Writing Africa for Africa, Celebrating Beyond by ADETUTU, Olusola Joseph
Continually debatable discussions of what “African Literature” refers to permeate, to the detriment of more fruitful concerns, the academic literature. It has been argued that the term may choose its referent from the perspective of the writer or from that of the writing. Is the writer African? And is he/she domiciled in Africa? Or is the writing about Africa? And is it set in Africa? These are the questions that we find in every corner of the academic literature.
At the 13th International Literature Festival, Berlin in 2013, Taiye Selasi, in her opening speech, proposed that “it (will) be wonderful, if we classified literature not by country but by content”. In this light, literature may then be like music, not like food. Egusi – a Nigerian delicacy – especially when outside Nigeria, is first, considered Nigerian before it is considered a delicacy. Literature, in Selasi’s opinion, cannot be this way – a love story should first be a about love before, if at all, it is African. Her view would not have a long life, as Emmanuel Iduma attacked it. However, I would be digressing if I did a contrastive study of both views.
Nonetheless, I should briefly state that Iduma’s opinion is that Selasi should not write off the term “African Literature”. She may be skeptical about it, he writes. He believes writing it off would mean a loss of identity and a dangerous generalisation. Iduma’s insistence that he is, against all the odds, an “African writer because I am Nigerian and Nigeria is in a continent called Africa” is sadly puerile, not carefully taking cognizance of Selasi’s reference to Louis Stewart’s and Bob Marley’s music.
I think literature is first, writing (or speaking, as the case may be) before it is written by a writer. People, many from Africa, write about Africa mostly for Africans. What is said to be written is the subject of argument; and it is what I write about, not minding this controversy.
As it were, the world seems to be cheating local, African literary writers. Their counterparts in the diaspora seem to be getting more international recognition than they do. The stinging paradox is that both groups write about Africa; and one would expect that proximity would mean originality, and originality would in turn guarantee recognition. But it appears it is not that mechanical.
I was at the 2015 #AfricaWrites festival at the British Library. At the July 3 event, journalist Hannah Pool was in conversation with African writers: Abubakar Adam Ibrahim (Nigeria); NdindaKioko (Kenya); Nadifa Mohamed (Somalia); ChibunduOnuzo (Nigeria) and NiiAyikwei Parkes (Ghana). Each writer was to tell the audience three “African Books to Inspire” – this was actually the theme of the event. What I noticed however, was that all the writers seemed to have presentations more about the writers than their books.
When Onuzo spoke, she praised Sefi Atta (Nigeria) for the way she “paints Lagos in her works”. To Onuzo, Atta does not write of a Lagos different from the bustling one we all know of, but like actor and film director KunleAfolayan (Nigerian) in his film Phone Swap, Atta’s secret is the way she lights Lagos. This immediately struck me as implying that African talents write of Africa in a new way as different from what it is. Literature permits this. But then, I was going to ask, during the Audience Q&A session, why all what African writers write of is Africa(n). African writers seem to be on a revolutionary cause or their roots are simply intrinsic to their writings. It is my opinion that many of these writers are unable to admit this, probably because they are only subconsciously connected. It appears that there is a form of revolution against something undefined. It is so intrinsic that even when the setting moves outside Africa, they still write Africa – Europe becomes Africa with the overriding African characters and culture.
Before I could ask my question, a man in the audience spoke. He said a Facebook friend of his, who had commended the Royal African Society’s innovation that would bring about #AfricaWrites, had asked him a thought-provoking question: Why is “African” Literature FOR AFRICANS celebrated in London? After all, we Africans too have cities, he added. The hall was quiet for a mini-second.
When she spoke, Nadifa Mohamed, I summarise, said there is no reason for an “African writer” like her who is practically British and lives in London to insist on African literary festivals in Africa only. The diaspora could do us some good too, she added. Hannah Pool, who had stated she would rather ask “why not” than “why the festival was being held in London”, concluded that there were an adequate number of such festivals in Africa. The latest of these that immediately came to my mind was the 2015 #Writivism festival that was held in Kampala, Uganda.
Nadifa’s response and Hannah’s observation were correct. But was that to say the Facebook-friend man had no point? Of course, he did.
If I am correct to say that African writers’ roots are simply intrinsic to their writing, then I believe the man just might have pointed to a problem – that African writers merely used Africa, at least in the general sense, as a source of materials, even when they are in the diaspora. After all, that an African writer outside Africa still writes Africa(n) may as well mean they are an “‘African’ writer”; to use the controversial term. Once the deal is done, Africa no longer exists.
What African writers may do in addressing this problem is to stop these stereotypes that drag behind their works. It is not impossible to have an African writer write, for instance, of an American main character in love with an Asian, whom they had met in Australia, in an eponymous love novel set in Europe. The African writer will be taking the wrong step if they chose to celebrate only in the place they get their raw materials or to in fact, diminish this source in their works for the ennoblement of another which has been proven over the years to be an impossible source for them.
ADETUTU, Olusola Joseph is Non-Fiction Editor, Praxis Magazine for Arts and Literature.