Charles R Larson in his 2001 book The Ordeal of the African Writer asserted that only a small number of African writers — Chinua Achebe, Ben Okri, Nuruddin Farah and Wole Soyinka — have become known outside their own continent, stating further that African Writers face enormous obstacles within Africa getting their work published, let alone supporting themselves financially from their writing.
This situation is collaborated by Tolu Ogunlesi writing recently about the Caine prize where he recalled how shocking it was back in 2001 for Nigeria’s Helon Habila to win the Caine prize at a time when it was ( as captured by a character in Habila’s story) unwise for any publisher to waste his scarce paper to publish a novel which nobody would buy, because the people are too poor, too illiterate, and too busy trying to stay out of the way of the police and the army to read.
Fast forward to 2012 and it is an entirely different story altogether. The challenges Larson wrote about no doubt still exist – there are still not enough publishing houses and many writers cannot still subsist on earnings from their craft- but on the count of being known outside of their continent, African writers both at home and in the Diaspora or writers of African origin as many would prefer to term them have bounced up from near oblivion, walking out of the shadows of the greats listed above and are holding the world’s attention in all genres of literature. They continue to overcome inherent challenges, recording remarkable achievements that attest to the greatest of the African Spirit.
The time when African writers turn up at international literary festivals to queue for autographs from writers from other climes is long gone. We now headline these festivals. Just recently in May 2012 Nigeria’s own Orange Prize winning author Chimamanda Adichie gave the 2012 Commonwealth lecture in London where she spoke about the importance of realistic literature insisting that the role of literature is to instruct and delight and that realistic fiction seeks to infuse the real with meaning. But it does not end there. We now have our own international standard literary festivals that attract international literary icons. The 2012 edition of one such festival, the Storymoja Hay Festival ended last week in Nairobi Kenya. The Festival is a four day celebration of stories, ideas, writing and contemporary culture through storytelling, books, live discussion forums, workshops, debates, live performances, competitions, mchongoano and music. Already, plans are in top gear for a similar festival, the 2012 Lagos Book and Arts Festival now in its 14th year.
Perhaps it is in recognition of the achievements of Africa and Africans in the literary scene and the abundant potentials still left untapped that informed UNESCO’s naming of Port Harcourt City, Nigeria as the 2014 World Book Capital. Every year UNESCO convenes delegates from the International Publishers Association, the International Booksellers Federation, and the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions to grant the title of UNESCO World Book Capital to one city. This city holds the title for one designated year, from 23 April (UNESCO World Book Day) until 22 April of the following year and undertakes to organize a series of enriching, educative and entertaining events around books, literature and reading. The worth of this feat is perhaps better appreciated when one considers that Port Harcourt was chosen ahead of Oxford in the United Kingdom, Vilnius in Lithuania and Pula in Croatia who all sent in bids.
There is even more to celebrate in contemporary African writing. Young African writers, resident in Africa, weighed down by the many challenges of life on the continent are daily, publishing themselves, adopting new technologies to tell their stories without the help of international big name publishers or the support of A-class literary agents. Magazines such as kwani? have sprung up as a platform for writers. Majority of African writers are exploiting the internet to publish their work with such publications as Saraba, Sentinel Nigeria, Kalahari Review, Naija Stories etcetera creating the avenue. And as the world increasingly adopts digital publishing for books, Africans have kept pace with such ideas as Takada and SRC being developed with local content to meet the needs of E-readers in Africa.
Last weekend I launched my debut collection of short stories The Funeral Did Not End. My publisher DADA Books is an example of how Africans are keeping the book alive. Led by a fantastic young man Ayo Arigbabu who is passionate about discovering and promoting new African voices, the company has continued, despite the not so favourable economics of the trade, to publish new voices, his enthusiasm buoyed by the success of all the titles so far published. The DADA Books story is a familiar story all across Africa and we have not talked about the numbers quietly self publishing their works all over the continent.
This abundant creative force sustained by a stubborn resolve to tell our own story regardless of our inadequacies and assisted by new media forms some of the Billion awesome reasons to believe in Africa which Coca-Cola is recognizing and celebrating. It tells the story of a generation willing and able to lift itself out of the backwaters of global literary discussion and plant itself in the front pages. It attests to the story telling prowess natural to we African.
Recently, Nigerian poet and novelist, the celebrated writer Ben Okri, (winner of the 1991 Booker Prize for The Famished Road) delivered the 13th Steve Biko Memorial Lecture at the University of Cape Town. The occasion marked the 35th anniversary of the death of Steve Biko, anti-apartheid activist and Black Consciousness leader, in a Pretoria prison following sustained torture and beatings by the security police. Okri’s five-part talk, entitled “Biko and the Tough Alchemy of Africa”, was Pan-Africanist in its spirit and content and he ended with resonating words that in many ways captures the essence of this campaign“Our future is greater than our past….”