Afro-German Afrofuturism With Priscilla Layne
September 3, 2020 | Sophia Ramos
Associate Professor Priscilla Layne talks about her latest research on Afro-German Afrofuturism in literature and theater.
Philip Hollingsworth: Welcome to the Institute, a podcast on the lives and work of Fellows and friends of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I’m Philip Hollingsworth in this episode as speak with Associate Professor of German Priscilla Layne, in our conversation, Professor Layne discusses her current book project on contemporary literature in theater about black German artists experimenting with futurism, speculative fiction, science fiction and fantasy. So Priscilla, I just want to say first of all, thank you for joining me today virtually to talk about your work.
Priscilla Layne: Yeah, I’m happy to be able to talk about it.
PH: To start out, if you could just let us know your role at UNC. And then in terms of your research, can you describe your research in one or two sentences?
PL: So yeah, at UNC, I’m a Associate Professor of German, I teach- some classes I teach in English. Usually, they’re 200 level classes. So they tend to be ways to introduce students to German culture to get them interested in our major. So you know, I teach classes on film, like I teach a class on representations of Nazis in film or history of German cinema. But I also teach in German, so usually advanced German. So year three and above, sometimes specialized topics like Turkish-German culture. So along those lines. My research primarily focuses on German identity, the construction of German identity over time. So I’m interested in how German identity is negotiated, mainly along the lines of race and ethnicity, but also how the ways that people — marginalized people — in Germany are treated how they experience life in Germany. So, a lot of the times I’m looking at ethnic and racial minorities like Black Germans or Turkish Germans, but sometimes I focus on you know, gender, sexuality, class or ability, or, you know, a combination of different categories.
PH: Great, thank you. And can you briefly describe your current research project, your current book project?
PL: So my current book project is called Out of this World: Afro-German Afrofuturism. And it looks at the ways in which in contemporary literature and theatre, Black German artists are experimenting with futurism, speculative fiction, sci fi and fantasy in order to break with past binary ways of thinking about race, culture and identity. So in these texts and plays, Black Germans are often critiquing German society, critiquing the racism in German society, invoking the colonial past and its legacy. But they also sometimes just imagine either alternative worlds or alternative timelines or futures and think about ways in which the future could be better for people of color in Germany.
PH: Great. Can you mention some of the actual texts that you’re working with? Just so folks may have an idea of the type of books or plays that you’re covering?
PL: Sure. Um, so let’s see-
PH: And maybe highlight ones that maybe, are there any that are translated into English already?
PL: well, there’s one text that was written in English. It’s called Also by Mail. It’s a play by Nigerian-German author Olúmìdé Pópóọlá [olu-MIDA Pu-pula]. And there, the fantasy aspect enters the play in the form of a ghost. So it’s about these Afro-German siblings, whose father is from Nigeria, that they grew up in Germany with their white mother. And when their father passed away in Nigeria, they go there to his funeral and have to live with relatives. And there are all these conflicts around culture, because they grew up in Germany and they don’t really know much about their father’s culture. But what happens in the play is that at some point, one of the siblings gets malaria. And she’s in this feverish state. And she imagines having an encounter with her deceased father, that he’s, you know, actually in the room talking to her. So in that play, I’m talking more about ghosts and this idea of ancestors being able to kind of insert themselves in your lives or come back from beyond the grave to kind of influence your life. Basically, I consider to what extent Pópóọlá is drawing on, you know, African influences or specifically, you know, non-German non-western ideas in order to allow for more fantasy and flexibility in her story in order to accomplish, you know, the argument that she’s making about what it’s like for this generation of Black Germans, who grew up in Germany but may not feel they’re really accepted in Germany. But also don’t feel they’re accepted, you know, abroad, with, you know, relatives who might be where the father comes from. So, I’m just looking at how Pópóọlá draws on different ways of understanding the world in order to flesh out the story and show the experience of these characters.
PH: What was the title and author of that book one more time?
PL: Oh, the title is Also by Mail and the author’s Olúmìdé Pópóọlá. And she currently lives in England. She’s been living there for a while now. And she says that she likes to write in English, partly because a lot of her life happens in English now. And she’s able to write about race more easily in English, but also because she found she has a bigger audience when she writes in English versus writing in German.
PH: Okay, wow. Thank you. In terms of your current project — your current book project — how do you envision this book shaping or changing your field of study or just understanding in, you know, humanities as a whole? I don’t mean to make it too big, but you know.
