Also, well, just curiosity.
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Time for the World to Learn From Africa is an educational book that brings forth the historical and characteristic details of Africa. Why was this an important book for you to write?
It goes back a long way. My first degree was in classical studies – Greek and Roman times – following my father. I really loved that and I could happily have spent all my life studying those deep ancient cultures. But the feeling grew on me that there just might be other cultures in the world worth studying.
I suppose that came from a mix of motives – moral, political, family values, missionary background. Also, well, just curiosity.
Why that should have led me specifically into a fascination with AFRICA I’m not sure, maybe reading the rather romantic accounts in Laurens van der Post’s books.
Anyhow I discovered that the way to learn about Africa was to study aanthropology. So I went back to Oxford to do that and found to my pleasure that the anthropologists there specialised in Africa. So without really having consciously planned it, p two years later I was in a remote West African village studying storytelling!
So that’s what started it off.
Resulting from this, what I really really wanted to achieve in writing the book was to get people interested in this amazing continent. Not only do many people not know very much about it, but there are also some very strange ideas and assumptions about it, mostly quite unjustifiable. Since I wanted to do something to dispels those ideas, I knew I just had to write the book.
I also felt another thing: that I have been lucky enough to have had access to a very good education which must have cost the state and my not-at-all-well-off parents a great deal It was, and still is, my duty to give something back.
So all that lay behind writing the book
What were some personal experiences that you felt helped you write this book?
I was fascinated by the field research I did on African storytelling. It became a very personal thing. I was living in a village remote from other people like myself – you had to walk 3 miles from the nearest road, balancing on a fallen tree across a raging torrent in the wet season, even in the dry pretty impassible (it was a good thing that I’d spent part of my childhood in an isolated cottage in Donegal so was reasonably ready for it). A very revolutionary experience for me. Actually, though hard in some ways, I look back on that year as an immensely rich and growing experience, an adventure!
I think that, as with many other anthropologists, that first field experience was a deeply intense experience, personal that you spend all your life drawing on, both intellectually and, somehow, emotionally.
I felt like this book was immensely informative and easy to consume. What is one thing you hope readers take away from your book?
The obvious thing of course is hoping to stimulate an interes in Africa, an awareness of ignorance (‘the beginning of wisdom’ – Plato was right) and thus a curiosity to know more.
But in my mind that’s perhaps not all of it. It’s also about opening readers’ minds not just to Africa but, wider, to a more general awareness of other cultures in the world beside the West, other lives and ways of living: that there’s something for us all to learn from them. That links into the motivation behind the new Balestier Press “Hearing Others’ Voices” series which I edit. The series includes books on other cultures such as the fascinating Native American knowledge systems or hunter-gatherer people like the Bushmen, and a series of volumes not just by celebrities like the current Astronomer Royal or the previous Archbishop of Canterbury but unknowns like the Vietnamese boat refugee arriving at the age of 3 and now a successful GP and professional singer, the charity shop worker who talks about his tattoos and his inexplicable visions, or the incredibly gifted creator of the famous Apple logo.
What for me lies behind all of these is the same curiosity that lay behind the Africa book – the first of the series. My interest in Africa is fuelled by a more general a passion to discover more about ways of life different from my own.
It has been wonderful experience – a privilege – learning about, and trying to convey something of, these many different lives and ways of living. We are not at an end yet, far from it.
In your research on this topic, was there anything that surprised you?
I suppose that now, looking back and thinking about it – I wasn’t really aware of it at the time – I’d say maybe two main things.
One was that I went out with rather grand romantic ideas about Africa being so “different” – but then discovered that beneath the surface differences, people were just people, just ordinary, like me: good bad, clever stupid, all that.
The other thing was more an intellectual discovery. In the west, at least until very recently and maybe still, we tend to think of language and literature as in a way the “top arts” (that fitted well of course with my training in classical languages and literature). So I began by taking it for granted that studying stories and story-telling would take me tothe heart of things, to what really mattered in the local,culture.
But no! Storytelling was hugely interesting of course and I have absolutely no regrets about focusing on it. But what I gradually came to see from my time in Africa was that, rather than the linguistic, the highest and most valued arts were to be found in drumming and dancing.
That taught me something about the (ethnocentric/culturally limited) views of my own culture, something I built on later in a book on “Communicating… “ The central theme of that was that though language in its many forms is indeed important in human cultures, there are also many other important modes in use, and that human communicating is in practice always multisensory.
Without the findings from my African experiences that is something about my own culture that I would never have noticed. And yes, that did indeed surprise me.
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It is a common notion that Africa has, and indeed ought to have, learned much from the west. This is not wrong; all cultures rightly learn from each other. But less is said of what there is to learn from Africa: from her stories, myths, music, proverbs, insights – and more. Here an acclaimed African scholar steps into the gap by uncovering for us something of the great legacy of African thought and practice in ways that will astonish many. Written with verve and authority and directed above all to students and sixth formers, this book will also delight and often surprise those who know something of Africa as well as those hitherto ignorant. Ruth Finnegan OBE FBA is Emeritus Professor The Open University, Foreign Associate of the Finnish Literature Bureau, and International Fellow of the American Folklore Society. An anthropologist and multi-award author, she has published extensively, chiefly on Africa, musical practice, and English urban life. Recent books include How is Language?, Fiji’s Music: Where Did It Come From?, her edited Entrancement: The Consciousness of Dreaming, Music and The World, and two prize-winning Africa-influenced novels Black Inked Pearl and Voyage of Pearl of the Seas.
About Literary TitanThe Literary Titan is an organization of professional editors, writers, and professors that have a passion for the written word. We review fiction and non-fiction books in many different genres, as well as conduct author interviews, and recognize talented authors with our Literary Book Award. We are privileged to work with so many creative authors around the globe.
Posted on May 9, 2020, in Interviews and tagged author interview, education, history, nonfiction, ruth finnegan, Time for the World to Learn From Africa. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.
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