No One Gets to Tell Me I'm Not An African Writer

Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond, Ghanaian-American Writer - peoplewhowrite

African enough. (Photo by Hannan Saleh)

In the past two years, African literature has undergone a renaissance of attention. Articles in the New York Times and The Guardian have noted the growing number of African literary stars; new awards like the Etisalat Prize and the Miles Morland Writing Scholarship have cropped up to fete and foster talent, and blogs like James Murua’s Literature BlogBrittle PaperThe Ehanom Review, Mary Okeke Reviews and are among several dedicated to keeping their audiences abreast of writers and writerly news from the Continent.

Contemporary African authors are earning global recognition for their work. Zimbabwean NoViolet Buluwayo’s debut We Need New Names has racked up a slew of awards including most recently the 2014 Hurston-Wright Foundation’s Legacy Award, and was shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize. Nigerian-Ghanaian Taiye Selasi, author of Ghana Must Go, was named to Granta Magazine’s list of the Top 20 literary stars alongside Nigerian wunderkind Helen Oyeyemi whose lauded 2006 debut Icarus Girl arguably foreshadowed this renewed interest in new African voices. Nigerian Teju Cole, author of Open City and Everyday is for the Thief, regularly crops up on Best lists, and Nigerian Chinelo Okparanta is fast becoming a force on the literary scene with finalist and shortlist nods for some of the industry’s most prestigious awards.

And then there is Nigerian Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The author of three novels — Purple Hibiscus, Half of a Yellow Sun, and Americanah — and the short story collection The Thing Around Your Neck has earned a bevy of accolades including the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Orange Prize. In September 2013, the film version of Half of a Yellow Sun debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival starringThandie Newton, Oscar nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Anika Noni Rose. Two months later, a TEDxEuston talk she gave on feminism went beyond viral when Beyoncé sampled it for the “***Flawless” track on her surprise visual album Beyoncé. Adichie has since released an e-book of the speech. Most recently, Oscar winner Lupita Nyongo bought the rights to make an Americanah movie; Brad Pitt will produce.

But with all this attention has come questions about who has the right to call themselves an African writer. At two panels at the recent Port Harcourt Book Festival, Utah-born Nigerian Tope Folarin, winner of the 14th Caine Prize for African Literature for his short story “Miracle“, was queried about the authenticity of his African identity, even as some in the audience expressed frustration that African writers only get recognition when publishers, critics, and prizes based in the West deem them worthy.

Nigerian author Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani articulates this frustration in a piece titled “African Books for Western Eyes” published, ironically, in the New York Times‘ Sunday Review. Nwaubani points out a truth most writers aspiring to be published face — a truth often felt most acutely by writers who are not white, male, and privileged: “Publishers in New York and London decide which of us to offer contracts, which of our stories to present to the world. American and British judges decide which of us to award accolades, and subsequent sales and fame.”

To give you a real world example of how this cultural gatekeeping plays out, in 2007, an agent I pitched my debut novel Powder Necklace to, told me it sounded “a bit too similar in theme to a YA novel that [African author’s name redacted] (the author of that novel) might be working on herself in the future. I wouldn’t want to step on my own toes in that way, so I should step aside, but thank you very much for giving me a look.” The boldface italics are mine.

Amidst this interrogation of African identity, there is also hot debate about why fluency in English and other Western Languages remain barriers to entry to scribes from the Continent. Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o has been outspoken about how colonizers used language as “the means of the spiritual subjugation” of Africans. In a recent review of the Africa39 anthology, which features new writing from African writers aged 40 and younger, wa Thiong’o’s son Mukoma wa Ngugi devoted much of his reading to this issue.

He writes:

We do not write in our own languages; we write in the language of the departed yet present colonizer. …This is how bad things are for writing in African languages: since its publication in 1958, Things Fall Apart has been translated into over 50 languages, but not Igbo, Achebe’s mother tongue. A close parallel would be if Conrad’s Heart of Darkness had never been translated into Polish — but even then not quite, since Conrad identified and was received as an English writer while Achebe identified and was received as an African writer.

