About Last Weekend: Africa Writes 2016

by - 18:51

Last weekend, July 1-3, saw the conference centre at the British Library taken over by all things African literature and books as Africa Writes returned. Now in its 5th year, the Royal African Society's annual literary festival was celebrating African literature in style with book launches, workshops, panel discussions and more. In total, there were 10 panel discussions, 12 workshops, 4 book launches, 2 performances, and the headline event. 

Caleb Femi - one of the poet's at Friday's 'Sex, Love & Poetry' Event
I've had the pleasure of attending the festival the last four years - although the first year I attended (in 2013) I only went to a couple of sessions - and I can say that each year the festival does get better. Well, this year with the exception of a few sessions and all the workshops, I was there for most of it - the book launches of Yewande Omotoso's The Woman Next Door and Nikhil Singh's Taty Went West, a book swap session hosted by Black Books Swap, and special guest Akala (I write this casually here like I wasn't excited to be in the same space as Akala, who is even more intellectual and laidback and cool in person). Here I share some of what happened at Africa Writes 2016. 

In the Ogot Room swapping books
The Performances: 
There were two main performances - Friday night, a Sex, Love & Poetry session, which explored the themes in a very poetic way (no pun intended). Hosted by Bisi Alimi, who came dressed in drag as Miss Posh P***y. Although, I have to say there were times when I thought Miss PP's performance could have been toned down to give centre stage to the awesome poets whose works spoke to the theme so beautifully.

Sunday night saw a staged reading of The Immigrant, a timely play set 100 years from now, in a world where the African Union is a big deal and a European migrant (an English man to be exact) flees England and seeks asylum in the AU. It was quite interesting to see the oh-so-familiar immigrant narrative flipped, and the play humanised the experiences of both the AU immigration officer and the English migrant in the jail cell, and the way in which a bond formed between these men that were originally quite hostile to each other (particularly the AU immigration officer - and for good reasons, considering the history and racial tensions between Africans and Brits).

The Panels
I attended quite a few of the panels (one of which I chaired on genre fiction with Leye Adenle, France Mensah Williams and Nikhil Singh). These were Meet the Publishers, where a panel of experts shared insights on how to give a good pitch, and what they were looking for: voice, voice, voice; before we heard 4 pitches. 

The Digital Debate (I missed the first half of it), but caught discussions centred on valuing digital content, digital not necessarily equating free (and the costs behind it), the absence of children's literature and online platforms in the debate, accessibility of digital content on the continent, print vs. digital, what about audio books, how literature in turn in schools (from nursery/primary straight to higher education), as well as the digital debate when it comes to Franco- and Lusophone African literature. 

Writing Africa's Development got us to think about the narratives that developed over the last 16 years during the era of the Millennium Development Goals (from 1990-2015) and how we can expand the narrative in this new Sustainable Development Goals era (from 2015 - 2030) to ensure it is broad and more reflective. The panel largely felt that the new SDGs, like the MDGs, aren't going to work - with one of the panelists describing the (un)sustainable development goals as a 'charade'. The role of BIG Western media in traditionally shaping the narrow focus of Africa's development and how more diverse discussions are happening due in part to the internet - which is challenging these 'traditional' media sources - was also explored. Also discusses, the language around 'lessons learned' within the international development industry, how no one is putting their hands up at the complete and utter failure of some programmes, and how documentation hasn't happened properly. 

There is a big need to challenge the existing system and power relations within development, and while there is a disruption agenda happening, the panel asked how someone with a pen, blog and so on can go about challenging that. Examples such as the decolonising movements, the Africa Story Challenge and travel narratives within Africa by Africans were given. Overall, it was felt that it was important to learn how to listen, to have philanthropists in Africa, such as Dangote, invest in the creative industry, keep trying to get different stories out there and investing in local languages, such as Hausa literature.

