Defining the Future of African Writing at PEN World Voices Festival

May 13, 2015 § Leave a comment

Ngugi wa Thiong'O on a panel at the PEN World Voices Festival in New York City

Ngugi wa Thiong’O on a panel at the PEN World Voices Festival in New York City

What will the future of “African Literature” look like? Will there be a better defined space for literature written in African languages? Will there be more books by African Diaspora authors? A wider role, perhaps, for African women writers? These were the questions that came to Afrofusion TV at the PEN World Voices Festival in New York City last week. At the panels we attended, the topic of language kept coming up, with a number of writers discussing the viability and importance of writing in native African languages. I wanted to get the perspective of noted Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’O, but I was also keen to speak to Senegalese author Boubacar Boris Diop, who teaches Wolof Literature, and is the author of one of the few books in modern times to be written in the Wolof language, Doomi Golo (2006). The festival this year chose Africa as its focus, and was co-curated by celebrated Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who delivered the Arthur Miller Freedom to Write closing night lecture. The intent, according to festival organizers, was to showcase a diverse group of writers from around the African continent and the diaspora; writers and poets from Congo-Brazzaville,

Lola Shoneyin speaks on the Africa in Two Acts panel with Aminatta Forna, Boubacar Boris Diop and Achille Mbembe

Lola Shoneyin speaks on the Africa in Two Acts panel with Aminatta Forna, Boubacar Boris Diop and Achille Mbembe

Kenya, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Mauritius, Egypt, Haiti, and South Africa came to participate in workshops, panel discussions and readings in various venues around New York City. When we finally secured an interview with Ngugi, he recounted an incident during the opening night event where artists from around the world were tasked with imagining a world in 2050. Ukrainian poet Fedor Alexandrovich told two stories, the first one in Russian, then in Ukrainian, that were translated into English via a large projector. Ngugi, who told his own story in English, wondered, in retrospect, why he hadn’t told his own story in his native Gikuyu, and had it similarly translated, just like he does with his writing. (He stopped writing his novels in English back in 1977.) The incident itself was not a huge deal for Ngugi, but for me it sheds a curious light on the question of the future of what is termed “African Literature.” Quite a few recent novels from contemporary African writers have dealt with themes of location, dislocation and relocation, like Taye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go and NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names. Cameroonian writer Achille Mbembe referenced migration, citizenship and belonging in his introduction to the panel “Africa in Two Acts.” Kenyan novelist Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor (Dust), spoke to us after her panel “In and Out of Africa,” and told us her interest in writing centers more on humanity; although sensitive to the role of women in Africa’s future, she does not advocate a literary future devoid of male voices. Nigerian writer Lola Shoneyin,

Alain Mabanckou and Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor at the panel In and Out of Africa

Alain Mabanckou and Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor at the panel In and Out of Africa

during “Africa in Two Acts,” lamented what she called a “little complex” that she observed some Nigerians have towards foreigners, that she attributed to the effects of colonialism which suggest that a lot of Africans do not quite “value who they are” to the extent that they should. This issue, for me, is the crux of the problem, within the wider context of progress, and the role of African creatives in that progress. If  language is, indeed, intrinsic to – or, as Ngugi put it, “the spirit of” – a people’s culture, what does it say about that culture if its writers and artists continue to operate almost exclusively in foreign languages? For Boubacar Diop the key question, as an African writer, is who are you speaking to? When the problem of literacy in African countries is discussed, the languages being referred to are European languages. Ngugi believes that African governments need to take the initiative in emphasizing the importance and relevance of local African languages to literacy and education. Professor Kwesi Prah has sounded similar calls for the democratization of African languages. What are your thoughts on the language issue in among contemporary African writers? In our upcoming segment on African Literature, Afrofusion TV will further examine what the future of African writing holds for the development of Africa. We will keep you posted. In the meantime, I stitched together some thoughts on the issue from Ngugi, Diop, and Ms. Owuor that you can watch, above. Just a taste of what’s to come. Bless…

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