Prepare for the African writing revolution

The occasion of the Cape Town Book Fair seems a good time to reflect on the new world of African literature. 

I was in Arusha a few days ago and spent a series of memorable evenings with some remarkable Africans, many of them Nigerians. And late, late into the night, people started to talk about Biafra. In 1967-1970, part of Eastern Nigeria broke away to form a republic they called Biafra. The Nigerian state reacted militarily, assisted by much of the international community, and inflicted horrible human suffering. Biafra was broken.

A cardiologist, Earnest Madu, founder of the Heart Institute of the Caribbean, which provides first-rate medical services to the people of the West Indies, confessed that he was a child soldier in Biafra. Dele Olojede, who won a Pulitzer prize for his reporting on Rwanda, and who lives in Johannesburg, where he is about to launch a continent-wide newspaper, told the conference audience how his daughter was reading Half of a Yellow Sun—set in the period before and during the war. She asked her parents about it and his wife started to talk about the terrible things that happened to members of her family in Biafra. He was surprised because she had never spoken about these things to him before.

That night we heard that Half of a Yellow Sun had won the Orange Prize. And we celebrated. This amazing novel, which I was fortunate enough to read in draft form, was written by Chimamanda Adichie. It was published last year in Nigeria by a dynamic new publishing house called Farafina. Founded by Mukhtar Bakari, Farafina has ignored the usual cynicisms of African publishing by acquiring rights to Nigeria’s finest writing and promoting it aggressively within the country. Half of a Yellow Sun has been a sensation is Nigeria—and it has got Nigerians talking about the taboo subject of the Biafra War.

There is more to this story. For me, it was to sit with people who chose to react to the attempt to destroy them by investing in education and progress, and all those thousands of people whose world-class talents were fired by adversity.

I met Chimamanda in 2002, online. We were both starting out and a bit fragile about our chances as writers. We shared work with each other on the internet. Time passed and we started to build a community of contacts. Ntone Edjabe, who founded Chimurenga in Cape Town, is an old mentor of mine—and when I decided to start a magazine called Kwani?, I lived off his ideas and faith for a while.

Now Chimurenga (www.chimurenga.co.za) is, to my mind the finest literary magazine on the continent. Kwani? has published more than 100 new writers and introduced 10 writers to the international market, including Yvonne Owuor, who won the Caine prize in 2003. Kwani? sells very well in Kenya, despite the talk of “a lack of reading culture” and all that patronising nonsense. One of the reasons people read less now in Kenya is because adults and children are being fed dumbed-down and patronising shit.

As these randomly distributed acts of faith started to solidify, we started to work with others—Mike Vazquez, editor extraordinaire, formerly of Transition magazine in the United States; Kadija Sessay of Sable in the United Kingdom; Achal Prabhala, troubleshooter of everything useful and intelligent; Bakari of Farafina—and many others. We share work, ideas and markets. We criticise other’s work, help each other get agents and publishers and help build our local markets.

What we have now is a series of relationships that are starting to put a new generation of African writers on the world map.

Most of us are now working on a massive internet portal called Goonj that will archive all the combined past issues of several leading literary magazines. Goonj will commission new work and provide an online venue for talented young writers to interact and grow. The access to our archives will be free for users—so that any lover of prose or poetry can find material not available in bookshops.

As you may know, Nigerians find it easier to find American novels in their bookshops than they can find Kenyan writers or even Nigerian writers in the diaspora. Somebody in Bangalore has no access at all to writing from Zimbabwe and there is not much good writing from the continent to be found in South African bookshops.

So … we hope to build, in an organic and useful way, a community of people who can interact online, read, write and make chemistry happen. Doing the small things first could lead to something massive. I have been feeling, for some years, that an explosion of fresh writing talent from this continent will shake the publishing world. We have just begun.

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