In Search of the Text

Khadija Koroma, University of Leicester

14 July 2021

Doing PhD during a pandemic is no easy feat, especially when the PhD entails literature and texts that have long since gone out of publication. My research focuses on the representation of African women in postcolonial literature through the Heinemann African Writers series (AWS).

The AWS has published over 200 texts between 1962 and the early 2000s. With COVID and its endless lockdowns, the typical library/archives search for my primary texts were out of question. With a ban on physical copies of books through the interlibrary loan system, and the British Library either closed or with limited opening hours, I had no choice but to take my search to second hand online bookstores for the necessary texts. Searching for, locating, and buying 200+ texts, with most of the earlier AWS texts being out of print, was not an option for a self-funded PhD student. Apart from the financial strain that this would have caused me, it would have also taken up a large part of my PhD, giving me very little time to focus on the key texts or write my thesis. However, at the same time, I knew that I needed to read as wide and as much of the AWS as was feasible. With the focus of my thesis being the representation of women in the texts, I needed to ensure that there was female presence in the narratives, as well as in the authorships of the texts chosen for my thesis. After an initial reading of a few of the most popular books in the AWS, I realised that the scarcity of female authors, as well as the exclusion of women in the texts, meant that I needed a plan.

With 3 years of project management work in local government under my belt, I was able to channel my inner project manager in order to create the plan. I was able to create a spreadsheet with drop down lists, tables, and rows including genre of text, points of interests and themes. I knew that looking through 200+ texts on a very limited budget and time was impossible. I had to focus my attention on certain texts. The easiest way and most sensible way to achieve this was through a set time period. I decided to focus on novels of the AWS written between 1965-1985. This was because the majority of African nations had achieved independence from their colonisers by 1965, meaning that texts within this period were a perfect fit for my research as they were written at the start of the ‘postcolonial’ era. This then limited the number of texts I needed to find and read.

The next issue I had to tackle was the inclusion of female authors. As I mentioned earlier, the AWS was a male-dominated series with only a handful of female writers. With my research topic in mind, I wanted to include as many female writers as possible that wrote within the time period outlined. I also had to decide what level of popularity I wanted to include in my research. With the most well-known author of the series being Chinua Achebe, whose popular Things Fall Apart (1962) had gained so much acclaim and academic scholarship, I had to carefully think about the contribution my thesis would make to this already crowded field. The second option was to choose the less popular authors whose work had gone largely unnoticed. However, this ran the risk of my finished thesis being very descriptive as opposed to analytical as there would be little to no secondary critics to engage with. I decided to include a mixture of well-known and less known authors. With the well-known authors such as Achebe, Buchi Emecheta and Ngugi wa Thiong’o, I stayed clear of their most popular works and instead chose works with less popularity such as Girls at War and Other Stories (1972) by Achebe, The Joys of Motherhood (1980) by Emecheta and Devil on the Cross (1982) by Ngugi. This provided an opportunity for my research to make an original contribution whilst also able to engage with academic scholarship. With the less-known authors, I chose their most popular works (Xala (1976) by Sembene Ousmane), giving me the same advantages as the well-known authors.

Creating a spreadsheet made the whole process of selecting texts much easier. I could record the texts after my first reading, writing short summaries as well as key themes and points of interest that I found in the narratives. Initially, I also wanted to include various forms and genre of texts in my thesis. However, after reading some of the plays in the AWS, I could see that there was very little female presence in them. Although it is possible to write about the absence of women in postcolonial plays, I do not believe that it would help me uncover how women were represented in postcolonial literature of the AWS. I was still able to include other genres, outside of the novel in my final selection of texts. These included the epistolary novel So Long a Letter (1981) by Mariama Ba, two different short story collections, one by Achebe, Girls at War, and the other by Bessie Head. The Collector of Treasures (1977). I also included a collection of speeches and essays by Tom Mboya, The Challenge to Nationhood (1970). After searching for, obtaining, and reading over 50 poems, 23 short stories, 15 prose, 10 plays, 10 novels, and a collection of essays and speeches, I was able to choose the 7 texts that would shape my thesis.

After the choosing of my primary texts came the initial self-doubt. Did I make the right choice? Should I read more texts? Have I chosen the best texts for my thesis? Would I be able to answer my research questions through these texts? The doubt, however, did not last long as the busyness of my PhD pushed these questions to the back of my mind as I began to focus on planning and formulating an argument for my thesis. The whole process of searching for and finding my texts has given me greater confidence in my PhD, as I can go back to my spreadsheet and see my rationale and notes behind every decision I made. Uncertainty regarding my source selection no longer plays on my mind, the back or front, and with the recent completion of the first chapter of my thesis, I can confidently say that I made the right choices.

Khadija Koroma is a PhD researcher at the University of Leicester. Her research is focused on women in postcolonial nations, particularly on how African women are represented through the narratives of the Heinemann African Writers Series.

Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

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