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.

2014 Hurston/Wright Awards Honor Giovanni, Buluwayo, Wilder, and Johnson

Nikki Giovanni received the 2014 Hurston/Wright North Star Award for her 45-year career as a social justice poet. - peoplewhowrite

Nikki Giovanni received the 2014 Hurston/Wright North Star Award for her 45-year career as a social justice poet.

Founded in 1990 by writer Marita Golden and historian Clyde McElvene, the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation celebrated their 24th year supporting African-Americans in literature at an annual awards gala at the Carnegie Library in Washington, DC.

For her 45-year career promoting social justice through her poetry, the Foundation honored Nikki Giovanni with the North Star Award.  “She has been a determined witness and eloquent advocate of cultural change in America,” the judges said of their decision to fete the poet.

Fiction judges Dana Johnson, Tina McElroy Ansa, and A.J. Verdelle selected NoViolet Buluwayo’s debut We Need New Names for the Foundation’s Legacy Award. “We see NoViolet’s great characters, their entrapments, their miseries, their hungers and we also see ourselves,” they said. “It felt like an imperative read,” added Marita Golden, co-founder of the Hurston/Wright Foundation.

Craig Steven Wilder’s Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities won the non-fiction prize, with judges Amy Alexander, Sheryll Cashin, and Fredrick C. Harris specifically calling out Wilder’s exposure of “the blood-soaked ties between slavery and high education and higher education in America.”

Amaud Jamaul Johnson’s poetry collection Darktown Follies was recognized for “balanc[ing] the false and ugly with the beauty and truths” of Black Vaudeville and minstrel shows.

“I think it is a great time to be a black writer,” Golden said, according to The Washington Post. “If a publisher says no, you can say, ‘Yes,’ and self-publish…..As long as there are cultural organizations like Hurston/Wright, as far as I’m concerned, the glass is not half full, but it is overflowing for black writers.”

2014 Caine Prize Shortlist Announced

Tendai Huchu has been shortlisted for the 2014 Caine Prize - peoplewhowrite

Tendai Huchu

The esteemed prize awarded to a short story by an African writer published in English has announced its shortlist:

“Phosphorescence” by Diane Awerbuck (South Africa)

“Chicken” by Efemia Chela (Ghana/Zambia)

“The Intervention” by Tendai Huchu (Zimbabwe)

“The Gorilla’s Apprentice” by Billy Kahora (Kenya)

“My Father’s Head” by Okwiri Oduor (Kenya)

In an interview with The Guardian, the chair of the judging committee Jackie Kay said the list reflected “a golden age for the African short story,” specifically calling out “how many entrants were drawn to explorations of a gay narrative.”

Past winners include (2013 Man Booker shortlistee) NoViolet Buluwayo.

You can read the shortlisted stories on

Eat, Drink & Be Literary with NoViolet Buluwayo

NoViolet Buluwayo and Daniel Alarcon at BAM's Eat, Drink & Be Literary_peoplewhowriteIf you’ve ever dreamed of having dinner with your favorite author, mark your calendar for the 2014 season of Brooklyn Academy of Music’s esteemed “Eat, Drink & Be Literary” series. From NoViolet Buluwayo to Jeffrey Eugenides to Chang-rae Lee, the year is packed with literary stars to sup with. Tickets are still available to hold court with Buluwayo whose acclaimed debut We Need New Names was shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize or connect with Daniel Alarcón, author of 2005 PEN-Hemingway Award finalist War by Candlelight. Last year’s series was similarly starry with writers Junot Diaz, Jamaica Kincaid and Nell Freudenberger among the special guests. 

Guardian First Book Award Shortlist Announced

NoViolet Buluwayo's "We Need New Names" is shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award - peoplewhowrite

NoViolet Buluwayo

UPDATE: Donal Ryan won Guardian‘s First Book Award on November 28, 2013.

NoViolet Buluwayo’s lauded debut We Need New Names has earned a spot on the Guardian First Book Award Shortlist, joining The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan, Sex and the Citadel by Shereen El Feki, Burial Rites by Hannah Kent, and Kiss Me First by Lottie Moggach in contention for the £10,000 prize. Buluwayo’s novel also made the Man Booker Shortlist; Ryan’s was longlisted.

