AiW Guest: Nathan Suhr-Sytsma
The fourth incarnation of the Aké Arts & Book Festival took place 15-19 November 2016, in Abeokuta, Nigeria, the birthplace of Wole Soyinka, and shares a name with Soyinka’s classic memoir of his childhood, Aké. The festival is the brainchild of Lola Shoneyin, who capably directs it with the support of a small team of dedicated staff and two dozen student volunteers from across Nigeria. The week began with workshops in fiction writing, graphic stories, and script-writing for a select number of participants, kicking off for the rest of us on Thursday morning. Aké brings together dozens of guests, primarily creative writers from Nigeria and other African countries, but also academics, filmmakers, and other kinds of creative intellectuals, along with a couple hundred attendees, most of them young Nigerians—aspiring writers and/or book lovers.
JA signature format at Aké is the book chat, an hour-long discussion between two writers, focusing on a recent book each has published, moderated by a third person. Book chats also include time for the authors to read aloud briefly from their work, as well as for the audience to ask questions of the authors. One of my favorite was the conversation between Sarah Ladipo Manyika and Yewande Omotoso, moderated by Emma Shercliff of Cassava Republic Press. Both authors discussed their second novels, Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun ( 2016) and The Woman Next Door (2016). Ladipo Manyika, who grew up in Nigeria, has also lived in Kenya, France, England, and the United States; Omotoso was born in Barbados, grew up in Nigeria, and now lives in South Africa. These cross-cultural experiences are refracted in the novels’ concern with relationships among people from diverse cultural worlds. Ladipo Manyika’s lively performance of sections from Like a Mule demonstrated that the novel imaginatively inhabits the voices not only of its nearly 75-year-old Nigerian protagonist, but also of a homeless white woman in San Francisco. Omotoso, meanwhile, read a passage illustrating her novel’s central “hateship” between eighty-something Jewish and West Indian neighbors in an upscale Johannesburg suburb. Each author has intentionally redefined what is typical of contemporary literature by writing about aging women.
I was struck by recurring debates about the expectations publishers and readers bring to writing identified with Africa. In a book chat with NoViolet Bulawayo and Kinna Likimani, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi discussed her novel Kintu (2014), set in eighteenth-century Buganda and twenty-first-century Uganda. While her decade-long research process involved reading European explorers’ narratives, she said that she decided to avoid writing directly about colonization in order to see if she could address Uganda without the UK or US; she did not want her book to be read only as a novel of colonization, as has too often happened with Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Makumbi insisted that she wrote for a Ugandan reader like the child she had been who yearned for stories about her surroundings. Her declaration, “I don’t care what the West thinks,” drew loud applause from the audience. As a consequence, however, Kintu, which was published by Kwani Trust after winning the 2013 Kwani? Manuscript Project, did not immediately secure a European or North American publisher (although it is now due to be published by Transit Books in 2017).
From another angle, Teju Cole was pressed by Kadaria Ahmed, the moderator of Cole’s book chat with Helon Habila, about what Ahmed called the name-dropping tendencies of his recent essay collection, Known and Strange Things (2016). In response, he called the African-based creative types at Aké his “natural constituency,” one “privileged” less by its elite education than “by its hunger not to be stupid.” He stressed aiming to be “good enough” for his readers rather than condescending to them. Cole added at a later panel discussion that he is often asked some version of whether he thinks he is writing for white people, but to him, the question implies a limited notion of black people. He shrewdly quoted Steve Biko, icon of the anti-apartheid Black Consciousness Movement: “I write what I like.”
In a country where the typical narrative about bookselling bemoans the lack of buyers, it was refreshing to see the bookshop packed with customers in their 20s and 30s. No scarcity of books or readers, here, only of money to spend and space for packing home the new library additions. Makumbi’s Kintu and Teju Cole’s Known and Strange Things each appeared to be among the bookshop’s bestsellers, which suggests an expansive rather than exclusive view of African literature. Both a conscious effort to focus on hitherto-neglected histories in one part of Africa and a conscious interest in the arts and literatures of the world beyond Africa can find a valued place in African writing today.
Check out the Aké Youtube channel for a taste of the festival, and consider making the trek to Abeokuta in 2017.
Nathan Suhr-Sytsma is Assistant Professor of English and a core faculty member of the Institute of African Studies at Emory University. His first book, Poetry, Print, and the Making of Postcolonial Literature, will be published by Cambridge University Press in 2017. Essays related to this project appear in the Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Research in African Literatures, and the forthcoming Cambridge Companion to Postcolonial Poetry. He served as co-convener of the 2016 African Literature Association conference in Atlanta.