PL: Yeah. Well, my subfield of Black German Studies, people do a lot of analysis of autobiographies. And that’s primarily because when it comes to the, as the body of literature produced by Black Germans, there are a lot of autobiographies. You know, people, a lot of people don’t realize, you know, that there are, you know, Black Germans or how big the population is, or that Black Germans have been in Germany, you know, for hundreds of years. So a lot of these autobiographies are just kind of, you know, getting that history out there and letting people know, their experience. But another reason why they tend to be the focus is because when it comes to ask to Black German fiction, often authors are self-published, or their work is published in really small quantities, or things that were published a long time ago, don’t get reprinted. So often, it can be really hard to get your hands on the fictional work. And for the plays, if you’re not in Germany, if you’re not, don’t happen to be in Berlin and can see the play, you know, for yourself, then it can often be hard to get it recording. So, my book is different in the case that I’m focusing only on fictional texts. So I’m looking at, you know, novella, short stories and performances, and I’m looking at work by a generation of Black Germans who are younger than we typically hear from so people who are, let’s say, born after 1980, and I believe have a different understanding of their identity, compared to past years. So if in past publications, you had Black Germans who are older, saying, look, you know, this is my story, I’m going to prove to you that I am Black and German. To me, these younger authors are not interested in proving how German they are, they’re more interested in thinking diasporically. Like connections to other Black people around the world, and thinking beyond nationalism, thinking beyond their belonging to a nation state.
PH: That’s really interesting. You mentioned having a hard time accessing certain texts, or just in general, whether it be because of limited runs or, or self-publishing, how do you yourself find these works and get your hands on them?
PL: That’s a really great question. A lot of my ability to get ahold of these texts, has a lot to do with building relationships and maintaining relationships with the artists. So for example, you know, one of my chapters is on the performances of a playwright named Simone Dede Ayivi. She’s done maybe six or so performances. And I’ve been really grateful for the fact that she posts them on Vimeo, so she has them streaming, and they’re password protected. And when I asked her oh, can I see this play? Do you have that play? she sends me a link and sends me the password. And that’s really huge for me that she would, you know, trust me in that way. Because a lot of artists, they have to be very protective of their work, you know, because if you’re a filmmaker, you know, if someone shows a DVD of your film illegally, or you know, if you’re an author and someone just shares up shares a scan of the PDF, it could cut into your profit but also, you know, your acknowledgement. So when artists share works like this with me, I’m very protective of them, you know, and I don’t share them any further. I tell them, you know, this is just for my research. And for them, it helps with exposure, you know, because if more academics write about their work in books and in journals, they get, you know, a larger profile, you know, in Germany and in the US. And I hope that through this, they’re able to get more engagements, you know, in Germany and here.
PH: I have a couple more questions if that’s okay. Thinking about your research interests, and the you know, just the whole process of becoming a academic, a professor, what’s one book that inspired your research?
PL: Well, let’s see. One book that’s definitely inspired my way of thinking about Afrofuturism and sci fi, is a book by an author named Sami Schalk. The book is called Bodyminds Reimagined. And that’s about, there she’s looking at the intersection of gender, race and ability in portrayals of Black female characters in sci fi. And I really liked that book because it takes an intersectional approach, which I think is important when you’re looking at this kind of material. But also, because of the way it kind of reflects on to what extent, you know, sci fi and fantasy can be useful for Black authors, for Black artists. So that’s a book that definitely has inspired my thinking as I work on my own.
PH: Okay, there’s a question I asked almost all of our guests, what’s a book that changed your life?
PL: You know, I think I would say- there’s this auto biography by a Black German. The book is called Destined to Witness. And the author is Hans Jergen Massaquoi. And this was the first book I ever read by a Black German. So I started taking German in seventh grade, you know, I just had an interest in it, and took it, you know, all through college. And I was working at a bookstore in college — I think I was senior — and I walk past this book. And the cover is this Black boy wearing a sweater with a swastika on it in front of like school children. I just look at it like, Oh, my God, what is that? You know? So yeah, I became curious, because I had no idea that Black people have lived in Nazi Germany. And I just thought, what would that experience have been like, how did he survive? So just seeing the cover intrigued me to reading it? And I never would have thought, you know, that I would end up going to grad school for German and then focusing on Black German studies as my main interest. But yeah, I would say that book planted the seed in my mind to want to learn more about this history.
PH: Right. Well, Priscilla, I really enjoyed our conversation. And yeah, it was a pleasure to talk with you and thank you very much for your time.
PL: Sure, no problem.
PH: Check back at iah.unc.edu for the latest news on our Fellows and upcoming events at Hyde Hall. You can find all our episodes of the podcasts on our website as well as iTunes, SoundCloud and Spotify. Please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at iah_unc.
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