Book Talk, Thoughts on Things

Mutiny at Oxford

The 16th Caine Prize for African Writing was awarded to Zambia’s Namwali Serpell. In an unusual gesture, Serpell decided to “share the prize” with her fellow shortlistees. What does this gesture mean for the prize?


Namwali Serpell winner of the Caine Prize

Namwali Serpell winner of the Caine Prize

The annual Caine Prize Dinner had moved. A change of venue from the old Bodleian Library built in the elegant English Gothic style in 1602, where the award ceremony for Africa’s most prestigious literary prize has held over the last 15 years. The new venue is the New Bodleian, just across the street from the old one, a sprawling modern building with glass walls and electronic displays.

Perhaps it was indicative of the shift that would happen that night, 16 years after the Caine Prize came into being when the winner of the ₤10, 000 prize for short story led what was in effect a mutiny against the establishment.

Zambian Namwali Serpell, with her cherubic looks and innocent eyes, which belly an enormous self-assuredness, does not strike one as the rebellious type. And when she was announced as the winner of the prize by the enchanting Zoe Wicomb, Chair of Judges, one immediately thinks, that would be the perfect poster girl for African literature.

But on mounting the podium, overwhelmed at first by her triumph, Namwali took little time to make an impression. She did something that had never been done before. She invited the other writers who had been shortlisted alongside her to join her on the podium and declared that she wanted to “share the prize with them.”

“None of us wants to compete against each other,” she said, “we just want to be honoured.”

This she said was as a result of a pact she had made with the other writers; Elnathan John and Segun Afolabi from Nigeria and FT Kola and Masande Ntshanga from South Africa. The pact that whoever won would call up the others and share the prize with them was not unanimous among the writers but it was still a powerful statement.

Namwali said she hoped it would “restructure the prize”, an ambitious statement if ever there was one.

In the last 16 years the prize has always been structured like this: Five shortlistees emerge, the five go to London, read their stories, engage in promotional activities, eat and wine and in the end, one person goes home with ₤10, 000. This year, there have been changes. The other shortlisted writers, who in previous years would have gone home without a dime, are leaving with 500 pounds as consolation. Apparently this was not enough for the shortlistees this year and they decided to take things into their hands.

The choice of Oxford as the setting for this mutiny, if you like, is telling. After all, it is here, not too far from where Namwali, made a statement that Zimbabwe’s greatest writer to date, Dambudzo Marechera made a name for himself as a self-destructive genius. He made an even more violent statement when being awarded the 1979 Gaurdian Fiction Prize when he started to launch dinner plates at a chandelier in protest over perceived wrong. It was from this same Oxford that his anarchist conduct led to his expulsion after threatening to set the school ablaze.

Namwali is by no means an anarchist. She is an associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley English Department and is on the prestigious Africa39 list of the most promising African writers under 40 (And I am not just saying it is prestigious because I am also on that list), and there is a method to her mutiny.

She will share the prize money with her fellow shortlisted writers but to what extent will she “share the prize” with them?

It was only Namwali that posed beside the bust of Michael Caine, along with Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne, not the other writers. The media have announced Namwali winner of the prize, despite this grand stand. It will most likely be only Namwali going to  take up a month’s residence at Georgetown University as Writer-in-Residence at the Lannan Centre for Poetics and Social Practice, as well as get an invite to the Open Book Festival in Cape Town, the Storymoja Festival in Nairobi and the Ake Festival in Abeokuta, Nigeria. Those are some of the perks associated with winning the Caine Prize.

In reality, as some would argue, were the shortlisted writers competing against each other? Technically, not really. The prize is awarded at the discretion of the judges; the writers have nothing to do to affect the outcome of the prize, they can’t improve or enhance their chances of winning it, neither will any misconduct cost them the prize. The days of reading and public engagement in London do not in any way give extra points to the shortlistees. The judges and the shortlistees are not even allowed to interact or engage the same space in a way that could influence the outcome of the award.