The Diversity in Children's Publishing panel centred on just that - diversity in children's publishing - and had a mix of publishers and writers. It was great that the writers were both Francophone writers, Veronique Tadjo and Kama Sywor Kamanda, whose works have been translated into multiple languages. During the panel it was made clear that diversity should not only be thought of from a racial perspective, but also in terms of different cultures and languages. Additionally, we need to not only think about diversity as producing books for black kids only, but generally for society. 

Veronique Tadjo spoke about how she got into writing children's books - a publisher at a conference asked her is she would be interested in writing for children. Interestingly, while her initial instinct was to write about little boys, she eventually switched focus and decided to write about a strong female character - Mami Wata, which would resonate among many children in Africa and the diaspora, but also enabled her to write a story about a female character with the quality of a princess. 

Kama Sywor Kamanda - who has the most infectious and welcoming laugh - started writing at 7. Influenced by a Jesuit priest who came to his school and talked about the importance of stories and storytelling for children, he published his first story at 14/15. Kama explains: 
'I don't write stories for black children. I write stories for ALL children.' 
Kama also explained that while it is important to have stories for children, it's very important to have African stories for children - as it's also important to have what we know embedded in our context, with the world of magic being universal, as it doesn't know race or bounds.

Finally African Books to Inspire saw Yewande Omotoso, Sarah Ladipo Manyika, Akala and Abdilatif Abdalla share their African Books to Inspire. It was also a special event being recorded for BBC Focus in Africa, and was chaired by Audrey Brown.  Here are some of the books that inspired the panellists.

Books that have influenced the personal and political choices they have made.
Books that deserve to be known and have greater recognition

The Headline Event

Without a doubt my highlight of this year's festival was the headline event with Nawal El Saadawi, who shared her reflections of being a woman writer - among many other things - with Margaret Busby (who stepped in very last minute to chair). I had the absolute pleasure of interviewing Nawal E Saadawi prior to the start of the festival - which was featured in both African Arguments and the New African, and mentioned by Margaret Busby during the conversation (ah-mazing!)

Side note: With languages, and English language (but also French - in the French speaking world) being a huge part of debates within African literature, it is great that this year's headline act was a North African writer, who writes predominantly in her own language - Arabic. That Africa Writes is further opening up spaces for these discussions to happen, but also slowly having its programme reflect these different dynamics is something that needs to be applauded. Now back to the headline event. 

On stage El Saadawi owned the room, as expected the second she walked in ...and what an inspiration! Here is pretty much what was discussed.

During the conversation, Nawal El Saadawi spoke about the fact she has been writing for 72 years, 'almost all my life' and published her first memoir at the age of 13 - recently published for the first time in English by Macmillan (language, and writing in English and how that gives you so-called greater legitimacy as a writer was also a central theme of the conversation). El Saadawi was heavily influenced by her mother - who was married at the age of 15 and passed away quite young in her 40s and in that time had 9 kids, as well abortions 2 or 3/4 times - and her paternal grandmother. 

While she always wanted to write, she explains how her father told her that not only do 'writers die very poor', but in Egypt 'they end up in prison or jail.' Students with the highest grades went to top colleges and studied either Medicine or Engineering, and her father believed that being a doctor would lead to being rich - so El Saadawi followed his advice, but 'wasn't convinced.' Still she doesn't regret her medical training or working as a doctor - a chest surgeon - which also inspired her to do something else, writing! Yet, she never became a full-time writer, 'I don't believe in it!' she explained. 

While El Saadawi worked for the government (most doctors are hired by the government), she is against private practice 'taking money from people who don't have the money to pay'. However, she was eventually fired. Why? She was fighting the medical association against charging people who can't afford to pay for their health services and the Ministry of Health wasn't too happy about that. There was also her writing on female genital mutilation (FGM) in Women and Sex, which was published in 1972 and caused further conflict with her and the Ministry of Health. However, El Saadawi saw her termination as a positive thing: 
'I was free! I had my freedom. It's a prison to be employed by the government ... when they dismissed me,  I was free ... as a bird!' 
Moreover, El Saadawi sees writing as more important than being a doctor: 
'If you are a writer and speaking your mind, you touch minds and hearts of people. BUT we have to use the pen/writing correctly for people, humanity, justice, freedom - then it is powerful.'
After giving us a background into her early years and struggles with the Egyptian government, her conversation centred on the following things: 

