What would you have written? Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire asks in his final letter. Here, he writes explicitly of the importance of the Writivism festival. Read:
Is that correct? Can one put Howdy and add a name? Anyway, my Engreesh has several issues, so do not mind me much. It is June 22, 2015. I am on Facebook. I am an addict who won’t recover soon, y’know by now. There is this photo in which you have tagged Mary Ajayi, Saddiq Dzukogi, Adeola Opeyemi, Dami Ajayi, and Nnedinma Jane Kalu. You have this look, that … okay, I won’t say but the caption beneath the photo says it all; “that grateful look you put up when you learn Writivism literary festival is finally over”. I wish you are with me in Nairobi so I can hug you fully. As Idi Amin would say, hug you completely. The end of a festival comes with relief. But my relief is a different type from yours. And of course guests have another type of relief too. The volunteers we work with to organize the festival also have their type of relief. I won’t try to speak for them.
What is your relief? That your friends in Kampala will stop bombarding you with images and updates that are just making you green with envy, right? Please, do tell. My relief is mixed. One, there is a tension that one has to deal with when they are hosting over thirty foreign writers of different nationalities in their city. We have writers from Kenya, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Ghana, Rwanda, the United States and the United Kingdom. Have I forgotten any country? I hope not. Zambia. France. Tanzania. Okay, the point is, you have so many people in one place, all of them important people. There was a fire scare in one of the hotels where the guests are staying and those types of things keep you on your toes.
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Also, having curated most of the sessions at the festival, I am relieved to hear that the substance of the festival was good. I mean, if the majority of the complaints one is hearing are about food and transport, then you know that something was awesome about the intellectual content of the sessions. Criticism is being shaped to mean negative put-down commentaries than positive ones. And so to hear nothing about something is sometimes to say that something is great. It is a weird way of people complementing others. I mean, with all the respect I have for the Ugandan version of the okada (the bodaboda), if it takes space in people’s minds, including academics’ and journalists’ with interests in a certain part of the continent, then one knows that something works. Some clicking has happened.
It is always nice to have conversations about the fact that there is a panel on Nigerian writing. What does that mean in regards to the discourse on national literatures vis a vis African literature. Actually, there was a conversation with friends in Kenya and the UK about a panel on Kenyan writing. And we also thought of a panel on Writing in Luganda. These are important conversations to have. Conversations of our age. The panel on Breaking the Francophone and Anglophone barrier is important. One longs for these discussions. When people have problems with how to write about things, you know that they are confused as to how much to disclose about their involvement because that would expose their interests and biases when they write.
CACE and Writivism were started by young academics and activists and so there is more interest in literary discussions than about the fact that Kampala has no train system or that matooke is bland. Let’s talk about the significance of having social media writers, bloggers and other online personalities in discourses about contemporary African writing. What it means for the definition of a writer. And platforms for publishing. And frontiers for writing. Writivism is also about advocacy and the promotion of African writing as well (the programme starts much earlier and the festival is only the tail of everything) and so there is interest in the ways in which the festival fosters relations and expands networks and markets for contemporary African literature. And this is why Jennifer, I am going to imagine you as a Kenyan writer who has just returned from the 2015 Writivism Festival.
Okay, full disclosure. I am loving the Ngugi wa Thiong’o essay, published in Transition No. 5 (Jul. 30 – Aug. 29, 1962), p. 7 titled A Kenyan at the Conference, obviously about the 1962 Conference, we talked about in the first two letters I wrote you. Had you Jennifer been Kenyan and at the 2015 Writivism Festival, would you have written this?
I WANTED to see Tsitsi Dangarembga. I had read her novels Nervous Conditions and The Book of Not, which had struck me as books of great literary power.
I wanted to meet Mukoma wa Ngugi, the Kenyan novelist whose two novels, Nairobi Heat and Black Star Nairobi, seem to herald the birth of a new prominence for crime fiction, freed from the burden of political protests and jibes at post-colonial realities and cast an unsentimental eye at human relationship in all its delicate and sometimes harsh intricacies.
I wanted … the bus creaked and rumbled. I hit my head against the window. I woke up from my speculations and anticipations.
I was on my way to the recent Writivism Festival held at Maisha Garden, National Theatre and Makerere University, Kampala.
I was not disappointed.
It was an experience to meet so many writers representing as many countries as Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, South Africa, Britain, Ivory Coast, USA, Botswana, Rwanda etc.
It is always something for a creative writer to feel that he is not working in isolation and that there are many others on the same venture.
All of them struck me as being expectant and dedicated to writing.
(…) I think that the real importance of the festival lays not so much on the actual output or content (…), but in the physical contact and impact it may have had on the various individuals. I think, therefore, that one of the important things about the festival was the fact that it was held and organized by young writers based on the continent, without much financial backing and experience. What may be born here and grow as a result is yet too early to predict. I have no doubt that emerging writers based on the continent and literary production and consumption from here will rise. The few that I met at Kampala were very enthusiastic and eager to push ahead.
You will remember Jennifer, that in 1962, Ngugi at that famous conference gave Chinua Achebe a manuscript that later became a bestselling novel. You could say that Ngugi was an emerging writer in 1962. Achebe, then working with the African Writers Series in some editorial advisory capacity pushed for Ngugi’s manuscript. There were publishers at that conference obviously. And critics.
What am I saying Jennifer? That as an emerging writer, and OMG, I am such an emerging writer who is almost dying at the emergent stage, our interests at festivals should be how to use these events to push ahead our careers. The fruits of our attendance of the festivals are not in having been given a personal chaperon and having been given lectures on how Kampala operates and where the festival venues are, because of course there is a full website with all that information and guests receive this information in their emails.
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As a festival organizer, the pride is in hearing that Jennifer met Richard Ali at Writivism and they discussed the possibility of Richard publishing Jennifer’s book. In some way, there is not much an organizer can do beyond getting these people together. An organizer can’t walk to Richard and say, here is Jennifer, and she has a manuscript, if Jennifer chooses to sulk because she is in a new city and was not given a chaperon, poor Jennifer. It does not matter if her boyfriend is going to write a hundred articles about how terrible OMG those people are.
Someone came with 20 copies of their book and returned home with none. I mean, I heard of books that Dami carried and were bought off in a second. Rachel Zadok, too. Those are tangible achievements. Did I also hear about essays being written for Jalada? Didn’t Ukamaka Olisakwe tell me about Praxis magazine, at Writivism? I won’t reveal ideas being explored with Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah about connections to be made in Ghana. Should I go into the details of conversations about breaking down the Francophone-Anglophone barrier? You may hear of Writivism with a new French name.
Events like the Writivism Festival are not just platforms for us to bloat, and show the world how brilliant we are, they are also platforms for us to build. To collaborate. To get deals for ourselves. To make deals with others. To support. To receive support. To teach. To learn. To share. A real festival harvest is measured in these terms. This is the importance of festivals towards the building of literary infrastructures. This is why Writivism organizes a festival. We love it when readers say that they discovered a new book at the festival. And bought copies that got autographed. We are not in the business of making celebrity. We are in the business of building a credible literary infrastructure.
Now tell me Jennifer, what exactly were you envying? Tell me that it was the fact that there is the stream, there is a hook, and there is fish in the water at Writivism. We are too stretched to pull your hand and help you dip the hook in the water but you should be fine. Even if it is just a travel piece done after visiting a tourist site in Kampala, it still would not have been possible without the festival, isn’t nonfiction also writing that Writivism promotes? Of course there are bigger fish waiting to be announced too. And oh my God, can you imagine this is the last letter I am writing you? I am sad.