Sunday, July 21, 2013

Yaaya At: Africa Writes 2013 | Perspectives on Contemporary African Writing

Africa Writes is an annual festival founded by the Royal African Society. It is a celebration of African literature, showcased through dynamic panel discussions concerning the African literary scene to book launches of well-established and emerging talented authors, from the African continent and its diaspora. Yaaya believes 'Africa Writes' is now arguably the UK's most successful and popular forum for Africans in the diaspora to access the latest contemporary African literature, hearing from the talented writers themselves speak about their work, and converse about a more diverse representation of stories being published about Africa. After following the live tweets from the first day of the festival, it was an understatement to say that Yaaya was excited about the various events lined up for the second day, on Saturday 6th July 2013 at The British Library.

Once seated amongst the buzz and the vibrant chatter, the auditorium was hushed to welcome the day's opening remarks before introducing the first session on 'African Writing Today'. This was a panel discussion chaired by the charismatic Chuma Nwokolo, the publisher and editor of African Writing Magazine. On the panel to speak were African writers Doreen Baingana (Uganda), Huchu Tendai (ZImbabwe) and Leila Abouela (Sudan). The audience were encouraged to imagine Chuma and his friends Doreen, Huchu and Leila were in his living room in Asaba (Delta State, Nigeria), to which the audience laughed. The discussion was contextualised as an exploration of the current patterns and directions of contemporary African writing and its future. And so this conversation began!

The first question tackled the phrase 'African Writing'. Chuma Nwokolo posed to the panel how long it would be before a profusion of African literature on the mainstream literary scene would make the category 'African Writing' needless, so much so that writing by African authors would be just that: writing. Doreen Baingana was interestingly ambivalent about the term 'African Writing' or 'African Writer' and instead proposed that "we should claim it and use it to our own purposes". She also emphasised the need for having more African critics reviewing literature to provide a better focus on the details of the stories rather than be preoccupied with the details of the label itself. Ultimately, it was up to the African writers and critics to own the term 'African writing' and re-define what it is, so that the label was not an umbrella term for the stereotypical narratives of Africa and its people.

For the next question concerning the future of African writing, Leila Abouela understandably couldn't predict how long 'African writing' would be around for. However, while drawing on her own experiences with the reception of her last novel 'Lyrics Alley', a story set in 1950s Sudan about the influential Abuzeid dynasty, she alluded to the timelessness of African stories and how its various narratives of the past still remained powerfully relevant, and could successfully cross the socio-geographic divides. For example, 'Lyrics Alley' was selected as book club choice for the Emirates festival in Dubai, where many Emirati women voiced that they could identify with the women in the novel through the themes of tradition versus modernity and oppressive patriarchies. Huchu Tendai echoed her point and summarised that the emergence of more diverse African narratives shared a range of different realities that could be sympathised with, and enjoyed by readers that weren't African. This was owing to thematic concepts concerning, for example, the suppression of women's rights not being a singularly African issue but instead an issue universally understood and experienced around the world.

The conversation delved into the widening breadth of innovative writing styles before landing on a topic that Yaaya immediately identified with, which was the growing prominence of women's writing and institutions created for bringing greater exposure to women writers. Doreen Baingana is the chairperson of the NGO Femrite - The Uganda Women Writers’ Association, which was founded in 1995 by then Makerere University lecturer and now Minister of Information and National Guidance for Uganda, Mary Karoro Okurut. She explained how Femrite created and facilitated many programs to develop and publish women writers in Uganda, and more recently in the whole of East African region. She described her passion about creating institutions that encourage African women writers. These were typically women who wouldn't have all the resources or financial support to work on honing their craft, go to residencies, or have time and space away from their families in order to write. She highlighted Monica Arac de Nyeko’s Caine Prize Award in 2007 for her short-story ‘Jambula Tree’ to credit the excellent networks of support and mentorship provided by Femrite.

The session, as did others during the day, concluded with an energetic round of applause from the audience. In between roaming the extensive international book market in the foyer, Yaaya attended many of the other events during the day in the Conference Centre. One of best moments included meeting rising star Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ, author of crime-fiction novel 'Black Star Nairobi', and his father Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, a renowned author, playwright and essayist.

Perhaps the most memorable moment was the tribute to the late great Chinua Achebe, a Nigerian professor and globally acclaimed novelist, poet, critic: the grandfather of contemporary African literature. There was a screening of a poignant short film that Richard Dowden, Director of the Royal African Society, filmed with Chinua Achebe, where Mr. Achebe spoke with sadness of his regret of being away from his ‘home’ (Africa) for too long. An elegy from author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie read in Igbo was followed by moving speeches from young female writer Chibundu Onuzo (The Spider King’s Daughter) and Chuma Nwokolo. The tribute to Chinua Achebe was a celebratory remembrance of his life, works and achievements. It confirmed the special importance that will always be attached to his name by literary fans. These fans are not only those from the African continent and its diaspora, but also those millions of young and old readers from around the world.

Image Source | Image is copyright of Yaaya.


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