"A writer should always consider the purpose of literature when they seek to contribute to it. How can a person dedicate their life to something whose point they cannot grasp?" my friend, American writer JC Hallman, said as he ordered another drink.
If you had entered the smoky bar packed with noisy locals cradling semi-full jugs of beer in rural Swaziland right in the middle of this conversation, perhaps you would have considered it odd.
But I found myself wondering whether there could be a better place to ponder the role of African literature in the 21st century. It was in this exact location where I began to truly consider what it means to live in a time when African writers are being recognised, with a blinding sharpness, the world over.
"These are exciting literary times for Africa," writes Kenya's Mwenda Micheni in the East African magazine. The article ("Top 25 African Writers") published on September 27 2010 – the year when Nigeria's Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was featured in the New Yorker's Top 20 under-40 list (she came third in Micheni's list) – states that "non-African publishers are increasingly picking up African stories".
It further reflects on why this is the case: "We have several factors to thank for this renaissance. Over the past decade, Africa's growth rates have attracted global attention, as has the growing competition between China and the West for its markets and resources."
What is the purpose of literature?
Micheni seems to believe that the African writer fills the gap caused by "little visual documentation to watch and poor archives" that could be the key to teaching the world about Africa in the way African writers seem keen to do.
When Hallman, a teacher at a creative writing programme in the United States, asked me a question he asks his students – "What is the purpose of literature?"— it was my kneejerk response that caused me to begin to understand my standard tirade about the responsibility of African writers to contribute to their literary cultures, for the betterment of the intellectual lives of their people.
But even though my answer was satisfactory enough for light banter over a game of pool, I found myself thirsty for the ideas that some of my more celebrated contemporaries would have about the purpose of books, an art form that many would say is lost on a generation of Africans more interested in American reality TV than in the sweet prose of developing-nation aches.
Enter EE Sule of Nigeria.
In an interview with Africanwriters.com – a handy website that affirmed my suspicion that new African writers will not have to worry about having too few locally produced platforms for their work – Sule, the 2013 winner of the Commonwealth Book Prize (Africa region), was asked by Sola Osofisan: "Can fiction – however graphic – ever surpass the reality of life in Nigeria?"
I felt that Sule's well-thought-out response was an apt indicator of the headspace many African writers occupy when meditating about the purpose of their craft: "I don't think fiction can surpass the reality of life. It shouldn't even attempt to do so. It should provide an alternative reality."
The purpose of fiction writing
This brings me back to that bar in Swaziland, where Hallman asked whether fiction should be a cold mirror of the sorry state of imperfect human societies. Or whether it should be what Ralph Ellison, the famous African-American writer and author of The Invisible Man, once said in response to a remark by Ernest Hemingway: "A means of painting a world in which we should want to live."
Hallman's question was inspired by Hemingway's suggestion that any discerning writer should stop reading Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at the point where Jim is captured and returned to slavery, because he (Hemingway) believed that the rescue mission that follows was an unrealistic portrayal of American life at the time.
Indeed, Ellison's view was the same as that provided by Sule, in different terms. And I may very well agree and, in fact, go even further and say that African writers, whether they know it or not, are activists of the pen – visionaries whose purpose it is to show us not simply the world we have, but also the world that we should want to have.
And it is interesting that Sule takes this stance; his award-winning book Sterile Skies is filled with what the interviewer considers unbearable hardships: "Religious excesses, mob violence, VVF [vesicovaginal fistula], corruption, superstition, poverty."
But it is the interviewer's own description of the suffering depicted in a more "restrained" light that may be the key to understanding Sule's own understanding of the purpose of his work.
Colliding literature and fiction
Reading the work of another award-winning writer, Tope Folarin – a first-generation Nigerian – provides further clarity for me: new writers are finding a way to straddle the two purposes – showing us the world we have through their own experiences, and showing us the world we should want.
