The AWT Conference Set Me On Fire -By HARRIET ANENA


It’s been three months since I completed writing my second poetry collection – Set Me on Fire. A feeling of fulfillment and relief engulfed me immediately I finished typing the last word.

But nothing prepared me for the restlessness I started feeling, when it dawned on me that I needed a publisher. Questions whose answers seemed unclear, set my mind on fire, and I asked friends and whoever cared to listen; where do I go from here? Who do you think will/should publish my book? Do I self-publish or mainstream-publish?

It’s my second book for heaven’s sake! So why am I fretting? Well, my first book – A Nation in Labour – was self-published, and while I was pleasantly surprised at how it performed, I knew that wasn’t a sufficient guarantee.

That’s why, when I received an invitation from the African Writers Trust to attend its third International Writers Conference in Kampala, from 6th– 8th March 2017, under the theme; Contemporary Publishing Trends in Africa, I knew I would be damned if I missed it.

UIWC3On the first day, Monday, 6th March, a panel discussion on DIY Narratives on Current Trends in African and African Diaspora Writing and Publishing set the mood for the conference as bloggers and publishers shared their journey thus far. As expected, the issue of self-publishing and mainstream/traditional publishing came up.

While some panelists thought that “writers shouldn’t just wake up one day and publish books” or stories, Dr Bibi Bakare-Yusuf, the Publishing Director of Cassava Republic Press, thought otherwise. Her thoughts – that people shouldn’t look at traditional publishing as superior to self-publishing –made me sigh with relief and open to exploring my publishing options, including self-publishing – again.

Dr Bakare- Yusuf’s assertion that “if we don’t publish what is here [on the African continent], the archive will be empty”, underscored the need for more literary works from the continent, while also ensuring that whatever route one takes, the quality of work is not to be compromised, including book covers.

Dr Bakare- Yusuf’s Keynote Address later that evening, delivered to a full house of academics, writers, publishers and arts lovers was reflective, insightful and full of hope for the future of publishing on the African continent, if we joined hands.  “The future of publishing is in collaboration,” she said.

On day two, the conference started on an ‘explosive’ note with a panel discussion on Positive Practices in Performing Arts: Developing the Industry. A combination of the unapologetic Ugandan theatre directors, Adong Lucy Judith and Kemiyondo Coutinho; the bluntAfrican history ANN_5721Professor at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore in USA,K. Barrett – Gaines, alongside thesoft-spokenProfessor of Literature at Makerere University, in Kampala, Sr. Dominica Dipio –kept me on the edge of my seat for the most part.

The discussion that touched on several issues including pay for performing artistes, whether performing artistes know their worth, and whether they invest enough in developing their craft was going fairly well until Prof. Barrett asserted that performing artists don’t need training – but practice. I could hear grumbling and disapproval, but it was until she said “training is for dogs” that the room was thrown into a roar of uneasy laughter, side glances, and ‘protests’ from the panel and some members of the audience. The moderator, Dr Patrick Mangeni, the Dean, School of Liberal and Performing Arts at Makerere University in Kampala, tried in vain for several minutes to bring the house to order, as everyone spoke over each other.

When the discussion returned to the ‘normalcy’ with which it started, Prof. Barrett’s comment, including one where she said plagiarism shouldn’t be such a big deal, made me realize how we sometimes assume that some issues have obvious viewpoints.

And the best of the conference was saved for last day with Lemn Sissay’s poetry performance at Kati Kati Africa, in Kampala.DSC_7506 Earlier the previous day, Lemn, a British poet of Ethiopian descent had shared his moving life story of being taken away from his mother,into the hands of white foster parents, living in four different children’s homes before the age of 18; and the subsequent desperate search for his family,which he only found when he was 21; and how poetry has been his companion.

In his confident, cheeky tone, Lemn said, “we are here to shame the shame of telling stories that are personal” – a statement that made me realise how easily we take family and life for granted.

Lemn’s performance was nothing like I had ever watched before –authentic, personal and powerful. Every word he uttered sank deep, made me shift in my seat in discomfort or comfort and, oh! he still made the audience laugh, despite his pain-littered poetry.

DSC_7533And when the performance was done, it was more than just poetry. Lemn left me feeling victorious as a poet, feeling alive, and reminding me that poetry is indeed engrained in every aspect of our being.

I left Kati Kati thinking, this guy properly Set Me On Fire!

If you missed the conference, you missed a mountain of experiences shared; and if you missed Lemn’s performance, you missed a rich history of a life shared.

I’m looking forward to next year’s conference and hoping that it will be bigger, open to all and with a showcase of more performances.



ANN_5787Harriet Anena is a Ugandan poet, journalist and researcher. Author of A Nation In Labour – a poetry collection – Anena’s poems have been published by Jalada Africa, African Writers Trust, African Sun Press, Babishai Niwe Poetey Foundation and on her blog Her second poetry collection – Set Me On Fire will come out in 2017.

Some of her short stories have featured in the 2013 Caine Prize anthology, A Memory This Sizeand Other Stories, Sooo Many Stories and Writivism.

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