Update from Qudus' blog

Aug 3, 2009

Similar questions for contemporary African arts (DANCE, Literature, Photography etc.(DANCE, Literature, Photography etc.)

Article by Tolu Ogunlesi.
Curled from PublishingPersepectives.com under the title:
Who Controls African Literature?

The literary world is once again shining a spotlight on Africa. There are new prizes: the South Africa-based PEN Studzinski Literary Award for short stories, and the Penguin Prize for African Writing, a pan-African prize covering both fiction and non-fiction genres. There’s a new book series, the “Penguin African Writers Series,” which will include not only new books from emerging writers, but also classics taken over from the defunct Heinemann African Writers Series. And next year South Africa will be featured as the “Market Focus country” at the 2010 London Book Fair and African writing will be showcased at the Gothenburg Book Fair.

The African ‘Greats’–Ngugi, Soyinka, Gordimer, Okot p’Bitek– have given way to a new roster of names — Chimamanda Adichie, Chris Abani, Helon Habila, Binyavanga Wainaina, Sefi Atta, Monica Arac de Nyeko, Chika Unigwe, Brian Chikwava — who have become the new faces of contemporary African writing.

This explosion of literary talent and publishing opportunities might be likened to a similar one that accompanied the heady post-independence days of the 1960s. But in spite of all the inspiring and exciting happenings of recent years, there still remain nagging questions regarding who exactly are the proper ‘gatekeepers’ of African literary tradition and production.

In a 2008 interview published recently in Transition magazine (Issue 100), Chinua Achebe, speaking about the early covers of his classic, Things Fall Apart said: “…I have a general sense that we, African writers, have been presented as oddities.” He referred to the cover of the original 1958 Heinemann edition as a “questionable depiction of strangeness.”

In a January 16, 1959 pre-publication announcement of TFA in the New York Times Book Review, he is referred to as “Miss Achebe”, and in the blurb that accompanies the first African Writers Series edition, published in the early ’60s, his Igbo ethnic group is referred to as the “Obi tribe”. Regarding that early error, Achebe points out that “that error persisted. You sometimes even see it running through to this day.”

Such “questionable depictions of strangeness” are to be expected in a world where the production (editorial and publishing aspects at least) of ‘canonized’ African Literature is largely in the hands of ‘outsiders.’ Speaking during the Publishers’ Panel at the 2009 Cadbury Conference at the Center of West African Studies at the University of Birmingham, British-Ghanaian Publisher (and former Commissioning Editor of the Heinemann African Writers’ Series) Becky Ayebia-Clarke (who is now running her own press, Ayebia Publishing) described how her displeasure with the cover of Tsitsi Dangaremba’s debut novel, Nervous Conditions (The Women’s Press, England, 1988) - another questionable depiction of strangeness - led her to produce a radically different cover for the Ayebia edition (2004). She felt that the image portrayed on the original cover did not do justice to the strong, sassy characterization of the novel’s heroine.

But such “strangenesses” are to be expected when a significant part of what is known globally as “African Literature” lies outside the hands of its creators and in the tight grip of “institutions” that seem to possess fixed ideas about what African literature should or should not be, and what “authentic” African “characters” can or cannot do.

In Birmingham, Ms. Ayebia-Clarke also spoke of the inspiration behind her publishing an anthology of love stories written by African women (African Love Stories, Ayebia, 2006) — her dismay at realizing that there was a scarcity of daring love stories featuring African characters. Apparently, at least in the eyes of most publishers, it is more authentic for Africans to make war than to make love. The synopsis for the book as featured on Ayebia Publishing’s website describes it as “a radical departure from conventional anthologies and the theme of love is aimed at debunking preconceived notions about African women as impoverished victims, whilst showing their strength, complexity and diversity.” One of those stories (Ugandan Monica Arac de Nyeko’s Under the Jambula Tree), which dealt with the subversive (at least in an African context) theme of lesbian love, won the 2007 Caine Prize for African Writing.

At the recent “What’s Culture Got to Do With It” Conference in June organized by the Nordic Africa Institute in Uppsala, Sweden, Professor Raisa Simola, presenting a paper that touched on Uzodinma Iweala’s 2006 novel Beasts of No Nation, informed the audience that while BONN has been translated into Finnish, its revered ‘ancestor’, Things Fall Apart, has yet to be translated. The interesting question therefore is - who makes these translation decisions, and on what basis?

