BM: You are a writer of repute. Shortlisted for the 2013 Caine Prize, longlisted for the Etisalat Prize, won the BBC Playwriting competition, been a Gabriel Garcia Marquez fellow among other honours. You edit the arts section of a newspaper. Tell me, how do you assess the state of contemporary African Literature? Are we reaching that place where we can produce our own literature and consume it without need for outside intercession?

AA: Thank you for the confidence. A writer occasionally needs these things to counter the challenges of the writing life. To respond to your question, I won’t say we have reached a place where we can produce and consume our literature, but we are increasingly becoming aware of the need to do so. When you look at literature on the continent, it is largely consumed in certain places, mostly in urban areas among certain types of people. Of course I say this at the risk of making writers and consumers of their works come across as a bit conceited, even if we have been so branded already.

The reality is that in a country like Nigeria for instance, where you have three of four traditional publishing outfits trying to service a population of 170 million people of which only about 61 per cent are literate, and here we are talking about tens of millions of people, on a creaking distribution network, that does not guarantee that the publishers will make returns on their works, or protect them from book retailers not paying up for sold books, then you can imagine what the scenario would be like if you extend this continent wide. Now publishers in Nigeria have identified these enlightened pockets where literature has an appeal and can be afforded, but because of the poor distribution system, these isolated pockets cannot easily be reached. Because of this, publishers are more or less small-scale businesses, driven more by passion than by financial power. You can imagine if they try to stretch this chain to other countries where these pockets exist.

Femrite is publishing in Uganda, but how many books have they managed to sell in Uganda; how much have they been able to rake in as a result? In Zimbabwe you have Ama Books. And then you have Kwela books in South Africa and the others that are there. The problem is that there are not enough publishers to cater for the growing number of writers in each geographic location, and so if Ama books is struggling to sell Bryony Rheams’ This September Sun in Bulawayo or Mutare, for instance, how do you imagine they would cope getting these books across to Kampala or Accra.

Of course we have been ranting about how western publishers are publishing African stories that seem to fit certain models, but we cannot fail to realise that it is their business, their money and their preferences, and if you want an alternative you might as well create it. And that is what we are just realising now. We are trying now to open channels of communication between these enlightened pockets across the continents, and hopefully when this happens, the possibilities will come for building structures through which African literature can be shared and consumed across the continent.

The Whispering Trees

Your short story collection, The Whispering Trees, was longlisted for the inaugural Etisalat Prize. All the other longlisted books were novels. Despite the fact that the short story is receiving attention in Africa, individual collections of short stories are not as widely published as anthologies and novels. Do you see the individual short story collection genre, if I may, also sharing part of the spoils of this resurgence of continent-published African fiction?

Well, I think The Whispering Trees is a lucky book. It almost didn’t happen because I never set out to publish a short story collection in the first place. It just came about as a result of an accident of abundance. I had a number of short stories, and there was a publisher that believed in it enough to take it out of my hands and share it with the world.

I am happy with the impact the collection has had, with the reception it has received from readers. I think the short story is enjoying a resurgence. Last year, Alice Munro, a short story writer, received the Nobel Prize for literature. And we have had other outstanding collections making waves.

Some of the major prizes in literature are not open to short story collections. Of course there are prizes for individual short stories. There has always been a dichotomy in considering the novel and the short story and right now I don’t see that changing. Occasionally you might get one or two collections that would raise such questions, but unless there is a deliberate effort to integrate the short story collection into mainstream prizes, or the creation of an exclusive short story collection prize, we might remain in this limbo for a while.

Since The Whispering Trees was published, I have written a number of short stories and I am still writing a few more. I have started collating them into what might eventually be another collection. Right now I have a novel manuscript with my publishers and they seem to have faith in it. They are working on bringing it out in the not too distant future.

As an arts editor of one of a major newspaper, where do you see literature in the larger picture of arts coverage? Can we expect first-page news items related to Literature? If not, do you think the media is missing out? Who needs the other most at the moment? The literary world or the media?

The way I see it, inside every newspaper or magazine, wrapped sometimes in folds of political reportage and other depressing news stories, there is that pocket of enlightenment that is the literature section. And for people who love the arts, it is as if they come to this section to find out what is happening in the writing world. I don’t know any mainstream media that runs arts related stories on the cover except if a Soyinka makes a political statement, not necessarily a commentary on literature.

In most media houses, the arts section is undermanned because every journalist can do political reporting, not all journalists can cover the arts. It is a labour of love and attracts only people with passion for the arts. Incidentally, because newspaper subscriptions are dropping and newspaper publishers need to make profit, they have to cut cost. In most, the arts section suffers. Some newspapers cut it out totally, either because they don’t have people passionate enough to run it, or because they simply don’t have the space for it. When adverts come in, sometimes the arts section is yanked to make room. Writers’ bodies don’t place adverts, politicians do, government agencies do, religious groups do and most times when adverts come in, it is the arts sections that get yanked.

