feminism

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.

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.

Reading the Africa39 anthology: “Mama’s Future” by Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond

We are currently reading and writing about the stories in the Africa39 anthology, as well as linking to interesting commentary on them from various sources. (The previous review was of “Sometime Before Maulidi” by 2014 Morland Scholar, Ndinda Kioko).

The Africa39 Anthology.

The Africa39 Anthology. (Click to purchase from Amazon.)

If you or your book club haven’t yet purchased the anthology, do so now and read along with us.

This review is of “Mama’s Future” by Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond who was kind enough to visit our virtual offices to talk a bit about her story and what motivated her to write it.


Q: “Mama’s Future” is perhaps the most explicitly allegorical story in the Africa39 anthology. Why the use of allegory? What work did you want allegorical political narrative to do that an essay, for instance, couldn’t?

I chose allegory for “Mama’s Future” because I wanted to express and examine a range of very personal emotions I have concerning my native Ghana, and Africa as a whole. In many ways, Ghana/Africa is an old woman still muttering about the good old days even as she sits in her own squalor. But this old woman is my mother, so I can’t walk away. I am responsible for her. With “Mama’s Future”, I hoped to make Africa’s glory, bounty, and challenges similarly personal to readers, and invite them to take a stake in a better future for the continent.

I also aimed to challenge the “minority” label blacks living outside Africa are often branded with. The slave trade and voluntary migration from the continent dispersed Africans to every corner of the globe. As a result, in many of the communities we live in today, black people make up a small percentage of the whole. But according to 2014 population data, there are over 1 billion people of African descent on the planet — which amounts to a majority, second only to Asians. I wanted to imagine what could happen if Africans resident on the continent and blacks outside Africa connected, across both the petty and serious divides, to effect sustainable change to current dire conditions.

Sure, a straight essay could have detailed all of this, but story offers a more engaging portal. We’ve all heard the axiom “truth is better than fiction” — it’s also true that the narrative remove of a tale can give us fresh perspective on the truth, especially the truths we have become inured to.

Q: “Mama’s Future” seems to suggests that Africa’s hope lies in a reverse brain-drain — Mama says, “I want more than the money you give to assuage your guilt. I want you to come home and take care of me till you find the Future.” — a conscious concerted reversal of the human cost of emigration and slavery. Mama reminds her children that, “Elsewhere is for strangers.”

I don’t know how practical it is for every black person living around the world to pick up and permanently leave the communities they are now part of to return to help Africa. Nor am I sure that a reverse brain drain is the solution to quashing Africa’s problems. In “Mama’s Future”, Mama tries to emotionally manipulate her children into pledging to stay, but they refuse to make any promises. This said, I do see the difference it makes when one has a personal stake in Africa. If you have close relatives, property, or a business on the continent, news of a coup or flood or currency devaluation is no longer abstract, merely another link to share or tune out of.

Additionally, racism and the minority identity imposed on many in the diaspora have negatively impacted the self-esteem of many Africans outside Africa and impeded their progress. Blacks living outside the continent, are always being reminded overtly and subliminally that they don’t belong in their resident/natal countries. They are mostly absent from popular culture except in the most extreme representations. They experience pressure to downplay their African heritage in order to gain access to opportunities that will enable them to flourish. And they are viewed with suspicion and more harshly punished for the same crimes committed by other races.

Most Africans in the diaspora accept this reality and carry on, but as economies across Europe and America contract, while African economies are projected to grow exponentially, many diaspora Africans are taking the opportunity to re-plant roots on the continent. For these returnees, Africa offers some reprieve from the stranger syndrome that plagued their existence Abroad, however, many find that the time they spent overseas has made them “others” in Africa too.

Obviously, it’s a complicated situation, but I think it’s necessary to grapple with these issues now, and hopefully arrive at some resolutions that could benefit future generations.

Q: The metaphor/image of digging — Mama exhorts her children that, “You dig until you find it” — for your future is used to indicate what kind of work is needed to secure/rescue Africa’s future. But while “digging” itself points at tilling the land, digging to find treasure evokes the image of an uncertain search for something that may or may not be there, but which, if found would be a huge windfall. It also brings to mind the image of mining, and we recall how damaging the war for mineral resources has been in Africa. But treasure also implies the possibility of a big score than changes one’s future completely. The story seems to urge African descended peoples to take a collective leap of faith — Mama says she’s “talking about the Long Term; where I hid a reserve for all of you.” But in order to believe in the Long Term, a leap of faith, rather than a strict cost-benefit analysis (which is what economic or developmental models would propound) is required. What, beyond cultural self-belief, should inspire this faith?