Also at the Uppsala conference, Nigerian Professor J.O.J Nwachukwu Agbada complained of the gross disservice done to scholars and academics based in Africa as a result of the fact that the bulk of cultural production (in this case, literary publishing) is managed from the West, thus ensuring that many books by African writers and journals on African Literature/Culture are unavailable to Africans living on the continent. These books win awards and establish their positions in the African literary canon in the West, but most Africans remain unaware of them.

But all of this is not to take away from the obvious fact that these are interesting and even exciting times for African writing. African literature (an endlessly debatable term in itself) is in the middle of the kind of renaissance that characterised Indian writing in the 1990s. We are witnessing the strong rise of a literary movement, defined not so much by grand nationalistic or ideological themes (as was largely the case in the 60s and 70s) as by a fervent and uncomplicated desire for Africans to tell their own stories, whatever those stories may be, however marginal they may appear to a world that wants to talk only about African poverty, famine, wars and child soldiers.

One of the most vocal champions of this “telling” is Chimamanda Adichie, and she appears to be succeeding. A Nigerian friend of mine living in Australia recently told me that an Irish friend also living in Australia told him, “Everything I know about Nigeria I learned from reading two books — Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun.”

The last few years have seen the emergence of innovative independent literary collectives and publishing houses based on the African continent - Cassava Republic and Kachifo in Nigeria, Storymoja and Kwani in Kenya, Chimurenga and Wordsetc in South Africa — all of whom are committed to taking Africa’s literary talent to the world, using every available means, and certainly not shying away from the exploiting the possibilities of the internet revolution.

And by the end of 2010, novels by the following “new” African writers will have been published by some of the biggest names in contemporary publishing: Petina Gappah, Brian Chikwava, Peter Akinti, Chika Unigwe, Adaobi Nwaubani, Teju Cole, Kachi Ozumba and Lola Shoneyin. Six of those will be debut novels.

Most interesting however, and worthy of reflection, is this surprising fact: all but one of the eight names mentioned above live outside the African continent.

This is often interpreted to mean that there are two kinds of African Writers - ‘home-based’ and ‘diaspora’ writers, and that the Global Publishing Factory prefers to ‘employ’ African writers based abroad to tell the stories of Africa. That argument of course is a debatable one; the fact that writers abroad get more publishing opportunities than home-based ones might simply be attributable to geographical proximity to the ‘centers’ of publishing, and not to any prefabricated preferences on the part of the publishers.

Debates like this will continue to dominate discussions about contemporary African writing. Geographical location and exile, language, authenticity, even the supposedly simple matter of “who is an African writer?” will be difficult issues to ignore.

Chinua Achebe perhaps summed it up best when referring to the new Penguin African Writers’ Series, of which he has been named as Editorial Advisor. He remarked: “The last five hundred years of European contact with Africa produced a body of literature that presented Africa in a very bad light and now the time has come for Africans to tell their own stories.

Nigerian writer Tolu Ogunlesi was short listed for the 2009 PEN/Studzinski Literary Prize, and recently won the arts and culture prize in the 2009 CNN Multichoice African Journalist Awards. When he is not traveling he divides his time between Abeokuta and Lagos in South-western Nigeria.


    Well as a Professor of "africana studies/African lit/Postcolonial studies based in the US... This is an issue that I know too well...
    The current status of sub-Saharan African literature written in French is characterized by the exteriority of its production and publication. The literary critic Odile Cazenave asserts: “Contemporary African literature is essentially produced by writers from the diaspora”. Ambroise Kom adds: “A big portion of African literature is not only a literature on exile but also a literature in exile since it is published, distributed and consumed essentially outside of the continent ”. Besides few exceptions, francophone African writers who are internationally famous reside in either France or the United States.

