Wednesday, 25 March 2015

TEDxEuston 2014 by Jinaka Ugochukwu

I'd spent most of the autumn looking forward to volunteering at TEDxEuston on Saturday 6th December. It was, in my mind, a big deal to be part of an event; inspiring new ideas about Africa.  So on many occasions, leading up to it, I’d animatedly tell friends and family about how I’d be part of the bookstore team on the day.  It transpired that many people didn’t know the TED brand and fewer still knew specifically about TEDxEuston.

So I explained many times. And eventually I condensed my spiel to this tightly crafted paragraph:
TEDxEuston's focus is Africa. It is a local and independent TED-like event; a conference platform for spreading ideas worth sharing. It encourages its speakers and audience to engage with the continent's challenges and embrace their passion and commitment to direct its future. 

It is a day when the spotlight is on Africa and it shows a balance of its landscape and not a myopic show reel.

This year’s conference gathered speakers including Zain Asher (CNN news anchor), Frances Mensah Williams (founder, Sunday Oliseh (Nigerian former footballer and coach); Binyavanga Wainaina (Kenyan writer), Chude Jideonwo (Managing Partner of Red Media Africa, Y!Africa and and Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor (Kenyan writer)

The theme for the speakers on the day was ‘Facing Forward’; the ideal counterbalance to the recent regression of the global media’s perspectives on Africa.  Catalyzed by the backdrop of the Ebola outbreak, Africa had once again shrunk to a single homogenous country of helpless inhabitants.  So I was excited to be at TEDxEuston and I was excited to be ‘engaging responsibly about Africa’ by promoting books which reflected some of its various voices and experiences.

The Gonjon Pin and A Memory This Size, The Caine Prize Anthologies for 2014 and 2013 were two of the books on the stand that day.  It was a pleasure to introduce so many people to these stories and their authors and the work of the Prize.

The Prize has done much to ‘foster writing in Africa and to bring new writers to the attention of a wider audience’.

Two former winners of the prize Binyavanga Wainaina (2002) and Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor (2003) were amongst the speakers on the day. 

Wainaina of course is well known for throwing down the gauntlet at the Africa stereotype with his ‘mischievous and scathing’ 2005 essay How to Write about Africa

Over the last decade Wainaina ‘has sought, worked with, published, mentored and promoted some of Africa’s most exciting new literary talent. He is the founding editor of one of Africa’s leading literary institutions Kwani? ( In 2014, he was named by Time magazine as one of 100 most influential people in the world.'

His powerful discursive storytelling was evident throughout his TEDxEuston contribution, Conversations with Baba.  Through the winding path of his father’s illness and death, coming out as gay and various life events he proclaims that ‘the simple acceptance of our right to be and be diverse, is the biggest and strongest thing to defend’.

Watch Conversations with Baba here.

Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor pondered the Competing narratives of a beautiful continent.  She too observes the media’s shrinkage of the second largest continent to ‘[a virus], a single country of mute sacrificial victims in need of self-appointed messiahs’.  She proposes that we think about what Africa means to Africa before we think about what Africa means for the world; looking forward is to look within. 

Watch ‘Competing narratives of a beautiful continent’ here.

Dust Owuor’s debut novel was available on the bookstand and she was graciously available to sign copies.  ‘It is a novel about a splintered family in Kenya—a story of power and deceit, unrequited love, survival and sacrifice’.  It was a popular purchase; it was the first book to sell out.

The UK launch of the book had taken place on December 4th at Marlborough House hosted by Granta and Commonwealth Writers and in collaboration with Kwani Trust, The Caine Prize, TEDxEuston, Numbi and the Royal African Society.  The book has since be shortlisted for the 2015 Folio Prize.  See review here

In total the bookstand carried over 14 titles.  Including two by Frances Mensah Williams (also a speaker on the day).  Her debut novel is being published by Jacaranda in 2015.  Jacaranda and Africa Writes also had stands on the day.

There was a wide range of literature available at TEDxEuston; the enthusiasm for purchasing it was at times palpable as too was the disappointment when titles had sold out.

