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.
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.
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 It is incomplete to the point of being outdated, given the boom over the past five years in new, globally conscious small US literary presses collaborating with African writers.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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
There 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.
Writing in Meanjin, Frank Moorhouse proposed, among other measures, renewable ten-year “national contracts” for mid-to-late career writers. And in the Sydney Review of Books, Ben Eltham describes an initiative that he is working on that would aim to provide literary fellowships for fixed periods of three to four years.
Both writers make the valid point that, as fewer successful writers are able to sustain themselves via book sales and royalties, the role of public support becomes more important. They both argue for the need to radically expand the range of fellowships available to writers.
While more secure fellowships are certainly welcome ideas, there are other ways to support writing that address the current economics. So in the spirit of keeping the conversation going, here are a few thoughts.
The value of books
Moorhouse and Eltham both seem to be arguing for fellowships that might provide the long-term security that many working writers currently lack. This suggests a fundamental shift in the purpose of this kind of writing support.
Individual grants and fellowships have typically been provided as a short-term investment in a writer or author, with a duration ranging from a few months to a year. They are there, ideally, to encourage new projects and innovation – offering opportunities for a concentrated period of work, for research, for travel. The University of Melbourne Asialink arts residencies program is a strong example of this. It offers support to a range of Australian writers and artists to live and pursue creative projects in Asia for six weeks to three months.
Longer-term fellowships would certainly have many benefits for established writers. They help compensate them for cultural labour that is not always adequately rewarded in the literary marketplace. As Moorhouse observes, the value of a book often goes beyond its cover price. Books are read and reread, loaned to family members and friends, speculated upon and debated. They inspire insights, arguments and critical and creative forms of engagement. Singular sales and royalty payments cannot reflect this hidden or social value of a book.
However, the criteria that Moorhouse proposes for his ten-year contracts – multiple publications, international distribution, being the subject of academic research – could cluster a lot of funding around a small number of conventionally successful authors.
A particular kind of writing?
In his article, Eltham suggests that a lack of individual fellowships has contributed to the rising importance of literary prizes in Australia. According to Eltham, prizes have become “the closest thing to a fellowship most Australian writers can aspire to”. In the same vein as Ivor Indyk’s 2015 Sydney Review of Books article, he argues that “‘prize literature’ is now a discernible genre of its own, taken to represent a certain form of middlebrow that is accessible, appealing and safe.” The implication is that the exclusive pursuit of prizes results in stylistically homogenous literary fiction, and that more individual grants and fellowships would provide writers with more freedom to experiment and take risks.
However, shifting a writer’s focus from winning a literary prize to appeasing a grant committee or funding body will not necessarily result in more adventurous fiction. Writing in 1971 about the Commonwealth Literary Fund (which subsidised Australian writers from 1908 to 1973), Maurice Dunlevy reflected on the value of literary fellowships, observing that “the fund has yet to aid the birth of a genius” or even a “classic Australian novel”.
He went on to claim that “the overwhelming number of fellowships have been awarded to well-known mediocrities who have produced mediocre work.” I won’t pretend to know exactly how fair Dunlevy is being to the fellowship writers of this period. But his critique can easily be compared to some of the contemporary objections to Australian prize culture.
There are a number of questions any new fellowships would need to answer. What kinds of literary work and lives would they encourage writers to work towards? What kinds of writing would be eligible for this kind of support? Would it favour the writer who produces a steady output of moderately successful publications over a powerful single work? Or the traditional print-based author over a writer creating innovative material for digital platforms?
Meeting the world
I don’t want to argue against more fellowships for writers (especially since, given the state of arts funding, this would likely be an argument over imaginary money). But we should question whether fellowships of the length that Moorhouse and Eltham are proposing are sustainable or even desirable.
In his 1991 lecture, On Writing, the Canadian author Robertson Davies expressed some of his reservations about the culture of writing grants, noting that even as they seem to offer freedom for writers they also potentially isolate them. Davies argues that, for a writer, a job isn’t just a distraction from the serious business of their craft. It is also a valuable opportunity to “meet the world” in their own particular way, and to find a daily task that keeps them from “writing too much” to the point where “their talent has become diseased, hypertrophied because of the continual gross and indecent solicitation of the imagination”.
I can’t pretend to share Davies’s distain for writing grants, having been the grateful beneficiary of a couple myself. But I think that there is a spleeny contrarian wisdom to his critique that is worth considering.
Relatively few successful authors throughout history have lived professional lives that were focused solely on writing. For many, the kind of subsidy that Eltham and Moorhouse have proposed might not be particularly useful. Being able to focus solely on writing for three, four or ten years might offer some incredible benefits, but it also presents the possibility of isolation, insularity, and a continued dependence on this kind of funding that might be detrimental for a writer’s work in the long run. As Davies writes: “Nothing – including grants – is for nothing”. The kind of freedom they offer always comes at a cost.
