The Nature(s) of African Writers
Written by Davina Kawuma
By today’s standards, I wasted my teenage years. Consequently, I am filled with spite and resent today’s teenagers (who win Olympic gold medals, transform themselves into whatchamacallit-preneurs, and develop mobile apps during their lunch breaks).
When I say ‘wasted’, I don’t mean that the thirteen nineteen I boarded headed straight to the land of bacchanalian festivities and promiscuity (which means I don’t have to apologize for offending your sense of propriety if, let’s say, you do not think of binge drinking and promiscuity as ‘wastage’). What I mean is that I didn’t for instance, learn anything new about myself.
Perhaps the most useful thing I did, as a teenager, was to cultivate a healthy relationship with the dark. I would turn off the light in my room and lie, for minutes, sometimes hours, on my bed. I did this long enough to convince myself that there were thirteen kinds of darkness, and that my intimate knowledge of eleven of these should have earned me a certificate (at least).
Therefore, when, on the second day of the Uganda International Writers’ Conference (‘DIALOGUE ACROSS THE DIASPORA, ACROSS THE CONTINENT’), one of the Ugandan participants (who, for obvious reasons, will remain nameless) confessed she was ‘afraid of the dark’, I laughed so hard. I laughed more at inconceivability of this fear than any in-built funniness.
I turned to my left and said, ‘I hope you’re joking.’
‘Why would I joke about something like that?’ the nameless participant asked.
‘But you’re an adult! Don’t you know you’re not supposed to be afraid of the dark?’
To prove just how serious she was, she recounted a story that revolved around how, the night before, she’d found herself unable to turn off the light in her hotel room at the Imperial Golf Course Hotel in Entebbe. I laughed, again, and shook my head. Thankfully, she did not hold my laughter (or disbelief) against me.
To my credit, I later repented.
I might not be afraid of dark hotel rooms, but there is another kind of darkness that terrifies me. A darkness which, I have persisted in believing, will be dispelled as soon as I figure out how to say exactly what I mean to say.
I am irresponsible with words. I seem unable to succinctly light up my ideas with them. I waste words with no consideration for those who don’t have any; I bear a likeness to those town kids who refuse to finish their chicken, even though there are starving kids in the village—kids who never ask how the finishing of chicken (in towns) relieves starving children (in the village).
And that’s not all, unfortunately. I am in the dark when it comes to using the appropriate descriptions and structure. When my metaphors aren’t too overworked, they are too underworked. When I’m not interfering too much with the story, I’m interfering too little with it. As soon as my paragraphs stop being too long, they start being too short.
And so on.
But is this what ‘writing’ is about?—especially after you have done everything you possibly can to ‘improve the story’ and just found out that there are at least fifteen people who still think the story could do with ‘more improvements’?—after you have diligently followed all the advice in writing guides, read other writers’ books to see how they ‘achieve their effects’, made copious notes while listening to debates about realism vs genre?
What else is there to the business of ‘writing’, beyond word choice, sentence length and so-called author interference? Is writing at the core of what Nii Ayikwei Parkes, session leader for the ‘NEGOTIATING AFROPOLITANISM’ discussion, referred to as ‘the exploration of ideas’?
If writing is not necessarily about journalistic fidelity to facts or advanced history lessons, if it is about ‘verisimilitude’, what sort of non-journalistic and ahistorical truths should we seek?—the kind of truths that will arbitrate in the exploration of ideas?
Do writers on the continent have the space in which to conceptualize and theorize? Rather, do they see themselves as possessing this space?—since, sometimes, it is the perception of what counts as an ‘opportunity’ that makes the difference. What sort of social, economic and political spaces can they claim? Is ‘mental space’, as Dr. Suzan Kiguli suggested in her presentation, ‘something of a myth’?
Dr. Kiguli opened her presentation, ‘AFRICAN WRITERS LIVING ON THE CONTINENT: SURVIVAL ON HOPE’, with a Charles Larson quote: ‘African writers survive on hope, for their own work and for their countries, a double burden for the African writers.’
Of course, some of the challenges, of which Larson wrote, in ‘The ordeal of the African Writer’, weren’t preserved for the old guard of African writers. Many contemporary African writers marvel that many of the difficulties their literary godfathers lived through haven’t yet been resolved. They are worried no one outside the continent will appreciate the true extent of their literary genius. How it is that writers and readers still have to make do with poor print quality, a dearth of literary critics, dodgy editors, and ineffective book marketing and sales strategies?
