Are We Writing in Africa?

To start with, I do not disagree that there is so much writing coming out of Africa. But I make the claim that we only see this abundance in terms of creative expression, because there has never been a time, like now, where we have had this amount of visibility. Of course, visibility is an important consideration – just as it is important to have an ear if the radio is to become useful, it is important to have the capability to be seen if African literature is to be considered meaningful. And this capability I speak about is evidenced more or less in new and non-traditional models, such as in the Internet, as well as in efforts that show the bravery of publishers, the doggedness of enthusiasts to speak directly to the challenges that surround a literary culture.

It is difficult to point to a starting point, to define when we began to be visible as African writers. However, being visible means that someone is looking, ready to see what is being offered; in some way, without the ability of that other to see, the writer is destined to obscurity. This is especially true when one considers that our history points to a form of validation by Western forces. When we say Things Fall Apart is the granddaddy of African books, we are giving kudos to Heinemann, literarily, for making it so. And we are equally paying the same homage to the Heinemann enterprise for the range of books that followed Things Fall Apart – the African Writer’s Series. I do not undermine the effect of non-African contribution (whatever "non-African" means), I only argue that there is that effect, which we cannot negate, and which we must accept.

As such, it is easy to see why we are constantly in need of some form of validation. This word, validation, used loosely, does not suggest any feet-licking, or sub-standardization of our work in an attempt to please anybody. It only suggests that there are forces that are paying attention to African writing, and that these forces, like it or not, play a major role in determining who becomes clearly visible and who does not. These forces, for instance, include British and American publishers, judges of the Caine Prize, grantors of Fellowships and residencies, etc. etc.

But the imminent problem is how writers can write their way to visibility? Is there a peculiar slant that must be represented before one comes off obscurity? But first, how do we define the slants? For want of space, I will speak of only two slants – the slant that has been suggested as a stereotype and another that I have called a new stereotype. The former is a slant that speaks, in sum, to Africa’s socio-political status as the "sick bay of the world." The latter is one that speaks, as a form of protest, about what Africa really is, should be, her colour and life.

The coming-of-age writer is to choose between these slants, I believe, in order to become visible. Though I generally disagree with the notion that all writers who speak of the first stereotype are doing so to pander to Western sensibilities, I also do not wallow in the deception that it is impossible to have such outlook. More important, though, is the necessity to find a way of speaking that represents an individual as well as collective consciousness – in my thinking, this should come before any of the slants. It is not even the writer’s business what slant is being represented, for most often it is the critics that says a writer is doing this, that, or this and that.

The question this piece primarily addresses is whether or not we are writing in Africa (especially writing in the English language). The answer is a simple, yet complicated yes. It is simple because, indeed, we are putting pen to paper, and fingers to keyboard. There is evidence of this on the Internet – the growing number of platforms, including online journals, Facebook groups and networking sites. Yet it is a complicated yes because intra-African literary institutions are few, and insufficient. For instance, Nigeria, with over 150 million people, has less than five standard book publishers, less than five print literary journals, no grant-giving body, and few prizes.

If we are writing in Africa the necessary corollary is that we are being published in Africa, by Africans, and for Africans (I am only interested in "Africa" as a geographical space, as a physical and territorial delimitation). This is not exactly the case, in a lot of ways, with only very few exceptions.

It does not cost little to write in Africa; aside the fact that obvious glamour is not guaranteed to the young writer, there is the absence of intra-African visibility. The concerns, then, I propose, must shift from singular considerations of what is being written to pluralized considerations of how what is being written will be read, understood and contextualized.

Follow Emmanuel on Twitter @emmaiduma

Emmanuel Iduma, born and raised in Nigeria, works as a writer of fiction and art criticism, and a cultural operator. He is the author of the novel Farad and co-editor of Gambit: Newer African Writing. He is director of Saraba Magazine, which he co-founded, and has worked with Invisible Borders, a trans-African arts organization. A lawyer by training, he is currently studying for an MFA in Art Criticism and Writing at the School of Visual Arts, New York. More: