African Book Festival, London, 26th-27th October 2012

AiW Guest Kate Nkanza.

When I first heard about the African Book Festival, I was so excited that I paid for my pass for two days straight away.

I have always been a book lover from when I was a kid.  I remember reading Oliver Twist and Things Fall Apart before I went to high school.  We didn’t have a library in my school in Zambia, but I was blessed to have a father and grandfather who were mad book collectors.

When I left school, all I wanted to do was write. I love words and how characters can take you places you never dreamed of going. It took a while for the dream to come true but I finally held my first book two days before I attended the festival and am currently working on my third novel.

I spoke to Nii Ayikwei Parkes (one of the festival organisers) about bringing copies of my novel Crossing Bridges to the festival and he was quite happy for me to display them.

26th October 2012

Abdulrazak Gurnah (Professor of English at the University of Kent and author of many novels including Paradise which was shortlisted for the Booker prize) opened the event by talking about his writing life and Zanzibar, his home country. It was humbling to be in the presence of a man who had made such a big contribution to African writing and literature. After the event I had a chance to chat with him and his advice to me as a new writer, which I am going to follow whole-heartedly, was to attend literature events and join book clubs as a way of meeting others who are as passionate about writing as me.

“Well, OK, today is the first day so maybe there will be more people tomorrow.” – I told myself as I ran to the station to catch the train home.

27th October 2012

On Saturday, I woke up early and was there half an hour before the first talk.  I could hardly contain my excitement at the prospect of meeting all the great people I’d seen on the programme under one roof.

I was probably one of the first people in the hall for the panel discussion with writer and Director of African Writers Trust Goretti Kyomuhendo and Deputy Editor of Granta Ellah Allfrey.  Goretti talked about why we must not shy away from writing about sex.

Both panellists sparked discussion about the issues affecting writers and book lovers living in Africa – the opportunities and challenges created by digital technology, and the relationship between reading culture and the church.

Another scoop for me and I am sure others in the room, was the chance to listen to four other writers who had written award-winning books. Hannah Pool, (Journalist and author of My Fathers’ Daughter) read from her compelling memoir describing her journey to meet with her biological father and brothers for the first time.

I found the narration of her life story extremely touching and was left feeling overwhelmed with emotions. I also had the pleasure of hearing Aminatta Forna (author of The Memory of Love), Musa Okwonga (sportswriter and journalist) and Alistair Bruce (author of Wall of Days) read passages from their books.

I waited patiently for the literature lovers to come strolling in through the door, but it seemed I had to be content with the ones in the room. It was discouraging to see so many people at the literature festival in Cheltenham, yet so few at the African Book Festival. I couldn’t help but reflect on why this might be and the implications for myself as a young African writer.

What I took away from this event was that I need to write and write some more.  Of-course there are challenges, particularly for the book industry within Africa, but there is nothing stopping our generation from making a difference. The speakers consistently encouraged new writers to think outside the box, and write books that will inspire the next generation while at the same time keeping our readers on their toes.

I cannot wait for the next event.  I hope to see more people attending, more books being sold and a whole new generation of African writers.  From my perspective, it would be great if the speakers could also talk more about their writing experiences and the pitfalls for new writers, as well as running workshops for the next generation of African writers.

Despite experiencing some disillusionment, the African Book Festival was a great opportunity to meet other writers, editors and make new friends.  A huge thank you to Will Essilfie and Nii Ayikwei Parkes for organising this event and I look forward to going back next year.

Kate Nkanza is Zambian novelist based in London.  She writes under the name Tanya Lish and her first novel Crossing Bridges is published by Pen Press.

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