Her time in prison: 'It was an accumulation of many things.' The Sadat-Reagan era was very harmful, and her writing - in newspapers, in books - wasn't welcomed:
'Health is related to creativity and to writing and to women. When I made the links between global politics, gender oppression, class oppression ... you land in jail, as you illuminate people who is the enemy.'
For El Saadawi highlighting these links between politics, global politics, national politics, health and gender makes you 'become dangerous', which leads to you being censored, by media and other authorities, as they prefer these issues to be separated. Moreover, El Saadawi sees links in other areas - 'medicine, science, psychiatry has an impact on literature', 'no separation between science and art, fiction and non-fiction, politics and sex', as well as religion, which should not forgotten.

On creativity and dissidence: 'Should I give a course?' El Saadawi asks the audience. And when we replied, 'Yes!' She responds by letting us know it's interesting and we will have to join her course. 

On the impact of her writing on the young generation: Picking up on her earlier point on creative writers being imprisoned, exiled or banned - as a way to isolate them from people - El Saadawi explains how many young people reading her work - mostly in Arabic and sometimes in English - felt its impact after the revolution in Tahrir square. They started the monthly Nawal El Saadawi Forum in 2011. 

We had the pleasure of hearing from one of the members of this forum, Omar, who explained that while in 2011 the revolution called for liberation, in reality they didn't reach their goals. Young people came together, and decided that first they needed to liberate themselves before they could liberate the country. This led to a youth dialogue forum, where they tackled taboo issues they felt no one was talking about in the Egyptian community. For these young men and women, El Saadawi was identified as the most creative writer in Egypt who paid a huge price to speak her mind - and they wanted to use the forum to honour her. Since they first begun, they have met about 15 times in Cairo  - with over 3000 people attending their sessions. Now they plan to take it global, as the same problems are everywhere.

On the three words she hates: 'I hate the word Middle East and also post-colonial and Third World.' For El Saadawi: 
'Third world is insulting. Post-colonial literature is nonsense because we are still living in colonialism [and] what is Middle East? Middle to whom?'
El Saadawi explains how Middle East is colonial language and how she refers to London as 'Middle West' and the US as 'Far West', and that while we may laugh when she says this, but not when she says Middle East is a sign that 'we need to decolonise language.'

On Identity Politics: El Saadawi is critical of it because they want to divide and rule. She sees identity politics as all about division. 

On understanding our history: 'We have a heritage. We have to re-understand that women were prominent - we had goddesses in Egypt that were heads of medical associations 5000 years ago.' Here she spoke on Historical (re-read our history. Feminism wasn't invented by the West) Socialist (class oppression and capitalist) Feminist (against male domination). 'We should dig the history and bring the positive elements that can help us in justice and oppression, but this needs efforts.'

On not being recognised unless you are translated into English: 'I was translated by coincidence but you don't know any African writer that hasn't been translated!'

Her final words: 'Democracy is not elections or referendum. This is deception. I never believed in elections - it is a long story. Democracy means that every single person is important but this is democracy in a capitalist society. You can't have democracy in a capitalist society. You have to be critical of capitalism and patriarchy. This global system deceives all of us by election. Election is a fever. It is a disease and we have to find another way.'

Africa Writes 2016
It was a packed and fun weekend, and a lot more than I've captured here happened. I also got to meet new people and re-connect with the African literary community. As always, it was a great space to be in for this African book lover, and massive congratulations and thanks to the Africa Writes team for hosting another amazing event, but also for changing the names of three of the rooms in the Conference Centre from Bronte, Elliot and Dickens to Ba, Ogot and Nwapa, and for honouring these three amazing women writers. Wonder what they have in store in 2017, and I honestly can't wait!!!

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