The best of both published and unpublished African literature came together recently in the heart of academic London, at the British Library, for the annual festival, Africa Writes.
We joined the writers, poets and book lovers at this year’s festival, and these are some of our highlights.
The RAP Party
The festival was kicked off with the RAP (Rhythm and Poetry) party, featuring inspiring, though-provoking pieces of literature resulting from hip hop back when the genre told a story.
The poems by literary artists, including Malika Booker and Yomi Sode, instantly took us back to the golden age of hip hop. Sode provoked emotion about gun crime and gentrification, full of passion and emotional distress. Her performance was book ended perfectly in between sets by DJ Sid Mercutio.
While a celebration of African literature, it’s calming that all cultures are present to join in the appreciation.
Energy of the audience as Jolade Olusanya talked about manhood and Malika Booker protested against the plight of the black woman was electric with emotion and appreciation – some bowing down in prayer.
In the era of technology where we live digitally, avoiding many face-to-face communications, it’s thrilling that the presence of poetry is still so vital.
For a writer, whether a complete novice to the publishing world or a veteran among the bookshelves, sending your manuscript out to publishers and literary agents ignites flames of terror to even the most successful author. To kick off the first full day of the festival, Africa Writes hosted a Meet the Publisher discussion, with participating writers, including Dyonne Josiah. Along with a chance to familiarise themselves with the pitching process and gain feedback on their process, writers were given invaluable tips to become published.
Many African writers who have left inspiration in their wake launched at Africa Writes. With household names, such as Wole Soyinka, having debuted books at Africa Writes, it is no surprise it’s considered an honour to do so. This year’s debuting authors included poet JJ Bola with his debut novel, No Place to Call Home, and Olumide Popoola’s novel When We Speak of Nothing. The plots are severely different: Popoola tells a coming of age novel, set in King’s Cross, prior to the 2011 riots, looking at the attitude of the Yoruba tribe towards transgender people, while Bola’s book questions what home means and how it affects us in adult life. But language correlates in both books.
Any writer worth their salt is intimately familiar with the vitality of getting published and for those with their eyes set on the fiction section of Waterstones, short stories is the go-to avenue.
For many writers of colour the target is the Caine Prize, a literature prize awarded to an African writer of a short story published in English. The Caine Prize, now in its 18th year, offered not only the opportunity to meet and hear readings of the shortlisted writers, but also gain advice from the accomplished writers, including Lesley Nneka Arimah, Chikodili Emelumadu, Arinze Ifeakandu, Magogodi Makhene and Molara Wood.
Arimah’s collection of short stories depict the standards of beauty against woman, especially those of colour, the importance of hair to a person, even having a baby made completely of hair, while simultaneously covering stereotypes against women, one being the need that we must all bear children. Magogodi told her haunting story with narration from a Afrikaan man. Ifeakandu, on the other hand, told a powerful homosexual story of chance meeting. And Emelumadu, through her use of subtle humour, discussed difficult financial situations due to family loyalty.
Kicking off the second, and last, full day of this year’s festival was an eye-opening panel discussion, featuring Louise Umutoni, Emma Shercliff, Billy Kahora, Goretti Kyomuhendo and Ruth Sorby, about the state of the publishing industry in Africa. It’s a fair assumption to say many of us assumed it was similar to the system used in the West, just less advanced (myself included). Much to my surprise was the extent to the differences within the world of publishing.
When a writer finishes penning a book, for most, the battle is half over. Unfortunately for writers in Africa, or any writer trying to get book sales within the continent, the battle is just beginning. Rwanda, East Africa, has fewer than five bookshops within the entire country, and two of them are new businesses. This difficulty distributing books often leads people to turn to the school system.
Encompassing passionate discussion, practical advice and strong community spirit, Africa Writes was an inspiring experience to be part of.
Read more about this year’s Africa Writes festival and future events here.
Images: all images by Ivan Gonzalez (courtesy of Africa Writes)