Writings of the general word's body

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Readings, writing and 'African Writers'

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).


NakedSha said...

I was at this event and I was glad I went. I must have seen you without taking note of the face.

Excellent insight into the event.

Nana Fredua-Agyeman said...

This is an interesting article/review of the event. My problem is that if we brought all books written by Africans (irrespective of their location) and we randomly select 90% of the books, a common theme would run through: hunger, poverty, etc. Those themes have come to represent an African Writer. So that when we say an 'African Writer' we are really referring to an African who writes dystopian or noir novels. A writer has a large resource to select from. He could choose to focus on the 'half empty' cup or the 'half full' cup. But it looks like most of our authors (from the continent) write such novels to feel accepted into the larger international community; or to get published easily. And when a writer chooses such subjects because of the aforementioned reasons, I begin to question his intention as a writer. We're are crowding these topics too much and for me if I pick a book and the issues is about the poverty and hunger and all that I feel I've already read it. Tell me something different. Let me know how you can stretch your imagination. It is fiction, not a recording of history. Create. Not every American fiction contains guns.

Wordsbody said...

Hi NakedSha,
And I did speak a couple of times. I was the one drawing a distinction between Osondu’s stories, ‘Waiting’ and ‘Janjaweed Wife’, after some had argued that both works are the same. I also mentioned Conrad at some point. Oh well, next time…

Thanks for your contribution, especially the point about the “crowding” of certain topics into our works. It has been suggested many times that people just aren’t writing Other Africas, but I do wonder if this is so. Note this from Ogunlesi’s Caine piece: “[Bulawayo’s] declaration… (on her Caine winning story being the Africa she knows) should serve as an invitation to all who feel… that the stories of the Africa they know are not being written. If there is an imbalance of stories out there, surely the blame should go to those who should be writing but aren't, not to those who are.”

For me, it isn’t so much that people aren’t writing all sorts of African realities. They are. It is that these Other stories aren’t coming to the fore, for whatever reason.

Amy said...

Thanks for this great post, sounds like a fantastic event. I think the fault perhaps doesn't really lie with the writers but rather with the readers and with all those who lie between the writer and the reader - what is being chosen for publication, what is being marketed and how much marketing is it receiving, what messages are authors being told about what sells, and etc.

Wordsbody said...

Thanks, Amy.
We've now had reports from Osondu's reading in Port Harcourt too, and it appears he had to deflect similar criticisms over there. And he's doing so with lots of quotable lines!

Petina Gappah said...

Molara, powerful stuff as always. Did you read my review of Osondu in the Observer earlier this year? I anticipated these concerns, and addressed them. The problem is simply that there are such few writers who break through that all burdens are placed on their shoulders. I look forward to the day we can see all writers as individuals, and not as representatives. I think, by the way, that you are too hard on Terry, but I really do not want to go into the whole African writer thing again! Here is my Observer review. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/jan/16/voice-america-ec-osondu-review

Wordsbody said...

Hi Petina. I read your review of Osondu when it came out and enjoyed it. I even linked to it in my E.C post of July 20. I think writers have generally been loathe to criticise Olufemi Terry openly, probably because he’s a Caine winner and that must make him wonderful. But the Caine is no beatification; Terry is not infallible and we can choose to take him up on what he says. If he had said what he said 3 years after winning a prize for ‘African Writing’, it might not look so bad, but straight after? There was some bad taste to it. There are many shadings to this African Writer thing, Petina. For me, it’s neither black nor white. Hope that’s OK.

t said...


Petina Gappah said...

I hear you Molara ... but perhaps no one has criticised Olufemi because how he sees himself ultimately matters most to himself and to no one else? That being said, he has certainly given people something to talk about!! I find it interesting that no one at the reading seemed to talk about craft or about whether EC's book was actually any good. I think we do ourselves a disservice if we look at African stories only from the lens of their level of misery. But small small, we will get there. Keep writing! Pg

Wordsbody said...

Petina, you generalise. Read my post again. That many at the reading expressed these views about Osondu's collection does not mean Everybody did. It certainly doesn't mean that I did. I really don't want to discuss Terry further. I'm holding to my views; hold on to yours. Keep writing too! MW

Petina Gappah said...

Oh I'm sorry, the impression I got from your post was that the discussion was mainly about the level of misery in EC's book. I am glad if other issues were discussed, particularly issues around craft. I liked his book a lot, and it deserves to do well in Nigeria. Pg