In his Caine Prize-winning short story Miracle from Transition, issue 109, Folarin paints a beautifully vivid picture of a church in the US that caters for a Nigerian-immigrant congregation. During the service depicted in the first hypnotising act, an old man appears as a revered healer to perform miracles for the church. He picks Folarin's protagonist as the lucky target for his healing.
A lengthy description of the healing process follows, one in which all the known acts of Nigerian "healers", now notorious around the continent, are described. The protagonist, who remains unnamed, is touched repeatedly by the "prophet" until he is pushed by the healer into a heap on the floor – all in the name of curing him of his bad vision.
Novel by Lauri Kubuitsile. Photograph by Paul Botes, M&G
The pivotal moment in the story is when the protagonist decides to "be healed". He does this by realising that, even though his sight is still as bad as before, the healer's purpose in coming to the church is to revive the desperately needed faith in the congregation. So he "goes along with it". He allows the church to believe that the "healing" worked. Because he believes: "This healing isn't even for me. It is to show others, who believe less, whose belief requires new fuel, that God is still working in our lives."
And this may perhaps be the key to understanding why we need fresh African literature on the continent: to show our readers that there is something to believe in – a better Africa. And writers who believe in that specific role for their craft, to create an "alternative reality", will continue to produce just that.
But there is something to be said for a writer turning her work into a prism from which radiates the harsh light of reality. I would be a hypocrite if I didn't mention that my favourite type of literature is slice-of-life fiction. There are not many African writers who adopt this style of writing, but there is one that comes to mind: Zimbabwe's Shimmer Chinodya writes Chairman of Fools in the haphazard manner of a writer who expects you to see his reality as your own.
And there is an objective beauty in a craft that appears to have resigned itself to hopelessness. That is what Chinodya seems to be doing as he describes the daily life of "a supposedly successful writer, professor and self-acclaimed artist, living in an African culture in which tradition weighs heavy and middle-class aspirations are crude."
The purpose of fiction brought to life
As you read the book, you are struck by how the events that indicate that the protagonist's life and sanity are unravelling beneath him, are described in a tone of detachment with which one would describe the act of going to the store to get bread. In this book, Hemingway's beliefs about fiction's purpose are brought to life – modern Zimbabwe is described with all of its faults and obvious destruction, as though the author sees no need to focus on deciding what's wrong with them.
It is a wonderful, sobering and simultaneously calming portrayal of contemporary Africa. The hopelessness of ordinary citizens is not the subject of the novel, but a featureless background that need not be probed.
And then of course there are writers who pick a specific issue they want to outline and shine a light on it, neither too harshly nor too softly, with an unspoken desire to have the viewer decide for herself that said issue should no longer be tolerated.
That's what I thought when I read Lauri Kubuitsile's short story collection In the Spirit of McPhineas Lata and other Stories. The hilarious title story, McPhineas Lata, shortlisted for the 2011 Caine Prize, forced my hand at the bookstore. It is about a teacher who insists on having dreams for the students of the near-abandoned school in the corner of the harsh Kga-lagadi desert that comes to mind.
Kubuitsile depicts for us, through the eyes of her protagonist, some of the harsh realities endured by dislocated Basarwa people, without drawing attention to the controversy that surrounds the topic (the ejection of indigenous peoples from the Kgalagadi). She places no judgement on the practices of the people. But her protagonist's desire to change the fate of one student stays with the reader long after the story's end.
In the same vein, South Africa's Thando Mgqolozane uses his novel A Man Who Is Not a Man to recount "the personal trauma of a young isi-Xhosa initiate after a rite-of-passage circumcision has gone wrong".
Another South African writer, Zukiswa Wanner, in her book Men of the South, sheds a noninvasive light on the lives of three characters (a musician, a homosexual man and a displaced Zimbabwean) and the issues they face, while maintaining the calm dedication to telling a vivid story, the way a writer who understands the purpose of their work would.
Ultimately, alI I can say is that, for myself, and the emerging generation of African writers, whether we use our pens to design alternative realities, stay true in our portrayal of our various realities, or highlight an issue we are personally passionate about, the continent will be better for having had us.
And what more can we ask?
