Serving Ngugi

There are three main paths for the African writer seeking relevance in old age. 1. Write first novel, be venerated, pass on after a divisive personal history is published. 2. Be a pest to power; display a magnificent, grandiloquent vocabulary and a dense prose; win the Nobel; live forever. 3. Write novels and nonfiction, be perennially nominated for the Nobel, live on till you get one.

The models are Achebe, Soyinka and Ngugi respectively and respectfully. Our continent’s literary patriarchs. They embody the continent, and may be the last stand in male domination because the women—Adichie, Gappah, and company—are coming.

The Nobel dominates talk about these men: He should have won it; He won it; He will win it.

Attended by three younger women when I first saw him at the Ake festival this year, Ngugi appeared unbothered by talk of the Nobel. The scene gave me pause: Is there a better way of getting over the decision of the popstar-loving Swedish Academy?

My only direct exchange with the man occurred one afternoon during lunch. Kolade Arogundade, a moderator at the festival, insisted Ngugi not wait in line as is the Ake custom. When Ngugi counter-insisted, Arogundade decided to administer his lunch.

Because I was just ahead of Ngugi, I picked two plates. As servers piled food unto mine, I asked the great man what he wanted on his.

“This?” I said pointing to a vault of jollof rice.

If Ngugi figured this might lead to a subtle acknowledgement of the superiority of Nigerian jollof, he didn’t say. “Not this,” he replied.

We moved on to chicken. He shook his head. “No, no chicken.” By now my plate was full and his had a sparse collection of unnamed vegetables.

“I’m home!” he announced, doing a jaunty dance as we got to the fish section.

In the end, along with veggies, his plate had fried fish, another fried fish and a section of soft-boiled tilapia in sauce. I took it to his table.  

“We have behaved like two young Africans,” concluded Arogundade whose grey-beard belied his claimed youth.

Art or Activism? Prose or Politics?

“I imagined your stories in my language,” Ngugi said to Odafe Atogun and Jowhor Ile at one of the festival’s sessions. He wanted to know what the pair of debut novelists were doing for local languages. The answer as he must know is a simple one: not much. The decolonisation project may interest academics but it doesn’t keep too many young African writers up, many of whom look to prizes and publications, almost all of which work in English.

Ngugi was again present at a concert played by Falana and Brymo, unperturbed by whoops greeting the performances, and too far away to hear an attendee ask during Brymo’s grand performance of the song ‘Alajo Somolu’: “Can’t we have prose like this?”

That question would occur to me when at a book chat someone asked if in focusing on politics and activism, there isn’t a negligence of writing as art by African writers.

Chinelo Okparanta answered the question, claiming activist and artist, apparently in that order. Her response raised a thought: Whatever happened to writers who are writers first? But perhaps that’s a position unavailable to the African writer, who must be pro or anti several isms to be taken seriously: activism, feminism, provincialism, colonialism—too much of which tasks the reader’s enthusiasm.

A panel on sensuality in writing proved sex is an eternal draw. No flagging enthusiasm there. It led to Nana Darkoa proposing a feature of the ideal feminist porn: “There will be lots of foreplay,” she said. “In fact, it will be main play.”

The ideal feminist porn will have lots of foreplay. In fact, it will be main play.

A different panel with Jennifer Makumbi had the Ugandan writer amused at the question of writing under the inspiration of a muse. “I work a little harder than that,” she said, before adding that recorded history is fiction and “I have to blow away the Eurocentric bullshit.”

Teju Cole Moves

Teju Cole, one of the festival’s marquee guests, showed up a few days into the festival, hat on, beard jagged, otherwise not visibly jetlagged. He sat a few seats from the front row and a flurry of female fanfare commenced.

Here, finally, was a man whose prose and politics carry around the same weight. This estrangement from the conventional visions of his Nigerian peers became its own topic during a session with Helon Habila moderated by Kadaria Ahmed.

“You’ll be accused of being a name dropper,” said Ahmed during the discussion, referring to the erudition of the typical Cole essay. She seemed to forget the nature of the festival interview is explanatory not persecutory.

“Writing is white,” said Cole patiently. “This is a fraught activity for a black person to be doing…[Also,] the world is ours. Everything is ours.”

Style, they say, is the man—perhaps both in prose and fashion. Teju Cole’s scarf, a splash of pink, seemed the sartorial equal of his attention-demanding sentences; a nifty jacket, voguish jeans and high-top sneakers sealed his intellectual-monk-from-GQ look. Habila’s outfit, long-sleeved shirt on elegant near-civil-service pants and black shoes, was at one with his solid, no-frills prose. The showiest item on the man was a ring svelte around a finger, and golden under the hall’s fluorescence.

The difference between these writers would continue at the closing party where Teju Cole was the more conspicuous dancer. Having seen him at the same event back in 2013, I report that the man has gotten better on the dancefloor.

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The Utility of Ake

In four years, the Ake festival as directed by Lola Shoneyin has created an invaluable space for literature, perhaps the most overlooked culture produce in today’s world. That space consists of writers, thinkers, readers and wannabes. If there aren’t too many reviewers at the festival, it is because there aren’t a lot of this group out in the world of African writing. Most of the well-written reviews of African books are penned by outsiders or insiders living outside of the continent and published by foreign publications.

Asked to moderate a panel about the media and writing, I thought to find out the state of our review culture. It is not a pretty picture. In blogging circles, there may be a consensus that a review should be less than 500 words, or maybe just two: Read This. The reader who wants a review to aspire to art is an extinct animal. To my mind, the trouble isn’t quite length but quality of writing on a sentence-by-sentence, insight-by-insight level, with the vacuum of criticism between blogging and the academia currently filled by reviews from elsewhere.

The review-gap in African letters needs to be plugged from within if a literary ecosystem independent of the west is to exist. And along with great criticism and festivals, reputable prizes, institutions of funding, and good bookstores, online or otherwise, are some of the other parts needed for a robust local literary culture.

So far, the Ake project has demonstrated that elements necessary for a culture to be popularly reckoned with today—big players, fans, social media publicity, and the unavoidable phenomenon called celebrity—can be homegrown for African writing. To be sure, there is some dependence, primarily in the form of sponsorship, but a lot of the buzz around the festival has come from locally produced enthusiasm.

As with festivals of this nature, a fair amount of sin was encouraged—none more so than the telling of lies. A one-on-one session with Ngugi and Okey Ndibe produced a bit of trivia: Both men got an early boost by lying that they had written fiction. In true Nigerian-elder style, Ndibe developed the theme to a moral lesson: “You must lie as much as possible provided you develop the muscle to turn the lie into fact.”

The sessions were filled with many such memorable exchanges. One of mine happened outside of the official festival schedule. On several occasions I came across Lidudumalingani Mqombothi in possession of food, and took to ribbing him about the situation. Then one afternoon, I saw the man leaving an event, his hands empty.

“Finally, no food this time,” I said.

“Yeah,” he smiled. “But I’m thinking about food.”