And here is the irony: Things Fall Apart has been translated into Polish. Who will give African literature in African languages a second life, if not some of the 39 writers from this anthology?

wa Ngugi, an Assistant Professor in Cornell University’s English Department, has answered his own call. This month, he announced the Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature at Nigerian author Lola Shoneyin‘s Ake Art & Books Festival. “The prize recognizes excellent writing in African languages and encourages translation from, between and into African languages,” the press release says.

The beefs expressed are legitimate — but they are also disingenuous. On the surface, we are talking about the very real problem of Western gatekeepers deciding which Africans to publish and promote, and how to authentically express African life in letters — but beneath the dialogue is an older and unresolved debate about control and privilege. In other words, we are arguing about the fact that the Western world still controls the African narrative, even when it is written by Africans; and we are arguing about the fact that most Africans who are published usually have some tie to the West (born there, live there, work there) that gives them access to some of the privileges afforded to Westerners.

But just as we decry a single story about Africa e.g. impoverished, war torn, ravaged by disease, corrupt, we have to accept that time and circumstance have expanded the definition of an African too, and by extension, the African story. With 12 million souls kidnapped from Africa during the transatlantic slave trade, and millions more in the diaspora due to conflict and economic free fall in their home countries, several generations of Africans have been born outside the Continent or lived abroad for so many years their accents and tastes may be unrecognizable to those that stayed.

Just as the African story lives in Nairobi, Navrongo, Cape Town, and yes, Egyptians, Cairo, the African story also lives in Norfolk, Virginia, Silver Spring, Maryland, Harlem, Lefrak City and Grand Concourse in New York, Bijlmermeer in Amsterdam, Houston, Texas’s Woodlands section, Peckham, Heidelburg, Salvador da Bahia…

The largest population of African people outside of Africa live in Brazil because of slavery. When I visited in 2012 as a BID Fellow, I was pleasantly shocked to find street vendors dressed in African attire selling acaraje (twin to Ghana’s kose) and cornmeal wrapped in corn husks that looked like Ghanaian staple kenkey. Practitioners of Candomble in Brazil have maintained the traditional African religion so faithfully, many Nigerians go and study it there. Who am I, or anyone else, to tell them their stories are not authentically African? Caribbean culture also retains many traditional African religions and foods. Are they no longer African because they practice and eat outside of Africa?

African-Americans are reminded daily they are not American as race-based violence, economic oppression, and other forms of institutionalized prejudice prevent them, en masse, from achieving equality in the US. Perhaps for this reason, companies like AncestryDNA and other such DNA services have found a target market in American blacks seeking to identify their African origins. But even when they find out they are X% Senegalese or Y% Sierra Leonean, they are often held at arms’ length as foreigners in the home countries they reclaim.

African-American poet Malaika Beckford performed a piece at the 2008 UpSouth Festival founded by veteran editor and Homeslice Magazine founder Malaika Adero called “Ghetto Names” that ascribes the monikers many African-Americans give their children to a longing for identity. She says:

“Searching for the Bantu word for ‘beauty’, the Akan word for ‘strength’, the Yoruba word for ‘power’; looking for ‘Oya’ found ‘Latoya’ and ‘Shatoya’. In search of ‘Yemaya’, found ‘Shadaya’. Separation from the Mawu-Lisa called for ‘Tanesha’, ‘Keisha’, and ‘Jameisha’. These are ghetto names. Misplaced, Retraced. African slogans. Reworked goddesses that rollback the syllables of time…” This poem partially inspired my allegorical selection in the Africa39 anthology “Mama’s Future”.

