Good News for African Writers
Polity of Literature (40/51)

Good News for African Writers

Provoked by blind spots in a recent New York Times piece about “the African literary scene,” Zimbabwean writer Audrey Simango reports on the conditions she finds on-the-ground for millennial African writers today. The conditions look good.

The first literary journal was published in Amsterdam in 1684. Nouvelles de la Republique des Lettres declared its focus to be what the French called “belles lettres.” Over the next century similarly focused periodicals sprouted up in most European capitals. Leaving “belles lettres” behind, their subject came to be called “la littérature.” Madame de Staël’s two-volume essay, De la littérature, in 1800, described and codified the category in ways that still hold today. “Literature” is and always has been a reputational category developed by a narrow class of people in European Enlightenment cultures, a tool of the bourgeoisie that enabled their ascension into the role of culture-makers. It isn’t surprising to find that every European colonial enterprise eventually led to the founding of literary journals in the occupied lands where settler Europeans pursued their usual goals. The North American Review, founded in the former British colonies in 1815, was among the earliest, and it survives today.

Given the long history of “literature” as an instrument of power—a privileged category vetted by the occupiers in the long tail of Europe’s many colonial expeditions—it was surprising to find the New York Times’s East Africa correspondent recently praising the emergence of Africa’s “new literary journals,” and characterizing them as good news for African writers. We asked a young writer in Zimbabwe to tell us what she thought.

Beware the danger of a single story, the celebrated Nigerian-American writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie famously warned in October 2009, recalling the African origins of her writing. From an ocean of British and American literature taught to her in Nigerian schools, Adichie managed to find islands of African writing and ultimately her own voice. To do so, Adichie had to overcome the post-colonial education that tried to “tell the definitive story of another person.” Twelve years later, a young African writer like me faces entirely changed conditions. The world streams through my smartphone in multiple languages from every place on Earth, near and far. Even a post-colonial education similar to Adichie’s can’t slow me down. But if you read the New York Times you might expect me to be celebrating the arrival of a new set of gatekeepers, the “new African literary journals.”

A large speech bubble covers smaller, colourful speech bubbles. The large bubble reads "The single story equals beware."

Last month, the Times’s East Africa correspondent, Abdi Latif Dahir, applauded “a new generation of literary journals” in Africa for their success trying to “give a voice to a new generation.” Digital and print journals including Lolwe, Doek, and Down River Road could, Dahir wrote, “pave the way for more publications and embolden young Africans to write the next best sellers.” Dahir sees the handful of publications building on the legacy of earlier journals, including Chimurenga, Kwani?, Jalada, Brittle Paper, and the Johannesburg Review of Books, and provides one telling indication of the “success” that he means: two of them recently won Caine Prize nominations for work they published. Indeed, Dahir quotes a trustee of the coveted London-based prize (sometimes called “the African Booker”), Nii Ayikwei Parkes, who praises the new journals as “more progressive, more radical, more expansive,” and, ironically enough, “more subversive.”  Forgive me if I sound angry, but the New York Times risks turning the clock back to the dangerous “single story” that Adichie warned against.

The very phrase “African literary scene” is problematic. Such a singular thing exists only for those outside of Africa, trying to manage what on the ground is a multitude. First of all, there is the infinite variety of cultures, languages, and traditions on a vast continent; and, second, the ways that the colonial legacy of “literature” has played out differently in the various post-colonial nation-states. African literature has evolved into myriad forms that can’t be gathered under a single identity today. Is a writer from Zimbabwe who publishes exclusively in the American press (like me) an African writer, or a global writer? Is an African writing from Johannesburg and publishing solely in South Africa a more pure African writer? What about writers in the African diaspora in Belgium, such as Nozizwe Dube, who has never been to the continent but writes about racial discrimination in the universities in Belgium—is she an African writer? The constraints imposed when we look through the lens of “the African literary scene” already take us far away from the real future of African literature.

