Monica Arac de Nyeko: ‘Procrastination is the devil, that and fear’

What are your 5 favourite novels?

The God Of Small Things by Arundati Roy, Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels, Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga, Song of Lawino, the long poem by Okot p’Bitek, The Concubine by Elechi Amadi. I also love So Long A Letter too by Mariama Bâ. So a bit more than you asked for I suppose.

Which 3 authors do you consider to have influenced you the most? How did each influence your work?

Perhaps not specific authors but that generation of Chinua Achebe, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Okot p’Bitek, Wole Soyinka, Timothy Wangusa, and Buchi Emecheta. They really set the pace.

What plans do you have for your literary career over the next 3-5 years? What are you working on? What do you hope to publish? Which artists/authors/publishers/editors do you hope to work with?

I would like to see my novel in print. That would be nice. I just sent the draft to my agent. I hope he likes it.

Are you involved with any literary organisations in Africa or outside of Africa? How do you see the work of these organisation as contributing to your vision and career, as well as to broader cultural production in Africa?

I work full time so that limits my ability to do all the things I would like to do. But for now, I would like to focus on writing stories and publishing.

Please could you tell readers about your most recent artistic project, what it involved, and what you learned from it?

I finally finished my novel after nearly ten years of procrastination. Procrastination is the devil, that and fear and you’ve got to fight them like you fight the devil.

How do you hope/anticipate that the Hay Festival and the Africa39 project will help advance your career? What impact has it had thus far? What specific things would you like to see Hay Festival do for writers?

I am happy that seeing my name on the list gave me a bit of momentum to try and finish the novel.

What are the main challenges you see facing artists, writers, and literary culture in your country and region? How are you ameliorating these difficulties? What specific things would you like to see done in order to address these challenges?

I see several opportunities and an absolutely fantastic interest in the arts by the public. We have just got to keep them engaged by continuing to tell the stories that capture the voices of this time and generation.

Have you read the work of any of the other Africa39? Which works have you enjoyed (Please write a few words on the aspects of the works you enjoyed)? Which Africa39 authors would you like to work with (and on what kinds of projects)?

I read Glaydah’s Namukasa’s story and Chika Unigwe’s. Both have strong narrative voices.

What festivals/workshops/residencies have you attended recently? What was your role? What did you take away from the experiences you had there?

I was at Ake Books Festival a year or two ago. It was fun being with people who care about books.

Are there any authors whom you mentor, whose work you’d like to mention or talk about?

No.


Previously, in our ‘Reading Africa39’ series of essays, we considered de Nyeko’s ‘The Banana Eater’, published in the Africa39 annthology.

Mohamed Yunus Rafiq: ‘Cultural production should address critical social issues’

Africa39 author, Mohamed Yunus Rafiq (Tanzania)

What are your 5 favourite novels?

The Concubine by Elechi Amadi, The River Between by Ngugi wa Thiongo, Everyday is for the Thief by Teju Cole, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti by Mohammed Hanif, Kusadikika by Shabaan Robert.

Which 3 authors do you consider to have influenced you the most?  How did each influence your work?

Elechi Amadi, Ngugi wa Thiongo (especially The River Between) and Shabaan Robert (especially Kufikirika).

Elechi Amadi profoundly influenced me in the beauty and the complexity, philosophical and moral, of African folk tales. The Concubine, in my view, brilliantly recombines different folktales into one powerful piece. Elechi Amadi taught me while I was just a high school student that African folk stories can be reworked to tell powerful and gripping narratives about the central dilemmas of human existence such as love, death, betrayal and fate. The concubine for me is a meta-text: a lens to explain and write other texts.

The work of Ngugi wa Thiongo influenced me both politically and literarily. As a post-colonial subject, I could relate to the tensions of modernity and tradition explored in The River Between especially as a youth in the 1990s when Tanzania’s African socialism collapsed and it was rapidly being replaced with market based economy. The River Between spoke to me both of the despair and the ambivalence brought about with the demise of the African way of life or the “end” of political epochs. In The River Between, the efforts to stop girls’ circumcision both ended an inhumane practice but also ushered a transition, so to speak, to a new social and political epoch aka modernity.

In my own writing, I like to grapple with these kind of ethical, political and moral dilemmas. Kufikirika is another pivotal work that influenced my writing. I hope my work is not too bent on didacticism. I grew up on a staple of African folklore that incorporate didacticism as one of its narrative and stylistic features. I think an author has to balance storytelling and didacticism. Shabaan Robert is a master at blending the two. He has a way to emerge out of text and give you a lesson, advice and admonition in such a way that it doesn’t seem like preaching or a complete breaking of the register. The reader is not upset when Shabaan stops and talks to her directly, in fact it seems genuine and intimate. Some dear friends have told me that I have the same tendency in my writing, to break ‘the fourth wall’ and speak directly. My colleagues caution me that I should watch out how much times I emerge out of the text, shifting the register and breaking the frame, to insert my own advice directly for the reader. Like a generation of other African writers including Ngugi wa Thiongo, Amandina Lihamba and Penina Mhando, I believe cultural production should be a platform for speaking about critical social issues such as affordable housing, allocation of green spaces, employment, and education etc.

What plans do you have for your literary career over the next 3-5 years?  What are you working on?  What do you hope to publish?  Which artists/authors/publishers/editors do you hope to work with?

My plans are to write a lot. I have a lot of material which needs to be processed into publishable forms, including books, articles, both fiction and non-fiction, and films. In addition to what I observe every day in my neighbourhood, at the market or in barbershops, most of my story materials are stories that I have heard and recorded over a period of ten years. I am in a point in my life where I feel I must fight the urge to horde, like a squirrel, and really try impose a shape on the materials that I have or give them to someone who will.

I am very excited about this and I think I am already in that state of mind. My two stories, ‘Hope’s Hunter’ and ‘The Lessons of Salt and Honey’, are a start. I have submitted a novel in Kiswahili and English to Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature. But I have other ideas in my foundry that I need to start working on. I am currently organising materials to write a story of three-generation of Segeju warriors, tracing their exploits, tribulations and triumphs as they come in contact with coastal communities of Kenya and the various foreigners who come with their own adventures. This project is inspired by my own research on my maternal heritage. I am a Segeju from my mother’s side. I am using oral traditions to write this historical novel. As to where I plan to publish and who to work with as an editor, I really enjoyed working with Ellah Alfrey for the Africa39 project. It will be a pleasure to work with her again. Although I have been writing for a long time, I am still new in the game of fiction publishing. I plan to write and ask for advice from my fellow writers about editors they know and who they have worked with.

Are you involved with any literary organisations in Africa or outside of Africa?  How do you see the work of these organisation as contributing to your vision and career, as well as to broader cultural production in Africa?

I have been involved with literary organisations in Tanzania since 1994. These were student and member-run groups that wrote stories and published locally. They would emerge and disappear but none were permanent. I have written non-fictional and historical pieces for our town newspaper, The Arusha Times. For the past seven years, I have been following Transition, Callaloo, Chimurenga, Saraba, and Jalada. I’ve been a dedicated reader of their exquisite and exceptional writings. Apart from learning about issues that I didn’t know, it made me realize the richness and the dynamic nature of cultural production in Africa especially the literary scene.

Unfortunately, issues to do with literary and cultural production in most African countries don’t make news. These organisations gave us a window to the work of African artists in the continent and the diaspora who are shaping literary practices and challenging the boundaries of writing and cultural aesthetics. Furthermore, organisations like Jalada Africa have enabled me to make internal connections, meaning I got to know Tanzania writers like Hussein Tuwa whom I didn’t know before. So they have enlarged my world locally here in Tanzania and I am very appreciative of this gift. Also seeing my story, ‘Somo la Chumvi na Asali‘ (‘The Lessons of Salt and Honey’) on Jalada with other great African writers was quite exhilarating.

Please could you tell readers about your most recent artistic project, what it involved, and what you learned from it?

My two recent project was my two stories ‘Hope’s Hunter’ (published in the Africa39 anthology) and The Lessons of Salt and Honey, written in both Kiswahili and English. To begin with my project with Africa39, I must say it was a great learning experience and I dream come true. I read that one of the judges was my hero, Elechi Amadi. I don’t know if he directly chose my work but the mere thought that Elechi Amadi was involved — that was the biggest achievement I could ever dream of.

