African Genres: Literature, Geography, and Poetics in the Long East Coast

Restricted (Penn State Only)
Decker, Michelle Gene
Graduate Program:
Comparative Literature
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
June 05, 2014
Committee Members:
  • Eric Robert Hayot, Dissertation Advisor
  • Eric Robert Hayot, Committee Chair
  • Jonathan Paul Eburne, Committee Member
  • Nergis Erturk Lennon, Committee Member
  • Gabeba Baderoon, Committee Member
  • Christopher Gervais Reed, Committee Member
  • African literature
  • South Africa
  • East Africa
  • Egypt
  • genre
  • comparative literature
  • African poetics
  • Zanzibar
  • Arabic
  • Swahili
African Genres enacts a broad reassessment of academic and popular conceptions of “Africa” through analyzing written literatures from the Long East Coast. It demonstrates how geography, literary form, and interpretive practices interplay to formulate these broad conceptions. As a whole, the work demonstrates how interpretations of African geography affected its place in world history; discusses how the heuristic of genre shapes how Western readers read non-Western texts; and finally, calls for a reimagining of the limits and characteristics of an African poetics. In respective chapters, African Genres enacts close-readings of the form, content, and style of texts written between 1860 and 1970, a time period that intentionally bridges multiple colonialisms (Arab, European, and internal) and postcolonialisms. In this work, Zanzibar (along with the Swahili coast and East African interior), Egypt, and South Africa are the representative locations of the Long East Coast. The Long East Coast is a new theoretical and geographical configuration that combines an unlikely collection of geographies—-some of which are not coastal—-and an atypical collection of texts from or about those spaces—-most of which are not novels—and thereby posits a new theory of what “Africa,” and African literatures could mean. African Genres also proposes a method for reading African literatures that predate or ignore the novel, and for reading novels written by Europeans who lived in the continent. In both cases, the aim is to identify colonial and precolonial texts operating outside European genres, and 2) to compile the aspects of potentially new genres, and, eventually, theorize how such genres could shape our view of literary expression. In African Genres, the texts analyzed include A Passage to India (1924) by E. M. Forster; “Passage to India” (1871) by Walt Whitman; Maisha ya Hamed bin Muhammed el Murjebi, yaani Tippu Tip, by Tippu Tip (1902/1903); Zanzibar; City, Island, and Coast (1872) by Richard Francis Burton; “Funeral for Walt Whitman” (2012) by Abdel Moneim Ramadan; and a selection of South African poetry, including works by Sydney Clouts, Wally Mongane Serote, Douglas Livingstone, and Muthobi Mutloatse.