Working on the bookstand was a transformative way to experience the conference.  My interaction with the customers was literally an education in some instances, pure entertainment in others and overall a great source of pride in the veracity of the ‘Africa rising narrative’.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Berlin by Yvonne Owuor

To venture into the interstices of implanted memory through the vehicle of literature and a festival. The site is the Berlin Literature Festival. Truth be told, I am not there for the festival, my heart pounds at the thought of encountering the corporeal notion of Berlin. Some words take on the texture of emotion. Berlin is one of them. The substance of history, the crossroads of human strangeness, mythic tangible and intangible war frontier. I had always meant to learn German one day. When I was a child, I discovered the word ‘Schadenfreude’. I thought that a language that can encapsulate this sensation was worth knowing. Has not happened yet. But it also seems everyone here speaks English.

Brandenburg Gate

There is the Reichstag. There is the Brandenburg Gate. There are the traces of the wall that fell twenty-five years ago. Here are the Berliners, a people set apart, even in Germany. Here is the bus showing up on time. Here are more Berliners. I like them, for no other reason than that they are Berliners, but maybe because they are now real faces to people my pre-imagined Berlin. The author of ‘A Woman in Berlin’ walked these streets. Here where birds now sing, are echoes of old screams, the traces of bad ghosts, the site of furious fires, here is where hope rose and was murdered and emerged again, here again are memory labyrinths, here are where thousands and thousands died.

Yvonne with her 'guardian angel' Barbara

The festival has assigned me a guardian angel. Her name is Barbara. A gentle, self-deprecating lover of literature, who cooks the food that the books she reads offer. She will share her Berlin with me. We will traverse the city on foot, by bus and the metro. We shall sit together in the blue cathedral, and stop and stare at the signals from history’s books. We will dash into gorgeous clothes shops and exclaim over silhouettes—in Berlin. She will have to drag me out of bookshops where I go insane. She will also arrange a surprise—a visit to another bookshop where she has commanded the gleeful bookshop owner to display my book, Dust.

Yvonne's debut novel

Ah, yes, the festival.
Refined, elegant, tastefully disarrayed, intense, the universe of books, writers, readers, words. Drinking in deeply, a sense of ‘home’, allowing that other being, writer, to be, to become, to engage, to listen, explore and speak. Turn left. In this sea of faces, a deep nod and special grin for the ones you remember by reputation and name. My first international outing with the book Dust unfolds here. The festival has appointed an actor to read a German translation. I read the English. I listen to the German telling and discern the feeling from the voice of the actor. I wish I could touch the book’s words in German. In the audience are friends made in Kenya. Anna, and beautiful Paul, fellow Middle-Earther, who flew in from Moscow. There are those who will become new friends, Africans living in Berlin who come to show their support. It is a gentle, loving, curious audience, the delightful kind who engage with story and story worlds. The facilitator with a synaesthesia secret, Susanne, is incisive, brilliant, and her questions prod, dig, and cause an honest sputtering. She has read the book. Many times my answer is, “Amazing, I hadn't thought of it that way.” I am not sure it helps her cause. I find that some stories are no respecter of their author medium. They reveal their meaning to others and then lurk in shadows to ambush their writer.
It is a most delicious evening. After the event, we gather around a table basking in the afterglow (I fall into an ultra-campy red chaise longue— why not?) and share good red wine in the writers’ tent. We talk about the world and Kenya and laugh about nothing and everything under a balmy evening in Berlin. We laugh until we must leave. It is a little past midnight. A day later, destiny and the organisers will fling Tope Folarin, Ismael Beah and I together. We have been invited to speak about those themes that writers connected to Africa are often expected to address with competence—Death and Disaster and Disease; War and Woe. Inner struggle.

Relaxing on the chaise longue after a busy day at the Festival

I would rather perch on a crag and howl at the metaphorical moon but my parents, aka The Royal Owuors, raised my siblings and me with a strict code of manners. We know how to be exemplary guests: Do not embarrass your host. Be polite. Allow them their foibles. Do not judge. Be grateful for small gestures. Above all, do not embarrass your host. But see, I am neither a virologist nor a security specialist. I would prefer to explore humanity’s sacrificial predilections and its contemporary manifestation, and the language of value used to obscure this. I wish to debate the application of semi-colons. I want to ask Berliners what they think about JRR Tolkien, whose works obsess over love more than I ought to.
A television crew gallops in our direction. Word is out that there are three African writers in town. It is urgent that they interview us about . . . Ebola. We agree to answer their questions, Tope, Ismael and I. The Ebola strain we talk about is the Spooky Africa European Hysteria one. I do not think they will air our views.
It sets the stage.
I suspect we may have been a little too hard on our audience this was the ‘Africa Fundamentalism and Ebola’ session. Ah well. However, in the end, I think we all understood one another. A tow-haired audience member finally asked, suddenly struck by exasperated realisation, “Why are we asking you writers to talk about Ebola? You aren't medical specialists.”
Sigh. Exactly.
Later, struck by the absurdity of demands inflicted upon most writers of African linkage when abroad, Tope, Ismael and I exchange ‘war’ stories. We laugh and laugh. Not sure if it is relief or resignation.
This is my last night.

