Why you should care
Because Africans are taking their literary future into their hands.
When Dami Ajayi and Emmanuel Iduma were students at Nigeria’s Obafemi Awolowo University, they used to send each other their writing samples, going back and forth, sharing rejection slips from literary magazines in North America. Frustrated, Ajayi, a medical student, and Iduma, a law student at the time, decided to start their own online literary journal so they could tell their own stories in their own way. They placed a call for submissions and in 2009 published the first edition of Saraba, edited by the Nigerian poet and writer Jumoke Verissimo. From those modest early days and a small but loyal following in the university community, Saraba has gone on to become one of Africa’s biggest online literary magazines — one that no longer regards itself as strictly pan-African.
Thanks to a steady increase in access to the internet in Africa, a rich crop of these digital journals has sprung up. It includes Jalada, which describes itself as “a pan-African writers’ collective”; Kenya’s Kwani?, which means “So what?” in Sheng, a mix of English, Swahili and slang spoken in Nairobi; and Brittle Paper, launched in 2010 out of the American Midwest. To Ope Adedeji of Arts and Africa, these magazines “provide validation because you are writing stories for people who are like you more oftentimes than not. There is a place for local colloquialisms that can’t fully be grasped whenever you simplify it in English, and that’s what literary magazines from Africa give you. It’s the freedom.”
The future of African writing is as heterogeneous as Africans and their experiences.
Ainehi Edoro, Brittle Paper
Another recent success is Afreada, which was launched in December 2015 in London by Nancy Adimora. In two years, it has grown to become a pan-African publication, attracting writers from Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa and Kenya. Readership is primarily from Nigeria, but huge traffic comes from the United Kingdom and North America. “There is an agent and publisher bias in general storytelling, especially when it comes to African stories,” says Adimora. “African stories can be a lot more than about poverty. Just the little mundane things can make great stories.”
As for Temitope Adeiye, she fell “in love” when she came across “Hungry,” a short story by Edwin Madu in Afreada. A recent graduate with a master’s of literature from the University of Lagos, Adeiye explains that “the detail showed a level of freedom that excited me about how a story could connect with what I see around me every day without getting parts of it edited for and by some person who doesn’t get it.” In 2015, one of Madu’s stories was longlisted for the Awele Creative Trust Award.
Saraba has become a particularly impressive launching pad for a number of its 200-plus contributors. Kenyan Okwiri Oduor’s short story “My Father’s Head” won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2014, the same year she was first published by Saraba. Nigerian journalist and writer Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s novel Season of Crimson Blossoms won the 2016 NLNG Nigeria Prize for Literature, Africa’s largest literary jackpot at $100,000. Kenyan Clifton Gachagua’s collection of poetry Madman at Kilifi won the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets. And the 2017 debut novel by Nigeria’s Ayobami Adebayo, Stay With Me, was described in a New York Times book review as “stunning.”
These burgeoning African journals are also providing writers with a platform to fight ideological battles. “The writing has evolved [to include] personal self-expression and topics like gay rights, displacement and citizenship,” says Kola Tubosun, a Nigerian linguist who writes in Yoruba and English. Following Nigeria’s criminalization of homosexuality in 2014, several writers have challenged the stance of the government — in some cases at personal risk. Nigerian writer Chibuihe Obi was abducted in June, allegedly because of an essay he wrote about homosexuality for Brittle Paper; he was released after a few days. Novelist and satirist Elnathan John regularly uses Amsterdam-based ZAM Magazine and other literary journals to challenge the Nigerian government on its actions and inactions.
In Nigeria these journals highlight the country’s evolving literary themes. Ainehi Edoro, an assistant professor of Anglophone literature at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, currently runs Brittle Paper. She notes that in the days of Chinua Achebe, whose 1958 novel, Things Fall Apart, is considered a classic of African literature, “everybody wrote about colonialism. In the ’80s, everybody wrote about failed African nations, and in the ’90s, everybody wrote about child soldiers, but that was because writers really were writing for an American or European audience. The future of African writing is as heterogeneous as Africans and their experiences.”
Nigerian writer Seun Odukoya, on the other hand, believes that African literary magazines are missing the point. “Most [of them] want to be the next New Yorker, only paying attention to literary fiction,” he says. “They seem to cater to the same audience, and there is no diversity in their voices. It is mostly poverty porn or some propaganda-selling bullshit story.” However, Odukoya acknowledges the importance of these new creative spaces and believes they eventually will lead to better, more accessible material.
Meantime, the Ake Arts and Book Festival in Nigeria, Storymoja Festival in Kenya, Hargeysa International Book Fair in Somalia and others are live representations of the growth of African literature. And beyond that, living legends like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Teju Cole and Helon Habila continue to shape their material the way they want, giving a giant middle finger to textbooks on how stories should be told.