The process of editing and re-working the format of my story with Ellah taught me a lot of things about writing. My writing is influenced with poetry and thus heavily bent on lyricism and abstract ideas at times, which makes it hard when such a style is imposed in short stories, which needs grounding elements like a plot, characters, dialogue and context. Like other writers, I am very resistant to changes because of the sentimental and psychological loading invested in my stories. Ellah helped me deal with these issues — though probably she didn’t realise this — while at the same time keeping the integrity and the uniqueness of the story. For example, Ellah explained very well the reasons for the edits and re-organisation. And this helped me see that the edits are for making my story more compelling rather than imposing her own editorial will. I thought it was going to be a fight working with editors, an experience I have working with film editors, but my editing process with Ellah was challenging and growing for me. Thank you Ellah!

How do you hope/anticipate that the Hay Festival and the Africa39 project will help advance your career?  What impact has it had thus far?  What specific things would you like to see Hay Festival do for writers?  

Hay Festival and Africa39 are world class events and in some ways setting a precedent for writing and cultural production in Africa for years to come. This itself and my involvement is already a great boost to my career. Through these platforms, I have been able to share my stories to audiences that I couldn’t imagine reaching. Because of Africa39, I have begun receiving invitations to speak in Tanzanian schools about writing and storytelling. I have met students and young people inspired by my story and fired up to write their own stories. It’s a great feeling to see such energy and determination in children and other young authors. However, , with exception of Udadisi, the media in Tanzania has been almost completely silent about Africa39. Perhaps 1 out of 9 Tanzanian friend knows what Africa39 project was all about and its monumental significance to literary production in the continent and the diaspora. It is difficult for some writers, like myself, to also be publicists of their own work. I wonder if Africa39 has a strategy to engage with media outlets at country level.

What are the main challenges you see facing artists, writers, and literary culture in your country and region?  How are you ameliorating these difficulties?  What specific things would you like to see done in order to address these challenges?

I think one of the major problems is the publicity and exposure of literature and writing in general. Its roots are historical but its effects are present in every facet of our lives today. In schools, little emphasis is placed on writing. From 1960s to early eighties, great works of fiction in different genres were produced with the support of the socialist state. These writings were mostly in Kiswahili. Then came Structural Adjustment Programs and the market economy and the state withdrew its support from cultural producers and artists had to fend for themselves. In addition to writing, the second major challenge is a reading culture. There are few people that read and enjoy fictional works in Tanzania. Gossip and tabloid type magazines are plenty but stories and novels are a hard sell.

So there is no strong market base to sustain artists, I think that is true for America and elsewhere. One cannot live on publishing alone. But I think the problem in Tanzania is compounded by smaller audience for the type of work we produce. Smaller audience, that is, in comparison with other East African nations. Reading is not natural. There are historical, cultural and structural reasons for it. Nations and people can be shaped to read.

Despite the current state of affairs there are many reasons to hope. Several top notch publishing houses have been established, such as Mkuki na Nyota which not only strives to distribute the works of many artists here in Tanzania and Africa, they are also connecting readers and writers physically through different kinds of forums such as book reading and writers’ clubs. I think this is a great start. Secondly, I have noticed that there are now several blogs for Tanzania writers, where writers post their short stories or longer excerpts of their works for feedback and widening of readers’ circle. It would be great if media outlets such as TV and radio stations start showcasing and producing shows that focus on literature, writing and cultural production — we have several media stations, I think it’s a matter of organisation and will.

Have you read the work of any of the other Africa39?  Which works have you enjoyed (Please write a few words on the aspects of the works you enjoyed)?  Which Africa39 authors would you like to work with (and on what kinds of projects)?

When I started reading the stories in the collection, I couldn’t put down the volume. It is hard to pick one story because that presupposes there is a basis of comparison. I think all the stories are gems neatly arranged in one necklace. But speaking about the resonance in theme and the style of writing, I found Rotimi Babatunde’s ‘The Tiger of the Mangroves’ more in line with my historical and anthropological taste. His story is about two characters of equal wit and power placed in a particular historical milieu. This is the time Europeans are searching for markets for their goods, new colonies and raw materials. While typically stories need a protagonist and antagonist to create a forward thrust, I think Babatunde, with great mastery, ends up humanising both the African and European character in the story. The two central figures are not exact opposites. Even as the European character will ultimately bring the demise of the river trading area, we learn that he secretly admires his African counterpart. Such treatment to a story interspersed with beautiful prose that evokes and destabilises the binaries, gives ‘Tiger of the Mangrove’ a complex and refreshing narrative depth that feeds our minds, as readers of so many possibilities. I thought if these figures met in a different circumstances that could be friends or both heroes.

It would be a pleasure to work with Rotimi Babatunde on some of my historical fiction novel. I think his work has given me the inspiration and a template, so to speak, to think about historical fiction. It will also be great to also work with Stanley Kenani, Monica Arac de Nyeko and Chimamanda Adichie — they have a great sense of craft, fashioning simple but compelling story-lines. Whenever I read the works of these authors, I don’t have difficulty in seeing these characters in Africa, living, laughing, eating, and loving in Africa. I am not saying all Africans behave the same but there is a groundedness and realism in their story that I can relate to but with many surprises on the way.

 What festivals/workshops/residencies have you attended recently?  What was your role?  What did you take away from the experiences you had there?

I have never attended any residencies or writing programs. There are few or no such programs in Tanzania and news about such opportunities in the continent have not often trickled my way. I’ll look for opportunities to attend such workshops and residencies in the future. However, I have always attended book talks and presentations by authors. At Brown University, I had an opportunity to hear the late Chinua Achebe speak. It was a great moment for me. I read Chinua Achebe’s work in secondary school like thousands of other Tanzanians. Seeing him speak completed the circle for me: his politics and view of the world and the place of Africa in it reflected many of the issues that he dealt in his own fictional work like No Longer at Ease and others.

 Are there any authors whom you mentor, whose work you’d like to mention or talk about?

I have no one that I mentor for now but I have people who have mentored me. I have had an opportunity to work with Mukoma wa Ngugi. He has been a great friend and a mentor. He has always found time to speak to me when I was lost in the forest of stories and couldn’t retrace my steps and he pointed to a clear path. I am also indebted to Brother Francis Lukhele, who believed in the beauty and potential of the stories. His keen eye for the beauty of prose and structure has greatly benefited my literary project. I plan to continue to work with him in other projects in the future.

Edwige-Renée DRO: I am an African Writer!

What are your 5 favourite novels?

  • La Mémoire Amputee by Wêrewere Liking
  • La Révolte d’Affiba by Régina Yaou
  • En Attendant le Vote des Betes Sauvages by Ahmadou Kourouma
  • Le Vieux Nègre et La Médaille by Ferdinand Oyono
  • O Pays, mon beau peuple by Sembène Ousmane

Which 3 authors do you consider to have influenced you the most?  How did each influence your work?

Ahmadou Kourouma because the French in his books is not the French spoken in Paris, and he even had to explain some of the terms he was using to his readers. He owned French.

Sembène Ousmane because of his engagement, because he wrote books that didn’t care for all the stylistic figures of speech some Ivorian writers seem to be insisting on, that you can be engaged and be a readable writer.

Ahmadou Hampâté Bâ because “A people without a culture is a people that is dying” and in L’etrange destin de Wangrin (The strange destiny of Wangrin) he placed side by side the African religions, Islam and Christianity and showed these conflicts. I see it in my country, everybody is a Christian or a Muslim but at every corner of the streets, in newspapers, there are these “féticheurs” offering their services. And for many people here, Jesus cannot deal with some African stuff so at some point, the “féticheur” will enter on the scene to solve that problem. But it is all hush-hush.

What plans do you have for your literary career over the next 3-5 years?  What are you working on?  What do you hope to publish?  Which artists/authors/publishers/editors do you hope to work with?

I have finally finished my first novel — I shelved the one I was writing during the whole Africa39 period because I felt that it wasn’t me anymore so I started a new novel which is now finished.

Then, I’m looking into setting up a literary space next year in Abidjan, where we will work towards making works published by African writers more accessible on the continent. I live in Côte d’Ivoire and I don’t even know what’s happening on the literary scene in Burkina Faso is, so let’s not speak of Botswana for instance. So I’m thinking translation but also selling the works of these writers here in Côte d’Ivoire. One of the advantages of the Africa Rising discourse is that we have an African middle-class that has money and has this thirst to read work published by African writers, at least, that is the case here in Côte d’Ivoire. Furthermore, they can read English. Another thing I want to do with this space is to better promote work by Ivorian writers. I don’t just want work to be launched in some posh neighbourhoods of Abidjan for people to think they have done great work but then turn around and say, “Ivorians don’t read!” I always want to ask, “Who reads then?”

I’m working with Jalada Africa Collective on their The Language Issue as a writer as well as a translator and this is one project I’m excited about. We will have francophone writers in this issue which came out on 15th, September.

