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The Singularity of Writivism’s Projects: an interview with Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire

When Naseemah Mohamed, Kyomuhendo A Ateenyi and Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire started Writivism in 2012, its focus was on Uganda. Today, Writivism runs workshops all over the African continent (and a mentoring programme), including in French-speaking countries; up to four creative writing prizes; publishes creative work by emerging African writers; and curates an annual literary festival in Kampala (and extends activities to schools). Dzekashu MacViban discusses with Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire (Former Director in charge of Partnerships and Editorial duties), highlighting the singularity of Writivism’s projects, the importance of translation and what to expect during the 2016 Writivism Festival in Kampala, Uganda.

Dzekashu MacViban (DM): From its creation in 2012, Writivism has played a vital role in the exposure and training of African writers through its annual writing competitions, workshops and festivals. How different is your approach to these projects, compared to similar projects in the West aimed at African writers?

Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire (BBM): Thank you firstly, for acknowledging our humble contribution to contemporary African literature. What I find different with Writivism is that we are not merely creating token opportunities for writers but hope that our work translates into a self-sustaining pan African literary infrastructure. It is one thing, an amazing thing, to for example make a list of African writers, publish their work outside Africa, promote them aggressively outside Africa, as is being done. It is important because it creates opportunities for writers, widens their audiences (and markets if you like) and makes their work more available. But it is not enough because the infrastructure that initiatives based outside Africa utilize, is not Africa-based. This hinders the sustainability of the opportunities. Africans are not the primary targets of the publishing infrastructure in Europe and the US.

We now have African-owned publishing actors in the UK, (Flipped Eye and Cassava Republic Press, for example) which is a very good thing and that is the perspective in which Writivism sees itself. While it is good that there are amazing opportunities for African writers outside the continent, it is important for us to think about who owns the means of production and how sustainable these initiatives are. Writivism does not have the resources, human and financial to provide as many ‘rich’ opportunities for writers as there are in Europe and the US or even on the continent, but we try.

 

DM: Writivism organizes a number of literary prizes, notably the Abena Korantemaa Oral History Prize, the Okot P’Bitek Prize for Poetry in Translation and a Short Story Prize. Can you discuss the circumstances that gave rise to these separate prizes?

BBM: When we started in 2012, there were not many prizes for short stories in Uganda and generally on the continent, limited to unpublished writers. As you know, only published writers qualify for the prestigious Caine Prize. The Short Story prize was thus meant to fit within an incubation cycle including workshops, mentoring and publication. To try to give unpublished emerging African writers living on the continent a summary of the writing and publishing experience and set them on their way to becoming established writers. The prize is a small nod saying the journey has started.

After three years, and considering the variety of forms of African literary expression, with support from MAKEDA, a Ghanaian fashion and PR company, we launched an oral history and a nonfiction prize. Deliberately, the two focus on writers based in Ghana because we were not receiving enough entries from the country and we try to include as many countries as we can, given our very almost non-existent budget and capacity. We have bigger ambitions for these two prizes and hope that in the future we will open them up to the continent as well.

This year, being the 50th anniversary of Okot P’Bitek’s Song of Lawino, and given the general vibe around promoting writing in African languages and translation, it made sense to run a one-off prize around poetry and translation from African languages. Maybe we will be able to run the prize another year. It is something we obviously wish we could do but do not have the means at the moment. We just need a god to throw resources and capacity from heaven every morning so we can do as much as we would like to do in this lifetime.

Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire (L) & Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah (R) at the 20115 Writivism Festival

DM: Recently, Writivism’s focus has been on bridging the gaps different languages imposed on the creation and dissemination of writing. Your focus on francophone Africa for the recent Writivism workshops, as well as the Okot P’Bitek Prize for Poetry in Translation attest to this. How urgent do you think translation projects and prizes are, so far as (African) writing is concerned?

BBM: There has been a lot of conversation in the last few years around ‘decolonization’ of African literature, not just in South Africa, although it is in hushed tones in other countries. We hoped that the Africa 39 project would include more writers working in indigenous African languages or in other languages used on the continent besides English but it did not come to pass. At a political level, operating in a very Anglicized sphere as we do, there is a way in which talk of Africa almost always means the English-speaking part of the continent and we wish to mean Africa in its heterogeneous sense. Again, we do not have the capacity to include over a thousand languages used on the continent in our activities, but you can be sure that we would, if we could.

In the 1960s, English speaking Ghanaian, Kwame Nkrumah, educated in the US, lived in the UK, but had close relations with Sekou Toure of French-speaking Guinea Conakre and Gamel Nasser of Arabic-speaking Egypt. Why do we today consider the continent’s linguistic diversity as a barrier? At what point did we lose the centrality of diversity to Africanness? These are political ideas we are committed to. When prizes aspire towards ‘Africanness’ as ours do, then they must consider the immense heterogeneity of the continent, whether in terms of language, ethnic identity etc. Translation then becomes important as a way to navigate the diverse sphere.

This year, being the 50th anniversary of Okot P’Bitek’s Song of Lawino, and given the general vibe around promoting writing in African languages and translation, it made sense to run a one-off prize around poetry and translation from African languages.