As often happens when discussing literature, the New York Times confuses three different aspects of writing and treats them as one. When writing circulates in the world it can bring various rewards. One is popularity or notoriety. The sheer number of people who recognize a writer’s name or her books can be measured in clicks online, or by polling people and asking “do you know so-and-so?” A second, related reward is a positive reputation, for a writer or her writing to be regarded as “literary.” Here is the economy that the New York Times writes about. The Times itself dispenses many of the prizes, alongside other legacy institutions such as book reviewers, literary journals, and lucrative prize committees dispensing crucial markers of reputation, including the Booker Prize and the Caine Prize.

But Adichie’s still-trenchant warning draws attention to a third economy circulating resources that are essential for the health and future of the writing itself, independent of popularity and reputation: How do writers grow? How does the writing itself emerge and get written, and then get read? While thanking the New York Times for identifying the new gatekeepers of reputation among African writers, those of us who are here and working need to ask what about the writing? How is new writing made in Africa, and where do we find it, and is its health and vigour really linked to the good news these legacy brokers of reputation are announcing? Indeed, the pursuit of reputation that the new journals enable can also sound the death knell for a vibrant future of the writing itself. 

An outline of the African continent is drawn on top of a collage of book pages. Inside the outline it reads, "What about the writing?"

If we’re discussing popularity, the real news for African writers is not found in the New York Times or the new literary journals, it’s found on Tik Tok and Twitter. The Times’s audience and the power of their anointed journals is comically dwarfed by the reach and power of social media. This isn’t only true in Africa. There’s a reason why the Times-approved “serious” books sell far fewer copies than, for example, E.L. James’s Grey series or Twilight. If what a writer wants is popularity, they needn’t look to the New York Times nor any of the literary journals to dispense it.

Here in Zimbabwe new writing gains popularity when a Twitter or Tik Tok influencer shares snippets of its pages and recommends it. Caution: the Twitter influencer might not have read the book, and might have been paid to praise-sing a writer. Such doubts prevent us from equating popularity with reputation. Indeed, the dispensers of reputation often use the fact of an author’s popularity as evidence against their quality. Reputation is a scarcity economy—value is created by denying the resource to the vast majority. So, the management of a reputation economy begins by rejecting the popular vote. Literature is anointed by gatekeepers, and African literature is no exception. As in most colonial histories, the gatekeepers are mostly remnants of the colonial administrations that first organized African cultural production around the reputational category of “literature.”

Over the last 100 years, as the continent transitioned from colonial administration to Black rule, it was the literary journals, often Western (Granta, the Paris Review of Books, New Yorker, McSweeney´s Quarterly, Harper´s Magazine), that have been the gold standard for an African writer’s arrival onto “the scene.” Even here in my native Zimbabwe the new generation of successful, Booker Prize-listed authors, like Noviolet Bulawayo and Petina Gappah, still derive great joy and “street-cred” on seeing their essays published in this-or-that well-known journal or on Lithub or anywhere in New York.

A white man with a pencil and a white woman with a pen stand guard in front of a closed gate labelled "Citadel of Literary Legitimacy"

Reputation is the real subject of the New York Times report. Perhaps the fundamental purpose of the literary journals, and the larger reputation system that anoints them, is to discover unknown writers and handhold them to literary stardom. The unassailable, late Kenyan writer, Binyavanga Wainana, is a case study of this system. Like me and my colleagues, like all young writers in Africa, Wainana first developed his craft and found his path largely apart from the resources of European or North American reputation-makers. A decade of writing—lived in what Wainana called the “loose, independent, and creative” community of Kenyan writers—shaped not only Wainana’s work but birthed a home-grown literary journal, Kwani?, as he and his community tried to promote the strength of what they’d made together here at home. In 2002, the year Kwani? launched, Wainana’s short story, “Discovering Home,” won the Caine Prize, which opened doors everywhere to Wainana. For the remaining decade-and-a-half of his tragically short life, Wainana’s resumé shifted largely to England and North America. In 2006, his landmark essay, “How to Write African Writing,” won accolades across the English-speaking world when it was published by Granta. But make no mistake: Granta did not “make” this African writer nor African writing; they marketed him, a task at which literary journals excel. Henceforth the world would read Binyavanga Wainana; but he never abandoned Africa. Indeed, Wainana continued working with Kwani? and many African institutions, investing his hard-earned reputation back home to make new conduits for positive reputations for other African writers.

