Pundits insist Africa is rising, but amidst skepticism, writing and publishing are aspects that are verifiably (and needfully) doing so.

At some point in our collective past as Africans living on the continent, one may have assumed that African writing and publishing had gone to the dogs. The golden age surrounding our comings-to-independence, and the ardour of hope-fuelled literature, had smouldered into embers of dysfunction. I read many of these books as a boy, more than 30 years after. Things Fall Apart, Weep Not Child, The Passport of Mallam Ilia, And African Nights Entertainment; Mine Boy; Cry the Beloved Country and others of similar stuff may be recalled with nostalgia by many that grew up in that period. There was a ‘secondary’ wave – The Pacesetters series, Kola Onadipe, Mabel Segun, Ayi Kwei Armah, Buchi Emecheta, Ama Ata Aidoo, Chukwuemeka Ike – and the good flow went silent, it seemed. Had the Muse been muffled? Oh, and though it may seem unrelated, around the nadir of this plunge, Fela died.

Many that maintained their craft had fled, their talents flung worldwide off this seemingly sinking ship of a continent. We knew them- the Ngugis, Soyinkas, Okris and Achebes, who we now had to be nice and share with the world. Others flourished outside the continent – Biyi Bandele, Chika Unigwe, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie- but from the continent floundering under misrule, turmoil and dead weight, only whispers and short-lived at that. Few gained the renown of their colleagues in the diaspora.

Okay, It’s Tough, But Hey.

Living in Africa is harder than it has to be. Although this makes creative thought harder (or sometimes impossible), it is more of an opportunity. I imagine a writer scrabbling under the survival rungs of Maslow’s ladder sitting down after the day, and groping for his thoughts. I suppose the hardship of just getting by, and a conservative publishing industry glad to cradle textbook-making as a golden goose, conspires to muffle words that should have come unbidden and unhindered. Writing at any significant volume, or in a directed-enough manner, becomes a luxury.

Our Facebook notes, Yahoo groups and chat rooms, and the underground manuscript exchange gave way necessarily to the dawn of our involvement in blogging. We pounced on it with the excitement that comes with a long-unscratched itch. Blog-hopping became the new channel-surfing. More people could read, and be heard, faster and wider than they could have otherwise managed. It was a new way to read, discover and be discovered.

I believe it is the necessary hope, vanity and life-support of the writer to seek expression, and an audience. One can only repress the insistence of words that want out for so long. Our art and literature went nowhere. We just needed new ways of being heard. Not many of the several writers coming into prominence in Africa write fulltime. Many are busy professionals who can manage their literary incontinence no more, and have found new ways to bypass peculiar African dysfunctions and mufflers, or thrive in spite of them. Their words, marinating in the chaos and humdrum of their 8-to-4s, demand an audience.

What the Internet Dragged in

Our coming of age as young Africans coincided with the feral explosion of internet connectivity in the continent. We were better connected to other workers who had toiled in the silence of their own chambers, thinking themselves alone.

There were fora to post stories and articles, for editing or for simple enjoyment, chat-rooms where we spun tag-fiction, groups that drew a larger fold than could be achieved physically, and news that galvanized us to do more. There was suddenly more, of greater variety, to read. The average young person, trawling online, reads the equivalent of a book a day, some say.

Our Facebook notes, Yahoo groups and chat rooms, and the underground manuscript exchange gave way necessarily to the dawn of our involvement in blogging. We pounced on it with the excitement that comes with a long-unscratched itch. Blog-hopping became the new channel-surfing. More people could read, and be heard, faster and wider than they could have otherwise managed. It was a new way to read, discover and be discovered.

Bridging the Narrative

There was a sort of disconnect between urban Africans and the almost-mythical characters of the literary universe handed to us – Okonkwo, Ijapa and Yanibo, Elesin Oba, Moremi, Oba Koso, Kwaku Anansi, Akara-õgun, and a host just as colourful. But this narrative is being bridged by relatable fiction, and narratives by, and of today’s young Africans. The characters and settings are therefore closer and more believable, and less like our childish and caricatured imitations of the greats of our literary dawn.

Digital magazines and journals, like e-books, help us, with the power of the internet, networking, and a love for art, help us to bypass a lot of African dysfunction and barriers to the dissemination of ready words.

Another way in which the narrative has been bridged is the manner in which books have returned to popular culture. We need to realize how much of a step forward this has been. Chinua Achebe’s memoir, ‘There Was a Country’ became the stuff of collective conversations and speculation, mostly by the generation accused of lacking an intellectual bone. Lola Shoneyin’s ‘The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives’ sparked a rich discussion of sexuality and sexual abuse, and ‘Americanah’ got us talking, or squabbling, about hair. Nigerian writing is capturing our imaginations, and influencing discourse about the way forward. The writer needn’t be stuck on shelves of obscurity.

A lot of good will come of this.

Cross-Pollination

The foregoing paragraphs do not assume that Africans only read African literature. The opposite has in fact, been the case. During the barren interlude which resulted in the dearth of qualitative local material, we went abroad seeking sustenance, and a good story. Many in my age-group were handed from Enid Blyton to Nancy Drew, the Hardy Brothers and R.L. Stine, to academic literature texts, to bestseller staples James Hardley Chase, Sheldon, Grisham, Steele, Cussler, King, Koontz, as we became more discerning, and determined our preferences and literary directions. Many, of course, could not sidestep the scary and infinite well of paperback romance.

