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  • Writer's pictureMaria Zirra, Sanja Nivesjö and Jade Munslow Ong

Salford and Uppsala: Forms and Formations of African Literature

This blogpost is co-written by Maria Zirra, Sanja Nivesjö and Jade Munslow Ong.

Maria Zirra is a postdoctoral researcher at the English Department of Stockholm University and the Department of Literatures in English at Rhodes University. Her current postdoctoral research project, “Reading Art Worlds in Small Print: Prismatic Combinations of Literature and Visual Art in South African Little Magazines from the 1960s-1970s” is funded by the Swedish Research Council and it focuses on visual artist and writer collaborations in periodicals from Southern Africa. Maria’s upcoming monograph Visual Poetic Memory: Ekphrasis and Image-Text in Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott and Wopko Jensma deals with postcolonial poetic writing about visual art and its aesthetic, political and material implications. She has published work on contemporary ekphrastic poetry, new materialism, multidirectional memory and complicity in Anglophone poetry.

Sanja Nivesjö is Associate Senior Lecturer (biträdande lektor) at the Centre for Gender Research at Uppsala University. Her current research project concerns the depiction of interracial love in literature from South Africa and Zimbabwe, 1900-1950. She obtained her PhD in English literature from Stockholm University and Justus Liebig University Giessen in 2020 with the dissertation Dis-placed Desires: Space and Sexuality in South African Literature.



We were delighted to host Dr Maria Zirra (Stockholm) and our longtime collaborator Dr Sanja Nivesjö (Uppsala) in Salford in mid-March.

Whilst they were with us, they recorded short lectures for our website-in-progress Literature Unbound. Sanja's analysis of interracial relationships in a short story by Nadine Gordimer, and Maria's on the visual-textual poetry of Wopka Jensma, will provide important introductory resources for young learners coming to South African literature for the first time.

On Friday 15th March, we held the book launch for the edited collection Olive Schreiner: Writing Networks and Global Contexts (Edinburgh University Press). Maria was our expert host, posing thoughtful questions and chairing the audience Q+A for collection contributors Emma Barnes, Sanja and I. We had a great time celebrating in the event space at Home MCR.

The following week it was our turn to visit Sanja and Maria. Salford colleagues Maire Tracey, Simon Stanton-Sharma, Emma and I travelled together to Uppsala. As part of our trip, I presented a paper on  ‘Peripheral Realisms, Friendship and Resistance in the Art and Writing of Albert Adams and Richard Rive’ at the Gender Studies Seminar Series at the Centre for Gender Research at Uppsala University. The paper is based on a chapter-in-progress for an upcoming collection which I am again co-editing with Andrew van der Vlies, entitled South African Modernisms. My chapter will explore the role and importance of friendship in artistic expressions of anticolonial and anti-racist resistance by writer Richard Rive (1931-1989) and artist Albert Adams (1929-2006) (whose archives and many artworks are held by the University of Salford Art Collection).  Both Adams and Rive were homosexual, “coloured”* men, coming to adulthood during the rise and election to power of the National Party and associated implementation of the policy of institutionalised racial segregation known as apartheid. The two men met in the early 1950s, established a lifelong friendship, and collaborated on two edited collections of short stories for the Heinemann African Writers Series (1964, 1965) - Rive as contributing author and editor, and Adams as illustrator. In the paper, I discussed examples of self portraiture in their art and writing in relation to theorisations of ‘peripheral realisms’  (Clancy 2012; Esty and Lye 2012; Jameson 2013) emerging after the inaugurating modernist forms of South African literature to exemplify a new impetus for anticolonial realism in the context of rising African nationalist and Pan-African movements at mid-century. I argued that conventional understandings of the polarisation of realism and modernism are undermined by the art and writing producing by black and “coloured” writers living under the uniquely oppressive conditions of the South African semi-periphery at mid-century.  

The attendees at the seminar were really warm and welcoming and we had a wonderful discussion afterwards, which I found really useful for thinking further about theories of friendship, mourning, time and the specific writing contexts of South Africa in the 1960s. I was delighted too that librarians at the Nordic Africa Institute at Uppsala University created a display of works associated with Richard Rive to accompany my research paper. We all had a wonderful time exploring the library’s extensive holdings spanning literature, history and film.


Fika and then dinner with the gang rounded off an excellent day!


[*note on the use of the term ‘coloured’, which has a specific history and contested meaning in contemporary South Africa. It was originally used to refer to people of mixed-race descent predominantly based in the Cape, was deployed as legally-defined racial classification during the apartheid era, and forms one of a number of racial categories with a continued use, presence and power over South African lives (See Erasmus 2017).]


Maria and Sanja:

It was our utmost pleasure to host members of the South African Modernism 1880-2020 project at the international workshop Forms and Formations of African Literature taking place at Uppsala University on March 17th.