In some places, my soul throws a moaning, “Why must we go” tantrum when it is time to depart. It results in a horrible, lingering ache in the heart--Brisbane, Gaborone, Maputo, Moscow, Dublin, Salvador de Bahia, New York, Santa Fe, Rome and UngujaI almost scoff (it was inevitable) when Berlin enters the list. I have already told Berlin’s September sunset that I shall return.       

Yvonne Owuor was the 2003 winner of the Caine Prize for her story "Weight of Whispers" published by Kwani? Her highly acclaimed debut novel "Dust," published last year is one of eight books shortlisted for the 2015 Folio Prize; the winner will be announced on 23rd March 2015.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

A snapshot of the Ake Festival 2014 in Nigeria by James Murua

The Ake Arts & Books Festival was hosted in Abeokuta, Ogun State, Nigeria from 18-22 November.
The festival was organised by Lola Shoneyin and her team and if this list is anything to go by they successfully gathered a large crowd of very cool artists at the literary festival.

L-R Lola Shoneyin, Governor Ibikunle Amosu, First Lady of Ogun State and Ogun State Commissioner of Culture and Tourism 

And I couldn't find a single complaint from the guests which for a bloggeratti like myself was a bit disconcerting, as controversy is my lifeblood; drama and mishaps are the things that drive traffic. None seemed to be forthcoming and for this I (reluctantly) salute the team.
The festival, supported by the governor of Abeokuta State Ibikunle Amosu and his administration, hosted many events:

There were films and plays galore for those who wanted to experience the written word acted by thespians who knew their craft. There was no Nollywood type fare, of ghosts looking left and right before crossing the road or mermaids with brooms for the tails, on offer.

Nollywood mermaid fare

The films and documentaries were from the likes of Yeepa a filmed play by Tunde Kelani and October 1 by Kunle Afolayan and The Art of Ama Ato Aido by Yaba Badoe. Then there were plays like Qudus: My Exile is in my Head and a musical Call Mr. Robeson.
This blog is not dedicated to all the arts but rather it focuses on literature from the continent and there was a lot on offer in this respect for those lucky folks in Abeokuta State.

There were book chats with authors like Okey Ndibe, Nnedi Okorafor, Zukiswa Wanner, Nike Campbell-Fatoki, Yejide Kilanko, Barnaby Philips, Chude Jideonwo. And Olusegun Obasanjo, President of Nigeria (1999-2007) who has several memoir type books to his name.
There was the launch of Beverly Nambozo's poetry anthology A Thousand Voices Rising. And also in the house was Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka who we are all celebrating as he goes through Soyinka @ 80.

There were many panel discussions where authors of prose and poetry discussed such topics as Mutation and Mutilation: Feminism in Africa, What are publishers looking for in fiction, Poisonous Gas: The Crude Oil Politics in West Africa and many more.
There were also important announcements.

The Caine Prize for African writing, of which Lizzy Attree is Director, unveiled their 2015 judging panel to the public and they are Zoë Wicomb, Zeinab Badawi, Neel Mukherjee, Cóilín Parsons and Brian Chikwava.

The Writivism team (Dami Ajayi, Zukiswa Wanner, Lizzy Attree and Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire) announced the list of ladies and gentlemen who could be the new faces of African writing. They will be attending workshops in different African cities run by Dilman Dila (Kampala), Zukiswa Wanner and Anne Ayeta Wangusa (Dar es Salaam), Yewande Omotoso and Saaleha Idrees Bamjee (Johannesburg), Dami Ajayi (Lagos), Donald Molosi and Lauri Kubuitsile (Gaborone).
As an East African the announcement closest to my heart was that of the new Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili prize for African Writing, a brainchild of Mukoma Wa Ngugi and Lizzy Attree. The new award promotes writing in African languages and encourages translation from, between and into African languages.  Prizes will be awarded for the best entry of an unpublished book or manuscript, prose or poetry in the Kiswahili language.  Very cool.