DM: Can you talk about other initiatives in Africa which focus on translating literature?

BBM: There are so many. Where do I start? I am just going to mention the ones that we are currently working with at Writivism or the ones we are talking to or wishing to talk to, about working together, or even those with whom we once worked in the past. This list is thus not exhaustive at all. Ba re e ne re just announced a call for a short story anthology that will use both English and African indigenous languages. The Cassava Republic Press 2015 Valentines anthology, I believe wasn’t a one-off. The folks at Cassava are very revolutionary in their approach and I am confident that more translation projects will follow. I know that you remember The Chimurenga Chronic‘s issue in Arabic. Schoenhofs Foreign Books, though based in France is publishing Wolof translations of a number of African classics. The Mabati-Cornell Prize is obviously inspirational. Prof. Wangui Wa Goro’s SIDENSI, whether through their annual Translation symposia at the Africa Writes festival and the other important work, including Wangui’s personal translation practice deserve more than accolades. Then there is Words without Borders. Although not based in Africa, they have published a number of African writers. And of course Jalada. Saraba Magazine and Bakwa Magazine sometimes also spice up things. There is a lot going on!

 

DM: The Okot P’Bitek Prize for Poetry in Translation is a one-off award for emerging African poets administered by the Centre for African Cultural Excellence (CACE) to celebrate fifty years since the publication of Okot P’Bitek’s Song of Lawino. Looking back at Song of Lawino, how significant has it been to African poetry?

BBM: I am going to make some speculative unsupported generalizations. Uganda has a more lively poetry scene than the prose scene. There are more poetry nights, spoken word events in Kampala than in Nairobi for example. Although the Kenyans will dispute that. I want to claim that this is part of the Song of Lawino legacy. I need to work on justifying this claim, but if you allow me take you down the route of the Achebe generation as having formed national literatures and occupied spaces as ‘founders’ (despite the contestation of this label) of national literatures, P’Bitek and Song of Lawino are to Uganda what Ngugi Wa Thiong’o and Weep Not Child are to Kenya and Achebe’s Things Fall Apart to Nigeria. Following this shaky hypothesis, it follows that Uganda has become more of a country for poetry, Kenya a prose and some bit of drama country and Nigeria primarily a prose country.

But that is to limit P’Bitek to Uganda. I also want to connect the spoken word popularity on the continent to Song of Lawino. I know there is another history to spoken word, but I look at the orality of Song of Lawino, and its musicality and can’t help but connect it to spoken word. It was the ‘original’ post-colonial spoken word on the continent.

You know, when conversations about writing in indigenous languages take Obi Wali’s Makerere conference dissent and Ngugi Wa Thiong’o’s Decolonising the Mind as the watershed moments for the ‘struggle’, a little bit of my loyalty to P’Bitek cries a dry tear. Song of Lawino was there in the 1960s! A full collection written in Acoli and translated by the author to English, and it made it to the canon of Ugandan literature and African literature in some places. So what does a ‘revolution’ for writing in African languages mean in 1977 when Ngugi denounces writing in English? He knew of Song of Lawino of course. Was Song of Lawino, not a revolution? So, there is that.

Yet I want to make another unsupported claim that connects Warsan Shire’s Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth, Her Blue Black Body and the forthcoming Extreme Girlhood to Song of Lawino. To adopt a shaky Marechera binary analysis of 1960s and 70s African literature pitting modernist writers against the realist camp, I want to say that P’Bitek was the poet in the realist camp and Christopher Okigbo the flag bearer for poetry in the modernist camp. We can then see how Warsan fits within the realist camp in the contemporary moment that has other people in the new modernist camp that bears some commoditized sexy labels. But there is something else. The Somali influence on Warsan’s work that reminds one of the Acoli influence on Song of Lawino. Obviously, this can’t be said for P’Bitek’s other poetry collections, say Song of Ocol, Song of Malaya and Song of Prisoner which are originally written in English. So this becomes a specific Song of Lawino legacy, than P’Bitek’s. I hope that the prize starts a conversation around this. What does Song of Lawino mean to the contemporary? What is its contemporaneity?

When we started in 2012, there were not many prizes for short stories in Uganda and generally on the continent, limited to unpublished writers

DM: In an Op-Ed you co-wrote with Renee Edwige Dro, introducing Writivism’s collaboration with Bakwa magazine, you highlight the “intellectualisation of writing” in some francophone African countries. Can you say more on this?

BBM: From interaction with friends from the French-speaking part of the continent, and from reading interviews and research done in those countries, I gather that there is still a gate at the entrance to the mansion of creative writing. The gatekeepers and academics seem to wield a lot of power in the production of literature. Being from an English speaking country, I can only repeat what has been said. I know that in the English speaking sphere, the struggle to kick the gate open and throw away the keys (hopefully) is raging. The academe keeps fighting back.

