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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