After the whole conference, without any drama to tout I sadly add, the evening ended on Saturday with a shebang that was so loud (maybe the neighbours complained hopefully?) we could hear the stomping of feet to Dorrobucci from Nairobi where we were mourning the “mauling” of Arsenal by Man United. And some other more national matters.

Here's a link to James Murua's original blogpost:
Here are a few other views from the people who were actually there:
Here are some images from the festival events, courtesy of the artists and the organisers:

Beverley Nambozo launches the anthology A Thousand Voices Rising

(right) Nnedi Okarofor

(left) Okey Ndibe

L-R Lola Shoneyin and First Lady of Abeokuta State Mrs Folusho Amosun

Olisakwe Ukamaka

L-R Eghosa Imasuen, Zukiswa Wanner and Jekwu Ozoemene

(left) Mukoma Wa Ngugi

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Una Well Done O. Bye Bye by Zukiswa Wanner

In April this year, a list of the top 39 writers from the African continent under the age of 40 was released at the London Book Fair.  There too, the baton was handed over from Bangkok to Port Harcourt as the UNESCO 2014 World Book Capital. The Africa39 writers would attend Port Harcourt Book Festival in October to celebrate this double achievement for the African continent. It seemed like a match made in book heaven.

(Bloomsbury, 2014)
In my mind (as one of the 39), I started having ideas of my time in Port Harcourt with the other 38. I would eat native soup while asking Taiye Selasi where I could buy a jacket like hers; practice my very rusty French by asking Richard Ali Mutu to top up my champagne glass; possibly photograph Lola Shoneyin, Hawa Golakai, Okwiri Oduor, Nana Brew-Hammond and Shafinaaz Hassim in one of those girl-power poses with fireworks in the background. All this of course happening at the opening night cocktail event at the Governor’s mansion who I had read was a lover of literature and studied it in university.  My grandmother used to accuse me of always having my head in the clouds. She was right.  Twenty three of the 39 writers turned up in Port Harcourt so obviously the festival was never going to live up to my imagination. It appeared the festival organizers did not try to either (in their defence, they had no idea of my lofty expectations).

Africa39 (for photo credit see Brittle Paper blog)

I tend to like planning ahead so the first thing I did on arrival after check-in at the hotel on Sunday night was to ask for the programme. I was informed I would receive one in 15 minutes. By Monday breakfast, I still hadn’t received it so was unsure what was happening. I went to some of the young organizers and again I was informed I would get it within 15 minutes. It didn’t happen then.

Small tale of cocktails  
Having finally found out that we had a free day which I spent gisting with Hawa Golakai, Ukamaka Olisakwe and Chibundu Onuzo. We parted around four so we could shower and dress up for the welcoming cocktail party by the pool.   Ja. Ok. So it wasn’t at the Governor’s mansion but that wasn’t going to deter any of us from wearing the special dresses for this do. Hawa and I even wore heels. Me. In heels. And when we came downstairs – fashionably late 30 minutes from when the cocktail party was to begin – the cocktail party hadn’t started. We spotted Abubakar Ibrahim wearing a t-shirt and told him to return to his room and change into something better. We weren’t going to allow him, however brilliant and good looking he is, to be an Africa39 Brand Eroder (thanks Bibi Bakare for this lovely phrase). We shouldn’t have bothered Abu. The organizing staff who attended the event were mostly in their festival t-shirts.
There were no fireworks at the cocktail party.
No cocktails or mocktails either.
Just sodas.
And a goodie bag. With the programme (yay, finally); two hard covers entitled Port Harcourt By the Book and NIGERIAN LITERATURE: A coat of many colours , the festival t-shirt, a festival-branded flask, a pen, a notebook (all of which I was very grateful for). I also received a self-help book from Joel Olsteen which, I suppose, was the World Book part of the World Book Capital. I gave it to the woman in Housekeeping the next morning. She gave me extra water bottles for the rest of the week.