When I was shortlisted for the prize in 2013, an unforeseen situation occurred. By some coincedence, the shortlisted writers and one of the judges ended up attending the same event, a public lunch that included a tour of the gallery of the British Museum. The instructions came in thick and fast. No conversation. No eye contact with the judge. No moving close to her. No gestures to draw attention. Nothing. She is expected to do likewise.

And so we spent the awkward evening wandering the gallery of the British Museum suddenly changing direction each time this judge was sighted. And she spent the evening doing the same. A beautiful woman had suddenly been made a Medusa to us.

So in reality, it is hardly a contest. The judges sit, read the stories and decide which of the stories will be awarded the prize.

As Zoe Wicomb, chair of this year’s judges said while announcing the prize, “From a very strong shortlist we have picked an extraordinary story about the aftermath of revolution with its liberatory promises shattered. It makes demands on the reader and challenges conventions of the genre. It yields fresh meaning with every reading.  Formally innovative, stylistically stunning, haunting and enigmatic in its effects. ‘The Sack’ is a truly luminous winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing.”

But even she admits that the story is a difficult read saying they had to re-read it to get it, and she knew readers would have to reread it again. Not everyone will agree with the decision but almost everyone ought to respect it.

Alongside Zoë on the panel of judges are Neel Mukherjee, author of the award-winning debut novel, A Life Apart (2010) and the Man Booker Prize shortlisted The Lives of Others (2014); Brian Chikwava, author and former winner of the Caine Prize (2004); Zeinab Badawi, the prominent broadcaster and Chair of the Royal African Society; and Cóilín Parsons, Assistant Professor of English at Georgetown University who has written on Irish, South African and Indian literature.

Namwali winning the prize is also a huge validation for the Africa39 list, which has identified a number of talented writers on the continent, among them several past winners and shortlisted writers for the prize as the future of writing from the continent. Namwali’s winning story ‘The Sack’ is from the Africa39 Anthology and one could see the obvious pride on the face of the anthology editor, Ellah Allfrey, who got emotional after Namwali’s triumph and unusual gesture.

How this statement will shape the prize remains to be seen, but no one should underestimate the power of idea. And with this act, Namwali has embodied an idea that some writers may have nurtured over the years.


This article was first published in Daily Trust newspaper of July 11, 2015


‘We Can Learn So Much From Historical Fiction’

Cover Photo

Nike Campbell-Fatoki is a Nigerian author born in Lvov, Ukraine and now lives in the Washington DC area of the US. She is the author of the historical novel Thread of Gold Beads set in Dahomey of the 1890s. She was in Nigeria recently for the Ake Arts and Book Festival and Sunday Trust’s engaged her on her work.

US-based Nigerian writer, Nike Campbell-Fatoki is emerging as a sensational new voice on the literary scene. While most writers set out on their literary escapades with tentative works that mostly draw from personal experiences, Nike assuredly launches onto the scene with a 415-page historical novel, Thread of Gold Beads set in the ancient Dahomey kingdom at the end of the 19th century.

