Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire
The Africa39 project needs no introduction. Does it? I think African Books To Inspire however needs. In fact, requires. Most times, when writers are invited to speak on panels, to participate in conversations, it is about their own work, right? Or they will talk about themes in their work, things intimately connected to their work. So when I saw a panel that will discuss books that inspire writers, I was already blown away by the concept. I know there are radio shows that focus on the books writers read, and newspaper columns and all, but come on, we get used to festivals and literary events as platforms for writers to market their latest works, to launch their books etc., not to talk about the books they love. So, I was already in love with Hannah Pool’s concept on reading the detail of the event.
Also to be more honest, I have interacted and worked with four of the writers on that panel in the Writivism programme. Nii Parkes sits on the Writivism Board of Trustees, Ndinda Kioko and Chibundu Onuzo joined the mentoring programme in 2015 and Abubakar was with us at the beginning in 2013 mentoring, judged our 2014 short story prize and facilitated our 2014 workshop in Abuja. So this was a Writivism family affair for me, at some level. Of course, I was scratching my head as to how to pitch to Nadifa Mohammed to join our army of generous mentors.
But selfish interests aside, this event was all types of hilarious, interesting, deep and engrossing. Before we go to the details, the substance as I would say, it was a full-house. Fully booked. You may wonder why I have to point that out. Because it was even more packed than the free events at #AfricaWrites. Tickets for the African Books To Inspire went for £7 to £10. Of course the timing of the event, in the evening, after work hours for most, is a likely a factor, but let us not dwell on that. We had fun.
The writers told us the books that have inspired them. Chibundu did not spare our ribs with her hilarious and deceptively simple responses loaded with a lot of irony and sarcasm. And she kept on saying that she is competitive like every /Nigerian and went out of her way to dramatise this competitiveness. Seriously, it could only be Chibundu to say that she does not mind the label of African Writer because her British contemporaries do not get the attention she has received and add that she was invited to Brazil to speak about Love in the Time of Ebola. Her book is a beautiful romance story of a rich girl dating a hawker on the dusty streets of Lagos.
So, you can imagine the predictability of the questions that these writers were asked. Same old script. Hanna Pool started it with the African writer/Literature thing. Nadifa said she would like her books at the front of the bookstore. Ndinda questioned the motives of the question. Abubakar said that if it helps sell books, any label works for him, even being called a Japanese writer. These writers were having fun. And we, too in the audience.
The trophy however goes to the honesty and raw truth that answered the question on Afropolitanism and African writing. It came from the audience. Do not blame Hannah. There was even a question about writing in African languages. It was swallowed by comments on having to talk about African literature in London. Generally, same old things. But back to Afropolitanism and African writing. Nii Parkes jumped at it. Called it BS. Yes BullShit. He asked why London is considered the cosmopolis, not Lagos. He claimed that African villages have always been cosmopolitan. Nadifa talked about the privilege and exclusivity that comes with Afropolitanism. In her comment, I heard the echo of private conversations that have wondered if the hundreds of Africans dying on boats at sea would make it to the Afropolitan league were they to survive. My neighbor Sylvie Namwase, a PhD student of Law and Social Sciences of course thinks the big elephant in the room is Capitalism. Trust Chibundu to just say that as long as Afropolitanism helps market her books, she does not mind it. Trust her to say that Afropolitanism has helped to brand African literature, and so Afropolitans like her should be embraced.
You will forgive me if I have put words in people’s mouths, but the panel was fun. We had real fun. Abubakar reminded me of how taken up by the tragedy of a love that could not be, between Ekweume and Ihouma in Elechi Amadi’s The Concubine, I was at some point as he insisted that African men are romantic. It was fun. We need more of events like these. We need more full of fun, intelligent and hilarious conversations. Did I tell you that the books Nii Parkes chose as inspiring had something to do with sex, and food? One of them was a song, Moses! And he used that to talk about censorship. Can’t wait for more events at #AfricaWrites 2015!
Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire is a Ugandan writer, academic and lawyer. He is the author of Fables out of Nyanja and co-founder of the Kampala-based Centre for African Cultural Excellence. @bwesigye
*This article has been edited