22 Nov 2022

New ERC research project, “Black Narratives of Transcultural Appropriation: Constructing Afropean Worlds, Questioning European Foundations”

The project “Black Narratives of Transcultural Appropriation: Constructing Afropean Worlds, Questioning European Foundations” will be funded with an ERC Starting Grant in the Horizon Europe programme. Its Principal Investigator is Gianna Zocco. The comparatist and her project team will analyze literary texts by African European, African, and African diasporic writers from the late 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 is articulated both explicitly and implicitly on the thematic as well as the rhetoric level of the texts. Theoretically, it will be approached by the concept of transcultural appropriation. On the one hand, this brings the violent primary appropriation of the African continent and its inhabitants as well as the proprietorial conception of Europe as white to the foreground, which continue to be echoed in neo-colonial structures and images such as the “Fortress Europe” until today. On the other hand, the concept of appropriation opens up a fruitful perspective on the genuinely literary acts of imagining and re-building 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. The project undertakes a heuristic reversal of the concept of cultural appropriation, allowing to separate its negatively connotated, evaluative use within a contemporary discourse from its older, morally neutral, or positive emancipatory uses, i.e., in the sense of a postcolonial “writing back.”

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. It focusses particularly 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 in minor and midsize European languages as well as on texts depicting middle, eastern, and provincial parts of Europe. This examination therefore also contributes to the emerging field of African European studies, which will be enriched by the specific methodology and interdisciplinary perspective of the project.

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 doctorate 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 lecturer and university assistant at the department for comparative literature at the University of Vienna. In 2016/2017, she worked at Columbia University’s Department of English and Comparative Literature in New York with a fellowship by the Max Kade foundation. The Blankensee-Colloquium Sketches of Black Europe. Imagining Europe/ans in African and African Diasporic Narratives, which was organized by Zocco and Sandra Folie, took place at the ZfL in spring 2022.