One Less African Writer is One Too Many
In some comforting way, this piece is a commemoration of Chenjerai Hove’s life, a very dear friend, who passed away in July 2015, aged 59. Chenjerai was one of the finest writers that I knew, admired, learnt from and was inspired by. Born and raised in Zimbabwe, Chenjerai died thousands of kilometres away from home. He had since 2001 been living in exile in Norway. But this is also a tribute to many other African writers who have had to leave their countries of birth to live and work in far-flung cities, mostly in Europe and America but, increasingly, in other parts of the world including the United Arab Emirates and South America.
My mind flies back to Harare. 1997. My first novel, The First Daughter, had been published a year earlier in Uganda. I was invited to participate in the Writers Workshop, an annual event that used to be held in conjunction with the Zimbabwe International Book Fair. The gathering was a rich harvest of books, ideas, discussions, interactions and collaborations. Most of the writers I met at the event lived and worked on the continent. And one such writer was Yvonne Vera. She had recently returned from Canada. I remember asking her why she had chosen to return to the ‘village’, for her home was not in Harare, the city, but in Bulawayo, where she was working as the director of an Arts Gallery. Yvonne’s first book, a collection of short stories entitled Why Don’t You Curve Other Animals (1992) had been published in Canada. She had chosen to publish all her highly-successful subsequent novels in Zimbabwe first, by Baobab Books and Weaver Press. Thereafter, the books would be reissued by western publishers, including the highly respected Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and also translated into several foreign languages.
For the next five or so successive years, I continued to go to Zimbabwe to participate in the workshops and book fair, and I came to meet and know other distinguished Zimbabwean writers including Tsitsi Dangarembga, Charles Mungoshi (best short story writer of all time) Shimmer Chinodya, author of Harvest of Thorns (1989) a brilliant, brilliant, masterpiece. The book fair offered many other interactions. Micere Mugo, one of Kenya’s leading poets was then living in Harare. Then there was Ama Ata Aidoo, Taban lo Liyong, Nawal el Sadaawi, and many other literary heavyweights. There was a common thread that connected these writers: most were living and working on the continent at that time, and their books were being published locally. These writers made my experience at the book fair memorable and worthwhile. As a young, inexperienced writer, I looked up to them and aspired to be like them. The book fair was undoubtedly Africa’s literary powerhouse.
In the past 20-odd years, my work as a writer and literary activist has taken me to many places. London is now my second home. During my sojourns, I meet many African writers who live away from their original places of birth. We talk about what it means to be away from home; what it means to write from outside one’s familiar settings. We talk about the mundane; how we’ve had to learn, and unlearn a few things in order to fit it, to function, to be like ‘them’; how to use the train system, to read a map. In Uganda, when I first moved into my new house some years back, a neighbour’s tethered cow on a jackfruit tree was the landmark. ‘After you’ve passed by the cow, you will see a yellow house, and then you’ll have reached your destination.’ In London, it took me several months to adjust to the constant, steady supply of electricity. I would catch myself routinely recording TV programmes to be watched later, ‘just in case the power went off’. And driving on the smooth, pothole-free tarmac roads is still a big challenge.
But we also reflect on the more serious stuff. Why do many Diasporic writers continue to draw their narratives from the African epistemological space? Why is there seemingly a conflict between writers who live away and writers who remain? Are the Expat African writers qualified to speak on behalf of the continent? To write stories based there? To win literary prizes meant for African writers?
The issue of language is a recurring aspect in our discussions. A Congolese writer living and working in the Netherlands once told me a story about his language dilemma. He was raised in the Congo and he spoke Lingala at home. When he went to school, he had to learn French because it was the medium of instruction. Then the war broke out, and he emigrated to the Netherlands. He was required to study Dutch for a year before he could be admitted into university to complete his degree. And when he started writing, he had to do so in Dutch because of marketability issues. Along the way, he realised that he needed to learn English, so he could communicate with Africans like me, who neither speak Lingala, French nor Dutch.
