African literature is emerging into the global mainstream, as homegrown and international initiatives nurture the next generation of writers.
Ghanaian-born Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel Homegoing is creating a sensation in the publishing industry. A US publisher reportedly bought it for a “seven-figure sum”, and when publishers from around the world converged last month for the London Book Fair, there was a bidding war for UK rights.
Gyasi grew up in Alabama in the US: her novel is set in 18th century Ghana and follows the descendants of two half-sisters, unknown to each other, across three centuries of African and American history.
International interest in African authors is intensifying. This month in New York, PEN American Center, a chapter of PEN International, which promotes literature and defends freedom of expression, holds its annual World Voices Festival. This year it focuses on African literature, co-curated by international cultural curator and writer László Jakab Orsós and Nigeria’s Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the award-winning author of Purple Hibiscus, Half of a Yellow Sun and Americanah, who will give the closing address.
Among the 15 African writers who will give talks and workshops are Republic of Congo’s Alain Mabanckou, Cameroonian Achille Mbembe, Nigerian author Teju Cole, Senegalese screenwriter Boubacar Boris Diop, and Kenyan writers Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Billy Kahora, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor and
Orsós says that this is the first time the festival has focused on a region. “It has been an amazing experience. I started reading African literature and I found it refreshing, alarming, disturbing and totally riveting. And then I was on the nominating board for a mentorship programme. We asked for manuscripts from all over the world. The first batch arrived without names. When we got the names and the locations, it turned out that most of the manuscripts I found interesting were from Africa. It was absolutely obvious for me that our focus would be Africa.”
Francophone and Anglophone African authors will mix with African American writers. “Chimamanda and I debated how we wanted to frame Africa – the authors will be very hands on. We’ve tried to address political themes and issues as well as cultural and social. These people are some of the most interesting minds in the international literary landscape,” Orsós says.
For the first time, four authors out of the 10 finalists for the £60,000 ($90,000) Man Booker International prize, awarded this month, are African: Mia Couto from Mozambique; Ibrahim al-Koni from Libya; Alain Mabanckou from Republic of Congo; and Marlene van Niekerk of South Africa. The prize is awarded every two years to an author whose work is published in English or translated into English, and recognises their body of work. The others range from the US to India, Argentina, Hungary, Lebanon and Guadeloupe.
“We were delighted but also surprised,” says South African-born Elleke Boehmer, one of the judging panel, and a novelist and professor of English specialising in African and Indian literature at the University of Oxford. The selection arose spontaneously from the panel’s diverse members, she says.
The authors represent a ‘Southern Cross’
of North, Southern, East and West and Central
Africa. Although they are from diverse regions and countries, there are common threads, she says.
“It’s notable that all four writers tap into local traditions of storytelling, folklore, mythology in very, very direct ways. And the other thing they have in common is that they also have a kind of hotline into demotic and colloquial speech. They very much capture the voices, the languages, the ways of talking of the communities by whom they are surrounded. That is something very pungent and very noteworthy about their writing.”
None of the writers works in English, Boehmer says. Instead, they all write in “transmutations of languages that have been disseminated… through empire, trade, exchange, travel.” This creates a unique diversity of tone and expression.
“There’s something very vital and alive about the narrative imagination of all four writers. Even though all four write about some dark places of experience – war, deprivation and oppression and exploitation – they find ways of transmuting those into something that’s imaginatively very, very rich,” Boehmer says.
While Homegoing was being auctioned in London, in Elmina on Ghana’s coast, the next generation of African writers was being encouraged to tell their own stories. Students in local schools took part in sessions with African authors, organised by the Caine Prize for African Writing, founded in
2000 in the UK, and awarded every July.
“This felt like exactly the right thing to be doing on the anniversary of the brutal kidnapping of the Chibok Girls in Nigeria, who have been denied that right to an education,” director Lizzy Attree says from Ghana. “We were very grateful to be welcomed to speak about storytelling and the importance of a creative imagination and freedom of expression.”
Sudanese author Leila Aboulela and Zukiswa Wanner, a South African novelist and journalist, with a visit from Ghanaian novelist and poet Kojo Laing, held workshops for 12 writers from eight African countries, during which they completed a short story, to be published in the 2015 Caine Prize anthology in July.
“The inclusion of African authors by the Windham Campbell Prize, the International Man Booker Prize and others places African writers in their rightful place amongst some of the very best writers in the world and is long overdue. There are far more writers to come, some of whom may be writing in Elmina right now,” Attree says.
Throughout the continent, the work of developing African authors continues. In June, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie holds a creative writing workshop in Lagos, organised by the Farafina Trust, of which she is a director, along with, among others, Binyavanga Wainaina. In Kampala, the African Writers Trust held the Uganda International Writers Conference. Whilst international awards confirm African writers’ place in the international literary world, director Goretti Kyomuhendo also stresses the importance of Africa-led initiatives and voices.
“I believe this is a very good time be an African writer, not least because of the support from the ‘external’ efforts by the promoters of African literature – which continues to grow – but for me, what I think is even more important is that African writers are beginning to create their own centres of gravity,” she says from Kampala.
“There is a time when the West was looked at as ‘The Centre’ and Africa as ‘The Periphery’. Numerous writers on the continent are organising their own writing and publishing activities – in the form of literary forums and publishing outfits, all of which are aimed at developing and supporting African writers to improve on their craft.”