12 Jan 2024

New ERC research project “Black Narratives of Transcultural Appropriation” has started

The project Black Narratives of Transcultural Appropriation: Constructing Afropean Worlds, Questioning European Foundations (AFROPEA, Grant Agreement 101075842), funded with an ERC Starting Grant in the Horizon Europe program, has started its work at the ZfL. Its Principal Investigator is the comparatist Dr. Gianna Zocco. The team also includes postdoctoral researcher Sandra Folie, who will be joined by two doctoral students over the course of the year. The five-year project is receiving around 1.5 million euros in funding.

The research centers on literary texts by African European, African, and African diasporic writers from the 19th century to the present that relate to Europe in different ways: they use Europe as a setting, refer to European history, characterize Europe’s inhabitants, or reflect about European languages. All the texts studied share a complex, sometimes ambivalent and often subversive way of engaging with questions of ownership and appropriation.

This engagement with Europe is articulated on the thematic as well as the formal-aesthetic level of the texts. Theoretically, it will be approached by the concept of transcultural appropriation. On the one hand, this brings to the foreground the violent primary appropriation of the African continent and its inhabitants as well as the proprietorial conception of Europe as white. On the other hand, the concept of appropriation opens up a fruitful perspective on the genuinely literary acts of imagining Europe as “Afropea.” The texts tell stories of Afropeans that have already been at home in Europe hundreds of years ago; they repurpose aesthetic devices from the European canon; or they make ironic use of the concept of property or subversively employ techniques of colonial discourse. Studying them as Black narratives of transcultural appropriation will make it possible to develop a new understanding of the ways in which Black literature actively shapes, critically reveals, or bluntly refuses common notions about territorial and cultural ownership, world heritage, and the ambiguities of European belonging.

By analyzing the temporarily and spatially expansive, only partially known Black literary tradition engaging with Europe in subjective and aesthetically innovative ways, the project opens up a new field of research within European comparative literature. In particular, it focusses on African European writing which takes place in the gray areas and middle grounds beyond the dichotomy of the colonizers and the colonized. The project thus centers on literary texts written in other languages than English and French—both of them world languages and primary languages of the African diaspora—as well as on texts depicting middle, eastern, and provincial parts of Europe. The individual sub-projects will also explore some specific literary genres of African European writing, including the slave narrative, the anthology, and the travelogue.

Since 2019, comparatist Gianna Zocco has been a Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellow at the ZfL with her project Of Awful Connections, East German Primitives, and the New Black Berlin Wall. Germany and German History in African-American Literature. In 2013, she earned her PhD with her thesis Das Motiv des Fensters als Öffnung ins Innere in Erzähltexten seit 1945 (The motif of the window as an opening into the interior in literary narratives since 1945) and was later a researcher and lecturer at the University of Vienna. In 2016/2017, she worked at Columbia University in New York with a fellowship by the Max Kade foundation.

Sandra Folie is also a comparatist and has worked as a researcher and lecturer at the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena and at the University of Vienna. She received her PhD in 2020 with a thesis on practices of labeling new world women* literatures, which was awarded the prize of the Gender Studies Association Austria.

Folie and Zocco organized the Blankensee-Colloquium Sketches of Black Europe. Imagining Europe/ans in African and African Diasporic Narratives, which took place at the ZfL in spring 2022. It resulted in a special issue of CompLit. Journal of European Literature, Arts and Society, which was published on January 10, 2024.