Africa Writes 2016: The Round-Up

Written by Kelechi Iwumene

Africa Writes 2016: A whirlwind weekend for African literature that celebrated the festival’s fifth year at The British Library, 1-3 July.  From  Bisi Alimi’s drag alter ego, to the fiery wisdom of Nawal El Saadawi, to the literary inspirations of Akala; Africa Writes 2016 brought together some of the best writers, performers, and thinkers to celebrate contemporary African literature.


_MG_3489The festival kicked off with our annual symposium Africa in Translation: Memory and Re-membering. We welcome a record number of attendees and covered a wide range of points within the topic discussion including: History as reality, history as myth? Myth-making, identity and memory; Toni Stuart’s performance of a jazz poem in three movements; Roland Glasser’s reading of Tram 83 – in French and English; and SA Smythe’s reading of On Forgetting. Some poignant observations were made by the panel:



Véronique Tadjo was the key note speaker. Tadjo is an academic, writer and artist. Born in Paris and raised in Côte d’Ivoire, she did most of her studies in Abidjan before earning a doctorate in Black American Literature and Civilization at the Sorbonne, Paris IV. At Africa Writes, Tadjo delivered a compelling lecture exploring memory and genocide in the context of Rwanda’s history of civil war. Véronique described writing as a duty to memory. She made some interesting points:

Wangui wa Goro closed the symposium and highlighted how trauma translates from one generation to another through the body as well as through languages. Wangui aptly finished the session with a moment of silence, commemorating the predecessors who have fallen victim to the trauma of war and violence.

Following the translation symposium was Fresh Perspectives on African Literature. A panel of new scholarship that ventures to open up new ideas of and approaches to African Literatures. One of the outstanding statements was made by Marie-Pierre Bouchard:



Africa Writes 2016 also saw the return of our pitching event for unsigned writers, Meet The Publishers. Our panel of experts this year was chaired by The Literary Consultancy’s Editorial Services Manager Aki Schilz and included Rogers, Coleridge and White agent Emma Paterson, Little Brown Book Group’s Commissioning Editor Ailah Ahmed, Lisa Highton of Two Roads Books, and  Scott Pack of Unbound – the world’s first crowd-funding publisher. Four brave writers pitched their work and a fifth writer won some books with advice on writing. There was a general consensus among the panellist to a comment made by Emma Paterson:

Interwoven into the first day was an immersive creative writing workshop with poet Jacob Sam La-Rose. Writer Behaving Badly was a free session for young creative adults that challenged perceived norms and engaged with themes and experiences that people often have difficulty writing about.Honouring great women writers, there was an Africa Writes ‘take-over’ of the rooms at the British Library – Mariama Bâ, Grace Ogot and Flora Nwapa . Our friends at Afrikult also facilitated the workshop Writing Africa: 50 Years on the Sunday, to celebrate the milestone of these three African woman writers.

We had Bâ Room instead of Bronte; Ogot Room instead of Eliot; and Nwapa Room instead of Dickens.  Writers Behaving Badly took place in….the Bâ Room – if I’m correct! Robtel Neajai’s  readings of her book Gbagba and Yewande Omotoso’s creative writing workshop Endings and Beginnings was in the Bâ Room too. Louisa Bello’s Storytime with the children, on the Sunday, was in Nwapa Room.

It took a while to get used to the new names which – we guess – demonstrates how much effort is needed to re-learn what already has been taught. Re-writing the ‘narrative’ or the ‘status quo’ was a recurrent theme throughout the festival’s three days.


_MG_1280Lastly, our evening event Sex, Love and Poetry closed out the first day with a bang. Nigerian gay rights activist Bisi Alimi took to the stage in his drag alter ego Ms Posh Pussy to chair a group of young talented poets . The writers candidly explored themes of sex, sexuality and desire in the readings of their work and the Q&A that followed. Everything from the fetishizing of the black male penis, to the effect of class structures on relationships, to sexual abuse, to the politics of gender fluidity were talked about in detail, political correctness was basically thrown out the window.

_MG_2041SATURDAY 2 JULY 2016


Day two of Africa Writes began with the workshop The Digital Debate: A New Era of Reading & Publishing? The founders of Bahati Books, Barbara Njau and Kudakwashe Kamupira chaired the discussion:


Are e-books here to stay? Will the digital world spell the end of physical books, and what will this mean for African literature? How are publishers shifting their business models to adapt to this trend and how are new digital challengers in the market like Bahati Books, Okadabooks and Digitalback Books making African literature more accessible to a wider audience?  

As the workshop on digital vs print came to a close, Eliza Anyangwe chaired a session in the main auditorium on Writing Africa’s Development: Narratives, Agency, Accountability. Fatimah Kelleher, Emma Dabiri, Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire and James Copnall sat in a panel to ask the question – who writes the narrative on Africa’s ‘development’ trajectory?

