Book Talk

African Literature Rising

Guest writers, Noviolet Bulawayo, Jennifer Makumbi, Nii Parkes and Zukiswa Wanner at a book sigining during the Writivism Festival in Kampala


The term ‘Africa Rising’ has been bandied about in the last couple of years as a counter narrative to what has been condescendingly termed ‘poverty porn’, the narrative that often graphically depicts Africa’s poverty and violence.

Africa Rising has come to represent the optimistic portrayal of the continent in its literature, even if some think it is largely hypocritical in the sense that it is choosing to ignore the reality that there is indeed poverty and war on the continent or more precisely, emphasizing ‘the good life’ at the expense of the poverty, hunger and violence that have become synonymous with the narrative of the continent.

That debate aside, literature on the continent is on the rise. Whereas African writers in the past owed their success to Western structures and platform such as the African Writers Series and the Pacesetters Series that put the literature of the continent in practically every home, the collapse of these series and the publishing industry on the continent coincided with the decline of literature on the continent and the further distancing of Francophone and Anglophone literature since translations are especially rare such that the two operate in completely different spheres even though their preoccupations and concerns are very similar.

However, there is an internally driven resurgence. I am writing off the back of a promising literary festival that held in Kampala, Uganda this June. The Writivism Festival started small in the east African country by some young Ugandans, under the passionate drive of Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire, and a partner, who set up the Centre for African Cultural Excellence (CACE) that administers the Writivism programme. After a year of online mentorship and a competition with a token prize money in 2013, the idea grew into writing workshops in several African cities including Abuja, Johanesburg and Kampala among others.

Stories from this workshop participants were published in newspapers in several countries and to round off the process, a literary festival held in Kampala, bringing together African writers from different parts of the continent to engage and share not only their works, but their ideas and challenges.

What has been clear, and made even clearer at the Writivism Festival, is the absence of networking among writers on the continent. Books by Nigerian writers published locally can hardly be found in some corners of Nigeria, not to mention places like Daar es Salam or Addis Ababa. The distribution network is deplorable if not non-existent. But with festivals like Writivism, bringing together publishers and authors from across the continent, the potential for greater connection to be forged and new distribution chains to be formed with new market frontiers to be opened up as a reward is increasing.

But the Writivism Festival, driven by African minds, for African purposes, among which is to develop writing talent on the continent, has inadvertently, perhaps deliberately, opened up African writing to Africans. The shortlisted stories for the Writivism Prize, which was taken by a couple of excellent South African short stories, have been read by Ghanaians, Cameroonians, Kenyans and Tanzanians, lovers of literature who wanted to read something of merit from the continent.

The Writivism idea is young and promising and for its flaws, and there were quite a few, there is the consolation that this is a startup project by young people passionate about literature on the continent, people who decided not to wait for the West to dictate how things should be done, how Africans should write about Africa or how literature on the continent should be developed.

But remarkable as this feat is, it would not have been possible without grants from foreign donors. This is an indictment on local businesses who have not shown faith in such initiatives or simply do not have the package to support them. I hope, and this was one of my major appeals at the festival, that there will be more local sponsorship for the programme in the coming years.

The Ake Festival is another promising literary event on the calendar. Driven by the inimitable passion of Nigerian writer Lola Shoneyin, the festival debuted in the historic city of Abeokuta last year and has since staked its legitimate claim to being the biggest literary gathering on the continent.

About a hundred writers from the continent and beyond graced the event last year and most of them, if not all, went away with wonderful memories of the festival. Intelligent panelists thrashed out issues affecting literature and arts on the continent, book producers and consumers interacted and exchanged not just books but ideas and shared concerns. African literature is healthier as a result of these exchanges.

And this November, the Ake Festival makes a return and Shoneyin and her Book Buzz Foundation is already hard at work. The teething problems of the last festival, which many of the invited writers looked upon with understanding, are expected to be ironed out and the festival is primed to be a major focal point on the literary calendar of not just the continent but the world at large.

And when one adds to this the fact that Port Harcourt is the World Book Capital 2014 with book events lined up the whole year round, peaking in October, there is so much to look forward to already.

Port Harcourt’s rise to the forefront of the book business is driven by Koko Kalango and her Rainbow Book Club. She has enjoyed tremendous support from the Rivers Statement Government under Rotimi Ameachi (disregard the fact that he has admitted to not reading new African Writing) but the fact that she had hosted five successful book festivals in the last five years, drawing writers from across the world is an incredible feat. Even more incredible is the fact that Port Harcourt had to fend off competitions from notable cities from around the world to clinch the UNESCO World Book Capital.

The good thing about these festivals, including the several in South Africa and elsewhere on the continent, is that apart from providing vistas for networking and literary discourses, most of them have writing workshops where aspiring writers are tutored in the craft of writing and in these workshops, one gets to experience firsthand, as I have, the enormous promise that writing on the continent holds.

But writing festivals are not just enough. There is need for structures on whose backs the diverse writing from all corners of the continent can float. This is where the publishing houses come in.

Traditional publishing houses have collapsed as a result of callous and sometimes deliberate anti-intellectual policies by the government (recently we have the Nigerian government put in place higher tariffs that will make publishing in the country even more daunting) and until the early 2000s, publishing on the continent was practically done for.

But then colourful Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina set up Kwani?, a publishing house in the Kenyan capital that appealed to book lovers all over the continent and the world at large. Kwani? has published numerous titles that have captured the imagination of book lovers and inspired similar literary interventions in different countries. In Nigeria we have publishers like Cassava Republic Press and Parresia Publishers alongside Farafina Publishers as a new generation of traditional publishing houses.

But these new vehicles of African fiction are being inundated by economic challenges and distribution problems that have contrived to stifle their growth and their capacity to put more scintillating African literature in the eager hands of book lovers.

But all things considered, African literature is on the rise. The fear now is: this progress made, is it sustainable?




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