Siyanda Mohutsiwa is a 20-year-old mathematics major at the university of Botswana. Follow her ungovernable tweets: @siyandawrites
Novel by Abubaker Adam Ibrahim. Photograph supplied.
We need to master our literary landscape
Of all the short stories that I combed through for my article on African writing, Abubaker Adam Ibrahim's The Whispering Trees, short-listed for the 2013 Caine Prize, was the most haunting of them all.
The story of an ambitious young Muslim man who wakes up blind after a car accident takes us through the roller-coaster of emotions and experiences the character goes through.
The ending is surprising but uplifting, and in wonderful contrast with the dark and unrelentingly turbulent first act of the story.
Can you describe yourself and your work briefly?
I am a Nigerian writer who was born in Jos in central Nigeria. I live in Abuja and work as the arts editor of a popular Nigerian newspaper.
I am a Gabriel Garcia Márquez fellow and have won the BBC African Performance prize, the Amatu Braide prize for prose and have been short-listed for the Caine prize for African writing and long-listed for the inaugural Etisalat prize for literature for my debut short story collection, The Whispering Trees. [The prize was won by NoViolet Bulawayo for We Need New Names.]
What do you think is the purpose of African literature?
I don't think there is a universal accord on what the purpose of African literature is, or the literature of any people or nation for that matter.
Literature is relative and always will be, and the purpose for producing any work of literature is dependent on the creator of that work and its intended consumers.
At the onset, the purpose was to talk back to the damning portrayal of Africa and Africans in the literature of the West and hence [Chinua] Achebe's Things Fall Apart. Then we had the movements such as the Negritude posse that tried to use literature to justify Africanness when being an African was made to look like a crime.
The concept of "African literature" is already being challenged. Until there is an agreement on what African literature really is, I don't think there will be an accord on its purpose. And this is very unlikely ever to happen because I don't think, when writers sit down to write, they have it at the back of their mind that they are writing an "African novel".
They just write and, most times, the focus is local; the themes and concerns may be particular to a remote corner of Africa, which is a huge continent with many countries and many peoples with different cultures and concerns.
So there is no singular purpose to African literature but there is purpose to every writer's work.
What inspired you to write The Whispering Trees?
As an undergraduate at the University of Jos in 2003, I took an elective course in creative writing and part of the requirement was that you write a short story. So essentially that was why.
But, because I was, at the time, going through a phase of self-discovery, finding the secret of happiness, that sort of thing, I invested some of the emotions I was going through into the story and actually titled it Redyscovery, with a y in the middle just to be fancy. It took its present title much later.
Why do you write?
I write because it is an obsession, because it is a passion [and] because, and this I say with all profundity, it is one of my life's purposes. Don't ask me what the others are.
Writing came naturally to me because I just grew up doing it. It wasn't the product of some great epiphany or a deliberate system designed to make me a writer.
It makes me happy to write and I love the fact that I invest my emotions into the process of creating imaginary situations and characters in my head and watch them come to life on paper. Few things are as fulfilling as that.But while doing this, I have come to appreciate those who take the time to read what I write and what I hope my fiction will do for them is to annoy them, entertain them and, above all, to provoke introspection and re-evaluation of what constitutes the fundamentals of our lives, our hopes and our dreams.
If I am able to make the reader situate himself or herself in the place of my character and wonder what he or she would have done given the circumstances then I think I would consider the work a success.
What is the future of literature in Africa?
I think there is a lot of promise and a lot of hope. It is incredible the number of young people who are writing now and are very committed to writing, even if the pay is deplorable.
But optimism is never enough. Until Africans build their own structures, set up their own publishing houses and distribution frameworks to determine how exactly they want their stories told, African literature will remain enslaved to imported ideas and standards and agendas.
But we have committed people now trying to do some of these things, setting up great literary festivals, organising writers' workshops and residencies, all on the continent. What we need now are more of these and more publishing houses and distribution systems that will ensure that the works of South African writers are accessible to Nigerian writers and Senegalese writers are being read in Uganda, and so on.