Then, I’m working with Writivism and again, we will have writers from Côte d’Ivoire mentored this year by other francophone writers.

Are you involved with any literary organisations in Africa or outside of Africa?  How do you see the work of these organisation as contributing to your vision and career, as well as to broader cultural production in Africa?

I’m involved with Jalada and Writivism, and because I want a pan-African approach to literature, I feel at home with these organisations

For me, the success of African literature will be based on a pan-African approach to literature. We have a billion-plus people; that’s a huge market. I did a TEDx talk in Abidjan this year where I mentioned that for the reading public already available, let’s translate and do a better politic of marketing and distribution of the work.

For the illiterate population that speaks French or English however, let think of having audio recordings of our work.

For the illiterate population that neither speak nor understand French or English, let’s think of having audio recordings in national languages.

Let’s also collaborate, with translators, playwrights, etc.

Please could you tell readers about your most recent artistic project, what it involved, and what you learned from it?

I’m involved in translating some of the stories in the Jalada Language issue coming out on 15th, September. I learned that we haven’t even scratched the surface in terms of bringing out the fantastic stories that are waiting to be unearthed; I learned that we need collaboration and more translators are needed.

I learned that perhaps as African writers we complain about the whole tag of being African writers, or the whole ‘poverty porn’ issue because we don’t have a lot of vibrant publishing houses on the continent. We have Parrésia or Cassava Republic among many others of course, but more needs to be done. The day we really become actors and players in our destiny, that day, we will not care that someone is calling us African Writer and coming to us with their view of how we should be writing. Personally, I have no qualms about being called an African Writer. I’m an African Writer. Now if someone wants me to write about war and famine only, I might well ask them if they think that we reached 1 billion mark through immaculate conception.

How do you hope/anticipate that the Hay Festival and the Africa39 project will help advance your career?  What impact has it had thus far?  What specific things would you like to see Hay Festival do for writers?  

Well, I suppose I’m an Africa39er but I don’t like resting on my laurels. I didn’t even realise it has been a year already. I want to stay current. I don’t want to say, “Oh I was an Africa39er”. I am an Africa39er, that is done; it is an asset. In revolutionary language, we say, “You don’t come back to the asset.”

The impact: I visited Nigeria for the first time; without it, I might never have visited Nigeria. That country scared me and no, not because of Boko Haram but because I read a travel guide once which depicted Nigeria as a heavy country, a country where people were always on the go and I was like, I don’t want to visit such a country. But it is a charming place and I just adore it the way you would adore a very rich man you also happen to love!

Perhaps on the strength of that, I did the Valentine’s Day Anthology organised by Ankara Press.

What are the main challenges you see facing artists, writers, and literary culture in your country and region?  How are you ameliorating these difficulties?  What specific things would you like to see done in order to address these challenges?

Do you know, Côte d’Ivoire is a funny country. We have two associations of writers here: an association of writers and an association of young writers but personally, I don’t know what they are doing. I suppose when they finish fighting re. the election of a president and when people stop trying to meddle in the election of a president, they might do something for the advancement and the promotion of Ivorian literature. Oh, and when some writers stop saying that this or that writer is a dustbin writer because he is not having a certain amount of metaphore and simile and oxymoron in this work and he doesn’t display a mastery of the French language.

Writers need to have spaces where they can talk about their books/work but I also think the main thing is to get away from this intellectualisation of story writing. Yes, because beyond all the stylistic figures of speech, we are writing a story and I am, as a writer and a reader, interested in reading a story first and foremost. That’s what Ahmadou Kourouma, Bernard Dadié, Margaret Abouet, Armand Gauz are doing. The day I want to deal with metaphore en masse, I will just go and do a French literature degree.

I’ll be working with the mairie of my neighbourhood for this academic year to have reading clubs in schools here and maybe have the students perform a play based on a novel; we want to bring literature alive. And then the creation of this space early next year. But in the meantime, I’m engaged in talks with a few of them.

Have you read the work of any of the other Africa39?  Which works have you enjoyed (Please write a few words on the aspects of the works you enjoyed)?  Which Africa39 authors would you like to work with (and on what kinds of projects)?

Of course. I love them all and I would like to work with them all. I like the irreverence of Zukiswa’s writing. She makes it look so easy!!!!!

 What festivals/workshops/residencies have you attended recently?  What was your role?  What did you take away from the experiences you had there?

Ake Festival: to take part in a panel discussion on feminism and trends in francophone literature

Writivism: to participate in a panel discussion on how to bridge the gap between Anglophone and Francophone Africa. We also discussed bringing Writivism in Abidjan. I know my friend Richard Ali, AKA The Real Richard Ali from the DRC (not Nigeria!) says there is one Africa, but…

Through Writivism, I met some members of Jalada Collective and we are working on this language issue.

 Are there any authors whom you mentor, whose work you’d like to mention or talk about?

I mentor Daniel Rifiki. A young and very talented Rwandan writer. Huya Press based in Rwanda put us in touch and the working relationship is going well.

Shadreck Chikoti: Africa just has so much to deal with right now […]

Africa39 author, Shadreck Chikoti (Malawi).

What are your 5 favourite novels?

  1. Matigari by Ngugi wa Thiong’o
  2. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
  3. 1984 by George Orwell
  4. Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor.
  5. In a Free State by V. S. Naipaul

Which 3 authors do you consider to have influenced you the most?  How did each influence your work?

  1. I was influenced by Ngugi wa Thiongo. His style of soul probing, showing you the inside of a character more than the outside, of showing you the inner life of things, even of things like grass, trees, the sky and the like, made me feel at one with his narrative and appreciate the fact that everything in life is connected.

  2. The late Whyngtone Kamthunzi, an author from Malawi was instrumental in birthing me as a writer. He personally gave me lessons on writing and introduced me to all the wonderful things about literature.

  3. Kurt Vonnegut, especially his novel Slaughterhouse-Five, for showing me, in a greater way, the invincibility of a novel. His novel refuses to be defined by genre or point of view or style; it is, to me, the novel with the same power as an atomic bomb. Reading him made me feel I can do things with literature far much above the thinkable.

What plans do you have for your literary career over the next 3-5 years?  What are you working on?  What do you hope to publish?  Which artists/authors/publishers/editors do you hope to work with?

Next year I will be enrolling for a Creative Writing course which will probably take me through the next two years.

I will take advantage of those two years also, to write a novel, an idea of which I already have.

Also, I am currently working on a fantasy novel, set at a wildlife reserve in Malawi, involving shape-shifters, a fusion of western and African mythology. And I am also working on a memoir of my involvement with a project that serves more than 400 orphans in Malawi which I founded in 2005 as part of my social responsibility.

Are you involved with any literary organisations in Africa or outside of Africa?  How do you see the work of these organisation as contributing to your vision and career, as well as to broader cultural production in Africa?

In 2013 I founded a space for literary enthusiasts in Malawi called the Story Club. It is a gathering of individuals that are interested in stories and in art; writers, readers, journalists, editors, teachers, and all the people that are concerned and have an interest in literature. We meet to discuss, critique and engage in talks about stories, books, movies and works of art that tell stories.

Through the club we have interacted with writers such as Tsitsi Dangarembga, (Zimbabwe), Billy Kahora, (Kenya), Beatrice Lamwaka, (Uganda), Trine Andersen (Denmark), Shafinaaz Hassim, (South Africa) and many others.

We have featured live music, poetry, film screening, literary critiques, book launches and many other activities.

I also founded a publishing house called Pan African Publishers Ltd with a friend from Denmark, Trine Andersen, herself a renowned Danish writer.

Please could you tell readers about your most recent artistic project, what it involved, and what you learned from it?

In November of 2014 we had a writers’ workshop run by the Story Club in partnership with Pan African Publishers Ltd. The workshop gathered 10 writers from Malawi and put them under the coaching of international writers. Each writer was asked to write a story about Africa, set 500 years from now. We christened the initiative IMAGINE AFRICA 500. Later, we also put a call for writers across Africa to submit stories along the same line. We received stories from the continent and currently, we are working on producing an anthology titled IMAGINE AFRICA 500 which is being edited by Billy Kahora.

Africa just has so much to deal with right now, that it is very difficult to start imagining the future. But as Abraham Lincoln said, “The best way to predict your future is to create it.”

I feel obligated as an artist to follow the footsteps of those who went before us, Leonard da Vinci in particular, who envisioned the future long before it was a reality.

How do you hope/anticipate that the Hay Festival and the Africa39 project will help advance your career?  What impact has it had thus far?  What specific things would you like to see Hay Festival do for writers?  