Knowing that she had been living in the DC area for long,  with her husband and three children, having moved to the States 18 years ago, perhaps one would expect Nike’s first book to chronicle the immigrant experience. But she slithered down to her roots to dig up the story of her great-grandmother and serve it with artistic aplomb to the world.
“Growing up with my Grandparents, I had an earful of so many stories,” she says, reflecting on the inspiration for the story, “but the story my grandmother told about her grandmother’s flight from the war-torn Kingdom of Dahomey (which is present day Republic of Benin) stayed with me.”
In those stories her grandmother told, the seeds of a love for historical fiction grew in her mind. But it was her curiosity that spurred her on from being a consumer to a writer of such works.
“I’ve always enjoyed historical fiction.  My curiosity   for the most part has always centred around why historical events happened and what we can learn from history so we don’t make the same mistakes of the past,” she says.
Thread of Gold Beads centres around Amelia, the teenage princes of the Dahomey Kingdom. Her life is nothing short of exciting with intrigues as numerous as the secret passages in the palace and numerous attempts to dislodge her from the palace are met with counter plots, conspiracies and deeper intrigues. But it is also a story of a kingdom on the verge of collapse with the strong winds of western influences howling just on the verge of the forbidden forest, bearing down on the troubled kingdom. It is a story of a deep secret that forces Amelia to flee to a new land where the secret stretches it arms and disrupts, yet again, the new life she is building there.
British writer Hilary Mantel has given historical novels a boost with her two booker winning novels, Woolf Hall, and Bring Up the Bodies. These have firmly put historical fiction back in the front burner of literary consciousness.
But Nike wanted to write something different, something that draws from the jam-packed chest of African history and legends.
“I hadn’t come across historical fiction like that, and to be honest, I wanted to be the one to write it,” she says.
It took her years of painstaking research though to write the novel. She started research in 2006 and didn’t stop until 2011. She interviewed people from the Republic of Benin, including descendants of King Gbehanzin, who also featured as a character in her novel. She read from libraries and off the internet and considers herself lucky to find several books on the Dahomey Kingdom. In all, writing the novel took her six years.
All this period working on a story she felt she didn’t choose!
“I think the period and the story chose me.  It was coincidental. One thing I will say is that we can learn a lot about Africa as a whole with the influx of the west.  At one point, Africa had the strongest empires impenetrable by the western world, but things changed not because the westerners got stronger (yes, they had the weapons), but because there were weak links within the kingdoms.  Africans should learn from these events in history. We will continue to be dominated if we aren’t loyal to ourselves and protective of our resources,” she says.
Her research is evident in the work. There is so much detail that surprisingly doesn’t clutter the work as the story flows at pace. The details are important to Nike because she wanted to achieve something.
“It was important that I did not leave out details because I wanted readers to walk within the courtyards of the kingdom, listen to the folktales told by the old men as the sun went down and shiver at the war cries of the female mino warriors as they prepared for battle.  I also wanted them to feel the urgency of the times  and the danger within and beyond the kingdom walls,” she says.
But despite her best efforts, finding publishers proved daunting. Nike, not one to be put down easily, and convinced of the power of her story and the importance of her message, decided to go the self-publishing route. She published with Three Magi Publishing in Burtonsville MD and with Lagos-based Origami, an imprint of Parresia Publishers.
Her book was one of the festival books of the 2014 Ake Festival and already this October, there was a stage adaptation of it in Washington DC. Often writers are flustered by adaptations of their works. Nike seems pleased with the effort.
“My first thought – it not easy to adapt a book into a play or film.  Kudos to those who do it.  I think it’s a great avenue to reach an audience that hasn’t cultivated the habit of reading.  The adaptation was great.  The feedback from those who watched was that it was captivating, sometimes intense,” she says.
She is also not ruling out a film adaption. “There’s always that likelihood. I would love for it to be adapted into a film.  Stay tuned,” she smiles.
Whenever this happens, it will sure be a grand movie, full of spectacles and many intrigues. That is something that already reaches out to the reader from the book. Nike is also not ruling out a sequel, as some of her fans are already asking for it. However, she thinks doing a trilogy might be pushing it a bit too far.   554139_351831378245052_1210537954_n
But in the meantime she has turned her attention to a collection of short stories set in contemporary times. I asked her if this is an attempt to recover from having immersed herself in a time far gone.
Nike laughs. “That’s funny, ‘recovering from writing TOGB.’  I should have recovered after two years.  No, it’s not.  This is something I’ve always wanted to get into.  The short stories  cast a spotlight on the plight of those who cannot speak for themselves.    It’s also an opportunity for me to challenge myself to write something different,” she says.
But from the way she talks, you get a sense that she would at a point return to historical fiction.
“Everyone has their calling.  Writing is diverse, and writers have that one genre that they write effortlessly, probably because they enjoy it. I’ve always enjoyed reading and writing historical fiction.  The ability to write about the past in such a way as to draw people in and also teach some life lessons should be nurtured.”


For someone like Nike, who has always wanted to be a writer and having grown from her days of scribbling in her private journals to be the author of a sprawling novel, there seems to be more stories in her throve that she is intent on sharing it with the world.

Book Talk

‘Magical worlds have always fascinated me’


Rachel Zadok

South African novelist Rachel Zadok came to limelight when her manuscript was chosen from the numerous entries in the  Richard and Judy Show “How to Get published”. With the publication of her novel, Gem Squash Tokoloshe, Rachel was propelled into fame and with her second novel Sister-Siter out only recently, she has cemented her place among South Africa’s new breed of writers.