Wainana’s life story shows the transformative power of reputation. Gatekeeper institutions can be a healthy part of the writers’ world, and not only through marketing. Literary journals support new African writing by vetting it in a qualitative way through editors in London, Paris, Nairobi, or Lusaka. And often there is a modest marketing budget to go with the publication, rather than leaving it all for the author to figure out, as writing on WhatsApp or Telegram does. I admire and celebrate the hard work of creating and sustaining those literary journals, and I’m grateful the New York Times cares so much about them. But, it’s a very small world—the world of the New York Times—preoccupied with foreign readers and the resources they command.

Wainana’s life story also reveals a fundamental contradiction between the economy of reputation, and the vitality of the writing itself. In Zimbabwe writers and our writing thrive in realms untouched by the dispensers of reputation, the literary journals and their partner legacy institutions. Writing grows in circumstances very different from those through which our reputations are made. Near the end of his life, Wainana turned down an invitation to an American gathering of “world thinkers,” by sending this harsh critique:

I assume that most, like me, are tempted to [attend] anyway because we will get to be ‘validated’ and glow with the kind of self-congratulation that can only be bestowed by very globally visible and significant people, and we are also tempted to go and talk to spectacularly bright and accomplished people—our ‘peers.’ We will achieve Global Institutional Credibility for our work, as we have been anointed by an institution that many countries and presidents bow down to. The problem here is that I am a writer. And although, like many, I go to sleep at night fantasizing about fame, fortune, and credibility, the thing that is most valuable in my trade is to try, all the time, to keep myself loose, independent and creative…

If our subject is the future of African writing it is imperative to ask what really keeps an African writer writing and growing, and helps her find her readers. I’m happy to report that the news here is good. Speaking personally, I don’t need literary journals because, thanks to the Internet, millennial African writers can go directly to our readers. My first serious foray into non-fiction literary writing was an essay, “Why as African Millennials We Must Re-debate Colonial Rape.” It might have warranted space in Brittle Paper, or other highly reputed journals, but I published it using Lapp The Brand, an experimental online peer-to-peer blog based in Africa, thereby reaching tens of thousands of readers directly. Did popularity turn into a good reputation for me? This question too was in the hands of Internet readers, especially the many Facebook influencers who read and comment on Zimbabwean writing. What the gatekeeper journals thought of the essay I do not know, nor does it concern me. My primary concern is to read and write widely with as “loose, independent, and creative” an engagement as possible.

Many of us in Zimbabwe trust the opinions of Facebook influencers when weighing the pros and cons of new books. Or we read what our Twitter feeds lead us to. I myself gained reputational points when, thanks to the algorithms of Twitter my work in Newsweek was shared widely online. Here is the confusing confluence of Internet populism and gatekeeper reputation brokering! Without Newsweek‘s imprimatur the vast readership on Twitter might not have sat up and taken notice; but without Twitter (and everything else that I’ve done online throughout my young career) the opportunity would not have grown the way it did. Here in Southern Africa, I know many millennial and upcoming writers, like Zimbabwean biochemist Yvonne Maphosa, who are finding commendable success and audiences by serializing their novels on Twitter. By publishing through Twitter, Maphosa need not concern herself with the tantalizing promises of the literary journals or their closely-held reward of “fame.” She only cares about the writing. As Maphosa commented, “The new writing, formerly given a stamp of approval by literary journals, today can become almost Instagram-like shows.” 

