Start with Achebe and go backward: An Interview with Ainehi Edoro

By Kathryn Mara

On the elevator to the seventh floor of Helen C. White, I notice a particularly sharp-dressed woman in the lift beside me. We exit on the same floor but she heads left toward the English Department’s mailboxes, whereas I go right in search of new faculty Dr. Ainehi Edoro’s office. Through a little bit of wandering and maneuvering, I find room 7181 and knock on the door. The fashionable woman, whom I now embarrassingly realize is Dr. Edoro, answers. We make a little small talk, comparing Madison’s weather to that of Chicago, her most recent home, but soon enough the interview is underway.

“How long have you been teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Madison?” I ask.

“Second semester,” Dr. Edoro responds matter-of-factly.

“And what kind of courses have you taught?” I ask.

“Last semester, I taught two courses, two different versions of the same thing sort of,” she begins before elaborating further. “I taught English 178: Digital Media course, and it was about social media. I taught English 245 which was for English majors, which was called social media fiction. So, in that course, it was social media but within the context of the form, the evolution of fiction as a form of storytelling. So, we sort of thought of, you know, the long history of the novel and then what happens by the time we begin to try to adapt storytelling to Twitter. So, user-generated content on social media, right? And the other course, because it was not for English majors—it was for non-majors—I focused more on how social media works as opposed to kind of literary/historical type of work. So, we talked about how social media works, what’s the technology, what’s the culture, how does content circulate, gain value, but then we used literature or fiction as the archive that we worked with, because it was fundamentally an English class, but the emphasis was more on the technology than on the literary/historical evolution of fiction.”

“And what kind of courses are you teaching now, either in English or African Cultural Studies?”

“Well, I’m teaching a graduate course on the African novel in ACS, because I’m jointly appointed. The course is mainly about the form of the African novel. The African novel is something that we’ve become comfortable to talk about in terms of its representational capacities, right? So, an African novel is valuable because it is a representation of African life, or it represents African life, which is why we tend to focus more on, you know, political, anthropological value of these texts, right? But, I mean, I think we should shift emphasis to the form of these texts, right? They are doing so much more than simply representing the African world, right? They show us a particular way of telling stories that emerge from within the African context, so if we paid attention to the aesthetics and form of the African novel, we could actually be able to see confidently what Africa’s formal contribution to the history of the novel is. So, this course is kind of a way to sort of roll up our sleeves and do a certain kind of historical work and begin from way, way, way, way, way back in the history of African writing and work our way up to the novel, so that we can really figure out how these texts work as opposed to what they mean.”

I nod my head in recognition. “That reminds me of a piece you wrote for The Guardian.”

“Yes!” Dr. Edoro says emphatically.

“It inspired one of my essays in a previous course, actually,” I confess, recalling an essay I wrote for Dr. Samuel England’s course “Imagining Islam,” in which I compare readers’ expectations of literary representations of jihadists.

Before I can elaborate further, Dr. Edoro excitedly proclaims, “Oh. Awesome. Awesome. So, it’s essentially that concern, that investment. So, what does it mean? If I am saying that, you know, we should move away from an anthropological view of the novel, what takes its place? And this course is sort of my way to figure out how else should we engage with the novel, if we’re trying not to simply anthropologize it.”

“Is your research right now gravitated toward the novel?” I ask.

“Yes. The novel. I mean, in my teaching, I can do lots of different things, but in my research, I am a novel person. That’s what I mainly study.”

“What kind of graduate student work would you be interested in supervising or advising?” I inquire.

