/ 23 March 2020

Afrolit Sans Frontières: Stories and writers in the comfort of your living room

Zukiswa Wanner (Brian Otieno)
Organised by author Zukiswa Wanner, the virtual literary festival takes place from March 23 to 30. (Brian Otieno/ The New York Times)

Afrolit Sans Frontières was conceived this past Friday, when organiser Zukiswa Wanner was on the phone with a colleague. After a few WhatsApp messages, to her network of writers, many of whom were looking for ways to stay creative under the strain of self-isolation, the festival was born, with  16 participating writers (including Wanner herself), joining in from various parts of the continent and elsewhere in the world. For Wanner, who has been spending the past few days conducting readings for children, the festival is a way of ensuring that we emerge from this situation more knowledgeable about African literature.  

Where are you conducting  AfroLit Sans Frontières from?

I am in Kenya. Richard [Ali Mutu] is in the DRC [the Democratic Republic of the Congo], Mukoma [Wa Ngugi]  is in the US [United States], Hawa [Golakai] is in Liberia, Natasha [Omokhodion-Kalulu Banda] in Zambia, Rémy [Ngamije] in Namibia, Nozizwe [Cynthia Jele] and Mohale [Moshigo] are in South Africa, [Chiké] Frankie [Edozien] and Bisi [Adjapon] are in Ghana, Leye [Adenle] is  in the UK and Kalaf [Epalanga] is in Germany, Abubakar [Adam Ibrahim] is in Nigeria, Yara [Monteiro] is in Portugal, Shadreck [Chikoti] is in Malawi and Maaza [Mengiste] is in Switzerland. 

What format is the festival taking?

The writers will give a five-minute reading and afterwards they will hold a 25-minute session of interacting with the audience — just like a normal festival, but shorter. I started doing readings for kids on Facebook Live for the  “I’m bored” generation [who are] stuck at home with parents who are supposed to be working from home but end up entertaining [them]. I thought we should do something similar for adults, so that they can get to know the writers. 

The way it will work is that  writers will read and then people can ask them questions on Facebook Live or Instagram Live, on the @AfrolitSansFrontieres account.  The majority of the writers  will be interacting through the official festival Instagram Live feed but three of us  have better networks on Facebook Live, so we’ll direct traffic there. 

We have jamesmurua.com as a media partner broadcasting all the videos immediately afterwards. It’s like being in a litfest, really — but virtually.

The readings take place at noon, 12pm GMT (2pm CAT) and again at 6pm GMT (8pm CAT). 

I’m guessing this was inspired by the coronavirus?

It was very much inspired by that. We are all indoors. A lot of people are going crazy at home, especially the ones living by themselves. It’s a way of having human interaction. Some people can buy the ebooks and entertain themselves, while trying to figure out how this lockdown is going to go.

Was organising the festival relatively quick?

I had the idea on Friday and then immediately was like: “Okay, when do we start?” I sent some WhatsApp messages to a bunch of my friends. Everybody who I asked said, “Yes”; others only said yes later, so, sadly, I had to exclude them. But if we have lockdown for longer than expected, maybe I can include them in the next run. In terms of admin, it was just telling everybody to send their book covers and their photos. 

How did you decide on the theme?

Someone said people don’t wanna be bored so let’s have sex as a theme. I’ve read all the [featured writers’] books, that’s how I ended up knowing how to pair them with each other. But we also diverted a bit because we needed one sober [theme]. Nozizwe [Cynthia Jele] and Abubakar [Adam Ibrahim] decided they wanted to do something [about] death.

Essentially, we wanted it to be fun; for people to realise there is sex and fun in African literature. We are not dealing only with issues-based, postcolonial, and postapartheid literature. Hopefully we’ll [become] a little bit more knowledgeable about our literature

One of the things that annoys me is that I don’t know as much literature as I’m supposed to, even though I’m a writer.

 But even with my little knowledge I hate when people go on social media and say, “Nobody is writing about this … ” And I am thinking, but it exists, it’s just that you don’t know. There is a multiplicity of voices in African literature. If it does have that effect, we’ll  be able to bring in even more writers. This is to highlight that literature didn’t die with any of our literary ancestors who passed on.

Is everybody reading from their books?

Yes, from existing novels, which people can buy as ebooks for now, and then from book stores later, except maybe that the Francophone or Lusophone ones might be harder to find in South Africa. 

Have you been watching what other festivals have been doing in terms of going virtual?

Not yet, but I did see John Legend’s concert. Fifty-eight minutes of bliss. He started with some Stevie Wonder stuff and ended up with All Of Me.

What has been the effect of the spread of the coronavirus on the creative industries, in your estimation, and on you personally?

I was supposed to be at the Palestinian Festival of Literature from March 14 to 21, and that’s been cancelled. It’s a good thing because we can stop and take a breather and figure out how to do things differently and be better. A lot of people know people who are writers [but], if they don’t attend festivals, do they really care? This is a way of bringing literature to them.

What is the situation in Kenya right now in terms of containing the spread of the virus?

Kenya is big on Whatsapp: [the government] has set up groups in different areas, with medical officers in each area so people can contact them if they think they have symptoms. 

Kenya Airlines is still flying to the UK — two flights a week — so that is still worrying. But I realise that some citizens need to come back. I was supposed to be doing a launch in an informal settlement and that has been cancelled. What saddens me is that the people who are going to be most affected by this are the poor who are not able to go to work. 

I stay in a complex and outside my gate there are women who sit outside. They obviously live from hand to mouth and ask if they can do laundry and clean your things. And because everyone is self-isolating, they don’t have access to that income. They are still outside and maybe that’s something that happens with the human spirit … that we are always hoping. So I still see them outside every day. And, of course, there is lack of access to running water and soap that the rest of us, who are privileged, take for granted. 

Afrolit Sans Frontières schedule

Monday 23 

Richard Ali  Mutu (DRC, reading from Kinshasa on FB Live in French) and Leye Adenle (Nigeria, reading from London on IG Live): Sex and The Cities (Kin et Lagos)

Tuesday 24

Remy Ngamije (Namibia, reading from Windhoek  on IG Live) and Hawa Golakai (Liberia pre-recording  and interacting on FB): Black Shags in Fair Cape

Wednesday 25

Maaza Mengiste (Ethiopia, reading on IG Live from Zurich) and Mukoma wa Ngugi (Kenya reading on IG Live from Ithaca,New York): Love and Revolution

Thursday 26

Nozizwe Cynthia Jele  (South Africa, reading from Jo’burg on IG Live) and Abubakar Adam Ibrahim (Nigeria reading from Abuja on IG Live): Grave and Deadly

Friday 27

Yara Monteiro (Angola reading from Lisbon, oo IG Live) and Bisi Adjapon (Ghana, reading from Accra on IG Live): Sexy Home or Abroad? 

Saturday 28

Mohale Mashigo (South Africa, reading from Cape Town on IG Live) and Shadreck Chikoti (Malawi, reading pre-recorded and interacting on FB from Lilongwe): Afrofuturistic Sextualities

Sunday 29

Kalaf Epalanga (Angola, reading from Berlin on IG Live) and Chiké Frankie Edozien (Nigeria, reading from Accra on IG Live), Displacement and Micro-Orgasms

Monday 30

Natasha Omokhodien Banda (Zambia, reading from Lusaka on IG Live) and Zukiswa Wanner (South Africa, reading on FB Live  from Nairobi): Sex to Kill/Die For