Panelists at the Digital Africas Symposium
International scholars engaged an audience of students, faculty, and staff through panel discussions.

A successful Amherst College course examining the impact of computer technology and the internet on African literature  blossomed into a three-day symposium attracting international scholars and experts on emerging African writing.

Convening Oct. 12–14 at the Center for Humanistic Inquiry (CHI) in Frost Library, the Digital Africas Symposium was geared toward “exploring how 21st-century sub-Saharan African writers engage with digital technologies when they publish print texts, experiment with online platforms, or interface with local and international audiences through social media,” said C. Rhonda Cobham-Sander, the Emily C. Jordan Folger Professor of Black Studies and English and Professor of Latinx and Latin American Studies, who organized the symposium.

At Amherst, Cobham-Sander has taught a “Digital Africas” course since 2015. The symposium, she said, was the first to exclusively examine this topic. Its goal is to help scholars working in this field to get to know each other. “Our presenters include emergent scholars, established leaders in media studies and African literary studies, as well as African bloggers and editors of online literary journals,” Cobham-Sander said.

Professor C. Rhonda Cobham-Sander, professor of black studies, English, Latinx and Latin American studies
Professor Rhonda Cobham-Sanders joins in the conversations at the Digital Africas Symposium, a conference that emerged from her course on the impact of computer technology and the internet on African literature.

The idea for the symposium developed out of conversations Cobham-Sander had at literary conferences where she presented her research on African writing and social media.

“We all noticed that, despite the major role digital platforms played in how celebrated African writers had honed their craft or cultivated their readership, very few scholars seemed to take such media into consideration in critical essays on African writing,” she said. She expressed confidence that publication of the symposium’s proceedings will change the way scholars write about contemporary African literature.

“We hope to stage a major intervention in the field of African literary studies,” she said.

In the course “Digital Africas,” Cobham-Sander and her students explore how literature has evolved with technology, including how authors use digital formats and the internet to transform their relationships with audiences. The students themselves keep blogs about their observations. Students read fictional works in print, serialized narratives on blogs, and literary products that circulate via social media.

Cobham-Sander said the course grew out of conversations with Alexis Teyie ’16, already an active blogger on the Kenyan literary scene while a student at Amherst. Teyie now belongs to the editorial collective of Enkare Review.

Other online forums that are making a mark include the Kenyan literary journal Jalada, which recently teamed up with the Harvard literary journal Transition to publish a special issue on translation, and Saraba, a Nigerian journal that combines literary and critical functions. Editors of both of these journals attended the symposium.

Digital Africas Symposium
Ato Quayson delivers a keynote address on the opening day of the symposium.

The keynote addresses included “Aesthetic Judgment in the Era of the Digital,” by Ato Quayson, professor of English and director of the Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Studies at the University of Toronto and visiting professor in the Department of English at NYU, and “Shifting Margins: Digital Media and New African Textual Practices,” by Akin Adesokan, associate professor of comparative literature and of cinema and media studies at The Media School at Indiana University Bloomington.

The bulk of the symposium was broken up into a series of panels. Amelie E. Hastie, professor of English in film and media studies, facilitated “What's Code Got to Do with It?” a discussion with fellow Amherst professor Marisa Parham (English, black studies and film And media studies), as well as two outside professors. Other panels included “Why Walk the Line?,” “When Poetry Goes Public,” “Who Reads, Who Writes?” and “New Directions—Old Challenges,” which will be facilitated by faculty from Smith College and UMass.

 Other panels included “Why Walk the Line?,” “When Poetry Goes Public,” “Who Reads, Who Writes?” and “New Directions—Old Challenges,” which were facilitated by faculty from Smith College and UMass.

Adenekan, Santana and Kwabena Opoku-Agyemang, lecturer at the University of Ghana, Legon, were co-organizers of the event with Cobham-Sander.

“Their intimate engagement with African literary innovations on social media, including online publishing in African languages, has enhanced the scope of this event,” she said.

Conversation from the symposium can be found on Twitter at #digitalafricas2017.