SOAS University of London

Centre for Cultural, Literary and Postcolonial Studies (CCLPS)

Case Studies

Precolonial Multilingualism image

Case study: North of India

North India had been a major participant in the Persian cosmopolis; the older parallel expansion and cultivation of literary production in Persian and various forms of the vernacular (in multiple scripts) persisted even as in the 19c English gradually imposed itself as the new High language and as the model of literary modernity, and Hindi and Urdu codified their own historical narratives in competition with each other. Persian literature was subsequently marginalised and the old Persian-Hindi diglossia disavowed. Despite persistent low literacy, from the 1860s publishers in north India were multilingual and active in South Asia and beyond, and a heterogeneous print culture developed consisting of joint journal-and-book-publishers, theatre chapbooks and songbooks. The English colonial library also had a large lucrative market here, and early global writers like Kipling made north India part of the “significant geography” of English literature. How did north India work as a “multilingual local” in the late colonial period (1880-1940)? The project will focus on the short story, translations and literary debates on world literature in Hindi, Urdu, and English journals; on “readerly contacts” with English and other foreign and Indian literatures and transculturations; and on the inclusion/exclusion of orature from literary canons. It will then consider post-colonial developments, including writerly reactions to the political marginalization of Urdu and initial rejection of English; literary debates, translations and circulation of world literature in journals (including the influential “little magazines”); and the important domain of theatre, which negotiated pre-colonial traditions, Indian multilingualism, and “foreign” modern forms and intercultural experiments (Dalmia). Finally, against the recent international boom of Indian fiction in English, we will discuss with local stakeholders current trends in writing, publishing, and translation. Here our particular focus will be on poetry (Mehrotra, see Zecchini), in order to show how much of contemporary non-western literatures and literatures produced in multilingual locations today falls through the cracks of the paradigms provided by the global meta narratives. Local partners will include participants in the earlier Leverhulme network on postcolonial translation in South Asia (Srivastava, Kumar), publishers, and the organizer of the Jaipur festival (Gokhale), the largest literary festival in Asia.

The North India Case Study is led by Professor Francesca Orsini


Case study: Maghreb

Morocco, which had an older history of transregional multilingualism with Berber in the North and the South, classical Arabic, and Judeo-Moroccan, was divided into French and Spanish protectorates in 1912 and became independent in 1956. Thus the Moroccan case study will focus on the twentieth century, and its “significant geographies” will include France, Spain, the Maghreb, and the wider Arabic speaking region. After independence the politics of Arabicization that favoured modern standard Arabic sought to replace French and Spanish influence and diglossia with only partial success. While orature (halqa, zajal) includes Berber/Amazigh and dialectal/Moroccan Arabic (Darija), written literature includes modern standard Arabic, French, Spanish, and now English, each with its own transregional geographies of circulation. Significant for the Moroccan case will be to examine the presence of spoken/multiple languages within written texts (already in the older makhtutat genre, lit. “manuscripts”), the transformation of oral genres such as zajal strophic poetry into print, and the persistence of story-telling and street theatre (halqa) in the contemporary multilingual cultural scene. And while the histories of the Moroccan novel in French and in Arabic have been written separately and largely as a function of French/European “imitation”, do they also reveal links with pre-modern narrative forms such as makhtutat, letters, and travel writing? Does the textual study of contemporary Moroccan novels in Arabic and French reveal “traces” of the other language/s and pre-modern literary aesthetics and traditions (e.g. Laabi, Al Maleh, Achaari, Berrada, Choukri)? How have Moroccan bilingual intellectuals such as Berrada or Kilito theorized their “multilingual local” and their own literary multilingualism? And how have local/regional networks of recognition such as literary festivals (the Arabic Booker Prize, Moroccan halqa and zajal festivals, etc.) sought to negotiate the growing international weight of Francophone and Anglophone authors? What are the politics of multilingual literary production and circulation within and outside Morocco?

The Maghreb Case Study is led by Dr Karima Laachir


Case study: Horn of Africa

In the medieval period, the Christian and Muslim parts of the Horn of Africa were well connected with centres of religious learning in the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East, with a vast network of exchanges and translations between Geez, Arabic, Greek, Coptic, and Syriac. For the highland-based Abyssinian Empire, this was followed by a period of relative international isolation during the Age of the Princes (the Zämänä Mäsafənt, 1769-1855). Mission stations set up by various European denominations in the 19th century coincided with a rapid increase in the volume of Tigrinya- and Oromo-language production, while in the imperial court Amharic gradually replaced Geez as the official language of the state. From the beginning of the twentieth century Amharic saw a boom in fictional and non-fictional production, mostly linked to new state schools, newspapers, and publishing houses. Authors such as Afäwärḳ Gäbrä-Iyyäsus (1868-1947), Həruy Wäldä-Səlasse (1878-1938), the two pioneers of the Amharic novels, and Täklä-Hawaryat Täklä-Maryam (1884-1977), who wrote the first Amharic play, contributed to the rapid growth of Amharic literature in the first decades of the century. The short-lived Italian colonial presence (1936-1941) did not significantly impact Amharic literary forms, styles and aesthetic values. Starting from the 1941 liberation, policies of cultural assimilationism reinforced the marginalisation of Ethiopian languages other than Amharic, such as Tigrinya and Oromo. International scholars have tended to reinforce the power relation between Amharic as the cultural centre of the region and “peripheral” literatures—thus allying themselves with the dominant language (e.g. for Albert Gérard “no imaginative literature seems to have been produced in any of the non-Amharic vernaculars of Ethiopia” so that “the phrase Amharic literature can legitimately be used nowadays as a synonym for Ethiopian literature”). Although the issue of orality is perceived to be central to the literary and cultural heritage of the Horn of Africa, there is a general lack of comparative studies between the oral and the written and their interactions. In Ethiopia, the study of oral traditions has been undertaken as part of “Ethiopian folklore” in a predominantly synchronic and localised fashion, i.e. aimed at collecting and analysing the content of oral literary forms in a specific area at the time of fieldwork. The project will focus on oral genres such as praise poetry, as well as on the “wax and gold” poetic tradition (sämmənna wärḳ). In the context of twentieth-century Amharic literature, it will look at theatre (Mäkonnən Əndalkačäw, Käbbädä Mikael, Mängəstu Lämma and Ṣägaye Gäbrä-Mädhən) and the novelistic tradition (Haddis Alämayähu, Gərmaččäw Täklä-Hawaryat and Daňňaččäw Wärḳu), their relative social spaces, and their relationship with traditions of orature. Ultimately, our comparative focus on orature and written genres will show how the “local” in the Horn of Africa is layered and structured along networks of linguistic, cultural and political power relations.

The Horn of Africa Case Study is led by Dr Sara Marzagora