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AFRICAN LITERATURE TO PIETERMARITZBURG (article first published : 2003-08-24)

One of the most important collections of African literature in the world is on its way from the United States to the Pietermaritzburg campus of the University of Natal to form the nucleus of a new Centre for African Literary Studies.

Rare first editions signed by such giants of African literature as Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe and South Africa’s Nadine Gordimer, journals from throughout Africa and full runs of the much-admired Black Orpheus are a few of the 13,000 books, journals and rare tape and video material that are on their way “home” to Africa.

Bibliographer Hans Zell, who was asked to describe and value the set, calls it “a rare and quite unique collection, unparalleled in the world”. The funding to bring the collection to Africa and to start the new centre, through the efforts of the Natal University Development Foundation (NUDF), is thanks to global grant-maker Atlantic Philanthropies, as well as contributions from the Department of Arts and Culture, the Anglo American Chairman’s Fund and the University of Natal Research Fund.

American academic, Professor Bernth Lindfors from the University of Austin in Texas, has painstakingly built up the collection over the last 40 years. A prolific and highly respected scholar, he is considered the most resourceful bibliographer of African literature in the world and was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Literature from the University of Natal in 2002.

Every four years since 1979 Lindfors has edited the bibliography, Black African Literature in English, which has been described as being so comprehensive a volume… “that anyone wanting to do any work of any substance on contemporary Black African Literature in English will simply have to get access to it”.

While teaching in Kenya in the 1960s Lindfors found himself witnessing the emergence of the new national literatures of independent Africa, in the publication of poetry, drama and fiction, in writers’ conferences, and in a lively press. This liveliness and productivity were decisive in shaping Lindfors’ subsequent career in which he dedicated himself to fighting for the status and respectability of African literature in the North American academe.

He was determined that his collection should be based in Africa once it left him for he did not want this rich patrimony of Africa’s intellectual capital to be largely unavailable to African scholars. Working closely with his former student, David Attwell – until recently Professor and Director of English Studies at the University of Natal – Lindfors offered the collection first to the University.

It will form the heart of the new Centre for African Literary Studies, expected to be operating at the University within a year. This will provide a much-needed world resource for the study of African literatures; a key regional and national research centre; a springboard for new African literary scholarship; and a dynamic centre for colloquia and conferences.

It will also add significantly to the research potential for the Humanities and, in particular, African literature at the University itself. But most of all, as one undergraduate student has remarked: “It will be great to have it in Africa.”




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