The Pan-African focus of Abantu's 2018 festival draws from a future past

2017 Abantu Book Festival. Going forward the festival is making connections with Africa’s authors, publishers and literary aficionados with a seemingly planned intentionality for northern expansion. Photo: Mmuso Mafisa

2017 Abantu Book Festival. Going forward the festival is making connections with Africa’s authors, publishers and literary aficionados with a seemingly planned intentionality for northern expansion. Photo: Mmuso Mafisa

On a Friday evening in early September, I was the impromptu guest of a dinner in the company of women publishing entrepreneurs, with one pair of women owning an independent publishing house and the third, a European from Barcelona, owning a literary agency that represents African authors. They spoke about their meeting at the Zimbabwe International Book Fair (ZIBF) in 1993, casually name-dropping African authors I could only dream of meeting in person, and some of whom, like Yvonne Vera, are already deceased. I remember feeling myself enveloped by an awkward nostalgia.
I had missed the glory days. I wanted to feel closer to the experience, and I couldn’t help but think that this might’ve been achieved more, had I been hearing about it from someone who closer resembled me.

Not one to dwell too much on the obvious, I recently picked up the conversation again. Anna Soler-Pont of Pontas Literary Agency describes the then ZIBF to me as the ‘African Frankfurt’, a place where one was able to overview the entire pan-African publishing industry in a few days — from anglophone, to francophone, lusophone, the works — “everybody who counted in the industry within the continent had to be there in order to exist”. The ZIBF Association — a non-profit organisation — remains active but is hardly the nerve centre it once was.

A border skip South is Soweto’s very own Abantu Book Festival, held in Mofolo and Jabulani.  Now in its third year, it took place in the week of 6 - 9 December between the Eyethu Lifestyle Centre and the Soweto Theatre. This year, the popular festival shifted its focus from a predominance of southern African panelists to include a distinctly Nigerian influence in the form of Cassava Republic Publisher, Bibi Bakare-Yusuf, Ake Festival Director Lola Shoneyin, headliner and mega author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, one of Nigeria’s leading performance artists/poets Efe Paul Azino, critically-acclaimed author Odafe Atogun, respected writer and spoken word artist Wana Odubang, as well as award-winning novelist Helon Habila.

The first session I attended was a discussion between Zimbabwean novelist, Novuyo Tshuma, and Helon Habila, in which the challenges of writing about Africa and publishing through the infrastructure of the West were discussed, in relation, particularly, to her debut novel, House of Stone. Tshuma quipped that she had never attracted such a crowd for an event before and commemorated the moment with a selfie. In my time at the festival, the word pan-African was tentatively making the rounds. Lerato Mogoatlhe, author of the forthcoming Vagabond: Wandering through Africa on Faith, a book about a three-month break to West Africa that turned into five years of living and travelling around the continent, tweeted excitedly about Abantu possibly being a sign of the future for South African arts spaces. “I do not associate South African events with African pride. We are exclusively South African with Zimbabwean artists here and there, or we tend to look outside Africa”. She elaborates further, “I think a pan-African festival, certainly to me, is one that is representative of our diversity as a continent – our five regions and different types of writers, thinkers and poets - a literary version of music festivals like Sauti Za Busara and Festival of the Niger”.

Zimbabwean-born South African novelist, Zukiswa Wanner agrees that South Africa needs to be deliberate about pan-Africanism.

“In corporate, academic and even civil society organisations, the dominant narrative is that on the one hand, black South Africans are lazy and thank heavens for other Africans who have great work ethic and speak English well. On the other hand, a black South African will be told ‘Jonga. You’re hell of a lucky to be from this African country.  You could be from the rest of the continent where they chased those who look like me away and see now how they suffer? You see why you need me?” she says.

The infantilising of black self-actualisation projects in the arts — especially books — extends to funding: to call it scarce is an understatement. Lineo Segoete, co-curator of the Ba re e ne e re Book Festival (Ba re) in Maseru, Lesotho says she wishes efforts towards support were not so driven by hype and big names and that spending money on locally-produced efforts was more the norm. “Most organisers take on other jobs in order to sustain themselves and then do the festival work as a labour of love”. Mobilising dedicated teams becomes difficult with little to no compensation to offer and no real institutional support. Co-founder of the Gaborone Book Festival Trust, Kenanao Phele acknowledges that not only does it take a village of local contacts and support, it also takes an African village. “We have been very lucky as we have been supported by literary giants like Lola Shoneyin of Ake Book Festival as well Thando Mgqolozana of Abantu Book Festival as well as authors like Zukiswa Wanner and Niq Mhlongo, who have been part of our platforms even before the festival, agreeing to be part of our inaugural programme and also offering invaluable moral support throughout the process”. Since part of the aim of the festival is to celebrate and showcase the work of Batswana authors who are currently underrepresented and largely unknown, this type of leverage and exposure is invaluable.

