New African literature is disrupting what Western presses prize



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Novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie after a reading of her book ‘Americanah’ in Lagos in 2013.
Akintunde Akinleye /Reuters

Jeanne-Marie Jackson, Johns Hopkins University

African literature is the object of immense international interest across both academic and popular registers. Far from the field’s earlier, post-colonial association with marginality, a handful of star “Afropolitan” names are at the forefront of global trade publishing.

Books like Chimamanda Adichie’s “Americanah” and “Half of a Yellow Sun”, Teju Cole’s “Open City”, Taiye Selasi’s “Ghana Must Go” and Yaa Gyasi’s “Homegoing” have confounded neat divisions between Western and African literary traditions. The Cameroonian novelist Imbolo Mbue captured a million-dollar contract for her first book, “Behold the Dreamers”. That’s even before it joined the Oprah’s Book Club pantheon this year.

Such commercial prominence, though, has attracted considerable and unsurprising push back from Western and Africa-based critics alike. Far from advancing narratives with deep roots in local African realities, such critics fear, many of Africa’s most “successful” writers hawk a superficial, overly diasporic, or even Western-focused vision of the continent.

Noviolet Bulawayo was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2013 for her book
Olivia Harris/Reuters

The most visible of these critiques has been directed at the Zimbabwean writer NoViolet Bulawayo’s “We Need New Names” (2013). The Nigerian novelist Helon Habila worried in a review in the London Guardian that it was “poverty-porn”. The popular Nigerian critic Ikhide Ikheloa (“Pa Ikhide”) frequently makes a similar point. Fellow Nigerian writer Adaobi Nwaubani critiqued the West’s hold on Africa’s book industry in a much-circulated New York Times piece called “African Books for Western Eyes”.

Such debates about African writing could, and likely will, go on forever. Questions about Africa’s place in the current global literary marketplace broaden some of the most urgent queries of the postcolonial era. Who gets to document African realities? Who are the “gatekeepers” of African publishing traditions?

It goes on: To what sort of audience does African writing cater? What is the role – and what should it be, if any – of Western institutions in brokering cultural prestige?

All these issues merit concern.

Between the default poles

Too often, though, African writing ends up volleyed between two default poles of “corporate global” and “activist local”. Some onlookers, as in a recent essay by the Canadian scholar Sarah Brouillette, go as far as to name the biases of even Africa-based print outlets. Kenya’s Kwani Trust is exposed as “Western-facing” due to a web of donor relations. “West” here is code for neoliberal. “Western-facing” is for complicity with a market that skews toward British and American interests.

Faced with a “world system” argument like Brouillette’s, African literature would seem trapped between a rock and a hard place.

But, in fact, this tells only a small part of the story of how African writing now makes its way through the world. It is incomplete to the point of being outdated, given the boom over the past five years in new, globally conscious small US literary presses collaborating with African writers.

A “West subsuming Africa” brand of critique works fine for scholars with no real skin in the game of literary publishing. It also denies real agency to a lot of African writers and other literary professionals. On the ground the literary field is far more forward-thinking and diverse.

There is an entire new body of African writing that escapes this closed circuit of damning truisms. A wave of new or recently galvanised independent literary presses in the US and the UK are working in tandem with some of Africa’s most generative outlets. Together they are publishing and promoting work by young and adventurous African writers.

Labours of love

Books published originally by presses like Umuzi (South Africa), amaBooks (Zimbabwe) and Kwani (Kenya) find second lives with international publishers working to defy the constraints of profitability. They’re mostly labours of love with skeleton staffs that speak to a transcontinental commitment to innovative African writing.

Here are a few key examples of African texts published by independent American outlets – “independent” here refers to presses beyond the “Big Five” US trade publishers (Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House and Simon and Schuster.

These include Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s Ugandan epic “Kintu” which was originally launched by Kwani. It was the first Anglophone novel put out by the brand-new Transit Books based in Oakland, California. The press seeks maximum visibility for translated fiction alongside texts originally written in English. They advocate for more ethical legal and financial dealings with translators, as well as international writers.

Congolese author Fiston Mwanza Mujila.
Marc de Gouvenain

A number of similarly tiny, ambitious ventures have published some of the most acclaimed recent African writing in translation. Deep Vellum Publishing was behind the English translation of Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s Etisalat Prize-winning “Tram 83”.

Also dedicated exclusively to works in translation, LA-based Phoneme Media in 2016 published the first ever Burundian novel in English, Roland Rugero’s deeply contemplative “Baho!”. Phoneme’s tagline, fittingly, is “curious books for curious people”.

In a similar vein, Brooklyn’s Restless Books was founded to combat “parochial, inward-looking, and homogenised trends in American publishing”. Among their forthcoming titles, translated from the French is Naivo’s “Beyond the Rice Fields”. It’s the first novel from Madagascar to see its way to English.