On balance, individual funding might be more suited to providing opportunities for travel (like the brilliantly conceived Antarctic Arts Fellowship), cultural exchange, or residencies. These require engagement with the life and rhythms of unfamiliar institutions, offering both emerging and established writers new ways of meeting the world.
A new edition of the Australian National Dictionary has just been published. It contains 16,000 words and while the first edition (published in 1988) included about 250 words from 60 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages, the latest has more than 500 words from 100 languages.
Conventional wisdom has it that borrowings of this kind usually occur in the initial “contact” period. In 1770, for instance, James Cook and Joseph Banks collected the word kangaroo from the Guugu Yimithirr language in the area now known as Cooktown in Queensland, and it immediately came into use in English.
Soon after the initial batches of convicts arrived in Sydney from 1788 onwards, words from local languages were taken up, especially for new flora and flora and for things associated with the Indigenous people: koala, wallaby, kurrajong, waratah, woomera, corroboree. Later, the language of the Perth area provided jarrah, kylie (a word for “boomerang”), numbat, and quokka. The language of the Geelong area provided the mythical monster the bunyip.
Some Aboriginal words, although noted in the early period, were not used widely in Australian English until much later. Perhaps the most startling example of this is the word quoll, which comes from the Guugu Yimithirr language, and was also collected by Cook and Banks in 1770.
When the Europeans arrived in 1788, they did not use quoll or other Indigenous names for these marsupials. Instead, they used the term native cat, preferring to construct terms based on superficial resemblances to things of their “known” world. It wasn’t until the 1960s that quoll was reintroduced, and eventually replaced native cat, largely due to the efforts of the naturalist David Fleay, who highlighted the absurdity of some of the vernacular names for Australian animals.
Many of the new Aboriginal words in this edition refer to flora and fauna, and many of these result from an interest in using Indigenous names rather than imposed English descriptive ones.
Thus, the southern and northern forms of the marsupial mole are now referred to by their Western Desert language names itjaritjari and kakarratul. The rodent once called the heath mouse is now known by its indigenous name dayang, from the Woiwurrung language of the Melbourne area. The amphibious rodent formerly known as water rat, is now more commonly referred to in southern Australia as the rakali, from the Ngarrindjeri language.
Other additions to the dictionary include (from the Noongar language of the Perth area) balga for the grass tree, coojong for the golden wreath wattle, moitch for the flooded gum and moort for Eucalyptus platypus.
The increasing interest in bush tucker has meant the inclusion of akudjura for the bush tomato, from the Alyawarr language of the southern region of the Northern Territory, and gubinge, from Nyul Nyul and Yawuru of northern Western Australia, for an edible plum-like fruit.
Other new terms reflect a renewed interest in aspects of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and various kinds of activism on the part of Indigenous peoples.
They include bunji, “a mate, a close friend a kinsman” (from Warlpiri and other languages of the Northern Territory and northern Queensland), boorie, “a boy, a child” (from Wiradjuri), jarjum, “a child” (from Bundjalung), kumanjayi, “a substitute name for a dead person” (from Western Desert language), pukamani “a funeral rite” (from Tiwi), rarrk “a cross-hatching design in art” (from Yolngu languages), tjukurpa, “the Dreaming; traditional law” (from Western Desert language) and yidaki, “a didgeridoo” (from Yolngu languages).
The word migaloo – “a white person” – comes from Biri and other northern Queensland languages, where it originally meant “a ghost, a spirit”; many Australians are familiar with this word as a name for the albino humpback whale that migrates along the east coast of Australia.
Many of these terms begin their transition to mainstream Australian English in forms of Aboriginal English, and some of them are primarily used in Aboriginal English.
In addition to the words from Indigenous languages, there are numerous terms new to the dictionary that render Indigenous concepts and aspects of traditional culture, formed from the resources of English.
These include such terms as: carved tree, dreamtime being, freshwater people, keeping place, law woman, paint up, saltwater people, secret women’s business, smoking ceremony, songline, sorry business, welcome to country.
Others derive from more specific political contexts and political activism: Day of Mourning, great Australian silence, Invasion Day, Mabo, tent embassy, traditional ownership and white blindfold (“a view of Australian history that emphasises the achievements of white society and ignores Aboriginal society”).
This is a dictionary based on historical principles. This means that each entry maps the full history of a word, establishing its origin, and documenting its use over time with illustrative quotations from books, newspapers, and the like. Words and meanings are included if they are exclusively Australian, or used in Australia in special or significant ways.
The dictionary, edited at the Australian National Dictionary Centre at the Australian National University, and published by Oxford University Press, will be launched today at Parliament House in Canberra.