_MG_1581Saturday also saw a number of book launches and book signings including Yewande Omotoso’s  The Woman Next Door, and Kama Sywor Kamanda’s The Prince Muntu, and Amana – the Child Who Was a God & Tales of Kamanda. With Africa Research Institute’s Communications Officer Yovanka Paquete Perdigao translating from French to English, Kamanda made a thoughtful point about identity displacement:

The afternoon brought an insightful debate on whether There’s no such thing as a black princess: Diversity in Children’s Publishing. Commonwealth Foundations former Senior Programmer Bhavit Mheta chaired the discussion. The aim was to talk about why children from different ethnic backgrounds do not see themselves in books, or have access into different imagined worlds? Tackling the debate was the keynote speaker of Africa in Translation, Veronique Tadjo, the prolific writer of African children’s books Kama Sywor Kamanda, Editor-at-Large for Pushkin Press, Sarah Odedina, and publisher and founder of Nigerian publishing house Cassava Republic, Bibi Bakare-Yusuf.

When you stepped out into the main area of the conference centre, there was a constant flow of literary lovers of all colours, shapes and sizes deep in conversation or perusing through the book stands. Africa Writes 2016 was fortunate to have The Pelican Post, Scarf, African Books Collective, Zed Books, African Books Centre, Cassava Republic, and Obi and Titi to support our international book fair, selling the books that the writers who contributed to the festival. The wonderful Abi Begho shared her thoughts for us on Periscope:

The writers shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing 2016 arrived on the Saturday too. It was exciting to finally see them all together in one place – like the assembling of the literary superheroes and brave advocates shaping the narrative of contemporary African literature. Abdul Adan, Lesley Nneka Arimah, Tope Folarin, Bongani Kona and Lidudumalingani took part in a Caine Prize Conversation and workshop reading group.



But we now know it was Lidudmalingani and not Abdul that was announced the prize winner at The Bodleian Library on Monday. Congratulations! Click here for an article post on What On Africa.

Singer-songwriter Lanre Njoku brought a musical element to the festival with her workshop Storytelling; finding your voice. The drop in family session was aimed at children aged 5 and above. Meanwhile in Ogot Room, award-winning writer Bernardine Evaristo facilitated a masterclass  with the Royal Society of Literature. The 3 hour creative wring workshop was intense and explored all the elements of fiction that go into writing a novel.


The second night closed with a conversation with internationally renowned Egyptian feminist writer Nawal El Saadawi. When she arrived at the conference centre there was a hushed silence and whispers amongst the festival goers. The festival excitement grew when Nawal’s session drew nearer.


Getting ready for Nawal El Saadawi:

Her personality and fiery zeal for justice and social and economic equality shone through her old age and filled the auditorium. Her interlocutor Margaret Busby drew out the insights and anecdotes that El Saadawi was keen to explore, and the audience hung on El Saadawi’s every word. She invited members of the audience to come up on the stage and sit where she sat so she could look at them when they were asking their questions. It was surreal, uplifting, and heartfelt; we could almost cry with joy. Question after question was thrown at her and she answered them with such wisdom and insight, it left us begging for more.

_MG_2196There was so much Nawal El Saadawi said that our twitter handle alone was not enough to record it all. But no worries. We’ve re-tweeted what others in the audience wrote down! Also there will be a Royafrisoc mixcloud recording of Nawal and the festival going up online soon.


_MG_2511Afterwards, Nawal El Saadawi signed books and took pictures with admirers in the main area. Twitter went crazy and #AfricaWrites was trending at 3rd place in London!



_MG_2626SUNDAY 3 JULY 2016


Just when you thought you could relax, here came Sunday and another special guest! North London rapper Akala joined Yewande Omotoso, Abdilatif Abdalla, Sarah Ladipo Manyika with Audrey Brown as chair in a discussion about African Books to Inspire.


There were two more book launches and book signings: Chuma’s Nwokolo’s How To Spell Naija in 100 Short Stories, vol. 2, and Nikhil Singh’s ‘hallucinogenic post-apocalyptic carnival ride’ of a novel  Taty Went West. Nikhil along with Easy Motion Tourist author Leye Adenle and From Pasta To Pigfoot series author Frances Mensah Williams, contributed to a panel entitled Boiling a Great Plot: Contemporary Genre Fiction:


_MG_3391Finally, Africa Writes ended with the performance of Joy Gharoro-Akjopotor’s provocative play The Immigrant. The story tells of a not too distant future where a British man seeks asylum in the African Union. The tickets for the show were sold out. The two actors, Damola Adelaja and Edmund Wiseman delivered an emotional performance that had the audience laughing and empathising with both sides of the conflict.


Africa Writes 2016 was a roaring success. Celebrating our 5th birthday, we knew that this year was a very special festival for us. Injecting more performance and engaging participation gave festival goers a richer three day experience. There were more big personalities who contributed to the diverse range of topics and spheres of interest within African literature. We are a community who get excited about African literature and the friends we see return to the festival every year. Time flies when you’re having fun. We were having so much fun that some forgot about going back to work on the Monday.

So who would you like to see at the next Africa Writes? Let us know on Twitter.

If you loved the festival this year, please support us by donating on our crowdfunding campaign for 2017. We are hoping to raise one fifth of the festival budget from the generous donations of you, our supporters. No amount is too small so please click below to find out more and spread the word to your friends – thank you!

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Picture Credits: Ivan Gonzalez 

Article by Kelechi Iwumene