Friday, January 30, 2015

Teaching "The Kalevala," Spring 2015

In the coming Spring semester, I will be teaching Post-colonial Literature and Folklore, courses I have taught many times over the years. I regularly introduce new or different texts, especially in the Post-colonial Literature course.

For the first time, I am going to teach The Kalevala, the national epic of Finland, in my Folklore course this Spring. The other texts are The Epic of Gilgamesh, Gassire's Lute, African Folktales, and The Vanishing Hitchhiker. I also always include recordings of folktales and the video documentary "Angano Angano," which presents Malagasy storytelling in its socio-cultural context.

Here I want to say a few words about The Kalevala, which I have known about for decades and regularly mention in my publications and conference presentations. Even though I have never read it, I know much about it and, for a long time, thought about teaching it. Now, having made the decision to do so, I am excited.

I look forward to sharing with my students the fascinating history of the making of The Kalevala as we know it, thanks to the research of Elias Lönnrot in the early part of the nineteenth century, not to mention the work of translators, especially Keith Bosley, whose translation we are going to use. I look forward to talking about the political and ideological significance of The Kalevala as an expression and vehicle of Finnish nationalism.

Equally exciting is the prospect of placing The Kalevala within the context of the epic as a genre with a history stretching as far back as the Sumerian empire--if not earlier--with all the debates and controversies regarding issues such as definition, structure, performance, and concepts of heroism. Such are the issues that make the epic one of the most challenging and also most interesting genres of Folklore.

Monday, January 19, 2015

A Chance Encounter With A Reader

As a writer, I have had my share of unexpected encounters with readers. One of these, which I will always remember, happened on January 3, 2013, as I was traveling from the USA to Tanzania.

I had boarded a plane in Minneapolis, bound for Amsterdam. Having taken my seat, some ladies sitting near me asked me if I would be willing to trade seats with a friend of theirs, so that she could come and sit near them. I readily accepted their request and vacated my seat.

As soon as I was comfortably seated, I greeted the young lady sitting next to me. Responding, she looked at me and excitedly remarked, "You wrote a book." Saying that, she quickly reached for her purse which was under the seat in front of her and brought out a copy of Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences.

The young woman told me that she was traveling to Kenya as part of a group of volunteers with Medical Missions Worldwide. Through her, I got to meet other members of the group. She also said that a friend of hers from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls told her to read that book.

That made me recall that a few years earlier a group of students from that university had visited me at St. Olaf College for some cultural orientation prior to traveling to Uganda to work on a building project. We had a fruitful conversation and a book signing.

Needless to say, this encounter was quite a surprise to me. However, that was not the first time I had encountered such situations with readers, who easily recognize me because my picture appears on the back cover of my book. I had a similar experience with readers from Nebraska at the airport in Amsterdam, as I reported on this blog.

(Photos were taken by John A. Williams II, Executive Director of Medical Missions World Wide)

Saturday, January 17, 2015

My Postcolonial Literature course, Spring 2015

Today, I completed drawing up the list of books I plan to use for my Postcolonial Literature course this Spring. The idea of Postcolonial Literature has always been contentious, and teaching a course with that name requires, in my view, incorporating the conflicting perspectives. It is never easy to justify any list or configuration of texts for this course. Nevertheless, one must prepare such a list.

I have taught Postcolonial Literature from my first year here at St. Olaf College. The English Department I was hired to initiate this course, at a time when English Departments across the USA were awakening to the need to embrace literatures in English from around the world. In view of the large and growing number of authors and texts that fall under the "post-colonial" rubric, one must select only a handful.

For the Spring, I plan to teach the following works:

Aboulela, L. Minaret
Adichie, C.Americanah.
Desai, A. Village by the Sea
Fugard, A. Sorrows and Rejoicings.
Gunesekera, R. Monkfish Moon
Roy, A. The God of Small Things.

One can see that all the authors are contemporary in the truest sense of the word, some very young. I wish to say a word about each.

I had heard about Leila Aboulela for a few years, but did not get the opportunity to acquire and read any of her works. Recently, I bought her Minaret, and read a little about her and her work. Born in Khartoum, she reminds me of Tayeb Salih, the Sudanese writer, whose Season of Migration to the North is well known. I remember having taught his short stories at the University of Dar es Salaam. Leila also reminds me of Meena Alexander, a notable Indian writer who was born and raised in Sudan.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is the young Nigerian writer who has been quickly gaining international acclaim with her writing, such as Purple Hibiscus and Half of Yellow Sun, both of which I have taught. I badly wanted to read and teach her Americanah, which readers and critics are raving about.