I am only one generation removed. Both my parents were born in Ghana, and were among the three million that left the country between 1966 and 1996 due to a failing economy, unstable government (four military dictators in two decades), and constricted opportunity. Despite their physical distance from Ghana, they raised us with strict Ghanaian mores and even sent us to school in Ghana. (My experience at Mfantsiman Girls’ Secondary School is the basis of Powder Necklace.)  Yet, whenever I go to Ghana (at least once a year, to the purists that demand to know the last time I was there every time I tell them me yε Ghana ni — nyatepe, Ghanatɔ me’nyo.) I am called a “broni” (“white person” or “foreigner”) and harangued about what “we” (real Ghanaians) don’t do/wear/etc.

Ironically, because I visit Ghana so much, I recently went to the Ghanaian consulate to apply for a passport. When I presented my American passport, my parents’ Ghanaian ones, and a completed application form, they told me, “You are already a Ghanaian by heritage. You don’t need to fill this out.” When I asked what I did need to do to get a Ghanaian passport, they said they would investigate and call me back.

The way I see it, Ghana — and Africa — is my birthright, and I will not give it up no matter how many born in Ghana tell me it isn’t. If the country were in a better situation, my parents would not have had to leave, and I would not have had to endure “African booty scratcher” slurs or other identity issues related to my Africanness growing up in the States. I have a vested interest in Ghana (my country) and my continent emerging from the morass of corruption, vulnerability to extremism, and exploitation of resources, and I would like to conscript Africans born in the diaspora too.

What would Africa be if we did not let external forces continue to subdivide us? If African-Americans, Afro-Latinos, Afro-Europeans, Afro-Asians, etc. looked to Africa as a home they felt responsible for improving?

The colonizers were so effective in chopping Africa up, even making sure Francophone colonies neighbored Anglophone so citizens of countries like Ghana and Togo, for example, could not easily communicate with one another in their “official” languages and unite against a common enemy, but in 2014 we can begin to reverse the damage by coming together. Africans can’t afford to focus on where other Africans were born or live, or what languages they choose to speak. Slavery, colonialism, and our own inept governments have displaced too many. If we say those who were born abroad or only speak English, French, or Spanish have no stake, we only do ourselves a disservice.

Author Renee Watson Has Some Encouragement for NaNoWriMo Writers

Renee Watson pep talk to NanoWriMo writers_peoplewhowrite
The halfway mark for National Novel Writing Month has just passed. If you’re participating, depending on where you are in the process, author Renee Watson — she’s written two picture books Harlem’s Little Blackbird and A Place Where Hurricanes Happen, a middle grade novel called What Momma Left Me, and has a YA novel called This Side of Home coming out on February 3, 2015 — has a few words of encouragement for you. Read her advice.

Joshua Ferris Won the Dylan Thomas Prize

Joshua Ferris has won the 2014 Dylan Thomas Prize for To Rise Again at a Decent Hour - peoplewhowrite

Joshua Ferris

Joshua Ferris’ To Rise Again at a Decent Hour has won the 2014 Dylan Thomas Prize, worth £30,000, beating out a shortlist that included 2013 Man Booker winner Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, Baileys Prizewinner Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, Kseniya Melnik‘s debut Snow in MayKei Miller‘s The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion, Owen Sheers’ Mametz, and Naomi Wood‘s Mrs HemingwayTo Rise was also named to the 2014 Man Booker Shortlist but ultimately bowed to Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

Ali Smith Won the Goldsmiths Prize

Ali Smith wins the 2014 Goldsmiths Prize for

Ali Smith

For her novel How to Be Both, Ali Smith has won the 2014 Goldsmiths Prize. Judges Geoff Dyer, Tom Gatti, Kirsty Gunn, and Francis Spufford selected the title which had been in contention with Outline by Rachel Cusk, The Absent Therapist by Will Eaves, J by Howard Jacobson The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth, and In The Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahm. The prize comes with a £10,000 award.

How to be Both was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize which ultimately went to Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

Amazon v Hachette Resolved. Now What?

