Three significant African authors will be among the household names and rising stars going to Edinburgh in August to take part in its International Book Festival. The festival is the largest and most dynamic of its kind in the world, part of the huge arts extravaganza that takes over Scotland’s capital city every summer.
Alain Mabanckou (pictured) is Republic of Congo’s celebrated novelist, poet and academic. His prize-winning novels, written in French and translated into numerous languages, include African Psycho, which takes place in the mind of a serial killer, the darkly comic Broken Glass, and Memoirs of a Porcupine, drawing on folk tales.
He has won international prizes and this year was the first Congolese writer to be nominated for the Man Booker International prize, though he comments, “I never see things in terms of ‘being the first’ on this or that. The most important thing is to express what we have and encourage the young people to follow our steps.”
Explaining how to understand his work, Mabanckou says: “My novels are about characters who hail from Congo’s poor, popular, working class neighbourhoods.” But as well as this, he adds, “I try to go beyond the Congo and I have published two non-fictions about blackness and freedom of speech in Letter to Jimmy [a homage to his literary hero James Baldwin].”
His latest work, Return to Point-Noire, is a memoir. He left Congo aged 22, and returning 25 years later to the bustling port town on Congo’s southeastern coast, he found a country in some ways changed beyond recognition.
“It’s a very generous and thoughtful depiction of returning to a place where he’s well aware that he’s become an outsider, both as a celebrity and as somebody from elsewhere,” says the International Book Festival’s director Nick Barley, who has travelled to Congo with Mabanckou, and did literary festivals with him in Brazzaville. “I saw him surrounded by readers from children to older people – they saw him as some kind of superstar. For a literary person to have such a status in that society I thought was pretty incredible,” he says.
“Pointe-Noire struck me as an extraordinary symbol of what’s happening globally,” continues Barley. “It was the place where 4m slaves were sold. But it has become a port from which oil is exported from Africa. So from the global trading horror of human beings, now it’s a place where oil leaves the country. You see the big ships out in the sea and people living in shantytown conditions. That’s the kind of thing we have to think about when we think about the way the world works.
“So for a very international festival, Alain seemed to be a very good person to talk about literature, not only from a sub-Saharan African point of view but also because Pointe-Noire is just such a metaphor for globalisation.”
Another well-known African author to be taking part in the festival is Cape Town-based crime writer Margie Orford, best known for her Clare Hart thrillers, which tap into the hopes and frustrations of life after Apartheid. Recently she has become an ‘opinionista’.
“I invited her,” Barley says, “because she’s written incredibly eloquently about the Oscar Pistorius trial [for killing his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp] and the culture of the way in which women are treated generally – the violence towards women in South Africa, which she thinks is an insidious backdrop to the way Pistorius was treated during his trial.”
The third invited African author is Chigozie Obioma. His novel The Fishermen is garnering rave reviews. It’s the story of four brothers and the after-effects of a prediction that one of them will kill the eldest. It has been described as a “dazzling debut” and been long-listed for the prestigious Man Booker Prize.
Obioma was born in Akure, Nigeria, and now lives in the US, where he is a Fiction Fellow at the University of Michigan. “The Fishermen first came to me as a tribute to my many brothers, and a wake-up call to a dwindling nation – Nigeria. Then it grew into something much more than that,” he says.
Although two of the African authors to feature at the Edinburgh International Book Festival work in English, it is crucial to Barley that the event celebrates a wide range of international authors and a huge diversity of language, thought and insight from disparate cultures. “The global domination of the English language means that we don’t necessarily have to look beyond it,” he says. “We forget that there are important ideas in other languages. Many of the great classics that we read in English were written in other languages, whether it’s Cinderella or War and Peace. There are plenty of great stories in other languages and yet with the creeping spread of English we risk losing something very, very important if we don’t keep on insisting that we translate other languages.”