Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire was formerly Programs Director at Writivism Festival. This piece, reflecting on his experience of Writivism, was adapted from a presentation he made at the 5th Annual African Popular Cultures Workshop at Sussex University on 19 April 2016.
The Writivism Experience
Writivism started as a contribution towards building a supportive environment for emerging writers living on the continent, protecting them from pressure to abandon their writing dreams.
When I was a teenager, I wanted to be a writer. At eighteen, at the cusp of entering university, I still wanted to try it. I intended to apply to study Literature, English, Journalism and other subjects that would lead me onto a writing career. But I was talked out of it. I bought into what the people around me said about a ‘superiority’ of law and the apparent uselessness of writing dreams. I wasn’t forced to abandon the writing path, but the environment wasn’t friendly for it. Plus, Makerere University did not have a Master of Fine Art (MFA) in Creative Writing programme.
Fast forward to 2012, I am done with university undergraduate legal training, I have almost completed bar course training and a master’s degree in Human Rights Law. I have met age mates in Nigeria, Zimbabwe, South Africa and elsewhere who are taking the writing thing seriously despite where our societies have pushed us.
In 2013, Writivism starts with a short story prize, a workshop, mentoring, publishing stories online, in a newspaper and an anthology, school visits, readings in Kampala writing communities and a small festival. Only emerging Ugandan writers were eligible to participate. For this year, we were interested in the continental African writer, reader and publisher. We had a panel discussion on how, what and why we read, with Gilbert Mitullah, Lydia Namubiru and Sophie Alal as speakers. There was also a panel on publishing that featured Hilda Twongyeirwe of the Association of Uganda Women Writers (FEMRITE), Julius Ocwinyo of Fountain Publishers and Paula Akugizibwe of Chimurenga. Prizes for writers were dealt with at a panel featuring Onyeka Nwelue, Clifton Gachagua and Dilman Dila. Other festival speakers included Beatrice Lamwaka, Zukiswa Wanner and Okwiri Oduor, who directed the festival.
We widened the scope of the programme in 2014 to include the ‘entire’ continent, which in fact means the English-speaking countries. Held workshops in Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa and Uganda. The mentoring continued. The stories were published online, in various newspapers on the continent and in an anthology. The prize also opened up to the continent. A South African writer won. We continued to develop the previous year’s focus on contemporary production and consumption of African literature. The highlight was the launch of the critically acclaimed Kwani? Manuscript Project winning novel, Kintu by Jennifer Makumbi. There was a panel discussion on contemporary publishing with Nii Ayikwei Parkes, Clifton Gachagua, Richard Ali, and Charles Batambuze and another on the language of poetry with Melissa Kiguwa, Moses Serubiri, Laura Byaruhanga and Beverley Nambozo. A book signing event at Aristoc Booklex featuring Jennifer Makumbi, Zukiswa Wanner, Nii Ayikwei Parkes and No Violet Bulawayo was a new innovation that year.
In 2015, we held more workshops in Botswana, South Africa, Nigeria, Tanzania and Uganda. More mentoring. Published stories through partners, including a flash fiction anthology and the annual anthology’s third edition. Ran a schools programme. This year was meant to interrupt the previous years’ obsession with the contemporary by going back to the initial moment of African literature in English’s post-colonial history that was the 1962 Makerere conference. Important writers made keynote speeches: Tsitsi Dangarembga, Jennifer Makumbi, Chika Unigwe, John Nagenda and Mukoma wa Ngugi. The festival’s exponential growth continued to the extent that there was a complaint that the events were too many!
We have changed a few things in 2016. We have extended the programme to French-speaking Africa, have added three new prizes, two targeting writers based in Ghana and one for poetry in translation. As our theme says, we are ‘Restoring Connections’.
From 2013 to date, we have held 15 workshops in 13 African cities. Over 100 writers have had the opportunity to be mentored by an established writer. Emerging writers have been published by African digital publishers such as Saraba Magazine and Deyu African. We have received over 1200 entries to the short story prize over the years. Starting this year, the winners will attend a one month writing residency at Stellenbosch University. We have published 40 long-listed emerging writers in our annual anthologies, and more in the flash fiction anthology.