We live in the twenty-first century, for heaven’s sake!—the age of social media, commercialization gone mad, crowd-sourcing, blogging, online literary magazines, and self-publishing. Has the continent learnt nothing? Will publishers and editors on the continent not exploit the power of the internet, after all? Do we still expect hope to bind, market and distribute books?
If writers no longer have to survive on hope, and if economic, mental, social and online spaces already exist on the continent, no matter how primitive their states, then they have to think, seriously about how they want these spaces to evolve. It is important, for instance, that the discussions within these spaces are not unidirectional and static. For instance, let’s take the topic of the moment – identity. It is hardly dishonourable for writers on the continent to discuss issues of ‘identity’, especially since some of them resent labels like ‘African writer’. Some of them simply want to be known as ‘writers who just happen to be African’, after all, and they swear (on the graves of their favourite writers) that their insistence on the latter has nothing to do with semantic pettifoggery.
Yet, surely, African writers aren’t the only ones with concerns about identity. To quote a friend, ‘issues of identity arise even when one is talking about salad dressing’!
In any case, the profile of the so-called African writer is not universal. I’m sure if you put up a ‘WANTED: AFRICAN WRITERS’ ad in one of the dailies, you’d end up with responses from all sorts of people (many of whom might not be African by any stretch of the imagination). There is no consensus. Not just yet. To some, an African writer can only be someone who has at least one African parent. To others, African parentage alone doesn’t cut it—and one should not refer to oneself as an African writer if one doesn’t have first-hand experience of life on the continent. Etcetera.
Which, of course, is not to belittle any of the psychosocial and politico-economic conflicts associated with identity disorders; it is simply to suggest that, perhaps, the identity business has hogged all the airtime and we need to talk about something else besides how misunderstood we are.
‘Why are the group discussions obsessed with identity, and why are intimate conversations less and less about craft?’ Billy Kahora, who chaired the ‘NEGOTIATING AFROPOLITANISM’ discussion, asked. Why, also, if I may add, aren’t such discussions and conversations keen on acknowledging some very obvious changes in context?
It is always rather disheartening, isn’t it, when the new breed of African writers realizes that a good percentage of their would-be readers on the continent want them to create novels, short stories and poems in the image of the venerated old guard, those writers who are widely regarded as the parents and godparents of African literature. Readers haven’t been shy in stating that they prefer their African literature neat. Anything that does not read like the books they studied at A-level is automatically dismissed as chick lit, dick lit, or something in between. Genuinely clever and charming hybrids are dismissed as gimmicks, and everything that isn’t difficult is dismissed as non-literary.
For whom is this new breed of Africans writing, then? Who is their audience? Why should they bother at all, if fellow Africans, for whom they seek to write, will not give their imprimatur to novels that aren’t about an African who has returned to the continent after fifteen years of living abroad?
You shouldn’t write for an audience because people change,’ Nii Parkes warned. ‘The only way to write for an audience is to write for a mountain.’
Ah, well, then. Writers shouldn’t be overly concerned about their audience, its perception of ‘authenticity’, and it’s obstinacy about what will and what won’t rehabilitate the continent’s image. They should simply write the sorts of books that they’d enjoy reading themselves.
Or is it?
Isn’t the audience out there, in the diaspora, bigger than the one on the continent? Is permanent residence on the continent worth all the ‘unfair criticism’ and ‘misunderstanding’? Why bother with themes such as social change, and risk dying a penniless bum, when one can write a tear-jerker about war, for an INGO, and make lots of money? Of what use is a conscience, when one cannot pay rent? Why not just defect to the diaspora?—relocate to London, Oslo, or New York?—write for those who are just dying to ‘know more about Africa’. People there read books, after all (and not only those books that are listed as required reading by national curriculum developers, mind) and the best part is that they have plenty of disposable income—which means, thank heavens, that they will buy every copy of your book, and sponsor all your book tours.
Or will they?
‘Diaspora’ is a strange word, isn’t it? It’s one of those words that can be sacred or obscene, depending on how and perhaps why you use it.