Over the years she has been doing a lot for literature, not only in South Africa but on the continent as a whole with her Short Story Africa Day project, a platform for writers across the continent. In this interview Rachel talked about her craft, SSDA and her novels.

Following the success of your debut novel Gem Squash Tokoloshe, did you feel pressured to write something better? Was that why it took so long for Sister Sister to eventually come out?
There were a lot of reasons why Sister-Sister took so long to write; that was definitely one of them. Another was that the story I had planned to write changed when I moved from London back to South Africa, and changed again when I fell pregnant with my daughter. I think, while living in the UK, I developed a rose-tinted view of the New South Africa as a great place to raise a child. And it is for people like me (middle income). However, there is this constant sense of threat that one feels as a mother living in a country with such high women and child abuse rates. Reports in the media played on my mind and that certainly shaped Sister-Sister. Then there was the distance moving country had put between me and the support for my writing I’d built up in London. Moving to Cape Town I literally had to start from scratch, making new connections in the industry here. There were other contributing factors which had to do with the economy and the struggling publishing industry but those are too boring to go into.

You had the opportunity of experiencing several cultures in your travels but your works so far have been set in South Africa, did these other cultures and places help you in appreciating yours, and your background?
I’ve always appreciated South Africa, so no, travelling didn’t give me a greater appreciation for SA. I’m just not comfortable setting a novel in a place I haven’t been immersed in as a citizen; i.e. lived and worked for a prolonged period of time. There are nuances to places and culture that you just don’t pick up passing through. I don’t believe it’s possible, even with extensive research, to understand the minutiae of day to day life, and cultural symbols, unless you are part of it. I would, and have, set short stories in the places I’ve been, but those are usually from the point of view of a traveller, not someone who lives there.  At this stage, I wouldn’t feel confident setting a novel somewhere other than South Africa or London, where I lived for six years.
If I had the resources to live somewhere else for a few months, now that would be a different story. For example,  if someone were to offer me a stipend and a flat in New York for six months, I’d definitely write my New York novel.
However, the idea of mixing cultures appeals to me, creating new fictional worlds that almost anyone, anywhere, can relate to. I experimented with combining folk lore in Sister-Sister, which is one of the reasons for the setting being both specific yet off kilter.

Did your participation in the Richard and Judy “How to Get Published” competition in any way inspire the idea of Short Story Day Africa, which has gone on to create a platform for other writers across the continent?
No. While living in the UK, long before the Richard and Judy moment, I experienced what I think of as a culture of mentoring creativity. I met many wonderful people who were invested in teaching and helping me along the way. That inspired SSDA more than anything else, this idea of writers helping writers.

How did you feel when the winning story of the SSDA competition and another shortlisted story were both shortlisted for the 2014 Caine Prize?
I was thrilled for both Efemia and Okwiri, they’re both brilliant writers. It was great to see all the work we’d invested in SSDA, all the sacrifices we’d made, come to fruition in such a large way. Two stories out of five on The Caine shortlist!
That said, I did have a little moment of wishing it was me going to London to the Bodleian Hall, and realising that if it was ever going to be me, I would need to dedicate more of my time to writing and less to SSDA.

Interesting. I was wondering how you find time to write and keep the SSDA running considering you have to devote time to your family and your craft, among other things. How do you keep this project running?
The project took three years to get up and running, to find funding and support, and complete the paperwork necessary to apply for funding. That’s all getting sorted out now. There are more people involved in SSDA than just Tiah and I, people putting in long hours and talent. Thanks to this spirit of community that SSDA evolved from, that has continued to grow year on year, and I have more balance in my life now. The bags under my eyes from working half the night to keep it going are starting to recede. SSDA is finally the sibling to my writing, instead of the squalling new infant that consumes all my time to the neglect of her brothers and sisters (writing and family).