Veteran nonprofit press Archipelago Books is also in Brooklyn. In 2015, it published the translation from the Portuguese of Angolan writer Jose Eduardo Agualusa’s “A General Theory of Oblivion”.

Every one of these throws a wrench in a clear, cynical sense of what kind of novel Western presses prize. That is not to mention the many African writers, publishers, and editors working in concert to promote these same texts.

Small, focused channels

It applies to the Anglosphere too. Books that offer a decidedly more locally textured experience than those of the “Afropolitan” rock stars have made their way abroad through small, focused channels.

These works might include Tendai Huchu’s “The Maestro, the Magistrate, and the Mathematician” (published originally by amaBooks, and in the US by Ohio University Press); Imraan Coovadia’s “Tales of the Metric System” (from Umuzi, and again by Ohio University Press); and Masande Ntshanga’s “The Reactive” (also Umuzi; in the US by family-run Two Dollar Radio.

Clearly, this collection just scratches the surface. But what these works have in common is an investment in stylistic and structural experimentation that confounds rather than caters to an international taste for “digestible” fiction, or to mostly Western points of cultural and institutional reference.

This counter-current of transnational African literary life complicates the equation of culture, geopolitics and economics in more useful ways than stale materialist critiques.

As such titles and presses continue to gain acclaim and recognition by an international readership that is aware of and hostile to shallow representations of Africa – and who crave engagement with challenging fiction, regardless of its origin – critics will need to rethink some of their orthodoxies.

The ConversationThere is more to both African literature and Western publishing than meets an eye too practised in its suspicion. If literature is doomed only to echo the failings of globalisation, then why bother? On the contrary, a new generation of writers and publishers deserve our awareness of the “global literary marketplace” as a meaningfully multidimensional space.

Jeanne-Marie Jackson, Assistant Professor of World Anglophone Literature, Johns Hopkins University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Tipped to win Nobel literature prize, Kenya’s Ngugi misses out — again


Peter Kimani, The Aga Khan University Graduate School of Media and Communications (GSMC)

Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o was the bookies’ favourite for the second year to win the Nobel prize in literature. But singer songwriter Bob Dylan won it for creating “new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. But, as Kenyan academic Peter Kimani tells The Conversation Africa’s Julius Maina, this doesn’t take the sheen off one of Africa’s greatest living writers.

Who is Ngugi wa Thiong’o?

Ngugi wa Thiong’o is regarded as one of Africa’s greatest living writers. He grew up in what became known as Kenya’s White Highlands at the height of British colonialism. Unsurprisingly, his writing examines the legacy of colonialism and the intricate relationships between locals seeking economic and cultural emancipation and the local elites serving as agents of neo-colonisers.

The great expectations for the new country, as captured in Ngugi’s seminal play, The Black Hermit, anticipated the disillusionment that followed. His fiction, from the foundational trilogy of Weep Not, Child, The River Between and A Grain of Wheat, amplify those expectations, before the optimism gives way in Petals of Blood, and is replaced by disillusionment.

What sets Ngugi above and apart from the hundreds of other African writers?

African fiction is fairly young. Ngugi stands in the continent’s pantheon of writers who started writing when Africa’s decolonisation gained momentum. In a certain sense, the writers were involved in constructing new narratives that would define their people. But Ngugi’s recognition goes beyond his pioneering role: his writing resonates with many across Kenya and Africa.

One could also recognise Ngugi’s consistency at churning out high-quality stories about Africa’s contemporary society. This he has done in a manner that illustrates his commitment to equality and social justice.

He has done much more in scholarship. His treatise, Decolonising the Mind, now a foundational text in post-colonial studies, illustrates his versatility. His ability to spin the yarns while commenting on the politics that goes into literary production of marginal literature is a very rare combination.

Finally, one could talk about Ngugi’s cultural and political activism. This precipitated his yearlong detention without trial in 1977. He attributes his detention to his rejection of English and embracing his Gikuyu language as his vehicle of expression.

Which work or works best illustrate his thinking?

It’s hard to pick a favourite from Ngugi’s over two dozen texts. But there is concurrence among critics that A Grain of Wheat, which was voted among Africa’s best 100 novels at the turn of the last century, stands out for its stylistic experimentation and complexity of characters.

Others consider the novel as the last signpost before Ngugi’s work became overly political. For other critics, it’s Wizard of the Crow – which came out in 2004, after nearly two decades of waiting – that encapsulates Ngugi’s creative finesse. It utilises many literary tropes, including magical realism, and addresses the politics of African development and the shenanigans by the political elite to maintain the status quo.

What are Ngugi’s lasting contributions to African literature?

