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.

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