That is a fascinating way of putting it. It seemed you were overwhelmed by the buzz around your first novel back in London when it was first published. Now as an older, wiser writer, how do you think you could have handled things differently?
The biggest lesson I have learned is that looking back at your mistakes and playing them over again in your head, imagining how things might have been different, is destructive. It took me a long time to stop dwelling on the paths that I might have taken, opportunities missed, and focussing on what is. I only have what is to work with. I can only ever go forward from here.

As one of a new generation of South African writers, do you think that your characters have to reflect the new South Africa in terms of embracing the racial divide, such as Faith did in Gem Squash Tokoloshe, a white girl dabbling into black cultural practices sort of?
This requires a three part answer.
Magic and magical worlds have always interested and fascinated me; and the part faith/belief plays in creating personal realities, whether mundane or magical. There is a fear that what I write may be seen as some sort of negative cultural appropriation, but my interest in folklore extends far beyond the borders of South Africa. The Skin Man in Sister-Sister, for example, is half muti man, half Navajo skinwalker. The hawk moth as representation of the soul is European (moths appear a lot in my writing). I’m far more interested in the belief systems of different cultures than race.
Personally, I don’t want to impose racial constraints on my writing, and write only white female protagonists with any character of another race being peripheral. No one flinched when Zadie Smith wrote White Teeth, with characters spanning just about every racial group in the UK. No one criticised her for it, said that it was cultural appropriation. South Africans need to let go of the idea that we, as human beings, are so different. I prefer to see differences as environmental rather than racial, and imagine myself/my characters in those environments.
A decade ago I did buy into this idea that writers have a social responsibility, but I no longer believe that writers need to reflect anything, or write anything, unless it interests them. I think you have writers who are socially aware, and that comes out in their work organically.  I dislike writing that tries too hard to be political. That shouts theme above story. A writers morality/social themes always show up in their work, but with good writers it’s usually subtly, as subtext.

Speaking about  theme above story, how much do you think the changes in South Africa have affected writing in that country. Do you think that new stories have lost a certain amount of verve because they are no longer weapons against apartheid, for instance, but are now more subtle prisms for examining the effects of life after it? In other words, after the goldmine of stories that apartheid provided, do you think South African writers are struggling to find powerful enough social issues, apart from crime, to focus on?
This question is a minefield. I don’t believe the writing lost verve, I think much writing now is better than ever before, but I also think the industry (local and global) is currently only interested in certain stories and certain writers. The publishing industry is very conservative and stuck on trends right now. It’s not ready for the new breed of South African literary writers. It’s missing a trick, I might add.

You were living in London before you relocated to Cape Town. Did you find that being back home was more inspiring for your writing especially when one considers that the mix of myth and magic in your novel Sister-Sister could not have been inspired by, shall we say, the ambience of London?
I started writing Sister-Sister whilst living in London, and the inspirations are taken from many sources, as I mentioned earlier. The different cultures of the world have more in common than they think. I’m not talking about globalisation either. Myth and magic exist in pretty much every human culture. We all have creation myths – Adam and Eve is a creation myth much like any other – it’s just that historically the more powerful pockets of humanity got to call their mythology religion while damning the less powerful to the realms of superstition. St Paul’s Cathedral is in a very atmospheric place, full of whispers and ritual.images

Interesting. Whatever happened to the SSDA Chain Gang challenge?
We decided that part of SSDA was fun for the writers, but didn’t get the kind of attention it needed to make it worth the gigantic effort it took to set up – it was the part of the project that took the most resources and energy. We decided to focus those resources to create a better platform for African writers; the annual competition and anthology.


Halving the sun

‘Half of a Yellow Sun’, the film adaptation of the novel of the same title by Chimamanda Adichie has been generating a buzz since it hit the silver screen recently. Here is my impression of it.

Anika Noni Rose and Richard Mawle in a still from the film

Anika Noni Rose and Richard Mawle in a still from the film

Making the jump from the pages of a novel to the silver screen always entails some loss, some more significant than others. There is always something the author captures that a film director can’t. This explains why Gabriel Garcia Marquez never allowed his classic novel One Hundred Years of Solitude  to be adapted for the screen.

How often does one approach the movie adaptation of a best-selling novel only to come away with mixed feelings? Sometimes even outright disappointment?

