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.