The Programme
There were seven events that the Africa39 writers were expected to take part in. This may sound like an intense schedule for a six day festival but it wasn’t really. After the opening ceremony with Bishop Matthew Kukah as the Keynote Speaker (this continent needs more conscientious clergy and humans like him) on Tuesday, our next event was at the University of Port Harcourt on Wednesday. Bless editor of Africa39 Ellah Wakatama Allfrey. She somehow managed to facilitate a discussion with all 22 of us (Igoni hadn’t arrived yet) while holding the attention of the audience of students and literature academics. There were two more Meet the Author occasions with all of us on Thursday and Friday at Ken Saro-Wiwa Centre and at Alliance Francaise respectively.  There were also two Meet the Author panels at the main venue where writers were split into groups of 11 per panel.  As these panels were never more than two hours, none of the writers ever had occasion to talk for longer than ten minutes. Tragicomic this because writers couldn’t share their wisdom. To be fair though, anyone who isn’t a writer but has attended more than one literary festival, should be able to regurgitate writerly wisdom to FAQs.

Caine Prize Deputy Chair Ellah Allfrey facilitating a discussion with Africa39 writers
(photo credit: Brittle Paper Blog)

Audience Member:  How do I become a writer?
Important Writer (takes microphone. Clears throat. Pregnant pause so perhaps profound answer?): Read. Read a lot. And write.
AM: You story talks about a prostitution/homosexuality. Don’t you feel that your harlot/gayism writings go against our African culture?
IW (thinking she/he is Jesus and can answer a question with a question): Which and whose African culture?

The only panel which seemed to have substance because of time permitted was the one on the Caine Prize. On panel were three past winners: Rotimi Babatunde (2012), Tope Folarin (2013) and Okwiri Oduor (2014). Ellah Allfrey led the discussion. Questions that have been making rounds on social media on the validity and the Africanness of the Caine Prize were ably dealt with by the panelists.

Caine Prize 2014, 2013 & 2012 winners - Okwiri Oduor, Tope Folarin and Rotimi Babatunde
(Photo Credit Brittle Paper Blog)

It was fun to hang around with writers I had known and admired from afar and meet new ones during the Port Harcourt Book Festival.  For this I shall always be grateful to the organizers for inviting me. Some members of the organizing committee also took time out of their schedules to show us around Port Harcourt after hours.

Communication between the organisers and the writers could have been better. Some authors came with their books but were never told where to have them for sale. Too often too, we were told to wait in the lobby to go somewhere at a certain time only to find ourselves there for a pretty long time. I also couldn’t help thinking when I checked out that, with a hotel bill of about 175 thousand Naira for each writer who attended, perhaps we could have been better utilized. Panels should have been smaller.  Some writers could have done schools outreach. We would have interacted more with people from the UNESCO World Book Capital better beyond Hotel Presidential. 

As it was, what I took away from the Port Harcourt Book Festival was a warm welcome from Nigerian writers including those who were not part of Africa39; the lingering taste of suya brought from outside the hotel gate; the hospitality of Sarah and Favour in the main restaurant; and from the organizers to my fellow 39ers and me, a sarcastic ‘una well done o. bye bye.’

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Surgical Anatomy - the bare bones of storytelling by Stanley Kenani

Caine Prize One Day Short Story Surgery in Port Harcourt

A day before the start of the Port Harcourt Book Festival, 14 writers came to the Niger Delta from all parts of Nigeria. Fifteen writers were selected from a list of 46 eligible applicants. One, however, could not make it at the last minute. So, these participants gathered in one of the conference rooms of the Presidential Hotel for a day-long short story surgery.

The short story surgery participants at Port Harcourt (Photo credit: Jennifer Nkem-Eneanya)

The team of facilitators comprised three people: the lead facilitator was Caine Prize Deputy Chair, Ellah Wakatama Allfrey and the two co-facilitators were Abubakar Adam Ibrahim (shortlisted in 2013); and Stanley Onjezani Kenani (shortlisted in 2008 and 2012).

Facilitator Ellah Allfrey and the two co-facilitators, Abubakar Ibrahim (left) and Stanley Kenani

What, you may ask, is a short story surgery?

In its typical sense, a short story surgery is a step-by-step strategy that allows students to cut open their drafts and mess with the guts, adding or removing chunks to a piece. It is a tool that appeals to kinesthetic learners – and to everyone who thought writing was boring.

But that is not what we did in Port Harcourt. The surgery was of a different kind.