In its preoccupation with the reputation economy, the New York Times has also overlooked the real couriers of new African writing: WhatsApp and Facebook. In Zimbabwe novels are being uploaded and distributed on WhatsApp groups, accessible to the many readers who cannot afford Internet access. In Zimbabwe, most digital communication is carried through the cellphone networks, not the Internet, because access to Wifi and Internet uplinks are expensive and rare. Recently I wrote, for New Internationalist, about Zimbabwean domestic workers who will forsake collecting monetary wages from their rich employers in exchange for getting to broker access to the home-owner’s WiFi—a far more lucrative enterprise than the house-cleaning that is their official job. In Zimbabwe, poor people use their cellphones, not the Internet. For this reason, digital publishing is hosted on cheap Chinese-manufactured Mobitel cellphones, and WhatsApp is far-and-away the most robust publishing platform available. While Western writers who enjoy unlimited Internet might use Amazon Kindle or Smashwords, etc., here in Zimbabwe we publish on WhatsApp groups, similar to online journals, but cell-based. The writing community gathers and evolves in these digital spaces. On WhatsApp and in Facebook groups I’m currently self-training to become a WhatsApp reviewer (of short stories published on WhatsApp) and a self-trained editor, too. I don´t need to cut my teeth interning at a traditional literary journal, like some MFA degree graduate might do in London or New York.

A sketch of the author's face is surrounded by hands holding up cellphones.

These widely-available conduits of publishing popularity—nearly all of them Internet-based—have also begun to develop and dispense reputations, effectively challenging the strangle-hold of the old legacy institutions. Here in Zimbabwe, thousands of readers subscribe to Telegram-list reading rooms like the Public Information Hub (run by occasionally-jailed writer Hopewell Chin´ono). The Public Information Hub is a Telegram “reading room” where long-form writing about corruption and rights abuse is posted, discussed, and also translated by city readers into native languages (and more compact digital forms) that rural readers can share too. The effectiveness and reach of this approach to publishing takes power away from old gatekeepers. “Encrypted Telegram reading rooms, broadcasting long form non-fiction that exposes state wrongdoings, are taking away the vanishing space of the censored traditional book fair in Zimbabwe,” says veteran Zimbabwe freelance writer Tichaona Jongwe

Another flourishing space that has replaced the legacy literary journals is the humble blog, a literary and non-fiction medium that came onto the scene in the early 2000s. After fizzling out in the 2010s, blogs have recently gained new strength as curatorial “reputation” brokers. Like the legacy journals, the blogs now cull “quality” from out of the vast sea of writing. One example is the Zimbabwean blog called “The Big Saturday Read” (BSR). Produced by a Zimbabwean lawyer and writer, the BSR publishes weekly long-form writing that examines the intersection of culture and political suppression in Zimbabwe. Remarkably, it draws in 340,000 Twitter followers, more than any of the local newspapers. Its focus on current events is a backdrop to its function of hosting and rewarding new non-fiction prose. Blogs in Zimbabwe, like the BSR, have attracted tens of thousands of readers at home and among Zimbabweans in the diaspora, and have eclipsed traditional newspapers among a popular audience.

One attraction of blogs as a home for long-form writing in Zimbabwe is that such blogs can be made by anyone. They are not the vestigial limbs of the old colonial administration. Moreover, they can be read by anyone. Not only do a handful of Zimbabwean city readers (the ones with access to Internet) along with those in the diaspora in Europe and South Africa, read online; a significant portion of those readers, myself included, translate the blog posts into local languages (or when posts appear in Shoana or Zulu, translate them into English) and “downsize” the documents for easy, fast distribution through WhatsApp and the cell network that is Zimbabwe’s real space of publication. I’m proud to be a “blog-downsizer,” as we call them here in Zimbabwe. I read the latest BSR every Saturday, because I can afford Internet; and on finishing I translate its 1500-word non-fiction essays into PDF texts that I can further distribute in my WhatsApp groups, so that rural readers with slower internet can read too and be part of the national debate.