She responds carefully and reflectively, “Any kind of work that is invested in form. Any kind of work that wants to add to our understanding of the formal history of storytelling or—not just storytelling—of literary texts in the African archive. So, I mean, I think it’s way too late in the day to just do projects where we’re saying so-and-so’s work represents feminism or so-and-so’s work is an exploration of postcolonial angst, you know, those types of thematic work. To me, I think what needs to be done is to excavate the archive we already have, so that we can begin to take stock of what do we really have at our disposal at the level of form, you know. That’s what other people do. If you see the type of work that has been done on Shakespeare, the type of work that has been done on Plato, on Aristotle’s texts, it’s not by mistake that we all find these writers helpful. Plato, Aristotle, Shakespeare, right? It’s because people have done the hard, back-breaking work of trying to figure out things about them, how we can use them, what do they contribute to the way we understand things. I would be very interested in any kind of work that tries to do kind of archeological work in the African archive or that takes the archive seriously and takes form seriously and aesthetics seriously. You know, if you’re trying to ask questions about things like that, I would be interested in that.”

“Would you have any advice for African Cultural Studies graduate students, either current or incoming?”

“I mean, I say a Ph.D. is about contributing something new to the body of knowledge. I mean, I know that that sounds cliché, but it really isn’t. It is contributing something new. And I mean, by the time you’ve spent years studying African texts, you know that there is a particular way it’s talked about. I think the goal is to try to figure out how else can you talk about this. How else can you ascribe meaning to texts? And any type of work that tries to bring a text to light that we’ve never been familiar with is going to be significant. So, if you’re going to go to, you know, 14th, 16th century Coptic, hagiographic writing and try to figure out what’s going on there, what are these people writing about, your work is going to be significant. If you’re going to go into Ifá literary corpus and excavate it and see what all these animals in these texts mean, why are characters constituted like that, what does time mean, your work is going to be significant. There are no two-ways about it, because what you’re doing is literally giving people tools that they’ve never had before to think about lots of different things, right? So, if you do this type of work, you don’t have to second guess whether it’s going to be significant or successful. It will be, right? As opposed to, you know, doing things where you’re simply just, you know, re-hashing old models to think about texts.”

Following up on her assertions regarding texts, new and old, I begin, “Of course, African Cultural Studies is a very broad field,” before asking, “But would you state anything as required reading for an ACS graduate student?”

Dr. Edoro pauses a long time before asserting confidently, “Everything Achebe has ever written. You know, I know everybody has read Things Fall Apart, but Achebe’s writing, his essays on literature and form, [they are] actually way more complicated than we think they are. I would say read everything before Achebe. So, read Achebe, know your Achebe, beyond his fiction. Know his other writings, right? Maybe not his poetry. They’re not that great. Read your Achebe, but the problem with reading Achebe is that if you read Achebe well, you all of a sudden are going to see why you have to read everything before Achebe, because you realize how he’s not enough. He’s a good starting point, but there’s something missing from a world that is constituted around Achebe, so you then have to go back and read everything before Achebe. And when I say everything, I mean everything in terms of the twentieth century, right? Your Thomas Mofolos of the world, Amos Tutuola. Read your pre-Achebes, and then if you’re really on the right track, then you’re going to want to go even before those guys and read those texts that can take us into periods and times that we are not very familiar with. So, I’ll say instead of starting with Achebe and going forward, start with Achebe and go backward. See what you find.”

I attempt to absorb Dr. Edoro’s advice before steering the conversation toward the literary website she runs. “Can you talk a bit about Brittle Paper?”

Brittle Paper is an African literary site. It covers news, updates on everything from book publications, authors, festivals, events, and—this is kind of our claim to fame—we also cover updates on lifestyle and, like, literary lifestyle. We actually just did a post on the dress Nnedi Okorafor wore to the Emmys. We tracked down the stylist and found out that the stylist is actually the designer. It’s a silk dress, but then she worked with an artist to literally draw a print on the dress. And so we tracked both of them down, the designer and the artist, and we did a detailed interview with them, and it’s on Brittle Paper. And it’s very enlightening. So, yeah. We do things like classic book reviews, book updates, and then we sort of cover lifestyle things related to literature. We are sort of addressing a globally situated African literary enthusiast. We are read immensely on the continent, so our readership is split between South Africa, Nairobi, Nigeria, you know, the usual suspects, and then the U.S. and the U.K. and Indonesia.”