“I feel disconnected from my home country, from my language; and I feel I have lost my identity. When I’m writing, I have to assume a different persona, because I’m writing in a language that is not mine. It feels strange to me.”
I can empathise with the Congolese writer somewhat. My own ‘African’ language is vibrant and musical; loaded with rich idioms. Most expressions are accompanied by sounds and bursts of laughter and ululations. Like many African writers writing in the coloniser’s language, I struggle to find these qualities in the English language. Sometimes when I’m on my desk in London writing about my small village in Uganda, I call my people back home just to hear them speak; to reconnect to my identity.
“I would love to return to the Congo one day,” the Congolese writer continues. I would like to share my skills and knowledge with the younger writers… perhaps teach at the university. But I wouldn’t even be able to buy a bottle of water with the salary they would pay me.”
The African Writers Trust (AWT), an organisation which I founded in 2009 was born on this premise. The main objective of AWT is to bridge the geographical spaces that divide African writers in the Diaspora and their counterparts on the continent, and to create synergies between the two groups. Our vision is to create an environment that nurtures writing, reading, publishing and promotion of African writers. Under this mandate, we run programmes that support writing and publishing in Africa, including training and skills development workshops for editors and writers, mentoring and Internship schemes, hosting a bi-annual writers’ conference, and others.
My work with the AWT has expanded my knowledge of and networks with writers, specifically African. I regularly receive requests for information on African writers and their works, both living on the continent and elsewhere. A writer from Ireland once said to me, “how come all of you African writers know each other,” he made it sound like it was a criticism. He argued that even though Ireland was a small country, compared to the whole African continent, he still did not know much about other Irish writers.
Later, as I reflected on the Irish writer’s comment, it dawned on me that perhaps there were so many of them, and that’s why he did not know his colleagues that well. From the legendary writers- James Joyce, W.B Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Frank McCourt, Johnathan Swift; the tiny Island of less than five million people continues to produce a steady crop of talented writers including Colm Tóibín, Anne Enright, Patrick McCabe…
In Africa, even though the internet has made the task of finding each other much easier, I still don’t know much about other writers who have not been brought to the world attention through the winning of a major literary prize, or a mention somewhere. I don’t know any writer from Cape Verde, for example, or other writers in the Lusophone region. We are still disconnected and isolated by the language divide, and by the poor communication and transport infrastructure. Many brilliant writers, especially those living and writing on the continent are not known beyond their geographical boundaries. And that is why we place a lot of importance on the few who break through these many hurdles. They become our ambassadors, our flag bearers.
What would it take for our African politicians to acknowledge the relevance and importance of even one single African writer? As cultural, and to an extent, political ambassadors of their countries. Whenever I’m invited to international writers’ fora, some of the questions I have to deal with are to do with the political and economic situation of my country. What would it take for them to make the economic and political conditions at ‘home’ more acceptable and conducive enough to allow writers to function in their own countries? And what is this notion of ‘self-imposed’ exile? People leave because they are looking for something better or safety. And so exile is imposed on them by what they consider to be unacceptable conditions.
“My life was in danger,” Chenjerai told me when I met him in Europe, a few years after he had fled into ‘self-imposed’ exile. “They came for me at night and that’s when I decided to run.” Chenjerai was complaining bitterly about the cold weather in Norway, saying that even the people there seemed cold because he would spend up to six months without speaking to anyone.
Years later, I came to appreciate Yvonne Vera’s decision to publish in Zimbabwe first, after I had met many African writers struggling to have their western-published books available and known in Africa, including my own, Waiting published in the US in 2007. I have been forced to become the unofficial distributor of my novel in Africa; something an Irish writer, for example, would never be expected to do.
Yvonne had invited me to her home in Bulawayo, so we could talk about ‘these things’, but sadly, that was never to be as she passed away a few months after she had made that offer. And as for Chenjerai, that is how his exile ended.
About the author
Goretti Kyomuhendo is one of Uganda’s leading novelists and founder and director of the African Writers Trust. (www.africanwriterstrust.org)