For the African writers who don’t reside in ‘abroadpolis’, where publishing troubles seem to melt like lemon drops, ideas about the diaspora tend to be quite fixed; their admiration for all things diasporic is often as excessive as it is unquestioning. Diaspora land is where you write a book that you didn’t really think would sell, only for you to end up on a couch, next to Oprah, talking about how you wrote a book you didn’t really think would sell. Where you stumble upon the plot for the best-seller that will out-sell Fifty Shades of Grey on your way to the loo, and everyone you know is dating an editor. Where access to publishers and agents has a beginning but no end.
This isn’t true, of course.
If you didn’t already know it, you’d have found out, by listening to Dr. Jack Mapanje’s keynote speech (titled ‘TALKING ACROSS DIASPORAS, ACROSS CONTINENTS’), that, contrary to what writers on the continent think, the group of writers living in the diaspora isn’t homogenous. Not every writer in the diaspora spends three days, every week, turning down offers to write for this publication, and present a paper at that international conference. There are established writers, true, but there are budding novices, as well (and every category of writer in between). Even those writers that were fairly successful, prior to their relocation, might be shocked to find that they cannot use the advantages they accumulated, on the continent, to secure preferential treatment in the diaspora—that they cannot simply walk into vice chancellors’ offices and demand to be installed as a writer-in-residence, or dictate the terms of their lectureships and professorships.
The diaspora is also where, for better or worse, books by Africans are shelved under the “Africana” section and, as one of the conference’s moderators intimated, people don’t always browse the Africana section because they ‘appreciate African literature’. Often, what they require, rather urgently, is a tourist guide, something ‘different’ to read on the plane, or a book of which, much later, while they are well-retired, they will be able to say, ‘This is a very special book, you know. This book started my passionate love affair with Africa. Africa lives within me because of this book.’
Ostensibly, in order to better understand people who live on the continent to which one has recently been posted as a diplomat or volunteer, it is often necessary to read books by writers from that continent. So, for instance, the volunteer-in-waiting might feel moved to read books by Ugandan, Ghanaian and Kenyan writers in order to ‘get’ what Ghanaians, Ugandans and Kenyans are about—what afflicts them; how to visit their dreams; what you shouldn’t say to them when they turn up late for a management meeting; how not to behave when they invite you to a funeral; what to do when they offer to bribe you (which they will, because everyone in Africa Uganda Ghana Kenya those countries is corrupt); etcetera. The assumption is that any one of those three adjectives represents ‘a homogenous group of people’.
Shocking, I know, but there it is.
Even more shocking was the exposure of the myth that there is no censorship (self or other) in the diaspora. Alphonse Muambi and Doreen Lwanga explored this during the ‘THE NEW GENERATION OF AFRICAN DIASPORAN WRITERS’ discussion.
Therefore, if you are one of those writers who think the only way they are ever going to be able to censure African heads of state or write that 600 page procurement-related corruption exposé is to move to the diaspora, as soon as possible, you might have to rethink a few things. For starters, depending on the type of relationship your adoptive country has with your birth country, your adoptive country might prefer that you don’t upset the status quo (and will no doubt make this clear by directing your attention to more ‘fruitful topics’).
Thus, in closing, I am tempted to repeat a question Dr. Mapanje asked:- ‘What if there was no such thing as the diaspora?’
Well, the long answer is that if there was no such thing as the diaspora, there would be no such thing as African writers in the diaspora. And if there was no such thing as African writers in the diaspora, Africanists would live a mostly fear-free life. For, it would seem that Africanists, that category of people who, according to Dr. Mapanje, ‘know more about Africa than Africans themselves’, are afraid of African writers in the diaspora.
But if Africanists fear African writers in the diaspora, African writers on the continent mistrust them, and perhaps one cannot completely attribute all this mistrust to petty jealousies. Perhaps it is simply that writers on the continent have often felt abandoned by their counterparts in the diaspora—left behind by that group of people that has some experience in navigating the world of writing and publishing.
I can predict though, with as many degrees of confidence as Facebook will allow, that this sense of abandonment will soon be a thing of the past. If what happened at the Uganda International Writers Conference is anything to go by, the new generation of Diasporan African writers is extremely interested in establishing and maintaining rapport with writers on the continent, which is why the work that African Writers’ Trust does to ensure these connections are made is vital. And maybe this creative partnership between the two sets of writers will lead to a mutual illumination of one another’s writing.