Without a doubt, Africa would be poorer without the efforts of Ngugi and other pioneering writers to tell the African story. He is also an important figure in post-colonial studies. His constant questioning of the privileging of the English language and culture in Kenya’s national discourse saw him lead a movement that led to the scrapping of the Department of English at the University of Nairobi and replaced by the Department of Literature that placed African literature and its diasporas at the centre of scholarship.

Ngugi is still active in writing and his latest offering is the third instalment of his memoir, Birth of a Dreamweaver that looks back on his years at Makerere University in Uganda. This is the period when he published his novels, Weep Not, Child and The River Between, while still an undergraduate. Also at this time he wrote the play, The Black Hermit, which was performed as part of Uganda’s independence celebrations in 1962.

His work has been translated into more than 30 world languages.

Ngugi has appeared on the list of favourites to win the Literature Nobel for a number of years. This was yet another year.

Yes indeed, Ngugi has been among the bookies’ favourite for the past couple of years. But since the workings of the Nobel award committee remain secret —- the list of the committee’s deliberations are kept secret for 50 years —- its choice for this year, the American singer Bob Dylan raises interesting questions about the Nobel committee’s interpretation of artistic production as writing.

As one unimpressed pundit commented on Twitter,

“the idea that Dylan is a greater writer (rather than song versifier) than Philip Roth is, frankly, absurd.”

But author Salman Rushdie, who bookies listed among this year’s possible winners, commented:

“From Orpheus to Faiz, song & poetry have been closely linked. Dylan is the brilliant inheritor of the bardic tradition. Great choice.”

The Conversation

Peter Kimani, Lecturer, The Aga Khan University Graduate School of Media and Communications (GSMC)

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

African libraries that adapt can take the continent’s knowledge to the world


Lara Skelly, Cape Peninsula University of Technology

South African librarians were shocked in 2013 when one of the top researchers at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology claimed that he no longer needed the library to do his research.

Professor Johannes Cronje’s paper echoed an increasingly common way of thinking. Why, after all, do we need libraries when the Internet does such a good job of providing us with information?

But libraries are not just collection points for information. The best ones also help create it – and those which embrace this role will flourish in a completely changed world. This is particularly true for African libraries: there is more of an opportunity than ever before to bring the continent’s knowledge to the world.

A dual role

Libraries collect information and make it available to a particular community or communities. Some, like church libraries, specialise in collecting certain kinds of information.

The Internet can do exactly the same thing. Anyone can create a collection of information online and make it available to users. And who needs librarians when search engines like Google are on hand to help track down information?

Such technological advances mean that the traditional library is losing customers who just want to find information.

Libraries fulfil another crucial role, though. They help to create information. Modern libraries offer many services that help their users to put information online. Most academic libraries, for instance, have repository services that collate a university’s research output and make it publicly available.

They are extending this service to research data, which will save future researchers from collecting the same data and taxpayers from paying for it again.

These services are becoming common in public libraries as well, through an innovation called makerspaces. Here, users can make items of information. They can create music, produce items using 3D printers or engineer complex designs.

In makerspaces, librarians aren’t helping users to find information from the world. They are helping users to find information in themselves. Libraries should continue to develop services that help people create information.

Eli Neiburger from the Ann Arbor District Library talks about what libraries can do to survive.

In a way, these “new” developments really aren’t that different from what libraries have always done. Libraries curate and disseminate information. In the past, librarians curated information from foreign creators and disseminated it to a local community. Modern librarians curate local information and disseminate it to a foreign community. The flow of information has flipped.

Opportunities for African libraries

African libraries have been slow to embrace this evolution. There are twice as many repositories in Asia as there are in Africa, and ten times as many in Europe. But the continent is slowly gaining ground.

The University of Cape Town is the first in Africa to offer a Masters of Philosophy in Digital Curation. Early in 2015, the University of Pretoria opened up a makerspace, the first educational one on the continent.

The altered role of libraries is a great opportunity to showcase African knowledge. Getting information into the world is easier and cheaper than ever. African libraries need to take up the responsibility of being partners in information creation.

This means that policies must be altered – and, of course, that budgets must be increased. University leaders, decision makers, governments and library users need to understand and support the changes that are reshaping libraries.

Librarians, too, must embrace these changes. They will require new skills to support the creation of information. Many library schools are already responding to these new needs by offering advanced degrees in digital curation.

It will be also be important to reconsider the very physical space of a library. Paper-and-glue book collections are shrinking and, in some libraries, disappearing. These collections have long been the symbol of quiet thinking. Will libraries still be silent spaces of learning without them? How will libraries retain their users’ trust if they are turned into cool cybercafés?

These are some of the tough questions that librarians must answer if they expect their funding to continue and to rise – and if they want to remain relevant well into the future.

The Conversation

Lara Skelly is Librarian: Research Support at Cape Peninsula University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.