You are here

Charles Sugnet: Planting Trees

A retiring scholar is still energized by African literature, film, and music
August 21, 2015

Professor Charles Sugnet received an unexpected retirement gift this past winter: His article about Senegalese novelist Boubacar Boris Diop appeared in the December Presence Africaine, a revered, long-running Parisian journal that published Frantz Fanon and Aimé Césaire.

Sugnet is also pleased to be helping organize a first-time visit and retrospective of African filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako at the Walker Art Center April 2-4; he'll be interviewing Sissako after the screening of the controversial and highly successful Timbuktu.

And he just finished proofing another article, about the Rwandan film Grey Matter, which will be published in a special issue of Présence Francophone devoted to the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. (Right, Sugnet in front of the Fulbright House at the University of Dakar.)

These are not the activities of a professor heading into serene retirement. "I'm still interested in the research that I've been doing," Sugnet acknowledges. Nevertheless, he says, "I'm kind of just watching myself with curiosity, to see what it is I'll want to do. I may decide I'll never want to write another academic paper, or I may write a book. I don't know. I'm just going to let it happen." He pauses, a glint in his eyes. "The big problem I have right now is just to clean out my office."

It is difficult to find a clear seat in Professor Sugnet's office, among sliding stacks of books and papers. The room has the look of an occupant who has spent years moving quickly among a brace of compelling pursuits—many relating to an abrupt turn in scholarly focus that Sugnet took in the 1980s. A fan of African-American and African culture dating back to his teenage years listening to Miles Davis, he was energized by the arrival of postcolonial studies to teach and write about African literature and eventually film.

Sugnet directed the department's Creative Writing Program after it received the generous Edelstein-Keller endowment in 1985, and he brought Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah to campus as a visiting writer. Farah welcomed Sugnet's interest in Africa, and Sugnet began regular visits to Dakar and elsewhere, learning Wolof, challenging himself in collaborations with the continent's writers and critics, and collecting music (which he shared for more than a decade on the KFAI radio show "African Rhythms").

"I got to see that having only an American point of view was not sufficient," he says. "There's a whole world." Sugnet has taught in Senegal, Gambia, and South Africa, making friends among colleagues and students; he's traveled now to almost half of the 55 countries on the continent. "It's pretty fun to think of having your entire life transformed completely after 40," he notes with a grin. "It doesn't happen to a lot of people."

Meanwhile, the department and the University have benefited from Sugnet's expertise, as East African immigration since the early '90s has led to increasing interest in African studies here. But state-side, Sugnet is most proud of the model he established in 1984 for College in the Schools, a now University-wide program in which high school students receive college-level instruction via specially trained high school teachers. Sugnet spent a year co-teaching an English course at Johnson High School in St. Paul before creating and shepherding CiS Literature, in which teachers collaborate on curriculum and teaching materials under the direction of University faculty. "We transformed the outdated curricula of about 40 Minnesota high schools," he describes. "And by bringing visitors like Chinua Achebe, Sandra Cisneros, and David Mura to talk with them at the U, we gave students struggling with English as a second or third language a living example of what they could aspire to—while introducing them to campus."

Sugnet revels in some of the changes he's seen in education, from his days at the University of Virginia when no women and blacks were allowed in undergraduate studies to a modern discipline enlivened by postcolonial intellectuals such as Edward Said and Gayatri Spivak. Other shifts he finds troublesome, such as the wide use of adjunct, temporary instructors. "The worst thing that's happened," he concludes, "is the general consensus that the liberal arts are worthless unless they can get you a problem-solving job." He fears the loss of the kind of education that he received: the kind that encouraged him to look beyond the surface conflict and seek out new paradigms. "What about the idea that the liberal arts can get you to ask better questions?" he queries bluntly.

Meanwhile, the office clutter remains, and, beyond it, retirement: "I've got three sons and two new granddaughters in the Bay Area, so I'm going to be spending more time out there," Sugnet reveals. "I've still got this cabin [in Northern Minnesota], and I'll be going up there to ski, swim, fish, plant some more trees." He stops a moment, as if envisioning the scene. "I've now got trees that are 35 years old, that I planted. It's a really nice feeling."

Professor Sugnet Recommends . . .

La gloire des imposteurs: Lettres sur la Mali et L'Afrique by Aminata Dramane Traoré and Boubacar Boris Diop is an exchange of letters between a Malian woman and a Sengalese guy. She was the minister of culture for Mali; he's a novelist and a good friend of mine. They're writing letters back and forth about really two subjects: immigration from Africa to Europe and the problems in Northern Mali with Boko Haram. She started an organization to deal with people who immigrated to Europe and were returned—to deal with the psychic consequences.

Amitav Ghosh's In an Antique Land is one of my favorite books ever. And he now has this trilogy about the Opium wars. Volume three [Flood of Fire] is coming out this summer. The first one [Sea of Poppies] starts in India, where poppies are being grown and made into opium. The British East Indian Company is doing this to pay for empire; like all imperialists they don't want to pay the administrative costs. But then they don't have enough market, so they force the Chinese—eventually with gun boats—to take it. The Chinese Emperor was very suspicious; he doesn't think this will be a good thing for his people, and he was right. These are books that are political, linguistical, but they also have fairy tale qualities and big love plots. They're not grim modern works by any means. Ghosh is so imaginative, but also so knowledgeable: He's a writer and a scholar.