Do literary festivals culture?
With this Writivism experience in mind, I want to reflect on these three editions of the festival I have curated. The title of this article is an adaptation of the title of an article by Rajat Neogy published in Kampala-based Transition magazine in 1966: ‘Do Magazines Culture?’ I consider a literary festival a creative cultural product in the same way a magazine is.
A culture grows or is restricted depending largely on how hospitable it is to ideas from outside, or how freely it delves into itself, renovating traditional insights into a contemporary diction….A very good measure of a culture is indeed in its ability to take apart or neutralise a negative dogmatism. To illustrate this further, one could perhaps divide cultures into two categories: do-cultures and don’t-cultures.
Neogy defines do-cultures as ‘permissive, experimental, vigorous and challenging’ as opposed to don’t-cultures which he describes as ‘censorious, opinionated, smug, complacent and intent on preserving the “tradition”’.
A literary festival with a do-ethos is ‘like a blind man’s stick. It helps them feel the way. It can do this best if it is in a do society; it can do it less well but perhaps more significantly, if it is a do (festival) in a don’t society.’
Like the magazines Neogy discusses, literary festivals should be looked at from their ability to reflect, through the events they curate and the writers and other artists they host, ‘what is really happening or not happening (this latter is sometimes more important) in a country or continent’. But a literary festival ‘not only demonstrates the viability of a culture, but actively develops it.’ A society that supports a number and variety of literary festivals has a vibrant literary culture. Some festivals are more radical than others. Some are very conservative and exist to reinforce tradition.
As Neogy warns us, magazines (and, I want to argue, festivals too) are products of their editors, or in the case of festivals, their curators. For a festival, the equivalent of the editorial policy is the theming of the events. What is the intellectual direction the festival aims to take? Is it to promote Pan-Africanism? Is it to promote ‘libertarian’ ideas? Is it the preservation of tradition? Is it to bridge fences across various art forms? This affects the writers and other guests that are invited to the festival and the specific events curated.
Writivism as a do-culture festival
I am afraid of applying the Neogy theory to Writivism. For obvious reasons. I have curated the past three editions of the festival and I believe that the separation between artist and critic is essential to an art culture.
But we have other critics of Writivism, too. Since 2013, we have been mentioned in newspapers, on radio, television, on blogs, social media etc. Our annual anthologies have been reviewed by bloggers and newspaper journalists. Nick Mulgrew, reviewing one of them alongside the 2015 Caine Prize anthology, coined a new genre he has called competition fiction.
I will sound too vain if I keep mentioning all the good coverage we have received and so I will mention the not-so-flattering coverage too. Our logistical challenges as a young festival have been written about. Well-written anthropological analyses of Ugandan food and non-existent transport systems stand out among the adverse reportage on Writivism.
In the same way some novelists, artists, playwrights, filmmakers and other producers like to engage criticism around their work, as a festival curator, I am deeply interested in critical writing about the festival editions we have held. Curators are creative producers and enablers of a literary culture. Criticism of the festivals therefore is essential as literary criticism is, to novels, poetry etc.
Moreover, as we continue to do this important work in a conservative society – one that Neogy would have called a don’t society – struggling to hold onto traditions introduced by colonialism and those that colonialism found, we have no option but to strive towards steering a do-festival culture. We feel that the critical lens around the festival culture is important to foster critical conversations about African literature.
And yet not much in terms of critical discourse, engages with the themes of the festival over the years. There is a limit to what we can do as the curators of the festivals to attract conversation on the issues – although we have to do more. Can we say that the dearth in literary festival criticism is part of the don’t-culture of the society in which we operate?
We shall publish the transcripts and texts of the five above-mentioned keynote addresses delivered at the third Writivism festival. The hope is that they will form a basis for engagement with the ideas explored at the five day event. We have also opened our blog to publishing commentary and are open to exploring critical writing. If there were any elements of a don’t-culture left in us, we aim at exorcising them through these efforts.
Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire until recently was teaching Law and Human Rights at various Ugandan universities. In the same period, he was Programs Director at Writivism, a pan African initiative of the Centre for African Cultural Excellence, that promotes and connects African Literature to reality.
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