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Half of Yellow a Sun has been adapted into a movie, that is if you have been on Mars and haven’t heard already, or missed the drama the Nigeria Film and Video Censor’s Board made before approving the film for screening.

Having seen the movie, one wonders what the censors board’s issue really is, after all they didn’t make that much noise when Antoine Fuqua’s ‘Tears of the Sun’, starring Bruce Willis and the delectable Monica Bellucci premiered and caused some furore. Like Adichie’s novel, the story is framed by a Nigerian civil war; in Adichie’s novel, one that had actually happened, and in ‘Tears of the Sun’, one that supposedly happens at a future date.

That novelist Biyi Bandele (author of the acclaimed Burma Boy) adapted Adichie’s novel for the screen offered much hope that the film would be as faithful to the novel as possible, but yet again, this film proves that it is not always easy to adapt novels into films.

Don’t get me wrong, Half of  Yellow Sun is a very watchable movie. Thandie Newton struts her usual stuff as Olanna and opposite her Chiwetel Ejiofor did well as Odenigbo, at least he got the accent better than the generic African accent he put on as Dr. Okwe in Dirty Pretty Things.  But Anika Noni Rose is simply captivating as Kainene, that is if you dig really cool and dignified women.

For whatever it is worth, I think Onyeka Onwenu put in a credible performance as Odenigbo’s mother while Nigeria’s screen Diva, Genevieve Nnaji looked anything but in her bit part role.

But you have to stick it to the editing for mutilating some aspects of the story. You don’t have to read the book to know this. The characters lacked depth and come across mostly as cardboard cutouts. The most notable victim of this is Ugwu,  played by John Boyega. His character simply doesn’t leap at you such that when he goes missing in the war, you hardly feel empathy for him and when he is eventually found, the relief is in juxtaposition with Kainene’s disappearance. Not because his character, as portrayed in the movie, wins you over.

But Bandele must be given credit for his attention to details. It is a period movie and as much as he could, he tried to make it one (disregard that an aluminium roof showed up in one shot) and of course the time lapse is questionable in some regards such as the beginning where six years (1960-1966) was made to look like a couple of weeks.

But give him his credit, the costumes were fitting, as were the props and of course the music scores were almost impeccable. When you add the visual effects, you will doff your heart for Biyi. Watch out for the explosions, they will almost knock you off your seat.

But why is this an important movie? Well, for one, because it touches on the civil war, which has been a taboo issue that Nigeria has skirted around ever since. You just can’t have a 30-month long war that consumed a million lives and pretend it never happened. And for the many people who don’t have the luxury of reading books, or choose to deprive themselves of it, this film, with its blemishes, is an opportunity to revist the Biafran war, from a Biafran perspective.

But most importantly what art does in instances of upheavals is to humanise such monumental occurrences and Half of a Yellow Sun does just that, to some extent.

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?




Interrupted Reverie

By Abubakar Adam Ibrahim



(60 days since the Chibok Abductions)

I am Chibok

I am 276, and the unaccounted others

I am a distraught father, a slaughtered son, a stolen girl.

I am a promise,

A tainted dream, a voice echoing from the void:

Bring me home, father


I was gilded once

A princess adorned by Mama’s love,

reclining in her proud bosom

I am now

the dreary ghost of yesterday

I am now

tomorrow dying today


I am frail;

battered, tattered, shattered,

but I will not die, I refuse to

For when I was conceived,

you wrapped me in fluffy love

and in eternal embrace

bound me to your heartbeat and called me




an interrupted reverie,

call to you from the precipice of forgetting,

Bring me home.

Bring me to mama’s bossom.



Warsaw, capital of the ‘vanishing country’


The Warrior Mermeaid of Warsaw at the historical centre of the city

Warsaw, the capital of Poland, is a city that has seen many wars and has earned the name “The Phoenix city”, having risen from the ashes of so many invasions. The legend goes that it was founded by a hunter who discovered a mermaid in the Vistula River and fell in love with her. Because she could not leave the river, the hunter settled by the shores and from there, the city sprouted, straddling the Vistula, its name an amalgam of the name of the hunter and his mermaid, Warszawa (pronounced ([varˈʂava] in Polish).


