Stefan Helgesson

Stefan Helgesson

Principal investigator, Coordinator World-making

Professor, English Literature

Stockholm University

ORCID: 0000-0002-2222-1037

Stefan Helgesson is professor of English at Stockholm University. His research interests include southern African literature in English and Portuguese, Brazilian literature, postcolonial theory, translation theory and theories of world literature. 

He is the author of Writing in Crisis: Ethics and History in Gordimer, Ndebele and Coetzee (2004) and Transnationalism in Southern African Literature (2009), has edited volume four of Literary History: Towards a Global Perspective (2006) and is co-editor (with Pieter Vermeulen) of Institutions of World Literature: Writing, Translation, Markets (2015). His articles have appeared in journals such as Research in African Literatures, Interventions, History and Theory and Translation Studies. He is on the editioral board of, among others, Journal of World Literature, English Studies in Africa and The Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry, and has previously been on the steering committee of two major research programmes in Sweden: “Literature and Literary History in Global Contexts” (1999-2005) and “Time, Memory and Representation” (2010-2015).

He is working on two projects within the programme. One is tentatively called "Literary Theory from the South" and has been ongoing for some time. Through four historically oriented case studies - the São Paulo school of criticism in the 1960s and '70s (mainly Antonio Candido), what could be called the Johannesburg school of criticism in the 1970s (Tim Couzens, Stephen Gray and Es'kia Mphahlele, among others), and the essayistic output of Leopold Senghor and Ngugi wa Thiongo, respectively - it aims at recovering, within a world-systemic predicament, their multiple figurations of the concept of literature prior to the advent of postcolonial theory writ large. The second project is described below.


Language and Literary Worldmaking in Southern Africa: The Case of Little Magazines

The titles of literary journals in southern Africa tell an interesting story. We have, on the hand, all those irreducibly local and vernacular names: Voorslag (Durban 1926-1927), Izwi (Johannesburg 1971-1974), Charrua (Maputo 1984-1985), Staffrider (Johannesburg 1978-1992), Donga (Johannesburg 1976-1978), The Purple Renoster (Johannesburg 1956-1972), and so on. Each could be explored in its own right, as it opens up a particular domain of local experience: the hoe, or “charrua”, of agrarian Mozambique; the perilous black experience of “riding staff” (i. e. illegally) on commuter trains in 1970s South Africa. Then again, there are those other journals that have generic and translatable titles: Mensagem (Luanda 1951-53), Two Tone (Salisbury/Harare 1954), Caliban (Lourenço Marques/Maputo 1970-1973), The Classic (Johannesburg 1963-1971), Sesame (Johannesburg 1982-1992), Bolt (Durban 1970-1975). It seems peculiarly apt that the naming policies of these journals shuttle between the cosmopolitan and vernacular poles, given that the “little magazines” themselves are key players in establishing local (sometimes very short-lived) literary communities that interact with different cosmopolitan literary trajectories, including high modernism (Voorslag, Caliban), social realism (Charrua, Staffrider), and various versions of Black Atlantic expression (Mensagem – see Gilroy on the Black Atlantic).

Taking seriously the capacity of literature to be not just in the world, or to circulate across spatial boundaries, but to participate in the temporal making of the world, as understood by Cheah (2014) and Arendt (1958), among others, this project intends to investigate the particular forms that such worldmaking assumes in these literary journals, or “little magazines”. Requiring less material resources than book publication, and as collective endeavours, it well known that little magazines have had pride of place in African literary cultures in the twentieth century. Judging from the growing body of research (Barber 2006 and 2007; Lindfors 1996; Helgesson 2009; Hofmeyr 2013; Newell 2000 and 2002; Ribeiro and Sopa 1996; Sandwith 2014) it is also evident that such print communities enabled historically distinct forms of cosmopolitan interaction, while remaining clearly produced in a particular place and answerable to a more or less circumscribed “imagined community” (Anderson1983). It is precisely here that the question of cosmopolitan and vernacular dynamics gathers urgency: not only are several such journals bi- or multilingual (examples: Voorslag, Indian Opinion, Two Tone, O Brado Africano, Izwi), with material both in a “cosmopolitan” language in one or several local “vernaculars”, but they all demonstrate a capacity to resituate “foreign” or “borrowed” material through translation, republication, commentary or paraphrase.

Given the multilingualism of these publications, the project will attempt to reconsider literary language in terms of a dynamic process of languaging (Swain) that occurs within politically pressured spaces. Languaging is structured by an address of some kind (which raises the question of audiences), and it moves across and combines distinct modalities of language, such as print, orality, genre, translation, affect, and corporeality. The combinatory aspect is crucial: the English-Afrikaans-French cluster of Voorslag enables a very different literary world compared to, say, the Portuguese-Ronga cluster of Charrua, or the English-Shona-Ndebele cluster of Two Tone. A guiding hypothesis of the project is that insofar as languaging in the journals intersects with distinct transnational imaginaries such as high modernism, Commonwealth literature, anticolonial activism, the socialist international, and the community of lusophone literatures, this will put significant pressure on systemic theories of world literature as a single (albeit uneven) whole (Casanova, Moretti). 

Visit Stefan Helgesson's university homepage