The recognition to be amongst the 39 most promising writers under the age of 40 South of the Sahara is in itself an excellent tag on a package. I have been to places where that tag has made people smile at me and extend a handshake. What’s more important to me though is production, and enhancing that process of producing quality works. It boils down to the imparting and sharing of the knowledge of the craft. That’s what Hay should continue to work on.

What are the main challenges you see facing artists, writers, and literary culture in your country and region?  How are you ameliorating these difficulties?  What specific things would you like to see done in order to address these challenges?

The Malawian art scene fits that Christian notion that says, “Africa is like a river that is long and wide but shallow.” The number of talented individuals is uncountable, yet we do not possess enough knowledge to allow us dine at the same table with counterparts. What we need are more openings to interact and learn from others, more workshops and forums where we can learn about the craft. We need others from the region to hold our hands and walk together with us. We are grateful for people like Jack Mapanje, Stanlely Kenani, Walije Gondwe, Lupenga Mphande and a few others who have been instrumental in uplifting the literary scene in Malawi.

Have you read the work of any of the other Africa39?  Which works have you enjoyed (Please write a few words on the aspects of the works you enjoyed)?  Which Africa39 authors would you like to work with (and on what kinds of projects)?

I have read all the stories in the anthology and have gone ahead to read more works from the Africa 39 authors. I am currently reading Zukiswa’s novel, London, Cape Town, Joburg I have read Glaydah Namukasa’s, Voice of a Dream, Stanley Gazemba’s Callused Hands, Chibundu’s The Spider King’s Daughter, Ukamaka’s Eyes of a Goddess, and have in my possession more works from these awesome and incredible writers. They all have unique abilities which strike you at different levels of enjoyment as you savor them. Through the Story Club and Pan African Publishers Ltd, I would love to engage some of them, if not all, in mentorship programs for writers in Malawi. Jackee Batanda was in Malawi in November last year, and there will be more 39ners coming to celebrate art and literature with us in our landlocked country whose lake; Lake Malawi, is the second largest in Africa, with the clearest of waters that is home to more species of fish than any lake has in the whole wild wide world.

 What festivals/workshops/residencies have you attended recently?  What was your role?  What did you take away from the experiences you had there?

Immediately after the festival in Nigeria I attended a literary session at the Goethe Institute in Johannesburg where I got to meet Niq Mhlongo, Karren Jennings, and reconnected with Zukiswa Wanner.

I also attended a gathering of artists in Amsterdam under the Prince Claus Fund’s Annual Celebration of the impact of art.

I attended a workshop organized by the African Writers Trust in Uganda in March this year where I was invited to talk about the Story Club.

I also attended the recent ALA conference in Bayreuth, Germany where I read from my works with Nnedi Okorafor and got reconnect with 39ner Nii Parkes and other notables in the name of Wole Soyinka, Binyavanga Wainaina, my mentor Stephanie Bosch Santana, Teju Cole, Ama Ata Aidoo and many others.

I will be presenting a papers at the Harare Litfest organized by Chirikule in November. The other festivals I am scheduled to attend include the Zambian Arts Festival, and I just returned recently from Malawi’s biggest festival of arts, Lake of Stars where I taught a class on “Basic Writing Principals for Every Day Life.”

 Are there any authors whom you mentor, whose work you’d like to mention or talk about?

I recently worked with the Huza Press in Rwanda to mentor writers who were shortlisted in their short story competition which I was privileged to be judge alongside Beverly Nambozo of Uganda and Richard Ali.
I have also been working with several writers in Malawi but one to mention is Tiseke Chilima, an upcoming fantasy and sci-fi writer whose writing has always made a good read to me. She is anthologized in IMAGINE AFRICA 500 and I will not be surprised to see her break some barriers in the not-so-distant future. I am also proud of upcoming authors like Muthi Nhlema, Hagai Magai, Ekari Mbvundula, Tuntufwe Simwimba, Andrew Dakalira and many others who have made me sit on the edge as to wait for what they will offer the world.
But I am constantly in touch with writers from across the globe because you know; there is nothing more valuable to a writer than learning from others in the business, be them young or old (in their career I mean).

Glaydah Namukasa: ‘Femrite has made me the writer I am today.’

Africa39 author, Glaydah Namukasa (Uganda).

Africa39 author, Glaydah Namukasa (Uganda).

What are your 5 favourite novels?

My list of favourites keeps changing, however, The Concubine by Elechi Amadi, A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khalid Hosseini, Love In The Time Of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez have been steadfast on this list, for years. Kintu by Jennifer Makumbi, and The Memory Of Love by Aminatta Forna. I wish the number wasn’t limited to 5 because the list goes on.

Which 3 authors do you consider to have influenced you the most?  How did each influence your work?

I am interpreting ‘influence’ to mean three things: Inspiration, information, and Transformation. Writers who inspired my writing were first of all those that I read in my early literature classes: Chinua Achebe, Elechi Amadi, William Shakespeare, and many others. Then there are those I read along the way: Daniel steel, Robert Ludlum, Ngugi Wa Thiongo, Goretti Kyomuhendo, and many others. But reading Goretti Kyomuhendo’s Secrets No More gave me confidence to believe in myself as a woman writer, as a Ugandan writer, and that in itsself was a turning point in my writing career. Then there are those writers who continue to inform my creativity like Chimamanda Adichie, Chika Unigwe, Nadifa Mohamed, Khaled Hosseini, and many others. And then there are those like Binyavanga Wainaina, Noviolet Bulawayo, Junot Diaz, Toni Morrison e.t.c who are transforming my artistic use of language. It’s such a rich mix of writers who do influence my writing.

What plans do you have for your literary career over the next 3-5 years?  What are you working on?  What do you hope to publish?  Which artists/authors/publishers/do you hope to work with?

I plan to do an MFA in creative  writing. I believe that the MFA will further develop my my skills and add to my theoretical and perhaps historical understanding of my craft. All the writers I have met who have done the MFA in creative writing have only good things to say about their experience.

I am working on a novel My New Home. Been working on it since 2013. I completed it this year and currently I am making the final revision before I can take it for peer review, receive comments, rewrite, revise and then submit a clean manuscript to an agent. Can’t put a date on this but I am happy to say that last year I had a literary agent from UK (David Godwin) read the first 20 pages and he showed interest in the story. He asked for the whole manuscript once it was ready. This explains the hard work I am putting into it. I’ve had chance to work with the best. At this point I can’t determine which editor I will work with but I have worked with Ellah Wakatama Allfrey on the extract I published in the Africa39 anthology. It was such a great learning experience for me working with her and if you ask me to make a wish I would tell you I wish to work with her on a novel project.

Are you involved with any literary organisations in Africa or outside of Africa?  How do you see the work of these organisation as contributing to your vision and career, as well as to broader cultural production in Africa?

I am involved with Femrite-Uganda Women Writers Association where I am the chairperson of the board.
Femrite has made me the writer I am today. It has developed me in different aspects of my life: as a writer, and as an Individual. FEMRITE nurtured my writing career from the beginning, gave me an environment where I interacted with other writers, opened up opportunities for me in the literary world, published my works. FEMRITE’s existence on the Ugandan African literary scene has been a turning point as far as African writing is concerned. Initially, it started as an organisation that nurtured, promoted, and published Uganda women writers. But along the way it extended services to all women writers in Africa. Men, as well, benefit from associating with Femrite because we have various activities in which they are involved for example the Readers/Writers club that sits every Monday evening, Author Of The Month where we have hosted writers like Kgafela oa Magogodi a spoken word poet from South Africa; Nii Ayikwei Parkes (Ghana), author of /Tail Of A Blue Bird and Commonwealth book prize judge 2011, Proffesor Austin Bukenya, Uganda. Chumaa Nwokolo, (Nigeria) author of Diaries Of A Dead African and The Ghost of Sani Abacha, Walabyeki Magoba (Uganda), who writes in Luganda, Onyeka Nwelue, (Nigeria,) author of The Abyssinian Boy and Orchard of Memories and also winner of the Thomson Short Story prize 2000, and many other writers.

Currently one of Femrite’s major activities is creating a new reading and writing generation. We are partnering with CKU-Danish Center for Culture and Development and we have formed Readers/Writers clubs in secondary schools with a focus in northern and western Uganda. We mentor young writers, organize public readings for them, hold reading tents for children, hold creative writing workshops for them, give awards to inspire them write more, among other activities. FEMRITE continues to develop the reading and writing culture in the country. We organize an annual Residency for African Women Writers where the selected writers have a chance to work on their projects and to interact with mentors who read their works and give feed back to them during the time of residency. We have had writers from countries like Nigeria, Namibia, Ghana, South Africa, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, e.t.c.