Tourists appreciating the statue of Marshal Jozef Pilsudski at the entrance of Lazienki Park


A section of the historical centre of Warsaw, with the Royal Palace on the right

Today, the mermaid makes her appearance as the city’s symbol, on its coat of arms and in statues and reliefs, bearing a shield and a sword. Creative, yes. But the legend of the warrior mermaid protecting this city has not kept away Poland’s more powerful neighbours from sweeping into the country, almost at will.
Speaking to a friend about an invasion of Poland, she asked, “Which of the invasions because everyone has invaded Poland?”
True, Poland’s history is replete with war and invasions by every major power in Europe. After four major partitions, Poland as a country seems to vanish, (at one time for over a century) and reappear on the world map indiscriminately, thanks to the people of that country, who always pull it back from the brink of extinction.
Warsaw in the autumn is a charming city, with the yellowing foliage casting it in subtle glow. Especially at the Lazienki Park, Poland’s largest. It covers some 76 hectares of the capital and was designed in the 17th century.
It is here, among the trees and glades, that some key moments of the city’s, and the country’s history, played out. It was here that the last Polish King Stanislaw August Poniatowski reigned, loved and lost his kingdom, resulting in the 3rd partition of Poland among several European powers in 1795. And for a century thereafter, Poland disappeared from the map.
At the entrance to the park stands the towering statue of a fierce looking Marshal Jozef Pilsudski, with shaggy brows and thick moustache. He is the man credited with the founding of the Second Polish Republic in 1918 on the heels of WW1, reclaiming the country’s place on the map for the first time since 1795. He marshalled the Poles to defeat Soviet troops in 1920 to reaffirm the country’s independence.
The statue was commissioned only recently as Pilsudski had been obliterated from Polish history after the country fell under the control of the Soviet’s at the end of WWII. The Soviet’s finally found a way to get back at the man who had routed their armies and halted the march of communism into Western Europe. His name was only whispered while Poland was locked in the grip of communism, until 1989.
But Pilsudski’s fierce looks should on no account be held as a standard. The Poles are mostly kind, soft-spoken people, who have the misfortune of being surrounded by powerful, ambitious countries.
Despite its many wars, the most famous Pole ever, and one reckoned as the greatest, is not a military hero but a priest – a certain Karol Jozef Wojtyla, who the world knows as Pope John Paul II. And like him, most Poles are amiable people committed to the quieter things in life.
Inside the park, the Frederic Chopin monument is located in prime spot. Chopin, Poland’s next most famous son, is depicted sitting under a willow tree with a melancholic expression, as if weighed down by the enormous talent that had defined his life and death (he was ill most of his life), and by extension, the burden of existence his country has had to deal with. The famous composer died in Paris just aged 39 but his memory and music live on. At strategic locations in the park, and in Warsaw, there are benches that play some of Chopin’s composition at the push of a button. He is that highly regarded in a country he left at 21.
Further in, there are palaces, built mostly in the 17th century, combining architectural styles from various backgrounds, the result being some aesthetically pleasing structures in a serene park like the impressive Palace on the Water, the home of the last Polish King. Amidst the temples and orangeries and the little White House, whose walls are privy to some royal romance, there is an officer’s cadet’s barrack, where one of the many uprisings that dot Polish history began. The Poles are famous for many uprisings, something they are proud of, even if most of them were not successful. But considering the many armies that have invaded Poland, and the many uprisings of the Poles, the people are very warm and friendly.
And with such a people, you wonder why anyone would want to wipe them clean off the face of the world. Yet, that was precisely what Hitler wanted to do. If he had succeeded, the Warsaw I saw, hemmed by autumn leaves and warm, smiling people, would not have been there. It would have been replaced by a settlement for some 10, 000 Germans. With this agenda in mind the Nazis rolled their tanks into Poland and started WWII. Attacked simultaneously by the Nazi’s on one side, and the Soviets on the other, Poland was doomed. And during the 1944 Warsaw uprising against Nazi occupation, 85 per cent of the city was destroyed and some 60 per cent of the population (800, 000 people) was killed. Poland was, during the war, a Nazi incinerator of some sort. The Warsaw Ghettos were set up to house the Polish Jews, many of whom were moved to the concentration camps elsewhere in Poland, the most infamous being Auschwitz, in the South of the country.