The workshop opened with an excellent keynote from the Salford research team on “South African Modernism, Pedagogy, and Decolonizing Across Forms: Prose, Poetry and the Audiovisual” describing outreach activities aimed at revising and decolonizing the English A-level literary curriculum. The presentations covered interactive content developed in close collaboration with a whopping 1100 16 to 18 year-old students across 16 UK colleges.

Jade Munslow Ong outlined the ways in which the research results of the South African Modernism project contribute to a movement in curriculum development aimed at expanding the English A-level optional module content beyond Euro-American literary horizons and also providing crucial critical dimensions of gender and race. Ranging between analyses of contemporary and early twentieth century texts from Southern Africa the project emphasizes participatory techniques and co-creation activities involving teachers, students and university lecturers and spans many different forms and media such as podcasts, visual texts, long form video masterclasses and short #BookTok films. The bottom-up approach and different forms of interaction are also part of a joint project to decolonize knowledge production.  Teaching kits, podcasts, expert masterclasses by academics and student-led video material are being developed as a part of a follow-up funding sponsored by the AHRC where national-funded research improves secondary school teaching and the forms a feedback loop into university pedagogy.  

Emma Barnes described the need for a decolonial perspective in education both from the point of view of allowing more student-led activities and by diversifying perspectives on racial and feminist themes using South African texts. She presented the activities of a workshop intervening in the Love Through the Ages AQA optional module where the theme of interracial love in South Africa enriches and problematizes other core texts. Using a poem by Adam Small where the illegal character of a mixed-race relationship ends in tragedy, the students investigated the different power structures that obtain in early apartheid South Africa. Emma also pointed out that the students also responded to the poem’s formal features such as a particular poetic typography and the use of blank space as visual ways to represent the enforced separation between the lovers. Another activity involved the students producing podcast material about South African literary sources such as Olive Schreiner’s feminist thinking. Podagogy is an effective manner of combining student-led research with a format that allows them to develop oral presentation and interview skills, as well as feeling included in knowledge-production – but also building a broadcasting persona and trying out interacting with technology.

Simon Stanton-Sharma presented the larger educational platform ‘South African Literature Unbound’ developed as part of the AHRC funding that will comprise master classes by academics. He also reported on an interactive project where students create #BookTok material that can be reused and developed by secondary school teachers. Developing media literacy and critical thinking skills are another important dimension of curriculum development and enhance the students’ own agency and confidence in interacting with previously unseen literary texts. The breadth and structured pedagogical approach, as well as the inclusion of young voices preparing for university education was a wonderful example of what a vision combining social engagement, teaching and research communication can achieve in practice.

We then had the pleasure of listening to Emma discuss perspectives from Indigenous knowledges as part of a roundtable on ‘Decolonising Form’, together with Stefan Helgesson (Stockholm University), Maria Olaussen (Gothenburg University), and Tasnim Qutait and Gül Bilge Han (Mälardalen University). A second roundtable followed on ‘Interrogating Prose’ with Rebecca Duncan (Linnaeus University), Ashleigh Harris, Nicklas Hållén and Oulia Makkonen (all Uppsala University), in which they discussed questions of circulation and canon-formation, considering ways in which research material and pedagogical philosophies intersect when we write about African literature.

An Early Career Workshop was held in which PhD-students working on various aspects of African literatures had the opportunity to present, discuss, and receive feedback new ideas or their work in progress:

  • Kudzai Barure (Rhodes University) presented on folktales in Zimbabwe in relation to oral tradition and digital discourse;

  • Lobke Minter (University of Stellenbosch and Linnaeus University) presented on how wounds as connective points interrogate social structures in speculative fiction;

  • Sondos Qutait-Kovac (Stockholm) presented on representations of the Anglo-Sudanese War and the Mahdist Movement in British Fiction;

  • Tesfaye Woubshet Ayele (Stockholm) presented on colonial and anticolonial form in relation to colonial education Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o’s novels

The South African Literature in Sweden (SALS) network held an open meeting discussing future collaborations, and the Nordic Africa Institute Library gave an overview of their work, holdings, and resources available for scholars working on African literature and culture.

The day was rounded off with a screening of the short research-led documentary film All That Is Buried (2022), made by the South African Modernism team. The documentary was filmed in Cape Town in July 2022 and features interviews with creatives Dizu Plaatjies, Zizipho Bam, Haroon Gunn-Salie, and Sindiswa Busuku who all explore connections between aesthetics, politics, and history in a South African context. Film-maker and University of Salford lecturer Maire Tracey gave a short introduction to the film, drawing on a co-written article on the film-making process, and a Q&A was held with Maire and fellow film-maker and University of Salford lecturer Simon Stanton-Sharma.


A lively conference dinner rounded off the day, which was brilliantly organised by Sanja and Maria and hailed a great success. We now look forward to other opportunities to collaborate in the future!

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