Also, various literary initiatives have been formed in the country and Femrite readily supports them by giving them space to conduct workshops, build their networks, and offering moral support.

Please could you tell readers about your most recent artistic project, what it involved, and what you learned from it?

Like I mentioned earlier, My New Home is the project I am putting all my efforts in right now. And just like any novel project, it involves a lot of work and commitment. It’s challenging also because in the novel I am exploring the dynamics of how our respective mother tongues affect the way we express ourselves in English. English as the major driver of communication across borders continues to change and to vary according to place and social setting. So it’s these regional varieties of English that has been yet another source of inspiration for me in wrting this story. This project has involved a lot of research as well and so far I am proud of myself for the work I have done on it.

How do you hope/anticipate that the Hay Festival and the Africa39 project will help advance your career?  What impact has it had thus far?  What specific things would you like to see Hay Festival do for writers?

The Hay Festival and the Africa39 project in my opinion, has already started on the journey of advancing my career. Naming me on the list of African writers to shape the future of African writing started this journey. First of all it increased my confidence as a writer. Knowing that the judges believed in me, in my work and in my abilities and in my promise to influence African writing changed my writing life. My writing has changed in such a way that I aim for excellence. When I am thinking about a story, writing the story, rewriting, revising, I want to do my best. My new work is stronger. And I am putting a lot of hard work in it. Being part of Africa39 requires me to become even a better writer. Hay Festival has given me a platform to showcase my work to the world in the Africa39 anthology. Many reviews of the book were published and I was glad that I read some reviews that mentioned my story. One reviewer particularly mention “… I’d quite like to read the full novel (notably: Ebabma, Kinshasa-Makombo by Richard Ali Mutu; My New Home by Glaydah Namukasa; Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi).”

I would like to see Hay Festival promoting the writers by organizing readings for them especially those who have won awards, those who have published books, or who are in the process of publishing books, market their books, facilitate their participation in different literary festivals and book fairs around the world, and also to have Africa39 writers participate in the future Hay Festival events as visiting writers and give readings from their works.

What are the main challenges you see facing artists, writers, and literary culture in your country and region?  How are you ameliorating these difficulties?  What specific things would you like to see done in order to address these challenges?

In Uganda, one of the major challenges is getting published. Majority of publishers are more interested in text books or biographies of famous people; that is where ‘the money is.’ FEMRITE is one of the very few interested in publishing fiction. But Femrite still depends on donor funds and it’s difficult to get funds for publication. So that’s where we are limited. Of course there is on-line publishing especially for short stories and poems and many writers have made good use of that. still it’s every writer’s dream to be in print.
Then there is the market for the books. The market is not yet good. And it’s not that people don’t read. No. People do read but they don’t have enough money to buy books. Instead you may find that Glaydah buys a book and she has five people in line to read the same book after her. And that’s okay. But not good for the market for our literature.

And we don’t have Creative Writing programmes in our Universities. I think that to have these would boost the Ugandan literary scene. I am happy to say that Femrite and other literary initiatives in the county are doing a lot of literary activism. We are working to improve the market for our literature, get young people who are tomorrow’s main readers get interested in reading and writing, teach them to value literature so much that buying books will automatically feature in their day to day budgets.

Have you read the work of any of the other Africa39?  Which works have you enjoyed (Please write a few words on the aspects of the works you enjoyed)?  Which Africa39 authors would you like to work with (and on what kinds of projects)?

I have enjoyed the works of have read Chika Unigwe, and my favourite of her works has been On Black Sisters Street. Its been a while since I read it but I think she captured the different situations of the ‘Black sisters’ vividly. Their voices stood out, I think those four women represented hundreds who are even now going through the same depressing experiences.

Nadifa Mohamed is another of those writers I respect so much. To some extent her book Black Mamba Boy inspired parts of my current work. I loved how she wrote about life in the slum through the experiences of six-year-old Jama and his mother. Jama inspired certain experiences in the life of the narrator in my novel My New Home.

Chimamanda Adichie’s creativity continues to inspire me. I respect her ability to create and her sense of observation, how she turns something non-existent into something existing, a story that you read and you see people you see places, you see things happening. You see a world in a book and she makes you live in that world and enjoy that world. There are writers in Africa39 whose novels I am eagerly waiting for: Monica Arac de Nyeko, Igoni Barrett, Ndinda Kioko, Novuyo Rosa — surely the list is endless because to me the pieces of writing in the Africa39 anthology showcase “… a collection of some of the most varied and exciting new work in world literature today by writers who are certainly going to be among the most celebrated of our time.”

What festivals/workshops/Residencies have you attended recently? What was your role? What did you take away from the experiences you had there?

Since Africa39 I have attended the African Women Writers Network conference that took place at the Bellagio Center, Milan. This was organized by Femrite and supported by the Rockefeller Foundation. I have also attended the FEMRITE residency for African writers that took place at the Baltic Center for Writers and Translators, Gotland island, Sweden.

Here in Uganda, I participated as one of the writers and worked on the novel project with mentors: Erik Faulk and Ellen Banda. In June 2014 I attended the Editorial skills development workshop organised by African Writers Trust and the Commonwealth in Uganda. I have also been a facilitator in the Creative Writing workshops in schools in Uganda.

‘Voice of a Dream’ (Macmillan Writer’s Prize for Africa) by Glaydah Namukasa.

Are there any authors whom you mentor, whose work you’d like to mention or talk about?

I recently was a mentor on the FEMRITE/CKU Novel Mentoring Project where I worked with Prossy Bibangamba, a writer who is also a medical professional. Her story-telling abilities, and the writing skills were quite impressive, I could see a doctor of words. She created a 300,000- word work of fantasy, successfully. And something that amazed me was that she always took time to clean up all these obvious mistakes to do with grammar, punctuations, typing mistakes, spellings and this gave a smooth read to her texts. This gave us space to deal with the major structural issues and other relevant bits of the craft. It was such a good experience for both of us. I encouraged her to join the community of writers and explore the opportunities that come with it. She is such a promising writer.

Shafinaaz Hassim: ‘The plan is to keep doing what I love…’

What are your 5 favourite novels?

I would rather say these are five of my favourite novels…

  • The Museum of Innocence, Orhan Pamuk
  • For the Mercy of Water, Karen Jayes
  • Life of Pi, Yann Martel
  • White Oleander, Janet Fitch
  • The Pearl That Broke Its shell, Nadia Hashemi

Which 3 authors do you consider to have influenced you the most? How did each influence your work?

At the outset, my poetry, my understanding of spiritual life and my writing is deeply influenced by the works of Persian poet, Jelalludin Rumi. I’ve read various English translations of his work, studied biographical accounts and felt the inspiration move my intention to write and produce.

I’ve found that I’m drawn again and again to the works and subjects of Orhan Pamuk. His writing style engages readers, his characters are most compelling and his method of and passion for writing by way of sitting down for hours everyday to create, appeal to me as a writer and artist, and as a social scientist.

While there are many feminist writers and novelists who I am deeply inspired, by, I would be amiss not to mention bell hooks, Moroccan sociologist, Fatima Mernissi, and Simone de Beauvoir as largely influential in my formulations, my theoretical writings. As a trained sociologist, my first work looks at the objectification of women in traditional settings, whereby women are deemed the object of clan or family honour, thus their lives are regulated. My fiction works depict some of these themes, social commentary that then allows readers to reflect and debate these issues. My hope is not to present prescriptive solutions but to challenge through a fluid shift in thinking.

What plans do you have for your literary career over the next 3-5 years? What are you working on? What do you hope to publish? Which artists/authors/publishers/editors do you hope to work with?

I’m working on a new novel, and once again it closely links with the research I am undertaking. My novel on domestic violence, SoPhia, was well received and was then used by local universities both as instruction text as well as for performance theatre with social work students, and then for public audience at the South Africa State Theatre. I’m confident that future writing will have an audience and engage critical discussions on various social issues that we encounter. So the plan is to keep doing what I love to so, and that is, writing, creating platforms for other writers to present their work and then to generate conversations.

Are you involved with any literary organisations in Africa or outside of Africa? How do you see the work of these organisation as contributing to your vision and career, as well as to broader cultural production in Africa?

I have the pleasure of having partnered with the African Narratives literary foundation based in Johannesburg. The board has been brainstorming new ways of reaching readers, newer models of publishing and distribution, setting up libraries and also getting more books into libraries not just in SA but throughout Africa.