    Contemporary francophone West African literature can be divided into three schools of thought. The first one discusses issues of migrations from an ontological and existentialist perspective fraught with ambivalences and issues of hybridity affecting the post-colonial migrant. The second one operates through a self-imposed critical anthropological gaze entangled in fantastical portrayals of Africa in which the never-ending tradition-versus-modernity dialectic paralyzes the narrative. The third school of thought has two subcategories; the first one contains books in which all geographical references are removed, the plot is very abstract and non chronological (La Polka by Kossi Efoui, for example). The second category contains narratives that take place on another continent with non-African characters. Sami Tchak, for instance, has published Le paradis des chiots, a novel about street children in Mexico.

  2. These works are classified as African literature only because their writers are of African origins. And yes, what about the gatekeepers, why is it that some writers found success while others remain totally unknown? For whom are the successful writers located in the West writing for? Should African writers be held accountable? What do we make of the idea of World literature which only applies to peripheral writers, writers coming from the margins, from countries that are economically deprived?

    World literature operates from a paradigm that emphasizes diversity, multiculturalism, the growing availability of texts from other nations and the idea of a globalized world in which culture is without borders. According to David Darmosh, the author of What is world literature?: “A work enters into world literature by a double process; first by being read as literature, second by circulating out into a broader world beyond its cultural and linguistic origin”. When one applies the concept of world literature to African literature written, one must also take into account the fact that literary practices are inextricably linked to ideological, cultural and economical conditions that allow its circulation and its legitimacy.

    How can one manage or negotiate the issue of autoreferentiality in an increasing globalized world? Ideological implications of naming and labeling lead to never-ending discussion.

  3. Woooow Nathalie, saying that this is an issue you know too well might be sounding like a cliché, this must definately be a paper you already had on ground cos you have even brought Tolu's case to the bigger picture and added more questions, It is amazingly funny how these questions tend to sound exactly the same as well in the dance world, which is exactly what informs the coming to be of my festival ewaBAMIJO that will hold in Lagos this October, maybe when we all begin to bring our case on the same tables, ignoring whatever we do, be it dancers or writers or photographers, film makers or fashion designer... When it comes to contemporary arts in today's Africa, our discourses are not so different.

    I am very well convinced that the notion of HOME to start with for many artist in contemporary Africa varies, it is only but, a CONCEPT and ideal, it perhaps exist only in our fantasy, Not in real-time. Maybe this earth is an eternal ABROAD after all, and so said Faustine Linyekula "Maybe my only county is my body". It is obvious that what today's African artists want, is not to deny the existence, importance and rewards of this intellectual tradition; but in many ways to further seek a place for the entrenchment of cultural and racial, economic and other fundamental differences under the machinery of globalisation, but i have come to realise that as we run for security we reinforce more fear, we become aware of the third eye, "who is watching? who do i dance for?" This are fundamental question that determines what our art then begin to look like, at least for those in the diaspora. Whereas Contemporary dance in Africa has struggled for a while to overcome problems of accessibility by local audience, finance and lack of Infrastructures, power and continues to lack critically in legislation.

    Our Dance-forms, other than traditional dances in contemporary Africa, are not different from all imported or foreign activities in the society at large, reserved particularly for the expatriates and the elite class. However, it is obviously there present in the society but it has never had the ability to come to rest and be integrated in the society we operate, but paradoxically we get fame and gain grounds outside our own primary society, and all these is as a result of the standards and circumstances at which we operate our art “HOME and ABROAD.”

    History itself is shaped and written based on the present reality, and slightly directed to favour the orientation at which the future is dreamt of by the powerful, and so as contemporary dance in Africa, and other art genre that requires 'political correctness', the ideals and the writings of
    contemporary dance on a global world-view has enriched itself on the inevitable notion of identity, race, gender and class. Far from identifying the contemporaneity of our dance in Africa...

  4. ...or branding it for that matter, but approaching it from a viewpoint which doesn't ignore the state of affairs of our collective economic, social, political and cultural reality as a people. As 'African' dance practitioners particularly, it is inevitable to disregard the question of identity, color and other baggage of history, due to the direct exposure of our naked bodies and the visible twist of cultural expressions, which has in turn triggered a series of resistance in the part of travelling dance practitioners, as against exoticism and second class validation, if not third. However, this construction and continuous resistance have also adversely developed an institutionalised pluralistic landscape that has today turned into a combative affirmation of an ideology, and a new form of stereotyping.