From the start we were worried about the methodology, about what to put in and what to leave out. The task was not made any easier by the fact that participants were of varying degrees of aptitude. There was a temptation to throw in everything: opening, voice, setting, point-of-view, character, dialogue, details, ending and many other aspects of the craft. But people spend years studying all these. A day was therefore far from enough. Besides, those with more polished skills could get bored if we dwelt on the basics.
Olufemi Terry

After some email exchanges and a Skype conference call, the co-facilitators agreed on the way forward. We started by workshopping Olufemi Terry’s "Stickfighting Days", which was awarded the 2010 Caine Prize. We divided ourselves into three groups, and each group analysed the story based on a key element of the craft: setting, language and character. 

"Stickfighting Days" is published by 
New Internationalist in the 2010 Caine Prize
anthology, A Life in Full

Perhaps no story could have been more suitable for the occasion. "Stickfighting Days" drew mixed feelings from the participants. There were those who liked how the story handled each aspect of the craft examined. Overall, students liked the cinematic feel of the story, and the fact that from its opening, “Thwack thwack”, we dive straight into action. But there were also those who questioned everything...

Character: Why are all the characters alarmingly violent? A participant went so far as declaring: there is nothing I like about this story – so violent!

Setting: Why doesn’t the author name the country in which the story takes place? “That could have made me understand the story better,” said a participant. I was in the camp of those to whom the naming of the place did not matter. “This makes the story universal,” said a participant who shared similar views. “The setting could be Nairobi, Mumbai, Lagos, Cape Town – anywhere. They have rubbish dumps in all those places and more.”

Language: Why are characters using language such as ‘psychologically,’ yet they do not seem to have had the benefit of formal education? And what was the original language of the characters? English? Yoruba? Zulu? Against which others argued: does that matter?

The second part of the surgery involved discussing the stories of the participants themselves. Everyone had read these stories ahead of the surgery, and co-facilitators had made notes on each. Again participants were divided into three groups, and, with the author in a gag, each story was discussed in turn. Here, participants became surgeons: they tore into the stories as diplomatically as possible, providing vital constructive criticism in the process. Co-facilitators ended the day by providing one-on-one feedback to the participants.

According to the Director of the Caine Prize, Dr Lizzy Attree, the Port Harcourt One Day Short Story Surgery is a one-off event, for now, and was devised with the Port Harcourt Book Festival as part of the celebration of their 2014 UNESCO World Book Capital status.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Outstanding line up at Nigeria's 2014 Ake Arts and Book Festival

One of Africa’s largest literary events, the Ake Arts and Book Festival, will run over five days from 18th-22nd November in Abeokuta, Ogun State, Nigeria. The theme of Ake’s second ever festival is ‘Bridges and Pathways’, with discussions focusing on ‘building bridges between Africa peoples, especially along language, ethnic and gender lines, and charting new paths with the aim of creating synergy and cultural cross fertilisation on the African continent.’

The exciting line up includes several writers who have been part of the Caine Prize journey over the years, including Caine Prize Patron, Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka; three Prize winners, Binyavanga Wainaina (2002), Olufemi Terry (2010) and Rotimi Babatunde (2013); three shortlisters, Florent Couao-Zotti (2002), Mukoma Wa Ngugi (2009) and Abubakar Ibrahim (2013); and several workshop participants, including Ayodele Morocco-Clarke (2011), Bryony Rheam (2014) and Clifton Gachagua (2014); and former judge, Bernardine Evaristo (2012). Caine Prize Director Lizzy Attree will also feature in the programme, in the panel discussion entitled “What are publishers looking for?”

The festival will involve 13 panel discussions with stimulating topics ranging from "Writing Back/Writing Forward: Representations of Africa in New Fiction”, chaired by Lizzy Attree, to “Slave Narratives and the Burden of Memory,” featuring the Jamaican poet Kei Miller, who has recently won the prestigious Forward Prize for the best poetry collection of 2014, for The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way To Zion, based on dialogue between a mapmaker striving to impose order on an unfamiliar land and a Rasta-man who queries his project.

The books up for discussion at the Festival
Other activities include master classes on science fiction writing, comic drawing and documentary making from distinguished professionals; art exhibitions; drama displays; documentaries; poetry readings; school visits; and book chats. Ten books have been chosen for discussion, giving the audience the chance to interact with the authors. One of the books up for discussion this year is Children of Paradise written by acclaimed British-Guyanese poet, novelist and playwright Fred D'Aguiar, the novel explores the events surrounding the Jonestown tragedy.