Such experimental, unedited, crowdfunded current affairs writing is unpredictable and exciting, though it is a subculture wholly unknown to the gatekeepers of reputation.

I would also argue that any assessment of future prospects for African writing needs to include the SMS newspapers. Most SMS newspapers are crowd-sourced writing platforms fed by sending SMS texts from your phone. They feature new writing created by the audience and vetted only by the algorithms of popularity. But even legacy print newspapers are adopting the technology. In Zimbabwe and South Africa, communities circulate news and new literary writing by using cheap cellphone SMS to publish and share among themselves. Community writing circulated this way is the only means for publishing to a general audience in my rural district, Chimanimani. Such experimental, unedited, crowdfunded current affairs writing is unpredictable and exciting, though it is a subculture wholly unknown to the gatekeepers of reputation.

The future of African writing will also include radio essays. Yes, old fashioned radio is part of the future here in Southern Africa. I am not referring to podcasts of literary work, downloaded and listened to by commuters with access to Internet. Most of the readers/listeners here can’t afford that. In Zimbabwe, it’s the old FM and short-wave analogue broadcast channels that carry literary dramas, which are actually expanding in popularity. The reason is clear: radio reaches people. Public taxpayer-funded shortwave radio in Zimbabwe reaches up to 95% of the population while the internet and podcasts only reach 33%. In neighbouring South Africa, 91% of residents listen to broadcast radio weekly. In Zimbabwe, literary dramas, mostly adapted from novels, air every Thursday evening, followed religiously, like soap operas in the USA, especially in rural districts. School children get to know literary essays and novels by saying “oh, I heard it on the radio.” Old school radio, which is rapidly expanding, is a more important part of the future of African writing than are the equally old-school literary journals.

One facet that makes the literary journals so archaic in this part of the world is that they generally avoid carrying commercial advertising. “For the literary journal, carrying commercial advertising is seen as committing the sin of lacking authenticity, lacking purity,” says independent poet Kudakwashe Magezi in Johannesburg. Yet the newer media carrying African literature—SMS newsletters, WhatsApp boards, radio broadcasts, or Twitter novel serialization, for instance—often include commercial advertising, because writers need money, not just eyeballs or reputation, to sustain our writing. Literary journals that are in most cases funded by grants or foundations and shun commercial advertising don’t pay well, if at all. Fame—in their limited circles—is your only reward. Here in Zimbabwe whenever we circulate popular fiction in WhatsApp or Telegram groups, we insert short texts of advertisers selling clothes, cars, or bottled water, and some money trickles down into the hands of writers. We are experimenting with new ways of publishing that also create financing. Good or bad, such self-commercialization is surely unpredictable and exciting. Writers in Africa get to feel the joy of taking the reins of our own creation.

Perhaps the most telling shortcoming of the New York Times article is its focus on journals that publish primarily in English and French, the colonial languages. African writing has long been limited because the infrastructure of literary publication—from schools to review organs to literary journals—tends to exclude African languages in favour of English and French. These effectively became the default language of African literary production. So strong has that limit been, that journals and newspapers written in Swahili, Zulu or Fulani have only belatedly emerged and have trouble surviving. I myself take pleasure in reading the vernacular Shona language, in the short story drafts of friends trying to write in Shona. In South Africa, online literary works published in the vernacular Zulu African language are promoted on social media and have been gaining popularity over some English-language outlets. They’re part of the good news for African writing, that you won’t find in the literary journals or the New York Times. But the New York Times is either unaware or unconcerned with African writing that falls outside their 20th-century model. It’s old-fashioned and paternalistic to assume that the African writing of yesterday or the present is what we should expect of the future.

And here is where Adichie’s warning comes back in its strongest echoes. When the resources that support African writers and literature are held in the reins of powerful Western players, colonial hands, African writing will suffer. Privileging colonial languages and legacy gatekeepers may be necessary for acquiring fame, but it fatally skews the matrix of power within which African writing will either thrive or be consumed by powerful actors.

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