Hachette and Amazon have resolved their dispute - peoplewhowriteLast week, Amazon and Hachette resolved their costly standoff. By many accounts, forthcoming books by Hachette authors are again available for pre-order, and current titles will again be shipped without delay. All is back to normal — normal being publishers and writers remain vulnerable to one distributor / bookseller in control of the industry’s revenue generation.

Less than a month after Simon and Schuster CEO Carolyn Reidy expressed happiness about the “economically advantageous” multi-year deal her company reached with the e-tailer responsible for over 30% of book sales, Hachette CEO Michael Pietsch announced an agreement with Amazon too, saying, “It gives Hachette enormous marketing capability…” Thanks to “a source with knowledge” of the Simon and Schuster deal, the New York Times offers some insight into the Amazon-Hachette compromise, saying it gave the publisher “control over most of its pricing but offered incentives to sell at lower prices. Amazon got increased co-op funds, the payments for placement on the retailer’s website.”

In the same piece, Forrester Analyst James L. McQuivey rightly points out, “in the end this all cements Amazon’s ultimate long-term role in this business, which will only put Hachette right back in this situation every time they are up for renegotiation.” To be clear, the problem is not Amazon, in my opinion; it’s the current industry business model that enables one or two booksellers to control revenue generation for the industry, as well as the lack of progressive ideas on the part of publishers and writers. Amazon is only capitalizing on the vacuum.

Authors United President Douglas Preston says their fight is not over. The coalition of over 1,000 bestselling writers specifically formed to organize writers in resistance to Amazon’s negotiation tactics with Hachette is reportedly working with the Authors Guild to draft an appeal to the Justice Department in hopes the government branch will launch an antitrust investigation on Amazon.

Even as they sharpen their swords for this battle, I would love to see these bodies arm writers to take advantage of the technology that has enabled Amazon to shake the century old publishing and bookselling businesses in just under 20 years. For too long, authors have taken a talent (versus business partner) approach, allowing a retinue of go-betweens and third-parties to handle the business of our livelihood.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating, especially now that the business is in this malleable evolutionary phase:

Writers need to take more ownership of what happens after the publishing deal is signed. We can’t afford to look at our work as solely “the unique, quirky creation of a lonely, intense, and often expensive struggle”. The businesses of book publishing and book selling are built on the creators of books, and we can no longer afford to be handled as “the talent”.

We should have first signatory power of our advances. Agents should provide receipts for all postage and handling and other expenses generated to sell our books to receive reimbursement. Publishers should deliver similar transparency enabling writers to be clear about how their royalty checks are calculated. We should be in the meetings sharing thoughts about how our work should be marketed, and to whom. We should also have more understanding and ownership of the retail deals and outlets associated with our work.

At the height of the Hachette-Amazon impasse, Stephen Colbert leveraged his television platform to direct readers to shop at indie bookseller Powells, and, in the process, helped make imprint mate Edan Lepucki’s novel California “one of the most preordered debut titles in Hachette history”. What if authors with similar or greater reach fulfilled book orders directly or via a third party they had individually set deal terms with?

How different would the Amazon-Hachette dispute have been if J.K. Rowling had pulled a Taylor Swift and removed her books from Amazon to sell them herself, via a distributor of her choice, or via her publisher? What if publishers fulfilled orders directly from their warehouses, or scrapped warehousing and opened branded online bookstores as publishing strategist Bruce Harris suggested in an interview with Publishing Perspectives?

I realize there are contractual parameters in place that make some of these prescriptions impossible, naive, or both; and obviously, publishers, agents, and booksellers have expertise that cannot be discounted, but I think these are the questions authors and author advocacy groups need to begin to ask and answer with the industry in such flux. The goal needs to be evolving the current model so writers have more agency over their work and their revenue so when spats and shifts happen, we’re not left only with the option of airing our frustrations via traditional or social media, watching helplessly from the sidelines.