Between the media and the arts, the relationship is symbiotic. What the arts brings to the media is a certain razzmatazz, an eccentric and eclectic kind of audience and their peculiar influences and tastes. What the media does for writers is to create avenues to extend the conversations that have been started by the works of these writers. So in that sense, they need each other. But yes, it is important for writing to get really decent placement in the media to attract even wider readership. The incestuous habit of writers feeding off the same circle of “intellectual” audience needs to be broken. We should strive to expand those pockets of the enlightened few. Writers need to find more ways of breaking out of the mould and relating with a wider audience and good placement in the media is one way of doing this.

Clifton Gachagua, Nii Ayikwei Parkes, Barbara Mhangami and Elnathan John at the Caine Prize workshop in Harare, Zimbabwe. Photo: Fungai Machirori
Clifton Gachagua, Nii Ayikwei Parkes, Barbara Mhangami and Elnathan John at the Caine Prize workshop in Harare, Zimbabwe. Photo: Fungai Machirori

You attended the 2014 Caine workshop in Zimbabwe, as well as the 2013 one in Uganda. There are more workshops happening on the continent. How do you think they have influenced the prominence of Literature?

The merits of these workshops vary and depend on their content and design. The Caine Prize workshop is amazing because it makes no pretence of teaching you how to write. It just gives you the opportunity to get away from your regular life and write a story and have the opportunity of having feedback from other writers, which is totally amazing. That way you know what works in your story and what doesn’t.

Other workshops try to teach creative writing. Now I am not entirely convinced about this because you can’t teach a person to write great stories. That is something that is innate. You can only attempt to teach a person how to write sentences with varying degrees of success. There are really very, very few people, and most of them are at the very early stages of their writing career, that actually learn stuff from creative writing classes, and most of these things they can actually learn by research and reading widely, which is the best way to learn how to write, I think.

Most times it is an opportunity for younger writers to meet other writers and learn from their experience, which is good because then you learn that they really had to work hard to get to where they are. The greatest thing to take away from the workshops for me is the networking and the channels that open up from them. It is largely because of these workshops, and to a large extent social media, that we are now beginning to realise the urgency of sharing our works on the continent and creating platforms on which these exchanges can happen. It is the opportunity it provides for rubbing minds from people of different backgrounds who belong to the writing fraternity.

So people should not approach writing workshops with closed minds expecting to be spoon-fed how to write; no one can do that. However, in a place where there is a dearth of critical feedback for writers’ works before going to press, workshops are really great avenues to run your work through some brilliant minds and see how it comes through. In terms of promoting literature on the continent, they are really great channels for the exchange of thoughts and ideas. Some young writers attended a workshop in Nairobi some time ago and came up with Jalada, an online platform for publishing writing from all over. So in that sense, workshops are really great.

Let us talk about prizes too. I know for sure that you were critical of how the Etisalat people went about their Flash fiction prize. Do you think that African literature would have been as prominent as it is now without the various prizes?

Is African literature prominent already? Mention a handful of best-selling African novels and you will discover that all of them are published outside Africa and hyped by non-Africans for whatever reason they fancy. What I think we should be talking about is the resurgence of African literature. Of course, prizes have played a major role in this. When you look at the crop of writers who are household names on the continent today, most of them did not attain this status because they wrote a fantastic story, or a really amazing novel. It is mostly because they had won a certain prize and had benefited from opportunities winning these prizes had given them?

That is by the way. When you talk of prizes, I have always said they have their usefulness and in the same breath they have their shortcomings, some of them valid, some of them not. The Etisalat Flash Fiction Prize, the way it was structured in the first edition, demanded writers grovel for votes, which is something I have issues with. Writing is not and should not be a popularity contest. It should be judged on merit and merit alone.

You can criticise, say the Caine Prize for instance, and I would say it is perfectly within your rights do so but your criticism must be valid. If Africans are all about the Caine Prize and are hyping it, it is because it is genuinely hyping African literature and has over the years helped project writers on to bigger platforms. As a literary journalist, I will be happy to dedicate two, three pages of the newspaper to the Caine Prize if I know it will help them gets grants because I know they are actually using the money to boost literature on the continent. They are holding workshops on the continent and publishing anthologies and doing other things for writers.

The richest prize for literature on the continent, the Nigeria Prize for Literature, awards $100,000 to a winning work, but I will be surprised if you know who won the prize last year, or two years ago. When you consider how much is spent in administering the prize, it will shock you. Their budget is huge, way bigger than the Caine Prize but how many workshops have they organised? How many book promotion events have they organised, what partnerships have they formed with publishers?

There should be more from the Nigeria Prize for literature.

I would like us to go on talking, but unfortunately have to find a way to end this, due to space and other constraints. Any parting shots?

It is my pleasure, talking to you. Parting shot? Well, I think we should stop whining and start doing something before we die. It is never enough to expect someone to leave his own issues to come and fix yours. We do sometimes have unreasonable expectations from others; we fold our arms waiting for publishers from New York and London to fall over themselves to publish our works. Sometimes I think the weight of our expectation is killing us. Of course it is understandable sometimes, especially in places where there are no local alternatives. But where this alternative exists, we should make efforts to support these structures and help them grow. So go buy a book by an African author today and read it.