The festival will also screen a new documentary, made by Yaba Badoe, about the Ghanaian writer Ama Ata Aidoo.  The Art of Ama Ata Aidoo celebrates Aidoo and her work as one of Africa’s foremost women writers, and brings it to new audiences.

Yaba Badoe's documentary about Ama Ata Aidoo will be screened at Ake Festival
On the sidelines of the festival, an annual multi-lingual, cross cultural literary journal called Ake Review aims to create a platform for showcasing and discussing current trends in African arts and culture. Kola Tubosun recently interviewed Caine Prize Director Lizzy Attree for Ake Review about how the Prize has developed over its fifteen year history – A Prize is Only As Good as Those Who Enter.

With the extraordinary line up of authors, and broad ranging topics for discussion, participants are in for an exhilarating few days in Abeokuta this year.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

The African Short Story in Question by 2014 Judge, Nicole Rizzuto

Professor V.Y. Mudimbe
In a foundational essay in African literary studies, the critic V.Y. Mudimbe once posed the provocative question, is African literature a myth or a reality? (“African Literature: Myth or Reality?” African Literary studies, The Present State/L’etat présent, ed. Stephen Arnold, pp. 7-11. Washington, DC: Three Continents Press, 1985).  His answer is equally provocative: there is no real, true nature of African literature we can locate that exists in itself. This is not because, as some have argued, African literature is a copy of literatures from elsewhere, a “belated” cultural form that imports techniques of expression and modes of thought from outside of the continent.  Some such arguments have viewed the oral tradition, not the literary, as the true form of authentic African culture. Mudimbe, however, wants to question the oppositions posed between the indigenous and foreign, authentic and inauthentic, the oral and literary. 

The critic asserts that the reason there is no such thing as an essential nature to African literature is that African literature, like literatures from anywhere, cannot be separated from the multiple contexts in which it emerges and to which it also responds. These contexts—publishing houses both large and small, literary journals, school classrooms, academic conferences, and now fanzines, blogs, even twitter feeds —are always in the process of establishing and re-establishing procedures for measuring, classifying, and defining what African literature is. The Caine Prize for African Writing is another such context. The selection of short stories submitted for the prize this year is a testament to the capacity of contemporary writing to make us rethink assumptions that underlie such procedures of judging.  
The short stories—nearly one hundred and fifty of them received this year—challenged the very concept of what an African short-story is, if we understand by this term a category defined according to dominant taxonomizing conventions: the national, regional, or continental origins of a work’s author; the institutions and media through which it is published, diffused, and marketed; the topics it treats; the formal strategies it employs; the genre it embodies.  These works possessed an astonishing range of subjects and styles, and were written and published across multiple regions, nations, continents, and platforms. They created literary worlds that were just as diverse, extending from the prosaic to spectacular, the quotidian to the magical. 

Rotimi Babatunde

 In these worlds, a household pet becomes an     esteemed and then disgraced local politician 
  (Rotimi Babatunde,” Howl” in A Memory This 

Diriye Osman,
Photo credit
Boris Mitkov

The Sleeping Beauty fairytale is queered through the staging of a love story between a young refugee from Somalia living in Moi’s Kenya and his kindergarten classmate (Diriye Osman, “Fairytales for Lost Children” in Jungle Jim). 

George Makana Clark

A man searching for redemption confesses his sins of “trafficking in human souls” and traveling to the edge of the Portuguese empire and the coastal city of Luanda in the 18th century with his father and an abducted infant  (George Makana Clark, “The Incomplete Priest” in Ecotone). 

Leonora Miano

A new kinship formation emerges when a teacher becomes a surrogate parent to a young woman thrown out of her house, accused by her mother of being a witch (Léonora Miano, “The Open Door of Paradise” in Transition). 

Annie Holmes

And a teenager steals away with her girlfriend for sex during a family send-off for her brother, whose fate in the Rhodesian Light Infantry she worries over as his departure approaches (Annie Holmes, “Leaving Civvie Street” in Queer Africa).


Taken as a whole, but also viewed individually, the stories not only stretched generic categories such as modernism, realism, and naturalism, but also troubled attempts to separate the aesthetic from extra-aesthetic spheres, the literary from the political, historical, environmental, or economic. Their plotting, focalizations, narrative voices, rhetorical devices, and structural features call into question the idea that there might be any single definition or model against which the African short-story might be measured. They give us a view into an African literature of the present and future in ongoing conversation with, and re-imagination of, literary and historical pasts.