Please could you tell readers about your most recent artistic project, what it involved, and what you learned from it?

Aside from writing and having great reception for my novel, I’ve been able to set up a platform to publish a new writer. A political journalist for the Mail and Guardian, Qaanitah Hunter, started a fiction blog about two years ago called ‘Diary of a Guji Girl’. The blog went viral and we then edited the content and produced a novel which launched early this year to great success. It taught me that people are willing to read new works as long as the content is relevant and thought provoking, entertaining and accessible.

How do you hope/anticipate that the Hay Festival and the Africa39 project will help advance your career? What impact has it had thus far? What specific things would you like to see Hay Festival do for writers?

It would be great to see the Africa39 team presented on more platforms especially here in South Africa. I think that we have a window of opportunity to generate discussions on and around the extensive range of issues that we explore in the collection, from the nature of crafting stories to the actual content, themes and characters therein.

I don’t know that this might enhance our careers as much as allow for more direct engagement with readers who will then purchase and read the stories.

Perhaps the blog can them hold a competition for readers to add commentary on favoured stories or rewrite the ending, etc. I think that we could also target university libraries to hold these conversations and readings. I’ve been invited in the past by some campuses to present my work, students have performed plays based on my work. I believe this is why we write, so that the initial story takes on a life of it’s own, holds new hands in meaning and expression.

What are the main challenges you see facing artists, writers, and literary culture in your country and region? How are you ameliorating these difficulties? What specific things would you like to see done in order to address these challenges?

Distribution of books remains a challenge, but access and affordability is by far the biggest obstacle to books being bought and read in South Africa. If we must create a reading culture, then the print material must be affordable. We cannot pretend that the art of story is new to our continent. We transfer knowledge and identity through telling our stories, and will continue to. But the governments should remove tax and subsidise local print, and make a concerted effort to ensure that local material is available in every library.

Also, the corporate method of putting new publications into major bookstores cannot be the only sustainable method to distribute books. We need to encourage a thriving informal distribution that gets books in the hands of the greatest number of potential readers. If demand increases, and we can sustain large print runs, costs will be brought down.

Have you read the work of any of the other Africa39? Which works have you enjoyed (Please write a few words on the aspects of the works you enjoyed)? Which Africa39 authors would you like to work with (and on what kinds of projects)?

I’ve read a number of the stories in the collection, and found they were incredibly provocative, compelling reads. They collectively present our diverse flavors of the continent, but also that we are not a monolithic entity as Africans, distinct and yet not removed from the workings of the world. I’d love to work with and have in the past been on panel with Jackee Batanda, Zukiswa Wanner and Shadreck Chikoti who had invited me to speak to his StoryClub in Malawi. I would be open to the idea of running multiple workshops and hosting and partaking in discussions with fellow Africa39 authors throughout SA. I’ve been to a number of literary festivals this year where the Africa39 would have appealed to audiences and yet was not presented there. Perhaps we could collaborate on this list for next year.

What festivals/workshops/residencies have you attended recently? What was your role? What did you take away from the experiences you had there?

I spoke at the Indie Book Fair arranged by African Narratives in March this year, and found it a fantastic new platform for looking at new models of encouraging reading and storytelling, publishing in SA. I spoke about my work from nonfiction publishing of my feminist courses to poetry and fiction that challenges the status quo and demands debate and new ways of thinking.

I also convened on a panel on women in publishing and what that might mean for the changing narratives of publishing both locally on the continent and globally.

I attended the South Africa Book Fair in Johannesburg this year, having spoken on the platform in previous years in Cape Town. I found that traditional models of making books accessible to readers are faltering, publishers are printing less and less and there is a need for reinvention as per new demands. The indie presses are doing bigger volumes, more keen on trying new approaches.

In partnership with the Jozi Book Fair in Sept 2015, I will be speaking on a few panels concerning gender and work, issues of sexuality and also on the topic of blogging new content for online and print and publishing and writing as a woman.

Are there any authors whom you mentor, whose work you’d like to mention or talk about?

Through my publishing labels, Wordflute Press and Emerald Press, I have had the pleasure of publishing a few new writers to success, including marketing guru Vusi Jiyana and political writer and blogger, Qaanitah Hunter. I hope to be able to collaborate with more inspired and inspiring writers in the future.

Jackee Batanda: “Take note of the lessons you teach and apply them to your own work”

What are your 5 favourite novels?

  1. Mornings in Jenin by Susan Abulhawa
  2. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  3. On Black Sisters’ Street by Chika Unigwe
  4. Harare North by Brian Chikwava
  5. Kintu by Nansubuga Makumbi

Which 3 authors do you consider to have influenced you the most?  How did each influence your work?

My influences keep changing at different stages.

What plans do you have for your literary career over the next 3-5 years?  What are you working on?  What do you hope to publish?  Which artists/authors/publishers/editors do you hope to work with?

I am currently working on two pieces of work: Rewriting a novel about an apocalyptic cult in Uganda, and working on a novel about how a nation and a family deals with its violent past when one of the perpetrators of violence is released back into the community. Within the next 3-5 years, I should have completed both works and hopefully published them.

Are you involved with any literary organisations in Africa or outside of Africa?  How do you see the work of these organisation as contributing to your vision and career, as well as to broader cultural production in Africa?

I have supported nascent literary organisations — Babishai Niwe Poetry Foundation, Writivism Festival and The Story Club. Support has been advisory, teaching writing, and minimal financial support. I am excited about these organisations because they are standing on the cutting edge of literary renewal on the continent, and are promoting dialogue across countries. I support them because they are promoting intra-continental literary discourse and dialogue. All the organisations have worked with budding writers to bring their works to the world. They all need support.

Please could you tell readers about your most recent artistic project, what it involved, and what you learned from it?

My most recent artistic project is the rewriting of the apocalyptic novel. It has been a long work in progress with a lot of hiatus moments taken away from it. In the course of running writing classes, I have encouraged my students to create character profiles as they write. I had to step back and assign myself the same task. When I first started on my novel, I did not create character profiles, and just working through classes with my own students made me realize the importance of going back to the drawing board and doing the same for the novel. I believe doing this exercise will make the story more vibrant and richer than it is already. So the lesson here is that learning does not end, and when you teach, you also need to take note of the lessons you teach and apply them to your own work.

How do you hope/anticipate that the Hay Festival and the Africa39 project will help advance your career?  What impact has it had thus far?  What specific things would you like to see Hay Festival do for writers?  

The Hay Festival and Africa39 project has so far had so very little impact on my career. It is one year down the road and I see nothing tangible from it.

What are the main challenges you see facing artists, writers, and literary culture in your country and region?  How are you ameliorating these difficulties?  What specific things would you like to see done in order to address these challenges?

I think the greatest challenge facing artists, writers and literary culture in my region is the over dependence of donor funding. We have fully focused our energies on outside help and have failed to raise funding in-country. Of course this is not to ignore that fact that corporate sponsorship in country is dwindling at a drastic rate. I believe that if we start targeting our efforts to local audiences and getting them to see the value of supporting local artistes, then our survival will be more guaranteed. Several literary initiatives are all clamouring for the same funding basket. If we can borrow from other artistic acts like musicians and comedians to tap into the broader corporate market in order to diversify the funding basket. I recently attended a play by 3 female poets, who had just done that. The theatre was a full house and they had successfully gotten corporate entities on board. It has worked for the other disciplines and we in the literary world can learn to borrow a page and infuse it in our own works.

In this regard, I am running a for-profit writing company called Successspark Brand which runs writing classes and offers other book writing services, with the hope of tapping into the untapped corporate class within our countries with the potential to invest in books and literary initiatives. This company seeks to test my hypothesis of getting people within the region to pay for the arts instead of expecting freebies as has been the case because most literary initiatives are underwritten by donor funds, and thus dogged by the issue of sustainability when the funding comes to an end.

One of the packages my company runs are writing retreats. We are running an inaugural 4 day writing retreat in October 9-12 at the picturesque Bulago Island in Lake Victoria.

Have you read the work of any of the other Africa39?  Which works have you enjoyed (Please write a few words on the aspects of the works you enjoyed)?  Which Africa39 authors would you like to work with (and on what kinds of projects)?

I have read most of the stories in the collection, and would prefer to work with most of them not just singling out a few. The reason is that with the richness in the selection, it also opens up a door to reaching out to writers in other countries, I would never have reached or known about if it wasn’t for the collection. I am interested in getting us to work on the initiatives such as Successspark Brand, where we teach writing to a wider group of paying students. It is efforts like this that will be a wider appreciation for the arts.