This cross-pollination sharpened our familiarity with what obtained, and what could. This pollination, and an opening to new worlds, I believe, is a vital part of what makes a good reader, or writer. The tendency, if unchecked, would be to imitate without caution, and numerous examples abound. Yet, local content, that can be global, is winning.

The Rise of the Non-Traditional Publisher

Enter Farafina, and Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus. While Adichie has her critics, her book, its success and popularity, and her youth, electrified young Nigerian (and other African) writers. She was ‘one of us’. We could do it too.

Cassava Republic’s titles have also done a lot to bridge the narrative. Their children’s books are particularly interesting, and I do hope they help ‘reboot’ exploratory reading in our children. Parrésia Publishers and Sentinel Nigeria are giving more opportunity for the deserving to be heard, and increasing the availability of home-brewed writing.

Aggregating, collaborative and exploratory blogs like Afrosays, Kalahari Review, Naija Stories, The Alchemist’s Corner of The Naked Convos, and others like them, must also be identified as the non-traditional publishers they are. These sites help budding writers reach a wider audience, get validation and valuable criticism, are a crucible for writers to hone their craft, and also serve as hubs that urge the undecided, or otherwise busy, to jump into the craft. They are nurseries grooming the next ‘overnight successes’.

As these publishers explore more ways of reaching more people with better content, exploit the internet to discover, nurture and exhibit talent, find better ways to compensate authors and to distribute their books, especially on electronic platforms, we will see an increase in leisure reading and creative writing on the continent.

One will soon be unable to call e-books a non-traditional publishing route, as more writers and publishers are walking that path. It has especially been a boon for self-publishers, who have had cost and savoire-faire barriers to entering the market lowered.

e-Magazines

Digitalmagazines and journals, like e-books, help us, with the power of the internet, networking, and a love for art, help us to bypass a lot of African dysfunction and barriers to the dissemination of ready words. Kwani?, Saraba, Chimurenga, Sentinel Nigeria Magazine and Dust are examples rising in prominence.

Klorofyl Magazine, which I publish with my friends, is an example that can be added to the list. It began as an aggregation of the writing of an enclave of friends in the medical school and university, and eventually grew into more as we found more people with material that needed a platform, and more who enjoyed the output and presentation. With unpaid friends on a shoestring budget, we used the internet to collaborate across countries, process contributions from mostly African contributors and correspond through the editorial process, and to distribute the resultant digital magazine. I believe we will see more examples of this decentralisation, or democratization of publishing on the continent in the near future.

Twitter: The Little Site That Wasn’t So Little

The micro-blogging site, Twitter, is a great example of this decentralisation and democratization of publishing. The number of African twitter accounts, by some estimates, in in the tens of millions. Witticism, flash and serialized fiction and short poetry erupt daily from this population, and are thrown back-and-forth in consistent conversation. It isn’t fully evident where this immersion is taking our literature and publishing, but one realizes we should be doing more to curate and aggregate more of the good material, and to nurture emerging voices.

The Prizes Are Taking Us Somewhere

African Literary prizes, despite those who criticise them of promoting ‘poverty porn’, have brought us a long way. If all these prizes have been able to do is to shake ambivalent writers realizing they can match the winners (or do better) from their stasis, and prompting more and better work, I believe we should be thankful. They are also rewarding good work, or work that aspires to a certain quality.

It also answers our brain-drain question and confirms a known aspect of human behavior–that people do what is rewarded, and go where they will be appreciated. That we are gluttons for opportunity. So while prizes, and our response to them, should be more intelligently directed and correctly nurturing to ‘African’ writing, the critics should not wish them away from us, and should realize what good they’ve done.

African winners of global prizes – Soyinka’s Nobel, Diana Evans’ Orange Prize, Ben Okri’s Booker, Teju Cole’s PEN/Hemingway Award, amongst others – provide a fond validating memory and assertion of our ability. They are us. We can be them.

It has also become evident that to get the kind of books, literature, magazines and representation that we need, we’ll have to put them together ourselves. This is a reminder that the story of our stories isn’t over yet. We’ll see how it unfolds.

Today, Tommorrow

Writing by African writers resident in Africa, and publishing of said authors, is currently in a flux, but a forward-moving flux. Self-publishing is becoming a more explored option for writers that want to control more of the process. Applications like Okadabooks, distributing books (by mostly Nigerian authors) on android (for as low as 20 to 200 Naira) also need to be doing more to reach more people. Worldreader, with their e-readers, and on the biNU platform, is also striving to bring literature to the feature phones of several users, many of them African. There is a proliferation of creating and sharing media, e-books and both physical bookstores and publishers. The words that want out, are getting out.

It has also become evident that to get the kind of books, literature, magazines and representation that we need, we’ll have to put them together ourselves. This is a reminder that the story of our stories isn’t over yet. We’ll see how it unfolds.

Tolu Oloruntoba is a physician and poet, and the publisher of Klorofyl Magazine.

Editor’s Note: The views expressed in this essay do not reflect the opinion of Saraba Magazine. Read the Introductory Note to the series of essays on homebased Nigerian/African literature here.

Photo: SoQ錫濛譙

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