Africa Writes 2017 highlights

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.

Day one

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.

Day two

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)