I have taught some of Anita Desai's works before, such as Fire on the Mountain and Baumgartner's Bombay and am touched by her views on writing. With this background, I want to teach more of her work, hence my choice of Village by the Sea.

Athol Fugard is a playwright I first knew about when I was an undergraduate student at the University of Dar es Salaam. Fellow students Martin Mhando and Jesse Mollel (now known as Tololwa M. Mollel) staged an unforgettable performance of Fugard's The Island. In graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, we studied Athol Fugard's A Lesson From Aloes with Professor Edris Makward.

Here at St. Olaf College, the first Fugard work I taught was Master Harold and the Boys. I went on to teach Sorrows and Rejoicings, several times. My experience with Sorrows and Rejoicings, slowly discovering its deep implications and nuances, parallels my experience of reading and teaching Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman and Ama Ata Aidoo's Dilemma of a Ghost.

Only recently have I discovered Romesh Gunesekera, when I designed a course on South Asian Literature. I chose his novel, Reef, and ended up teaching it each time I have taught the South Asian Literature course. This time, however, I have decided to try Monkfish Moon, one of Gunesekera's collections of short stories.

Finally, there is Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things. There was a time when everybody around me seemed to be raving about The God of Small Things , and, not having read it, I felt like an outsider or a traitor. Then I included it in one of my courses, but my selection of texts was, it turned out, rather ambitious. We did not manage to read The God of Small Things . If I remember correctly, we just started it, before the semester was over. I hope things will work out better this time.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Forthcoming Presentations, Spring 2015

This is turning out to be a busy Spring in my work as a cultural consultant. I started the year with a meeting with students and instructors from Gustavus Adolphus College, who were preparing to travel to Tanzania on a study abroad program. Our conversation centered around my book, Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences, as I reported here, and as one of the students reported here.

Two more presentations are planned for this Spring. The first one will be to students from South Central College who are preparing to travel to South Africa on a study abroad program. This is going to be the second time I am speaking to students from that College, as part of their preparation for the South Africa trip. Their instructor, Rebecca Fjelland Davis wrote a report of that meeting on her blog.

I am looking forward to this occasion. I am used to speaking about cultural issues with American student groups going to Africa. I am used to speaking with individual Americans on their way to Africa.

What is going to be somewhat different is a conference in mid April with members of congregations from the Southeastern Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The Cannon River Conference, as it is called, will take place in Zumbrota, Minnesota. These people are not going to Africa, at least not as a group. There might be individuals who have visited Africa or who might visit in the future. On the contrary, these people find themselves enmeshed in modern globalization, having to deal with immigrants, some of them African.

The organizers of the Cannon River Conference have invited me to speak on "Incorporating Immigrants Into Our Culture and Worship." This is going to be a unique experience, with aspects not encountered in my talks with students going to Africa. The cultural focus will be there, but it will have to be tied to the issue of worship.

As I think about this, I recall a workshop I helped conduct on the issue of culture and companionship. The workshop brought together Lutherans from Minnesota and Wisconsin to explore evangelism in the global, multicultural context. I wrote about this workshop on this blog, and I might incorporate some of that commentary in my forthcoming talk.

Monday, January 5, 2015

A Meeting With Students from Gustavus Adolphus College

Today I went to the Mount Olivet Conference & Retreat Center in the Farmington area of Minnesota, to speak with students from Gustavus Adolphus College who are going to Tanzania this week on a study abroad program. I had been invited by Professor Barbara Zust to talk with them as part of their pre-departure orientation, and, as in the past, our conversation centered on my book, Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences. As has always been the case, the students came having read the book and eager to learn more.

After the formal conversation, which lasted from 10am to 12 noon, some students brought me copies of my book for signing. Then we had lunch, during which, of course, we continued conversing in small groups. I shared a table with Professor Zust and Pastor Todd Mattson--co-leader of the trip--and several students. When we finished our lunch, I signed some more copies of the book. We then said goodbye, and I hit the road back to Northfield, where I live.

This was another memorable meeting which involved much reflection and sharing of cultural issues and perspectives, both African and American. I am delighted to be involved in the students' quest for greater understanding and appreciation of a culture different from their own.