I ask her what inspired her to create this website.

“I mean, it’s tied in general to my interest in the way we talk about African fiction, which is sort of tied to The Guardian piece and also with my research work. I don’t know. I just didn’t like the way we talked about African fiction, because when I read this fiction, they just didn’t seem like anything that had been described to me. I remember the first time I read,” she begins before breaking off. “I meander a lot when I talk. Just bear with me. I remember the first time when I read Mongo Beti’s Poor Christ of Bomba, I was just shocked. I laughed. It was funny. I mean, it’s sad. It’s about an entire convent of women catching syphilis, so it’s not funny, but it is hilarious.”

Without missing a beat, we crack up. I have not yet read the book, but hearing Dr. Edoro talk about it, it is hilarious.

Dr. Edoro continues, “I’ve always been told that the story is about—I don’t know—French colonialism, and I’m just, like, no. That’s not what this story is about. This story is just a lot more, and I realized that it’s not that African fiction is square and boring and sort of textbook-ish, it’s that the way we talk about it makes it appear like that, so I felt like maybe if we change the registers that we use to talk about African writing, it will suddenly appear differently to us. We will see that it is sexy. It’s fun. It’s silly. It’s cool, you know? It’s delightful, and I think Brittle Paper was sort of a way to begin to mobilize a new sect of language with which to think about this narrative and the culture around it. And so that’s why it’s very playful. We do very silly things that I cannot even justify, but just for the matter of fact that, you know, I want to see what it looks like to see Okonkwo in erotica. I want to see Okonkwo in, like, a really crazy, intense, explicit, goosebumps-generating sex scene, and we did it. You know, for Valentine, we commissioned a writer to write an erotic fan fiction of Okonkwo, and she did, and it was everything you can imagine. It was weird, you know?”

Dr. Edoro’s reflection is interrupted by our mischievous laughter once again, but she concludes, “Yeah, that’s great to make African literature more light-hearted.”

In an effort to compose myself, I observe, “Along with Brittle Paper and publishing in such venues as The Guardian, I notice you make your scholarship accessible.”

“Yeah,” she concedes, explaining, “So, I’ve had to write more public-facing types of things, just because of the position of the site as a kind of influencer. So, people are going to reach out to you to hear what you have to say about things and you just kind of have to develop the capacity to speak, because it’s a different way of speaking than the way that we write in academia, so I think I’ve had to develop a non-academic way of speaking. I don’t honestly think I’ve figured it out completely. I’m still learning, but I think it’s been good in the last few years to be able to, for a lack of a better word, break down what I study for a more popular, mainstream audience.”

I change the topic once more. “Of course, you’re new to Madison, so have you been finding any new spots, either to eat, to do things, to have fun?”

“I love parks,” Dr. Edoro proclaims excitedly. “I think it’s amazing that Madison has lots of parks. In Chicago, first, to do anything, it’s a production. It’s funny. It’s a big city. There’s so much to do, but still, to go to the zoo is like a production. And in my entire neighborhood, there were like two parks. I would say, maybe one and a half parks, because one of them was tied to a school, kind of like an open-air gym. The first week we came here, and I wanted to take my daughter to a water park type thing, and I just Googled “water park” and was amazed. Within a five-mile radius, there were at least five places we could go. And I’m just absolutely amazed that I could take my daughter [so many places]. There’s just so much to do with kids, you know, and everything is easy. We went to the zoo the other day. It was really cool. I mean, it’s a modest zoo. It’s nothing compared to the Lincoln Park Zoo, but I enjoyed it way more. It was close by, open air, very welcoming.”

“And free!” I add.

“And free,” she echoes. “So, you know, I’m really loving the fact that we have lots of family things to do.”

I thank Dr. Edoro for her time, but after I turn off my recorder, she re-directs the conversation to me and my research, topics she graciously entertains for at least the length of the interview itself.