A Brief History of Africa Writes – by Sheila Ruiz, Head of Programmes, Partnerships & Operations at The Royal African Society
The idea was simple – to offer an annual platform to showcase established and emerging literary talent from across Africa and its Diaspora. The aim was clear – to connect diverse London audiences with contemporary African authors and narratives, hoping that this would bring about a positive cultural shift in the British public’s understanding of ‘Africa’. Five years on, over 5,000 people have attended Africa Writes and the festival has firmly established itself within the UK. We have also garnered an international following and reputation through our podcasts and social media networks and some enthusiastic fans travel from overseas to attend annually. All of this is a great affirmation for our work and the festival.
Gestation & Birth
The birth of Africa Writes was, like many wonderful things in life, the result of a timely synergy of people and events. The year 2012 marked the 50th anniversary of the pioneering African Writers Series (AWS); it was also my first year working for the Royal African Society (RAS) and I had made the suggestion of hosting an annual African literature festival, which was very well received. Following the success of the inaugural Film Africa festival in November 2011, the RAS was keen to embark on a new venture. A meeting between Lynette Lisk, the Commissioning Editor at Person (publishers of the AWS), James Currey (Founder of James Currey Publishers and former Editor of the Heinemann’s AWS), and some of us at the RAS set the ball rolling. We then made contact with Lizzy Attree, Director of The Caine Prize for African Writing, and agreed to schedule the festival on the weekend prior to the prize announcement, so that we could host the shortlisted writers. And voilà – Africa Writes came to be in a very organic and collaborative way, which is the approach we have tried to maintain throughout the years.
1st Year (2012)
The first year was challenging and difficult, but also magical and rewarding. We held the festival at SOAS and organised an outdoor Book Fair and Food Market in the adjacent square. We were lucky and the sun shone the whole weekend. The festival felt intimate, yet epic. We invited key members of London’s African literati as well as guests from the continent and abroad. We hosted sessions exploring the challenges and opportunities of publishing contemporary African literature, on ‘writing away from home’, numerous book launches of AWS titles and others, and some interactive story-telling for the little ones. Our headline speaker was the stellar Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, who wooed a packed audience as she paid homage to the African women writers who had inspired her and the AWS books she was influenced by. Once the two days of the inaugural festival were over, we knew something special had started and that sense of excitement and achievement propelled us on to 2013.
2nd Year (2013)
The second edition of Africa Writes was much bigger and better. We partnered with the British Library, invited many more speakers and added an extra day to the festival programme – the Friday, which was to have a more academic focus and in 2013 also coincided with the 50th anniversary of the African Studies Association of the UK. As part of the Friday, we launched the ‘Africa in Translation’ symposium, curated by acclaimed translator and intellectual Wangui wa Goro. The symposium highlighted African literature and authors writing in other European and African languages and it added a whole new dimension to the festival. Kenya’s leading writer in exile Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and his son Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ, who were headlining the festival that year and are staunch proponents of writing in African languages, attended the translation symposium and participated vigorously. We also introduced a second headline event on the Friday evening, aimed at a younger audience, with poets Warsan Shire, Nick Makoha, Nii Ayikwe Parkes and Leetho Thale. We sold out both headline events, which were the only paid sessions, and the rest of the festival remained free and open to all. Highlights of 2013 included a fruitful collaboration with Yardstick Festival in Bristol and Bath, a panel debating ‘Afropolitanism’, and a staged production of the Epic of Sundiata, adapted and directed by our very own Dele Meije Fatunla, which closed the festival on a very high note. The exceptional success of the second year resulted in a continued partnership with the British Library, which helped to secure a future for Africa Writes.
3rd Year (2014)
The 2013 edition was a hard act to follow, but we managed to develop the festival further in 2014 by bringing new writers and ideas to the fore. It was as though our festival was growing in tandem with contemporary African writing itself, reflecting the conversations that needed to be had. It was a beautiful thing. For Africa Writes 2014, we held sessions on popular genre fiction and explored new types of texts that went beyond the classic novel format; we talked about writing in between and across literary genres and we broadened the ‘gaze’ by looking at travel writing by African and Diaspora authors. With our two headline events, which were once again sold out, we reclaimed the ‘feminine voice’ in African literature, putting women poets and writers on the spotlight. Our star guest for 2014 was Ama Ata Aidoo, one of my favourite writers of all time, so it was an absolute dream to be able to host her. Our other key guest of 2014 was the prolific Wole Soyinka, whom we hosted ahead of the festival for his 80th birthday.
4th Year (2015)
Now on to Africa Writes 2015 and how we raised the bar even higher. The fourth edition of the festival was enhanced with an expanded workshops programme and more interactive sessions for our engaged audiences. One of the things we realised from previous years was that quite a few of the festival attendees were budding writers themselves or critics and academics. We wanted to give these audience members the opportunity to be more meaningfully involved in the festival and we programmed a couple of sessions to this end – ‘Meet the Publishers’, a Dragon’s Den-style pitching event for aspiring writers; and ‘Emergent Discourses on African Literature’, a session bringing together new scholarship and academic approaches to ‘African literatures’. For our headline event on the Saturday evening, we hosted the acclaimed writer Ben Okri, who gave an outstanding lecture entitled ‘Meditations on Greatness’. On the Friday evening we invited five Africa39 writers to talk about their favourite African book titles of all time in a session called ‘African Books to Inspire’, which turned out to be an audience favourite. Once again, both our ticketed events were sold out.
5th Year (2016)
For this year – our 5th anniversary! – we have programmed yet another exciting and wide-ranging festival, which will include some of the most popular sessions from our previous editions – such as the Caine Prize shortlisted writers’ conversation, ‘African Books to Inspire’ and ‘Meet the Publishers’ – as well as new ones. This year we are shining a light on ‘disruptive stories’, including narratives of displacement and migration, women’s and LGBT stories. On Friday 1st July, we present ‘Sex, Love & Poetry’, an evening of explicit readings and uncensored conversation hosted by world-renowned Nigerian LGBT rights activist Bisi Alimi. On the evening of Saturday, 2nd July, we welcome the internationally renowned Egyptian feminist writer Nawal El Saadawi to headline the festival. And to close the festival, on Sunday 3rd July, we host a staged reading of Joy Gharoro-Akjopotor’s ‘The Immigrant’, a provocative new play set in the year 2116 about a desperate British migrant claiming asylum in the African Union. Imagine that! These are just some of the highlights of the three-day festival feast we have prepared to mark our 5th birthday. But check out the full Africa Writes 2016 programme and come and join us to celebrate five years of Africa Writes. The festival is for you!
FRIDAY 1 JULY 2016
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