Oral Traditions in World Literature

17-18 December 2019, Addis Regency Hotel, Addis Ababa (Ethiopia)

Organized by the project “Multilingual Locals, Significant Geographies” (SOAS University of London)

The discipline of world literature has been focusing almost exclusively on written literatures. Orature plays a determinant role in literary expression around the world, but unwritten verbal arts have been explicitly excluded from definitions of world literature (Prendergast 2004, 21, Levine 2013). This exclusion has important scholarly and political implications. It risks reproducing the prejudice that oral literature only has an anthropological, rather than artistic and aesthetic, value, and that oral societies acquired literature only thanks to the colonial intervention of Western missionaries and administrators. As an example of this bias, Pascale Casanova describes decolonization as a moment of liberation for “all the countries hitherto excluded from the very idea of literature proper (in Africa, in India, in Asia)”. Prendergast comments that Casanova’s description of the international literary system “depends on a system of categories that is itself ethnocentric” (2004, 22) – and the first of these categories is literature itself.

In this conference, we argue that oral traditions are a vital component of world literature, and not only as an antecedent to written literatures, but in their own right. The conference seeks to move past the characterisation of oral literature as traditional, locally constrained, and less aesthetically complex than written literatures. We will show instead that oral traditions are a modern and dynamic form of literary expression everywhere around the world, sometimes able to circulate across long distances. Against the teleological view that oral traditions merely provide a pool of tropes and stories on which writers can draw for inspiration, we show instead that writing, orality, and media such as television, radio, CDs, and the internet, offer literary practitioners the possibility of pluridirectional multimedia conversions. A written poem can be performed orally, a performance can be recorded on tape and circulate globally on YouTube, for example, reaching diaspora communities away from where the poem originated.  

We are interested in exploring the following questions exploring the dynamism of oral traditions:

  • How does orature circulate nowadays, and how has its circulation changed with recording technologies first, and the internet later? How have oral artists made use of the music market to commercialise their art? 

  • Orature is generally studied for its anthropological value, but how can we study orature for its aesthetic qualities, deploying the tools of literary criticism (narratology, stylistics, metrics) and performance studies? 

  • How have the skills required of the performer changed in time, for example from the point of view of memorisation, delivery, and repertoire? Has the social status of the performer evolved in parallel with recent social changes? Has the category of the performer changed from the point of view of class, gender, ethnicity or language?

  • How are performances translated and understood across languages in multilingual environments?

  • What is the role of universities and state institutions in preserving oral traditions and made them available to the public, for example via digitalisation programmes?

  • What is the role of the internet as an archive, a medium, and a platform for oral traditions? And what is the relationship between online and offline venues like festivals?

  • How can we develop comparative models for different oral traditions, for example, praise poetry in Ethiopia and South Africa? How can we compare transnationally oriented oral traditions with locally oriented ones? 

For more information please contact Sara Marzagora (sm137@soas.ac.uk) and Ayele Kebede (656930@soas.ac.uk)