 What festivals/workshops/residencies have you attended recently?  What was your role?  What did you take away from the experiences you had there?

I recently attended The 2nd Eastern African Literary and Cultural Studies Conference. I was a panelist on the Encounter with Writers’ panel, where I spoke about my writing initiative.

The takeaway was the need for a closer collaboration between literary initiatives and academia in our countries. The two seem to be operating independent of each other, yet there is a lot more room for collaboration and convergence.

 Are there any authors whom you mentor, whose work you’d like to mention or talk about?

I am mentoring a new crop of writers through my company, Successspark Brand. We are newly started and the mentorship is a work in progress, so I am hoping that after a year our work will be showcased in publications and not just written about.

Nthikeng Mohlele: ‘I am solitary in mind and outlook’

Africa39 author, Nthikeng Mohlele (South Africa)

Africa39 author, Nthikeng Mohlele (South Africa)

What are your 5 favourite novels?

One discovers new literary loves with the passage of time and maturation of reading sensibilities. At present my favorites include J.M Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K, V.S Naipaul’s Half a Life, Phillip Roths’ The Dying Animal, Ake by Wole Soyinka and The African Child by Camara Laye.

Which 3 authors do you consider to have influenced you the most? How did each influence your work?

They are more than three: Dambudzo Marechera for pure literary bravery with language and metaphor, J.M Coetzee for word economy and sanitized prose, Albert Camus for framing of existential questions or preoccupations, Tony Morrison for the emotive and writing Afro American history and identity, Franz Kafka and George Orwell for exploration of themes concerning power, Martin Amis and Vladimir Nabokov for showing off, Ayi Kwei Armah for historicity and memorable characters, Gabriel Garcia Marquez for humour, and musician Miles Davis for note / word precision.

What plans do you have for your literary career over the next 3-5 years? What are you working on? What do you hope to publish? Which artists/authors/publishers/editors do you hope to work with?

I perceive my writing life as a lifetime vocation. I have just completed my fourth novel called Pleasure and am working on a fifth between reading and my day job. I have great editors in Sean Fraser and Elana Bregin—and don’t wish to part with them for no earth shattering reason. Publishers: Vintage, Secker & Warberg, Penguin—in partnership with my South African publishers.

Are you involved with any literary organisations in Africa or outside of Africa? How do you see the work of these organisation as contributing to your vision and career, as well as to broader cultural production in Africa?

I am, by nature and not out of choice, not a fan of group think—though I have great respect for people who do; thus contributing greatly to the development of literature and the arts in general. I am solitary in mind and outlook—for the simple reason that I know me and my views better than anyone else. I write books—I think that is enough, for now.

Please could you tell readers about your most recent artistic project, what it involved, and what you learned from it?

I dabble in atrocious poetry—horrid things I post on Facebook for keeping my mind working and for my personal amusement. I plan to be a closet poet one day. I read philosophy whenever I can; and I am slowly learning music through the guitar.

How do you hope/anticipate that the Hay Festival and the Africa39 project will help advance your career? What impact has it had thus far? What specific things would you like to see Hay Festival do for writers?

It helps profile writers by giving or affording them a global footprint. It is not up to me to dictate what should or should happen—but I think literature everywhere needs writers that are paid, prizes worth winning, greater cross pollination between world cultures and civilizations through translations and preservation. Why should great books be out of print—yet no drug dealer runs out of cocaine and heroin or whatnot?

What are the main challenges you see facing artists, writers, and literary culture in your country and region? How are you ameliorating these difficulties? What specific things would you like to see done in order to address these challenges?

I suppose the overarching limitation in South Africa is the fact that people don’t buy fiction like they do non fiction. Second, as a developing country in a devolving region, it is to be expected that there are more pressing things to people’s time and resources than chasing books—an unfortunate tragedy. Writers should be paid as well as well paid DJs—for instance.

What festivals/workshops/residencies have you attended recently? What was your role? What did you take away from the experiences you had there?

I was on discussion panels at ‘The Time of the Writer Festival’ in Durban South Africa, The Franschoek Literary Festival in the Western Cape South Africa and I am attending the Open Book Festival during September. It was confirmed to me that literature continues to be an important instrument in performing societal diagnosis if not autopsies.

Are there any authors whom you mentor, whose work you’d like to mention or talk about?

I would like to assist younger writers—yes, but I simply don’t have the time at the moment and would rather not ruin anyone’s chances of being a writer by offering half baked guidance. I hope to still contribute the little I have learnt to younger writers in the future when time permits.


Speaking on the “White Literary System” Debate, Mohlele said:

Of course there is lack of and a resistance to transformation in some quarters (not all) in our nation – everyone knows or should know that after twenty years. It is not news. It’s a sickness – a sickness of people who resist change and that of those not daring enough to insist on that change. Insistence also means imagining a counter narrative to apartheid savagery and its varied legacies – a narrative that does not insist on mining apartheid ruins for progressive solutions. As much as most festivals in their current form would have been established post 1994 – it does not follow that they would suddenly and miraculously be inclusive and representative! […]

Recaredo Silebo Boturu: ‘escuchar a los jóvenes e intentar a los nuevos tiempos nuestro sistema educativo tóxico. ’

The Atanga magazine recently published an interview with Recaredo Silebo Boturu in Issue 9 (pdf).

Writer, David Shook, translated Four Poems by Recaredo Silebo Boturu.

In this interview, Boturu answers a few questions we’ve been asking the Africa39 authors.


What are your 5 favourite novels?

Me cuesta elegir, cada novela es un mundo mágico abierto. Por decirte algo, a mí me conmovió cuando era jovencito leer LOS PODERES DE LA TEMPESTAD de Donato Ndongo y me sorprendió ARDE EL MONTE DE NOCHE de Juan Tomas Ávila Laurel. Mía Couto, Chinua Achebe, Evgueni Swartz, Max Aub por ejemplo, me han sorprendido gratamente pero no podría darte cinco títulos.

Which 3 authors do you consider to have influenced you the most? How did each influence your work?

En mis tiempos de Instituto el español Gustavo Adolfo Becker y luego, cuando comencé a tener contacto con la producción nacional Juan Balboa Boneke. No sé, pero hay autores y libros que sin saber el por qué te marcan, te influyen.

What plans do you have for your literary career over the next 3-5 years? What are you working on? What do you hope to publish? Which artists/authors/publishers/editors do you hope to work with?

Hay muchos proyectos en mente: necesito terminar un libro de relatos cortos y un poemario en lengua bubi, mi lengua autóctona. Hasta ahora, no tenemos opciones deelegir a nuestros editores. En cuanto a la producción, mi gran ilusión es seguir montando y representando obras teatrales con la compañía Bocamandja. Nuestro gran reto es llevar, otra vez, nuestras representaciones fuera de Guinea Ecuatorial.

Are you involved with any literary organisations in Africa or outside of Africa? How do you see the work of these organisation as contributing to your vision and career, as well as to broader cultural production in Africa?

Estoy en contacto con muchas instituciones porque es importantísimo crear redes que ayuden a derrumbar fronteras artísticas y mentales, es importantísimo. Además, la gente necesita conectarse, conocerse. Nosotros el castellano hasta cierto punto, puede ser un hándicap para acceder al mercado africano pero te digo que es una fortaleza que deberíamos de aprovechar. También, el francés como segundo idioma nos abre muchas puertas.

Please could you tell readers about your most recent artistic project, what it involved, and what you learned from it?

Acabo de terminar de dar un taller de relato corto, ha sido una experiencia maravillosa y he aprendido mucho de los participantes. Con motivo del X aniversario de nuestra compañía, acabamos de organizar el primer festival nacional de teatro escolar. Los jóvenes necesitan espacios para explayarse, necesitan hablar y tener la oportunidad de descubrir sus potencialidades. He aprendido que debemos escuchar a los jóvenes e intentar a los nuevos tiempos nuestro sistema educativo tóxico.

How do you hope/anticipate that the Hay Festival and the Africa39 project will help advance your career? What impact has it had thus far? What specific things would you like to see Hay Festival do for writers?

Haber sido elegido entre los 39, ha sido uno de los mejores conquistas que he conseguido en mi vida. Del proyecto Africa39, esperaba que fuese una plataforma que nos ayudase a divulgar nuestras publicaciones individuales y que también, fuese una plataforma que venciera sinceramente los trances de los idiomas. Pienso que deberíamos haber participado a más eventos, dentro y fuera de África. Pero, ya te digo, haber participado a los eventos de Port Harcour, fue extraordinario.

What are the main challenges you see facing artists, writers, and literary culture in your country and region? How are you ameliorating these difficulties? What specific things would you like to see done in order to address these challenges?

