortable enough to assign any of those writers in his own courses.
How fortunate that the school where I taught English in Eastern Nigeria was a scant few miles from Ogidi, the village where Achebe grew up and the setting of his celebrated novel. I was aware of Ogidi’s proximity to my own village and was even told that Achebe visited his family there from time to time, but I made no attempt to meet him until several years later. Equally important, however, was Onitsha, the Igbo center of business and culture, a dozen miles from where I lived. It was there that I purchased many of the original titles by the Onitsha pamphleteers and had my first true sense of what was already becoming a major school of African writing. In Onitsha at the CMS Bookstore, I also purchased Achebe’s third novel, Arrow of God, soon after it was published.
Nigeria changed my scholarly life. When I returned home I was determined to see that works by African writers were reprinted in American editions, and in the spring of the 1965 academic year, I taught my first course in African literature. The rest is history.