The Life House on the night of E.C Osondu's reading. Photo by Olushola Aromokun. More images here.
Was at E.C Osondu's reading at The Life House last Friday. It was a mostly inner-core writers' audience, which made for a somewhat sharp edged spiritedness sometimes. Artsville columnist and all-round arts-man-about-town Toyin Akinosho came in at some point and straightaway fired a volley of questions at Osondu. Who, perhaps having had some inkling of a not-too-flattering pronouncement on Voice of America by the former in a recent Artsville, seemed prepared for just such an encounter, and gave as good as he got. It was an interesting evening (see art historian Chika Okeke-Agulu's post on the reading), one in which the book talk spilled onto The Life House lawn even after the reading event was over. Everyone seemed to have an idea what kind of story they wanted Osondu to write, but which he didn't, to their chagrin. Should he have dwelled so much on misery? Should the stories have begun in Lagos sequentially to end up in America? Why so many urban myths? ("rural myths" even got a mention, whatever those are). Discussion on the lawn even touched on how successfully or otherwise the author had related the Nigerian Disaspora experience. Me, though I could see where some of the discussants were coming from, felt they may have been too prescriptive at times. "I would be bothered if my story made you happy," declared Osondu, in response to the repeated suggestion that he focuses too much on the negative. He was an excellent advocate for himself, defending his right to write whatever catches his fancy, let those who don't like it take a hike. He didn't use quite those words... I loved that whatever he said, however simple, showed a deep grounding in the writing craft. "Boring" was someone's view of some of the anxieties over Osondu's writing. And 'boring' is what I have come to think of the never-ending debate over the term 'African Writer', a beast that rears its head regularly even at readings in Lagos these days. At one reading last year, practically everyone on the stage - even those that never voiced any issues with the term before - talked the matter to death. Only one writer said something like: The hell with it. I'm an African writer, so what? The others talked and talked, explaining their concerns to the point where we in the audience - and I suspect even they - no longer knew for sure what those particular concerns were meant to be. The annual Caine round has just ended and I see the argument has now extended to whether the 'African' should be dropped from the Caine Prize altogether (see Tolu Ogunlesi's reflections on this year's Caine). Ogunlesi agrees with the latest high profile objector to 'African Writing', 2010 Caine winner Olufemi Terry. On the contrary, I find Terry's manner of prosecuting his 'African anxiety' somewhat distasteful. Olufemi Terry, once a seemingly peripheral figure on the South African writing scene, won the Caine Prize for Stickfighting Days and made lots of people in Cape Town and Johannesburg very happy. If we didn't know before, we quickly discovered that, despite his Nigerian/Yoruba first name, the Caine winner is actually Sierra-Leonian-born, of Antillean heritage. The citizen of the world quickly rubbished the 'African Writing' tag of the prize that had just given his career a space shuttle shot in the arm. Yet he proudly went onstage to collect the prize and smiled through photographs celebrating him as the winner of The Caine Prize For African Writing. He didn't seem to notice when his story was being entered for the Caine, I suppose. Or could he not have climbed the stage to turn down the prize? Lots of people have turned down prizes on principle and we actually admire some of those folks. Not Terry, who declared, "The label 'African writer' is not a particularly helpful one ... Whether it's journalism or fiction, there is too much emphasis put on issues such as poverty or disease, and I feel the label 'African writing' exacerbates that particular tendency." This, from the author of a nihilistic story about poor glue-snifing street children? Another year goes by, it's time for another Caine and up pops Terry again, in Granta, to say, "There is, for me, no African writing, only good writing and bad writing." A fine thought, for sure, from whichever angle you want to look at it. Yet there remains that niggly thing, as Terry fills us in on the last one year. He who had sought more of a shift away from writing about Africa set on the continent in favour of the Diaspora, quickly moved to Struttgart, Germany "for personal reasons" (in case you were going to ask). It concerned him that, during his Caine-facilitated Georgetown residency, American university and secondary school students read baffling meanings into Stickfighting Days - as if secondary school students cannot be found reaching baffling conclusions about all sorts of stories, including 'Non-African' ones. It bothered him also that non-Africans assume, on the strength of the author's bio alone, that the story is set in Sierra-Leone. As if Will Self and Martin Amis agonise over whether readers in Lagos assume, no thanks to bios, that their novels are set in England. Does the Reader not bring someone of him/herself to the text? And though there hasn't been much by way of publishing activity from him since his Caine win, Terry is able to boast that he has been able to stretch the understanding of 'African writing' till the label was revealed as "meaningless." I never read Stickfighting Days all the way through until about two weeks ago, and I thought it was a masterful piece of writing, a worthy Caine winner. But I think Olufemi Terry is looking the gift horse too intently in the mouth. It's been over a decade now since Leila Aboulela won the very first Caine Prize for African Writing, for Sudan. Aboulela could have busied herself shooting from all angles at labels pinning her to 'Africa', the Arab World or even Britain, where she is based. But she doesn't. She just writes. Between her and Olufemi Terry, I know whose approach I prefer. E.C Osondu is reading on Saturday at Terra Kulture, Victoria Island, Lagos, starting at 3pm. Across the lagoon in Yaba's Debonair Bookstore, another set of writers - including Toni Kan, Jumoke Verissimo and Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo - are reading also at 3pm (see flyer below).
I am a writer and arts journalist now based in Lagos. This is a blog on arts and culture. The focus is on Nigeria's art scene, especially her 'Word's Body' - the writers. As and when, we'll also touch on wider African writing, as well as international literature. In short, a saturation of the arts.