English R1A

Reading and Composition: “Alternative realities are true”: Animist Materialism in Contemporary Literature from West Africa and its Diaspora

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
1 Fall 2022 Gamedze, Londiwe
MWF 9-10 Wheeler 122

Book List

Oyeyemi, Helen: The Icarus Girl; Oyeyemi, Helen: White is for Witching

Other Readings and Media

Atlantics (dir. Mati Diop). Short stories from Ben Okri’s collections Prayer for the Living, and Stars of the New Curfew.


Almost forty years ago, the pop star Madonna sang that “we are living in a material world, and I am a material girl.” But is this really a material world? And are we only material beings? While Madonna’s claim is a response to capitalism’s demand to accumulate material wealth, it also references the materialist philosophies and ‘evidence-based’ knowledge practices that are central to modern Euro-American common sense. But this materialist approach is not universal: throughout history, humans have claimed that reality includes spiritual or non-material dimensions whose existence cannot be accounted for by western science. This is true even in the west—consider the recent TikTok trend of 'reality shifting,' or the popularity of '5D consciousness'.

This course considers the entanglement of the spiritual and material realms in fiction from two contemporary Nigerian authors, Helen Oyeyemi and Ben Okri, whose work explores this entanglement in a modern world marked by migration and diasporic dislocation, cultural multiplicity, and the discrediting of indigenous knowledge and belief systems. We will be guided by Nigerian scholar Harry Garuba’s influential paper “Explorations in Animist Materialism: Notes on Reading/Writing African Literature, Culture, and Society,” which considers how African animist materialisms are compatible with other materialist philosophies, including the historical materialism of Marxist thought.

The course, whose title is taken from a short story by Ben Okri, will encourage us to think with—and not against—the alternative realities presented in animist texts from Africa and beyond. Our thinking will take place in class discussions and in writing. Students will submit short pieces and writing exercises as part of a portfolio, engage in peer review processes, and craft one centerpiece. Some class time will be reserved for writing and workshopping. Creative exploration in critical writing will be encouraged! 

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