By Akin Adesokan
In the final week of September 2017, scholar Jane Bryce was the guest of the Institute of Advanced Study at Indiana University as a visiting fellow. Bryce’s visit coincided with an international symposium titled “A Hundred Years of Migration (1917–2017): Stories of Caribbean Exile and Diaspora,” and organized by IU’s Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies. An emerita professor of African Literature and Cinema at the University of West Indies at Cave Hill in Barbados, Bryce’s lecture was titled “Queering Omeros: Isaac Julien Encore: Paradise Omeros Redux,” on the cinematic work of Black British director Isaac Julien.
Bryce is a rare scholar, of the kind quite hard to find these days. Although recently retired, she has remained active as a lecturer and frequently published scholar and writer. In the field of postcolonial studies, it is unusual to have a range of expertise covering West Africa, East Africa, Black Britain, and the Caribbean, especially in cinema, literature, and the loose category of popular culture. Bryce has managed this unusual range throughout her productive career, and with exemplary grace and thoroughness. She is well respected as a widely published scholar of African women’s literary and cinematic productions. She was based at the University of Barbados for close to three decades, and there she has developed unique research and curricular programs on African cinema, including a film festival featuring practitioners and scholars alike. She has also served as the editor of Poui, an annual journal of creative writing based at Cave Hill.
The lecture was vintage Bryce: an intertextual, multimedia analysis of Julien’s experimental film with passages from Omeros, the long poem by the recently deceased St. Lucian poet, Derek Walcott. Julien interlaced the film with readings in Walcott’s own voice, and images of the Caribbean landscape, lived environment, and everyday occurrences. Bryce’s analysis of the two works raised a big question about representation: how does an experimental work that simultaneously resists narrative logic and foregrounds an underrepresented identity (homosexuality) engage with the narrative force of Omeros? If anything, Walcott’s famous poem is unstinting in its attempts at representing the region. Part of the thrill in listening to Bryce’s lecture is in how she collapsed the boundary between poetry and film as texts, such that the experimental nature of both forms becomes par for the course of the kind of scholarship for which she is well known.
My earliest encounter with her writing was in an undergraduate honors seminar on World Women’s Writing at the University of Ibadan, at a time when, unbeknownst to the students, one of the authors had just completed her doctoral work at nearby Obafemi Awolowo University at Ile-Ife!
This explains the pride of my own presence at the lecture. Jane belonged to the generation of expatriate scholars who either received their doctoral degrees or taught in Nigerian universities in what now seems like a time out of memory. Leading figures in postcolonial studies such as Karin Barber, Carole Boyce Davis, Margaret Folarin, and Robert Elliot Fox found much excitement and fulfillment in the vibrant intellectual culture of oil-boom-era Nigeria, and that experience is incredibly important if we must have a rigorous view of what postcoloniality actually entails.