The Powers of Genre: Interpreting Haya Oral Literature

The Powers of Genre: Interpreting Haya Oral Literature

The Powers of Genre: Interpreting Haya Oral Literature

The Powers of Genre: Interpreting Haya Oral Literature

Synopsis

The Powers of Genre describes a method for interpreting oral literature that depends upon and facilitates dialogue between insiders and outsiders to a tradition. Seitel illustrates this method with lively examples from Haya proverbs, folktales, and heroic verse. He then focuses on a single epic ballad to demonstrate, among other things, why stanzas need not rhyme, and how significance needs time in oral poetry and narrative. Making a controversial claim that an heroic age, similar to that of Ancient Greece, existed in Sub-Saharan Africa, this work will intrigue anyone who works in oral literature and narrative.

Excerpt

A long time ago, when I was a graduate student at Penn studying with Kenny Goldstein, David Sapir, and Dell Hymes and working in the library, I once entertained an interesting request for assistance. It came from a man doing research on a Philadelphia inventor who had devised a perpetual motion machine, he said. Opening a leather portfolio, he showed me a schematic drawing of that machine. It had several figures with arrows connecting them. "This is the head," he said, "and this is the hand, and this is the heart." I nodded slowly. "You know," he said, "you have to live with this for a long time before you understand it." His words recur to me sometimes when I stand back from my own careful work.

I also remember sitting in the bar at the Vatican City Hotel in Dar es Salaam in 1994, with my esteemed colleagues, Drs. Mulokozi and Kahigi, professors of language and literature at the University of Dar es Salaam. We were discussing oral literature and touched on the now-cooled controversy in ethnopoetic studies concerning the mode of definition of a "line" as the basic unit of analysis in oral narrative or poetry. Kahigi asked me to recount the dispute as I understood it, and I spoke about breath and silence as defining features on one hand and about adverbials and syntactic parallelism on the other. He was greatly amused. "I can't imagine how you can have a line in an oral tradition," he said. I begged him, "Hold that thought," and as the discussion continued we returned to it again and again. the Haya oral literature that appears later has no lines, although conventions of writing and the analytic methods based on them would seem to indicate that it does. What it really has is not lines but breath, voice, silence, parallelism, marked forms, fictional logic, and semantic contrasts performed all together, all the time. (And, of course, gesture, which I did not record in my field research.) An artist makes these all move together, not linearly and orthogonally in step as in an official document but in the often playful dialogue that is a topic of this book. Always remember: There are really no lines.

This work resulted from my trying to specify the methodology for a project of editing and interpreting a collection of Haya epic ballads, which is still under way. I had worked out the method's basic principles in a book on folktales but reduced explicaton of it there to only two pages (Seitel 1980: 33-34), for my emphasis then was on narrative art and cultural meaning rather than on analytic approach. I decided to postpone my editing of the epic collection when, addressing method per se and consequently confronting several genres at once, I found that I could discern patterns in texts previously only intuited; solve nagging problems of logic and theme; and begin to see concrete evi-

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