As the Ake Festival neared its climax, it staged one of its biggest panels yet. To the left was the acclaimed writer Teju Cole. To the right was the essayist, critic and novelist Helon Habila, an authority on emerging literature from the continent, regularly dispatched by The Guardian UK to review this field of writing. Moderating the panel was Kadaria Ahmed, editor of the now-defunct radical newspaper 234Next, whose tirelessly investigative streak ruffled many political feathers in its heyday.
Facing a hall with not a single empty seat, Ms Ahmed kicked off the panel with intent. The first topic was the kidnapped Chibok girls who were still being held captive by the terrorist group Boko Haram. Mr Habila had written a non-fiction book on their plight, transparently titled The Chibok Girls. Mr Cole had written an essay about them in his book of essays, Known and Strange Things. The essay had initially been commissioned by The New Yorker.
Ms Ahmed wanted to know why Mr Cole had written an essay that did not present any new thought about the kidnapping, especially given the extent of the opportunity to do so. (Perhaps her imagined subtext was, ‘People dream of being published in The New Yorker, and, on such an important issue, that is what you wrote?) Mr Cole parried intelligently, reminding us that so much had been written about the Chibok girls, sometimes by people who had little information and became authorities overnight, so he decided to write an anti-essay about the dearth of nuance on the topic, instead of writing on the topic itself.
Later, Ms Ahmed would insinuate the same thing in regard to Mr Habila’s book. Her sentiment was that his book simply did not tell us anything we did not already know about the Chibok girls. She called it “lightweight”. Mr Habila would later read a fairly amusing portion from the book, and the audience rewarded him with a lot of laughs, nods of agreement and ‘mmmming’, a sound of positive acknowledgement in this context. Encouraged by the audience’s response, Mr Habila finished with a salvo directed at Ms Ahmed, saying: “Not so lightweight, eh?” An eruption of cheers, gleeful applause, whistling and catcalling ensued, which was sustained for almost a minute.
During Ms Ahmed’s interview of both the authors, many in the audience disagreed with her line of questioning, in voice or in online commentary. One person tweeted: “Is this Hard Talk or a book chat?”
Another asked, “Is she a critic? She should not be asking them questions to make them look bad.”
It seemed to me that a few questions were implicit in the raucous praise and applause that greeted the authors’ comebacks. Why was the moderator asking these hard questions? Why should she be the one to ask the questions? Was a literary festival the place for such politically incorrect critique? How dare these rock-star authors be questioned in this way?
This panel best mirrored what I have been thinking: that in Nigeria there is a dearth of the art form that is literary criticism – which, in other places, is an art in itself, but that is another matter.
Why should we approach literary work by Africans with sentiment, rather than logic? Yes, our favourite author has been endorsed by the civilised West. This in itself is not a substitute for our closer examination of the work.
The New York Times may praise the prose, the language, but what about that little detail in the work they missed – for example, how the author split Nigeria so cleanly as Muslim North and Christian South? Not that that is not true in some sense, but it certainly is not the complete story. Outsiders looking in would not know the difference. But we do not provide any illumination by not criticising.
Of course, a literary festival of Ake’s stature is the best place and a rare opportunity for authors to have readers and thinkers engage with and examine their work. One would expect them to welcome, even initiate, such engagement, and the Ake Festival performs a rare service in this regard. Except, of course, if the writer is like a certain Nigerian author who believes ‘an African audience’ is undeserving of his offering of fiction and verbose language…
Finally, if Ms Ahmed was not the one to deliver the critique – and she did brilliantly – someone else better had been. Yes, authors are creatives, they are sensitive about their art, but how do we know more, if we do not question. Yes, some of those questions will be hard, uncomfortable, scathing. When the now classic book The Great Gatsby was published, The Chicago Tribune said of the book, “The Great Gatsby is in form no more than a glorified anecdote, and not too probable at that… This story is obviously unimportant…” Of course, we still engaged with it.
At another point in the panel, Ms Ahmed was of the opinion that Mr Cole sometimes isolated the reader with his language; with references that were not easily understandable or clear. She wanted to know who he was writing for. Mr Cole replied by explaining that he expected his reader to rise to the occasion.
Earlier, in response to another question, he had said, rather emphatically, “People are stupid!”