    For some years, major international organisations and parastatals around the world have worked towards building up 'discursive platform for a cacophony of 'African voices' Outside Africa and emphasizing 'correctness' in cultural politics; these have of course created more talks that hinder actions, it has stated more obvious prolems without a proposed solution, but unconsciously succeeded to the neglect of the core
    existence of the young and alternative artist's project in the continent, creating further fiesta of the ex-colony and the ex-colonised, an independent pursuit of illusive relationship through artistic endeavors. Fundamental problems transformed into coffee rendezvous of the dominant sect, through which the new order is defined to create restriction for liberal artistic expression.
    Urgent issues facing contemporary dance today is: How do we establish an 'ethics of difference and mutual respect' within the framework of dissimilarities in cultural production and functionality? How do we prevent 'Hegemony' without sacrificing the grounds already gained against the power status quo at Home and Abroad?

    And the last question which goes to all

    CONTEMPORARY AFRICAN ART - An imported household branding or a local craft for export?


  5. Hey there!

    I won't address some of the concerns that you previously mentioned for I totally agree with you.

    "How do we establish an 'ethics of difference and mutual respect' within the framework of dissimilarities in cultural production and functionality? How do we prevent 'Hegemony' without sacrificing the grounds already gained against the power status quo at Home and Abroad? ..."

    My Brother I don't know...Sometimes I feel like though I am not dead, I am trapped in the belly of death.

    My motto is: Action is the key not location. Try to do you best without selling your soul...Always remember your ancestors!

    I totally agree with you, we must work together all of us dancers, writers, scholars, photographers and also go beyond the language issue: French speaking Africans and English speaking Africans should get to know each other better.

    In the words of Rumi we must "speak a new language so that the world would be a new world" where everybody is welcome.


  6. African literatures. Plural. Multiple.

  7. C'est compliqué, n'est ce pas?

  8. the reality in africa and the reality outside is two different things. we keep having these conversations that have gone on for a long time but it always seems like their is no solution in sight....yes what is african literture...what is african art...what is african photography...who is an african...?...it is ridicules to that artist from africa have to continuously validate themselves based on foreign standards...art is the expression of life....and expressing yourself as an artist from africa seems to be an up hill battle. imported or exported, african artist still dont get their fair share.....i am tired of discussion. i am ready to work.

  9. Heddy Ce n'est pas ça. i strongly disagree, like i said above WHEN WE RUN TO SECURITY WE TEND TO REINFORCE MORE FEAR.

    Aida is it that you haven't been working all these years i know you for? or let's just face it all, we all want to ignore these questions and just live our lives, but the fact still remains that it will never make our lives any better because we are trapped all ways always. we can't be more real than reality itself thats just the sad truth.

    and i don't think we've really had the right discussion on the right platform, we've been having the discussions some people wants us to have and where they want us to have it. This issue is omething that ought to be treated in every country, to sincerely ask ourselves, WHAT IS CONTEMPORARY NIGERIAN ART? HOW DO WE SURVIVE IT ON OUR OWN TERMS? HOW MUCH ARE WE AWARE OF THE CONTEMPORARY ARTS WORLD (in order to not close our selves up on an idea)? Thats where we all ought to return to, These Africanisation of our problems is not even taking us nowhere, because we ourselves has taken in for the world of clichés we are trapped in, what these international magic makers are interested in, is to see us all together, they want to talk about interaction between African artsits, they want to see a bigger picture, Nigeria is not sexy enough, but AFRICA is, how then do we sustain it, is there an AFRICAN (re)UNION, that makes a path for us to trail as artistes? are we all living on a common economy, how i survive in Nigeria, is it similar to how my colleagues survive in Senegal? have i been able to drive my primary community to triumph for me to begin to open up an amenable discussions on a continental view point?...

    I have left Africans in diaspora to the perversive discourses of what is African and what is not, cos that's all they are left with in their illisive heavens of security. But maybe by the time sincerity begin to be as clear as our palms, by the time identity begin to mean something really personal and not political correctness or incorrectness - people will begin to talk the real talk and move away from cocktails.



  10. Qudus,
    I just try to say: c'est ça, to the last sentence of Aîda: the necessity to be at work. I can see you are in good shape. let's put the gloves on....