Writing My Truth: Hellen Nyana

By Guest writer, Hellen Nyana

Hellen Nyana in the middle has the audience

Hellen Nyana in the middle has the audience

It has taken me a while to introduce myself as a writer.  Sure, I may tell my family and friends that I write but I rarely introduce myself as a writer. So when I was invited to participate in the Uganda international Writers’ Conference that was organised by the African Writers Trust in March 2013, all I was looking forward to was quietly admiring real international writers.

Most of us who live on the continent look at our friends in the Diaspora with envy.  And we definitely look at writers in the Diaspora as some privileged lot. Not only do they have faster Internet and quaint little coffee shops from where they create their amazing works of genius; they are also exposed to renowned publishing houses. We quietly covet them and force smiles through our teeth as we get autographs for their bestselling novels.

When they tell us that winter was hard to get used to, we brush that off as one of their many not-so-serious problems. Malawian writer Dr Jack Mapanje, who has been living in exile in Britain for a while now, told us about his experiences in the Diaspora and they were anything but rosy. Weather aside, their audiences back home, the few that read their books anyway, question the plausibility of their writing having not been home in a long time.  The murram roads they write about have been tarmacked and that remote village in their childhood memory now has cell phone reception. Which Africa then are they writing about? But then again their audiences in the countries where they stay question the Africa they write about that has no kwashiorkor-ridden children. Most times, rather than concentrate on the skill of their craft, their African-ness is questioned.

This and the debate on Afropolitanism helped put my writing into a bigger context. That I am no longer writing for just me but for an audience that would perceive my work however they want. That wherever I am writing from, whichever country I am in be it in Africa or in the Diaspora, Afropolitanism should demand that I am more concerned about the quality of what I am writing than slapping in contrived idioms to make the work appear “more African”. It is then that I understood what writers mean when they say, “Write your truth.”

Marketing my writing was another aspect that made me think of writing being just beyond me. When most writers think about getting their writing out there, their options are only limited to publishing houses. We never think of the options that blogs, individual websites and websites like Amazon give us to self-publish. We spend more time whining about Africa’s poor reading culture instead of building our Wikipedia profiles that could guide our audiences on what they could read. And now, surprisingly, we have E.L James of the Fifty Shades of Grey fame to look up to as an example of the power of self-publishing.

But there was no moment when the far-sightedness of Africa Writers Trust shone through than during the session with Barclays Bank and DOEN Foundation. The topic for this session was “Supporting the Arts: Donor Funding and the Case for Corporate Financing Integration”, which explored new forms of collaboration between the artists and their supporters and discussed new funding patterns by donors, and the possibility of integrating corporate financing in the arts. Thinking of the monetary side of my writing emphasised the need for quality and impactive material. But to listen to people say they are willing to support my craft, was more than the push I needed.

This conference gave me an opportunity to learn from some of Africa’s best writers, to hang out with upcoming story tellers and to think of my writing beyond my limited view and into a bigger picture.

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3 Comments. Leave new

I cannot tell you how eager I am to be in touch with African Authors who are interested in being more “African Union” and less “political borders”. I crave a community where up and coming authors who struggle to be heard or get published, can congregate and be creative about finding solutions to the problems we all face across the continent as a whole.

Being one of those “Diasporan Authors” I can tell you that sometimes the truth we wish to speak is rejected from the outset. You do not need to look past the stories selected for prominent African writing to know that we are required to tell particular stories to appeal to a wider audience.

Maybe it is time to be more creative about the way we bring stories to our people far and wide.


This is great Hellen?

First off, it was great to meet you…and share the space with y’all literate writers, and particularly share quality time talking to you…..As one, who does not exactly belong to your world of writing novels, poems…..I enjoyed being in the middle of it all…

Glad you brought out the subject of diaspora v continental writers, and writing “africanly”, a very political issue……starting with the writer. Being affiliated to the diaspora, several of us struggle with appreciating the novels, that always make it to or win the Caines Prize…..they all tend to be “the African Story”, as sold to us by the global western media….perpetuated by the Africa storyteller….but then again, perhaps that is their (the storytellers)’ truth? Though it still does not hurt to be Afropolitan….

I also like your point on Donor funding for writers. I hope, as I mentioned during the workshop that writers move beyond writing your passion….to really market your passion…..doing so. one has the option of living on their passion…..simply by going an extra mile to align one’s passion with topical issues and styles that would win her/ him writing fellowships and grants. I think writers should not be shy to sell themselves, if this is all we do, right from pre-school, through school activities, reading to do great in exams and applying to school…


Great work Hellen! Being a writer in Uganda is definatetly an untold story! This is the beginning!


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