The answer to this question differs for different people.

For some on the continent, frustration with inept and corrupt governments, and a resultant poor quality of life, might be all it takes to inspire action toward a better future. For some in the diaspora, the experience of being marginalized in the countries they live in could be the proverbial straw.

We all have to evaluate the situation as it is in Africa and weigh the cost of allowing things to go on as they are against the risk of pursuing something better, uncertain as the outcome might be. Throughout history, change has come when people reach their tipping point with respect to the condition they find themselves in and start to organize toward improvement.

Q: The story opens with the death of Mama Africa. By the end of the story it seems clear that Mama’s death is certain, that she can’t be saved from dying, but that a future for her children lies beyond her death. Indeed, it seems as though her death is necessary. What exactly is dying when Mama dies? Do you feel that it is necessary for a certain image/vision of Africa to die in order for the future to be found?

I chose to open the story with Mama on her deathbed because I think, in many ways, Africa is treated as a comatose patient—talked over, theorized about, and made to submit to endless tests and experiments she might not have chosen if she were in better health. Her power of attorney seems non-existent, signed away in multiple aid deals and agreements. And then are the realities of poverty, poor infrastructure, corruption, war, coup, disease, and terrorism that prevent many Africans resident on the continent from actualizing their full potential, and cause many to emigrate to foreign countries. My hope and prayer is that this period in the continent’s ongoing story will die as the older generation yields to the next.

To be clear, I see this period as a phase, albeit a long one, in Africa’s winding story. I think we often forget what Africa was — the wealthiest place in the world — before slavery and colonialism attempted to strip it bare. Even today, in spite of centuries of exploitation and its current challenges, Africa is rich in resources, both human and material.

Q: Why “Mama” and not “Baba”/”Papa”? Why did you choose to figure Africa as a woman?

I suppose I was influenced to portray Africa as a mother because of the term “Mama Africa” which so many people are familiar with. I was trying to inspire a personal connection to Africa with the reader and I can’t think of an individual more personal to somebody than his or her mother/mother figure.

Mothers represent a tangle of conflicting emotions. For example, children don’t ask to be born, but every child owes their existence to their mother; entitlement, resentment, guilt, and deep love emanate from there. With “Mama’s Future” I wanted to consider this: If Africa is our mother — where we come from — what do we owe her? What does she owe us?

Q: What is your vision for the African woman in Africa’s future? Are you a feminist? If so, what does it mean to you to be feminist and African?

I look forward to a future that will give rise to more Jamila Abasses, Akindele Abiolas, Duro-Aina Adebolas, Farida Bedweis, Bello Eniolas, Linda Kwambokas, Susan Oguyas, Faleke Oluwatoyins, and Lorna Ruttos.

These women and girls are just a few of the many African females creating apps, repurposing waste, manufacturing alternative energy sources, and solving other problems in their localities that everyone can benefit from. But the reality is, many African families believe their girls are less valuable if they are off in school acquiring the skills to create these solutions. They would rather the girls sell at the market, or help tend the other children in the house, or fetch an income as a housegirl for a wealthy employer, or marry a local suitor with means to pay a dowry and take care of the family.

According to findings from the International Center for Research on Women, 30% of girls in the developing world are married before they are 18, with the highest prevalence in Sub-Saharan Africa. ICRW’s statistics show that these child brides are more likely to contract HIV and experience domestic violence, among other complications. Conversely, educated girls are less likely to marry before they reach adulthood.

This being the case, it just makes sense that everyone would want a better outcome than vulnerability to disease and abuse for their daughters, sisters, cousins, aunties, and mothers. To paraphrase the author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s popular TEDx talk-turned-book, shouldn’t we all be feminists?

Q: Where do you see Africa fitting in the world now, politically? What does “Africa rising” mean to you, or to the young African, the diasporic African, now.

We are at an interesting and familiar point in the rotating cycle of history. Just as western economies launched the slave trade and colonialism when they found they needed to tap foreign resources to survive, today, individuals and corporations from Europe and America are leaving the shrinking and recession economies of their countries and setting up shop in Africa.

Economists project exponential growth on the continent over the next 30 years. The question is, will history repeat itself? Will Africa yield to a new incarnation of captivity and exploitation? For Africa to truly rise, Africans must rise too, not just the continent’s privileged elites.

Q: What does “Afropolitan” mean to you?

Africa39 author, Taiye Selasi, described “the Afropolitan” in her article, “Bye-Bye Babar”, as a “cultural mutt” whose values, style of speech, and fashion sense, among other things, are informed by multiple international references due to upbringing and/or exposure. I certainly fit this description, but I prefer to call myself “African”.