And if there is an enduring legacy of loathing the Poles have for the Germans, it is for these reasons. One Pole I spoke to said her grandfather hid in the forest for four years during the war, and she was carrying on his grudge for him.
With the war eventually over and most of Warsaw and Poland lying in ruins and left at the mercies of the Soviets, the Poles decided to rebuild their country, brick by brick. Well, where that was possible. The historic centre of Warsaw was rebuilt down to the smallest detail from some 30 paintings by Italian artists Bernardo Bellotto commissioned to paint the city in 1764 by the last Polish King. That part of the city is now a UNESCO world heritage site.
Walking down the cobbled streets of the historical centre, there is an old man playing a wind instrument on the sidewalk, acknowledging dropped coins with a smile and a nod. His melody is infinitely sad, even when he attempts to play a happy tune, as if trying to recapture something that was lost, something that the wind had shattered and dissipated.
Despite the tremendous efforts and sacrifices of ordinary Varsovians, who dedicated endless hours to rebuild their city, despite the amazing work, the overwhelming feeling for me was that of something irretrievably lost. The Royal Palace at the centre of the historic city and even the cornices tried to remain faithful to the originals; it looked as picturesque as Signor Bellotto’s paintings, complete with the grand red brick Royal Palace, the quaint little houses in the corner, the market square. Copies of the paintings are showcased down the street for visitors to see and appreciate. It was a lesson in quiet perseverance.
But further away from the historical centre, the architecture is a fusion of sorts, a result of the different influences that were brought to the post-war reconstructions. Many migrant workers came with their ideas of architecture, and there were those who desired the construction of a totally modern city while others pinned for a restoration of the original. And of course there were the overlords, the Soviets, who imposed their socialist realisms in the architecture, putting up giant grey structures that celebrated the working class people. The most impressive of these buildings and the biggest structure in the whole of Warsaw is the Palace of Culture and Science, a “gift of the people of the Soviet Union to the people of Poland”. Completed in 1955, it remains the tallest building in the capital, (and the 6th tallest in the European Union) embellished with statues, carvings and reliefs of working class people in all their glory. After the collapse of communism in 1989, the fate of the impressive structure was debated. Some people wanted what would remain for them a symbol of communism torn down. Others prefer to keep it. Now it is visible from all parts of Warsaw and at nights, it glows in a dreamy lilac light. I understand the light theme is changed every year.
It is also a major tourist destination as visitors get to take in the whole of Warsaw from the huge windows of the top floor while enjoying the showcase of scientific and cultural exhibits that fill the other floors.
From its window’s one can see the impressive greenery of Warsaw, the lush lawns and colourful hedges that line the streets as well as the ambitious skyscrapers creeping heavenwards, one of them poised to replace the Palace of Culture as the country’s tallest building. It is a massive, massive structure.
But all around it, the ambience of Warsaw is changing, from an impoverished communist country to a nation eagerly bursting into capitalism, with glamour shops lining the streets.
In Poland, one can’t complain about the cuisine; the food is filling and the variety impressive. But for an African visiting Warsaw, a visit is incomplete without stopping by at La Mama, a Nigerian restaurant, broadly tagged an “African restaurant” that serves typically Nigerian food, from Amala to pounded yam and a range of soups from Okra, oha or egusi soup, or even the famed pepper soup. Don’t be surprised though if there are more Poles than Africans at La Mama, enjoying the meals and nodding to the beats of Fela or some contemporary Nigerian musicians seeping out of the speakers.
They will smile and talk to you, the wonderful people of Poland, whether at restaurants or one of the numerous arts exhibition in Warsaw during the autumn, for which they have so much appreciation, and you will wonder where the resilience and indomitable spirit comes from. How can a people go through all the Poles have gone through and remain so nice?
Perhaps it is the charm of the mermaid or just the realisation that the most beautiful thing about Poland is its people.