As a result, Phele has travelled to Ake, Time of the Writer (held in Durban) and Abantu and is excited about attending other such spaces. Vagabond author, Lerato Mogoatlhe, agrees with this approach. “People who curate festivals, publishers and authors should be willing to travel to other festivals around Africa even when they are not on the line up, even when it means they will fund the trip. My pet peeve with South Africa’s art scene is that very few people invest in the vision beyond freebies.”

The landscape is certainly widening with deliberate efforts. After Shoneyin’s appearance at Abantu, she has lost count of the number of people who shared their intention to attend Ake next year and remembers a group of six South Africans who travelled to Nigeria, specifically for Ake this year. “Since I have been back in Nigeria, I have been recruiting Nigerian book lovers and we are all heading to Abantu next year. I am also reaching out to arts enthusiasts, especially within the LGBTI community. I think Abantu would be an incredibly liberating and life-affirming experience for them’. The weight of this statement is unmissable. In Nigeria, the expression of non-normative sexual and gender identities is punishable by law, while in South African modern arts spaces, queerness tends to be part of the politic – with expected backlash when those standards are not met. For instance, at this year’s Abantu, this backlash was levelled at Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as well as at organisers for transphobic statements expressed by Adichie before and during the festival. The fact that such trivialising statements as ‘trans noise’ — expressed by Adichie to describe this backlash in her session with Prof Pumla Gqola — seem motivated by ignorance and hubris is not an excuse. When describing ideal spaces for engagement, Shoneyin added, “There must be openness and honesty, and an eagerness to embrace the responsibilities that come with that, plus a sense of duty in the way we go about protecting the rights of those who may be different from us, or think differently.”

It’s clear that these collaborations and cross-pollinations also evoke critical questions about shared African identity. As Lineo Segoete of Ba re put it “stories for Africans by Africans” is one aspect, but these stories must strive to be free of colonial tones and undertones too, which becomes a difficult task given that westernisation is so deeply ingrained, while at the same time, most of what is adopted from the West started in Africa first. The layers to peel are many and sometimes appear deceptively simple. The plan for Shoneyin, along with Thando Mgqolozana is to help activate literary festivals in different African countries where there are not yet spaces for cultural engagement, much like in the case of the Gaborone Book Festival. “Africa has struggled with internal tourism but here we are, confronted with the prospect of books, writing and culture coming to the rescue.”

One half of the ‘Abantu Twins’, avid reader and supporter Masivuye Madikane describes the appeal of black-centric arts spaces like Abantu in this way: “It is like umcimbi to celebrate our blackness”. Having never experienced book festivals outside of South Africa, both sisters are now inspired by their attendance at this year’s Abantu to travel to Gaborone and Lagos. “Festivals such as Abantu are helping to create a continent with no borders through inviting authors and artists from the rest of the continent”. Of course, things are not all utopic yet, as Ngozi Adichie shared in her session at Abantu, her weariness of South Africa is informed by regular ill-treatment of Nigerian passports such as hers, making movement a dehumanising experience even for someone of her fame.

These spaces also germinate ideas that seek to widen the African publishing value chain. For Zukiswa Wanner, the bravery to start a publishing company sparked from having attended African-centred books spaces. In Nairobi, she has also curated a programme called ‘Artistic Encounters’, which matches an African or diasporic writer to a local artist in another art form to create another work. She was able to do this despite a minimal budget because of friends she has met through African books spaces. Until late 2016, she sat on the Board of Writivism in Uganda and still sits on the Advisory Board for Ake, both predecessor movements to Abantu.

If it holds that one torch can light another, then it holds that a torch can be relit. I am eager to see a resurgence of the Zimbabwe International Book Fair as a partner with old and emerging sister festivals around the continent. In this way, we can continue to grow the ways that we power forward a native vision of ourselves.

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