The Etisalat Prize for Literature Longlist is Here!

The 2014 Etisalat Prize for Literature will be announced February 22, 2015 - peoplewhowrite

UPDATE: The shortlist for the Etisalat Prize was announced December 9th, culling the longlist of nine titles down to three: An Imperfect Blessing by Nadia Davids, Penumbra by Songeziwe Mahlangu, and Happiness, Like Water by Chinelo Okparanta. The winner will be revealed February 22, 2015.

The Etisalat Prize for Literature was founded in 2013 by the Nigerian telecommunications giant Etisalat to spotlight debut African novelists. Last year, NoViolet Buluwayo’s We Need New Names edged out Yewande Omotoso’s Bom Boy, Yejide Kilanko’s Daughters Who Walk This Path, Karen Jennings’ Finding Southbek, Ifeanyi Ajeagbo’s Sarah House, Jamila Safari’s The Great Agony and Pure Laughter of the Gods, Chibundu Onuzo’s The Spider King’s Daughter, Claire Robertson’s The Spiral House, and The Whispering Trees by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim. Buluwayo, who recently won the Hurston-Wright Foundation’s Legacy Award for critically-praised novel, gifted the fellowship to Omotoso, her runner-up.

This week, the prize administrators shared the 2014 longlist contending for the £15,000 cash prize and a fellowship at University of East Anglia under the mentorship of Professor Giles Foden, author of the Last King of Scotland. Judges Sarah Ladipo Manyika (Chair), Alain Mabanckou, Jamal Mahjoub, and Tsitsi Dangarembga will agree on a whittled list by December 8, 2014, and, ultimately, the winner, who will be announced on February 22, 2015.

The full 2014 longlist is here:

An Imperfect Blessing by Nadia Davids
Whoever Fears the Sea by Justin Fox
The Thunder that Roars by Imran Garda
Penumbra by Songeziwe Mahlangu
Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi (the 2014 Commonwealth Prize Winner)
Fresh Air and other stories by Reward Nsirim
Happiness, Like Water by Chinelo Okparanta (this year’s Lambda Award Winner for Lesbian General Fiction)
Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi (longlisted for the 2014 Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award)
Shadows by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma

British Literary Agency Launches Novel-Writing Competition

UPDATE: Megan Hodson, a 21 year old marketing exec from Cardiff, the capital of Wales, has won Curtis Brown’s inaugural “Be a Bestseller” competition. She beat out 4,000 contenders, with her planned novel When We Get There.Reading teams at Curtis Brown and Curtis Brown Creative helped judges Marian Keyes, a bestselling author, actress Caroline Quentin, and literary agent Jonny Geller cull the entries down to Hodson and four finalists — Lucy Brooke, Andrew Ewart, Caroline Tudor, and Katy Wilson. Hodson was ultimately named the winner in a live final that aired on Britain’s ITV on November 27th. 

The winning novel will get representation from a Curtis Brown Creative agent, and free placement in one of the agency’s six-month novel-writing courses. Judges Marian Keyes, Caroline Quentin, and Jonny Geller (joint CEO of Curtis Brown) launched the “Be a Bestseller” competition yesterday; the entry deadline is November 14th.

The Mega-Advance as a Marketing Tool for Debut Books

Debut novelists Emma Cline and Imbolo Mbue cinched seven-figure Random House book deals at the 2014 Frankfurt Book Fair. - peoplewhowrite

Two debut novelists cinched seven-figure book deals at the 2014 Frankfurt Book Fair.