Nos entrenarnos a muchos retos: La principal es la del oscurantismo que los políticos someten a los africanos. La vida no puede ser una lucha continua por la supervivencia. Los artistas, escritores y creadores africanos están desamparados y reman contracorriente. Si la población vive asfixiada por los avatares del día a día, ¿Cómo pueden consumir cultura? Para que haya cultura, la gente, debe de tener unas necesidades mínimas cubiertas. Los políticos deben saber que están para servir a sus comunidades, a las personas. Específicamente debemos apostar por los jóvenes, para que se vean y sean protagonistas de sus comunidades y no excluirles. Y luego, revalorizar sinceramente nuestra cultura y nuestros creadores dejando de lado los discursos vacios y sin sentido, el cáncer de la corrupción, el separatismo, el egoísmo desacerbado y otros males que hacen estancar nuestro desarrollo, ayudaría a que viviéramos un poco felices y tuviésemos sed de alimentar nuestras almas. Todo pasa, lo que queda y quedara serán los vestigios de nuestra cultura.

Have you read the work of any of the other Africa39? Which works have you enjoyed (Please write a few words on the aspects of the works you enjoyed)? Which Africa39 authors would you like to work with (and on what kinds of projects)?

No he podido leerlos. No están traducidos a castellano.

What festivals/workshops/residencies have you attended recently? What was your role? What did you take away from the experiences you had there?

Ultimadamente coordiné el Primer festival Nacional de Teatro escolar y también, e impartido un taller de relato corto. Y creo haber respondido lo de las experiencias. En el mes de marzo asistí en Madrid a un Seminario que me ayudo y dio más herramientas para seguir mi trabajo como artista-activista.

Are there any authors whom you mentor, whose work you’d like to mention or talk about?

Me encantaría leer, adaptar y escenificar obras dramáticas escritas por autores africanos ya traducidos al castellano.

Abubakar Adam Ibrahim: “Being a writer is hard work.”

Abubakar Adam Ibrahim recently attended the 2015 Africa Writes festival (read his conversation with Emma Shercliff, about ‘love, romance and the gendered nature of reading and writing in Northern Nigeria’ at Africa in Words). Ibrahim was kind enough to visit our virtual offices and talk a bit about himself and his work.


What are your 5 favourite novels?

There are many favourites, some for their aesthetic quality, some for their amazing storylines and others for their historical significance. But the more you read the more discoveries you make. At the moment, Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden remains a favourite for its historical depth and the author’s ability, even as an outsider to capture a dying Japanese culture.

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje has a lulling appeal and captures really interesting characters in a difficult situation. The language and storytelling are masterfully handled.

I admire the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and for me the favourite is Love in the Time of Cholera. Amazing love story. A big book with very, very few lines of dialogue but the flow of the narrations makes one forget.

I like VS Naipaul’s Miguel Street. He did really crazy things with the English language and some great characters. I read it a long time ago but I still think about it.

Toni Morrison’s Beloved is an amazing work. She is simply amazing that woman.

Which 3 authors do you consider to have influenced you the most? How did each influence your work?

Sometimes a writer flounders on the periphery of his literary niche until he gets permission to write the way he has always wanted to write. For Marquez he was struggling with writing until he read the first line of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis. In a way that work gave him “permission” to write the way he had always wanted to write. For me, that defining moment was reading Ben Okri’s The Famished Road. It simply expanded the scope of what I thought was possible in prose. I was young then, so it was a significant moment for me.

Marquez, I have always admired for his works and writing style. The panache and flourish with which he told his stories has rubbed off on me. It was an honour to visit his birthplace in Aracataca, Colombia and see all the places he had written about and feel this strange connection to this place, which were no longer foreign to me because I had read about the people who live there through his works. His works might be magical realist in nature, but they are strongly grounded on reality.

Cyprian Ekwensi is another writer whom I admire a lot. The fact that he, an Igbo man, wrote so convincingly about the understorified North, a region with very distinct character and culture and history and with amazing stories waiting to be told is a huge accomplishment.

What plans do you have for your literary career over the next 3-5 years? What are you working on? What do you hope to publish? Which artists/authors/publishers/editors do you hope to work with?

I have been working on a new novel, Season of Crimson Blossoms, which will be released this November in Nigeria by Parresia Publishers and in the UK in June 2016 by Cassava Republic. It took me a few years to get it to where it is now so it is a relief to have it ready for the readers. It has been a pleasure living with the characters of Binta Zubairu and Reza, and all the others in this book that have been in my head the last few years. I hope the world would find them as intriguing as I did. Now it is time for new residents to take up the space and I am already fiddling with a couple of ideas. I have a residency in Italy in October so I intend to start writing my next work there.

Are you involved with any literary organisations in or outside of Africa? How do you see the work of these organisation as contributing to your vision and career, as well as to broader cultural production in Africa?

Over the years, I have been involved with the Writivism Programme, an amazing initiative that has been creating a platform for upcoming writers to get the kind of mentorship we never got while learning the art of writing. It is great to see the programme grow from Uganda, once thought to be Africa’s literary desert, to cover the whole continent and involve writers in the diaspora.

This year, I will also be judging the Short Story Day Africa competition, which over the last couple of years has made enormous strides on the literary landscape of the continent.

I will also be judging the Etisalat Flash fiction prize this year also. So there is quite a lot going on, so many things lined up. I am excited that so much is happening on the continent and I am immensely happy to be a part of it.

How do you hope/anticipate that the Hay Festival and the Africa39 project will help advance your career? What specific things would you like to see Hay Festival do for writers?

It is an honour to be recognized. It is a validation. And looking at the list you can see the quality of writers on it. It is also a good thing to put your CV so that is useful enough. I don’t know what resources the Hay Festival is ready to commit to this project but I think it would be a good idea to continue to promote the list, maybe do another compendium in the next few years to see how these 39 writers have fared and what strides they have made. It would also be great if they can maybe use the project to run workshops in different countries for young writers. There is so much the Hay can do but I won’t presume to tell them what they need to do. I hope they have ideas and are working on exploring them.

What are the main challenges you see facing artists, writers, and literary culture in your country and region? How are you ameliorating these difficulties? What specific things would you like to see done in order to address these challenges?

Being a writer is hard work. Anyone who tells you anything else is misleading you. We know the challenges are many, key among them is the trouble of finding an outlet for the works produced in the rain and the darkness that the writing process is. For the African writer, because of the dearth of quality publishers on the continent, the West remains the beacon, the Eldorado of sorts. But sometimes they want African stories told a certain way. I don’t blame them for this because it is their business, their money and their tastes. To counter this, we need more publishing and distribution structures on the continent. We need government policies that will make it easier for publishers on the continent to produce cheaper, qualitative books, distribute these books and guarantee that they will get their money back. We don’t need the governments setting up publishing houses, we just need them to create the enabling environment.

Have you read the work of any of the other Africa39? Which works have you enjoyed? Which Africa39 authors would you like to work with (and on what kinds of projects)?

I have read several of them. Some have had novels published, before or after Africa39. But the anthology was an avenue to discover some who we have not had access to their works. The stories are amazingly diverse, offering different slices of the continent each with its own unique flavor. I have read a few. I am reading more. And each time I come away with the sense that the list is a really strong one.
I have had discussions with the amazing Zukiswa Wanner about some project. She is so full of ideas and energy and I hope the talks we had would manifest into something concrete. It is too early though to reveal what we talked about but it is something we hope will have a huge impact on the literary scene on the continent.

Please describe your work with Writivism, which young writers you might have met that made an impression. What role do you see in future for events/organisations like Writivism across the continent? What hindrances do you see such organisations facing?

I was a judge for the 2014 Writivism contest and I read some amazing works. That year, the entries from West Africa, the traditional literary powerhouse of the continent was well below par and it was the submissions from the Southern Region that made the greatest impression.

I was impressed by the quality of the works of Saleeha Idrees Bamjee and her namesake Saleeha Bamjee, two different women, two South Africans, two amazing writers who can go places. There were remarkable entries from other countries in the Southern Region as well. All in all, it gave me hope for the future.
In previous years, I have been a mentor and have had the misfortune of being assigned mentees who do not seem to value the work involved in being a writer. It is an unfortunate situation. But overall it has been a great experience. I had the opportunity of teaching a writing workshop at the 2014 Writivism Festival and it is interesting to see how the model is constantly evolving and growing.



Abubakar Adam Ibrahim was short-listed for the 2013 Caine Prize, for his short story, ‘The Whispering Trees’(pdf) from his debut collection of short stories.