This is why you have newer institutions based outside universities than within universities. Kwani for example faced stiff opposition from some members of the academe when it launched. It is not a coincidence that Chimurenga, Writivism, Bakwa, Saraba, Deyu African and other literary and cultural platforms are established outside the mainstream university space. My hunch is that those outside the university space have to create their own mansions, since the gatekeepers want to continue holding power for its sake. Eventually, there will be conversations and the non-university creative spaces will find ways to work with the universities. Kwani celebrated its ten years with lectures hosted by universities and they host some events at their biennial lit fest in collaboration with some universities.

It is a struggle. It is about power, eventually. The ‘intellectualization’ language is a way to exclude. Every creative work is after all intellectual work! The idea that the life of the mind is only possible within the academe is an old fashioned idea that will eventually be forgotten. But it won’t go without a struggle. My feeling is that there is indeed a struggle to kick the gate open in largely post-colonial societies. The gate keeping is after all a colonial idea. I believe that we will say different things about this, fifty years from now.

 

DM: In your opinion, how successful are digital platforms in disrupting the publishing status quo, and how have they shaped African writing in the last years?

BBM: This is a very good question. Digital platforms provide writers and publishers direct access to audiences, to readers. They eliminate the processes that are specific to the production of a book / journal / magazine in print and threaten the traditional gatekeepers’ position. There is a difference though between what the ‘audience’ is and what a ‘market’ is, to borrow Ousmane Sembene’s binary framing. In the ‘African’ sense (I mean so-called Sub-Saharan Africa, or equatorial Africa, otherwise called the countries located south of the Sahara and north of the Limpopo), there remains a number of challenges in terms of the infrastructure for digitization. Electricity woes are not limited to Uganda nor Nigeria nor Ghana.

The monetization of the digital consumption of literature hasn’t quite registered enough success stories to excite everyone. People are writing, they are reading, thanks to the increased digitization of literary production, but in a business sense, is this a sustainable model? Editors need to get paid, artists and illustrators have rent bills to pay, and writers want royalties. For an emerging writer like myself (if you separate my writing career from my curatorial role at Writivism), for how long can I produce for digital publication knowing that no royalty will drop in my pocket? Will the digital platforms just be a recruitment field for the print industry which as we know is better developed in parts of the continent, say South Africa and Egypt and in Europe and the United States? That is how it sounds at the moment.

I am keenly watching the work Okada Books are doing in Nigeria, to make books available digitally at a cost, and Bahati Books, who are publishing exclusively digitally. It is therefore too early to dismiss the commercial viability of digital publishing. But the ‘success’ of digital publishing in Europe and the United States is not enough proof that it will work in the ‘Africa’ where Writivism operates. The egalitarian no royalty paying, no salary paying, institutions publishing digitally sooner than later have to find out how to maintain their quality and frequency of production or will settle for being the hunting grounds for print publishers.

More digital platforms have made more art accessible to people who would not have paid for it in print. I want to speculate that the current popularity of the African short story in English is also to some extent due to the digital explosion of literary production. I however know that there are also other factors at play, including the fact that we now have more short story prizes than ten years ago, and many organizations for example the Association of Uganda Women Writers (FEMRITE) are publishing more anthologies than novels. It is too early to pass judgment on how the digital explosion has changed the publishing sphere, I think. Let us watch and see where it goes. I am excited about those who are taking a leap of faith in the possibilities the digital bears.

Long Story Short will transform texts onto the stage with professional actresses ‘restoring’ the links between orality and text in African literature.

DM: This year’s Writivism Festival will take place from August 22 – 28 in Kampala, Uganda. What should guests look forward to during this event?

BBM: The festival this year is themed around Restoring Connections in line with the full year’s programming. The conversation we are having in this interview will take other dimensions, with an eclectic schedule that will have film, music, drama, poetry, photography etc. showcased over seven days. We have already confirmed eight new books (including poetry, drama, fiction, photography and criticism) that will be launched at the fete. We are excited about the increased literary and cultural production by Africans and can’t wait to celebrate all this and further aid more circulation throughout the continent. Writers will not only read from their work, they will also sign copies for readers. Festival goers will leave Kampala in August with over 20 new books bought at an individual level, we hope.

Long Story Short will transform texts onto the stage with professional actresses ‘restoring’ the links between orality and text in African literature. We will also celebrate readers through a Choice Awards evening. We are also carefully working on a French-speaking part of the festival, and finding ways to include more languages beyond English and Luganda. There will be a four-day workshop for aspiring and early career literary and cultural entrepreneurs focusing on the modes of production in the contemporary. We also have in store a comprehensive schools’ programme that includes visits, a workshop for teenagers run by Afrikult and activities for children run by Malaika Educare.

The above may suggest that it will be all work and business in the seven days. There will be play and fun and partying as well. The festival is the zenith of the Writivism year. It is at the event that we unveil the winner of the annual short story prize, and this year being our first running the prize in its bi-lingual form, we are working on an unforgettable prize awards evening on the 28th of August. A day before, we would have crowned the first ever winner of the Okot P Bitek Prize. You should join us for the feast. This year’s festival will mark Writivism’s coming of age as a worthy placeholder on Africa’s annual arts calendar.

 

 

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