People have coopted the Afropolitan concept and stripped it from the questions of identity Selasi initially raised. Now, it seems to be a euphemism for privileged Africans with American or European accents, grossly out of touch with the continent’s concerns.

There is value in speaking honestly about the feelings these micro-identities raise. As an African who is a cultural mutt, my authenticity as an African is often called into question by Africans born/resident on the continent. There is a lot of tension between Africans in Africa and those in the diaspora. And I understand it to some extent.

Many Africans at home feel that the diaspora should not be able to swoop in and out with their dollars/euros/pounds to implement their ideas now that Africa is “rising” when they were missing in action during periods of famine, coup, and/or war. And even as diasporans fly to Africa for vacation or to live and work, they can form exclusionist circles closed to those who can’t share stories of trips and life Abroad.

Conversely, Africans in the diaspora contribute $40 Billion every year to Africa in remittances and have schools, businesses, charities, and other initiatives on the continent that benefit the people. They want to help, yet they are often blocked by Africans who refuse to help them navigate the system. After a few months or years knocking against this opposition, many leave frustrated and take their resources to other markets that will benefit.

We have to work through these very real issues and come together to work toward the betterment of Africa. I loved the way Africans at home and Abroad came together to make #BringBackOurGirls a global rallying cry (Africa39 author, Chibundu Onuzo is one amongst many who has been consistently, vociferously bringing attention to the plight of these girls as well as Nigeria’s broader political situation). We need one another and we work well together.


“Powder Necklace” by Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond.

Spotlight on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: “My family says to me, ‘Oh, you’re such a man!’”

Image credit: Akintude Akinleye, Vogue UK.

  • In an interview with Erica Wagner, Adichie talks about fashion, film, food, and feminism:

[…]
The oppression of women, she says, “Makes me angry. I can’t not be angry. I don’t know how you can just be calm. My family says to me, ‘Oh, you’re such a man!’ – you know, very lovingly… But of course I’m not, I just don’t see why I shouldn’t speak my mind.” She got into trouble for speaking her mind in Nigeria: when an interviewer addressed her as Mrs Chimamanda Adichie, she corrected him, saying she wished to be known as “Ms”, which the journalist reported as “Miss”. Her insistence on her own family name was all over the news here last spring. She should be happy to be addressed as “Mrs”, she was told, since she was, after all, married. She laughs now, but it’s clear the story still disturbs her. “It was the lack of gratitude on my part for having a husband. And yet I didn’t want to proclaim it: I wanted to claim my own name.” (source: Vogue UK)

  • About her recent story, Apollo, Adichie says:

I am drawn as a reader to stories of childhood told in an adult voice, stories full of the melancholy beauty of retrospect. I am interested in the regrets we carry from our childhoods, in the idea of “what if” and “if only.” A novel I love, “The Go-Between,” by L. P. Hartley, does this very well.

I’m also drawn to brave endings that stun you and make you reconsider the beginning, and I’ve just read the recent novel “Hausfrau,” which does that very well. I think of Okenwa’s attraction to Raphael as a certain kind of first love, childhood first love, that early confusing emotional pull, that thing filled with an exquisite uncertainty because it does not know itself and cannot even name itself. (source: This Week in Fiction, The New Yorker)

  • In January 2015, Adichie published the short story, “Olikoye”, described by Ainehi Edoro as a story “about immunization [that] will warm your heart,” and about which Katy Waldman wrote that:

The graceful and moving “Olikoye,” which goes on to praise the official for treating people “like human beings,” for refusing gifts, and for being the “best health minister this country has ever had,” is propaganda. It is a story raised in captivity rather than in the wild. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation commissioned Adichie, along with more than 30 other international writers and artists – including Geraldine Brooks, Mia Farrow, and Lang Lang—to participate in a project called The Art of Saving a Life, which sets out to educate people about the power and value of vaccines. According to Jacque Seaman, who represents the campaign, Adichie was provided with “2-4 storylines to choose from,” based on the Foundation’s judgements of what “would resonate most with the artist.” Her task: To fashion a narrative that might “break into new audiences who may otherwise not be paying attention to the issue” of vaccination. As for how it ended up online, the Foundation reached out to Matter, the longform arm of Medium, with the story. “I leapt at the chance,” Matter’s Mark Lotto wrote in an email, “to publish such a gorgeous, moving, illuminating piece of fiction—our first!—from a writer we admire hugely.” (Source: Slate)