AiW Guest Madhu Krishnan.
AiW note: This week in the run up to the 2018 Writivism festival, the Arts Managers and Literary Activists Network (AMLA) hosted their third annual workshop bringing together early career academics and Africa-centered literary producers. It therefore seemed a timely moment to look back to and document some of the important reflections on what it means to be a literary activist shared by Nii Aykwei Parkes in his AMLA keynote at Writivism 2017.
What exactly is literary activism? How can an aspiring arts manager or literary activist develop their work and make a difference to the landscape of African literature today? What are the key values and principles that need to drive any sustained engagement with literary infrastructures and communities? These questions, each of which drives to the heart of the ways in which African literature is produced, how it is disseminated, and who bears the rights and responsibilities for its contours, lay at the heart of a keynote speech delivered by award-winning writer, poet, publisher and producer Nii Ayikwei Parkes at the 2017 Writivism Festival. This keynote marked the culmination of the second edition of the Arts Managers and Literary Activists (AMLA) workshop held at that festival. Parkes’s keynote could be described as a call to arms for literary activists across the continent, challenging received wisdom about how the literary landscape can and should function and outlining the core values that drive literary activism in twenty-first century Africa.
Drawing on his own experience as both a writer and producer, Parkes emphasised the need for producers and activists to keep writers and their work at the centre of what they do: ‘when you centre the artist you will always find something of value to give them’. In the absence of official structures or government-sponsored patronage for the arts, the networks of people and reciprocal relationships of care, trust and respect that develop between practitioners, producers and publics have to flourish in order to develop infrastructural systems of their own. Drawing on his experiences working on editorial boards since the age of thirteen, curating the African Writers Evening at London’s Southbank Centre and running a successful publishing house (flipped eye publishing), Parkes ran through a veritable checklist of essentials for all aspiring literary activists, highlighting the need to develop networks first and foremost and working from there.
As anyone who works in the arts or creative industries knows, the assumption that producers and practitioners do it all for love has become commonplace. Without wanting to diminish the passion and drive which people put into their projects, this has led to a situation in which it is all too frequent an occurrence that artists and producers are asked to work for free – the expectation being that any committed artist would be happy to do so, irrespective of any financial rewards. While this is not a situation entirely unique to the arts, Parkes noted the pervasive nature of such models, forcefully arguing that they can only function to the detriment of the literary landscape. Even where it is realistically not possible to raise funds to pay full salaries to all invited guests, Parkes explained that his first priority in working with other writers and artists is to be clear with them about what he is doing and why, and to explain what he would like to be able to offer them, even if it ultimately may not happen. By showing an explicit recognition of the value of work, doors open and avenues for negotiation and collaboration appear.
The AMLA workshop is part of a burgeoning network facilitated by the Center for African Cultural Excellence and Africa in Dialogue. That AMLA envisions itself as a network is no coincidence. Networks and network-building were at the core of Parkes’s advice to young literary activists: not merely of producers, artists and writers, but of all interested parties, from teachers to critics to everyday enthusiasts, who together engage in modes of horizontal solidarity to create the very fabric of literary culture today.
Negotiation was another key term which recurred across Parkes’s remarks: negotiating with writers to give them the best possible deal; negotiating with funders to make this happen; negotiating, again, when funding falls through to ensure that future projects will go differently. Communication, too was repeated refrain across his remarks: communication with invited guests and performers, who should always know exactly what they are getting and what you are asking; communication with vendors and venues; communication with media outlets and publics; and international communication in the form of an archive that can serve as a reference in the future of what you have done and what you did.
At the core of Parkes’s keynote was a simple message: keep your core beliefs and don’t be afraid to put them out there. If your message is clear, you will find support, even if it isn’t just through money. There are other ways of working and other ways of showing value, but the people-centred relationship has to come first, and social and cultural capital are quantities that every producer and activist needs to learn to use, to balance and to leverage. Books matter: books are where history is written and where memory lies, and ultimately literary activism is about the struggle to preserve the everyday experiences registered in the text, the lifeworlds and narratives therein, and to promote it to the world. Literary activism, he concluded, is not about the activist as much as it is about the artist and facilitating that work to those who might someday feel its influence.
Madhu Krishnan is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of English at the University of Bristol. Her research considers contemporary African writing in the context of transnational, world and global literary production. She is the author of Contemporary African Literature in English: Global Locations, Postcolonial Identifications (2014), Writing Spatiality in West Africa: Colonial Legacies in the Anglophone/Francophone Novel (2018) and Contingent Canons: African Literature and the Politics of Location (2018). She has also guest edited issues of Research in African Literatures, Journal of Postcolonial Writing, Wasafiri and Social Dynamics.