2014 is shaping up to be an incredible year for some debut authors. At the Frankfurt Book Fair in October, Random House paid $1 million and $2 million, respectively, to acquire Imbolo Mbue’s debut The Longings of Jende Jonga and Emma Cline’s The Girls. Also at Frankfurt, University of Pennsylvania Associate Professor of Psychology Amy Lee Duckworth sold her first book Grit: Passion, Perseverance and the Science of Success to Scribner. Duckworth’s book is said to be based on the TED talk she gave last year entitled “The Key to Success? Grit.” Around the same time in early October, and about 3891 miles away, 2014 graduate of the New School’s MFA program Stephanie Danler scored a two book deal from A.A. Knopf. She pitched an agent she was serving at a French restaurant called Buvette in Manhattan’s West Village, and the rest is history.

Well, the beginning is history–and acts as a great marketing tool PR in advance of the book. What happens when the books actually hit the market could determine if these writers will have longevity.

Emily Gould famously sold her memoir for $200,000 in 2008. When her sales did not meet expectations, she had a difficult time selling her next book. Earlier this year, writer Maureen Callahan reported Gould had sold a new novel called Friendship for $30,000. A 2003 feature in New York Magazine cautions against banking on this “literary lottery” as an indication of the writers who will have staying power.

Writer Alex Williams points to the six- and seven-figure advances debut authors snapped up in the aftermath of Alice Sebold’s New York Times bestseller The Lovely Bones, said to have sold close to three million copies:

  • Yale Law professor Stephen Carter — $4 million two-book deal.
  • Medical Student Daniel Mason — $1.2 million two-book deal “on the strength of his manuscript for The Piano Turner.”
  • Former Wired UK editor Hari Kunzru — nearly $1 million for the U.S. rights to his first novel The Impressionist.
  • Former New Mexico reporter Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez — $475,000 for The Dirty Girls Social Club, a book that took her  six days to write.
  • Then 26-year-old Jonathan Safran Foer — $500,000 for his first novel, Everything Is Illuminated plus $925,000 for the paperback rights.

Williams wrote, “The magnitude of Safran Foer’s advance, combined with his tender age, drew so much attention it served to demonstrate to publishers just how powerful a marketing tool the advance itself could be. The larger the advance, the louder the publisher’s declaration that this is the book the house is gambling on this season. The marketplace has become a literary lottery, not just for the authors but for the publishing houses too. A modest advance, which used to signal the intention to invest in a long-term relationship, now indicates lack of commitment.”

For those authors who can’t get a PR-worthy advance, the marketing can come by landing a literary prize or fellowship, or buying a spot on the bestseller list. Last year, The Wall Street Journal reported that many authors hire book marketing companies like ResultSource to buy enough copies of their book to make the title a bestseller. “Publishing a book builds credibility, but having a Bestseller initiates incredible growth—exponentially increasing the demand for your thought leadership, skyrocketing your speaking itinerary and value,” ResultSource was quoted as saying in the piece. Publisher John Wiley & Sons admitted to recommending ResultSource to their business book authors.

These tactics are not unlike those employed by recording artists and music industry labels. “Payola” — the illegal practice of record labels paying TV and radio stations to play their artists’ songs — has been going on since the days of Dick Clark and likely before then. In 2001, did a piece exposing labels’ use of “indie” brokers to get their artists’ tracks played on the radio. A 2009 piece in The Guardian suggested payola is the basis of internet radio.

Meanwhile, artists are seeking fresher ways to capture the finicky and finite attention spans of our day, whether it’s dropping secret albums like Beyonce did, “gifting” iTunes subscribers like U2 did, or collaborating with unexpected artists, again, like Beyonce did when she sampled author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TEDx talk. The collaboration boosted Adichie’s book sales, and led to the publication, in text form, of her talk We Should All Be Feminists.

For writers, what’s clear is that their stories can’t be limited to what’s between the covers of their books. Whether we’re talking a book that was made possible by a Kickstarter campaign or some other crowd-funding source like Goldsmiths Prize shortlistee Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, or the story is attached to format i.e. online serial versus traditional print, there needs to be a hook that will inspire the press to cover the book. At the end of the day, it’s about getting share in the attention span of the reader. Once that happens, the marketing yields, finally, mercifully, to the merit of the story.