Where Did the Concept of the "Summer/Beach Read" Come From?

Sandra Cisneros - peoplewhowrite

“I never feel guilty about reading any kind of book.” — Sandra Cisneros

In a 2009 Chicago Tribune article entitled “‘Beach Read’ Takes on New Meaning“, writer Julia Keller muses the concept may have arisen from the lack of things to do on a beach vacation. “People who don’t enjoy splashing in the ocean or sitting in the sun,” she writes, “but who still want to indulge in a family vacation with those who do, require a diversion.” Following Keller’s line of summer being recess time for kids and the few adults lucky enough to get summer Fridays, it makes sense that the season has become equated with the time of year people have time to read for pleasure. But how did summer/beach read become the euphemism for a throwaway or guilty pleasure read?

Keller writes: “a good beach read… [is] commonly employed to describe a brashly captivating and unashamedly shallow novel” — even as she laments this popular definition, confessing, “I’ve always been slightly disappointed, though, at the so-so books allowed to cluster beneath the ‘beach read’ rubric.” Yet, the idea of a beach read as being disposable or even a guilty pleasure calls into question what we (or an anointed they) think is worthy of reading in our not-so-free time; what we want people to know we’ve read or are reading — and the classism embedded in those notions.

First, there’s the issue of dollars and cents. In a recent Huffington Post piece listing “6 Crazy Compelling Paperbacks“, the writer instructs: “Toss them in your beach bag. Throw them in your bike basket. Read ’em, love ’em and leave ’em by the pool.” In other words, it’s okay to toss/throw/leave these lightweight paperback books lying around to get bleached by the sun, water logged, eaten by the dog, or altogether lose these books because they didn’t cost that much in the first place.

Also implied: If you don’t invest (or don’t have) the extra $10-20 to purchase a hardcover, you’re probably okay with the book falling apart. Either way, you’re probably not considering displaying this book in your bookshelf either because your bookshelf is packed with artfully designed, beautifully bound hardcovers, which leads me to the literature distinction. (as legit as Oxford or Websters, no?) defines literature as “writings in which expression and form, in connection with ideas of permanent and universal interest, are characteristic or essential features, as poetry, novels, history, biography, and essays” while it explains “literary” as “characterized by an excessive or affected display of learning; stilted; pedantic.” The clause in the literature definition — “in connection with ideas of permanent and universal interest” — means everything.

Beach Reading_Jeopardy

“Beach Reading” was one of the categories on Double Jeopardy tonight!

Though it’s true that there are certain topics that are permanently and universally interesting to humanity, interest is by nature completely subjective and therefore subject to cultural evaluation. Hence, certain interests are deemed highbrow while others are designated guilty pleasures. We’re all entitled to our opinions as to what falls in which category, but in doing so, we need to acknowledge that classism and many others “isms”, racism and sexism among them, color our estimation.

So, it was interesting to read the recent New York Times piece in which eight acclaimed novelists were asked to share their favorite guilty pleasure beach reads. The Times being as highbrow (my opinion) as they come, the writers surveyed — A.X. Ahmad, NoViolet Buluwayo, Sandra Cisneros, Ben Dolnick, Colum McCann, Nathaniel Rich, Elizabeth Strout, Meg Wolitzer — revealed a diversity of philosophies about the so-called summer read.

For McCann, the boundary is clear. Summer reads are graphic novels, murder mysteries, and “milky-white thigh” stories, and he’ll be reading none of them. “No fifty shades of anything,” he writes, admitting, “Whenever summer rolls around I begin to realize that I’m a complete and utter book snob.”

Meanwhile, Dolnick is all about the murder mystery — a 976-page one based on a true story — which he recommends with this plea to The stereotypical Times reader: “Hear me out.”

In her response, Strout notes the lit-shaming that elicits the plea cum disclaimer cum caveat:

…many years ago when my in-laws took me to a swanky resort and I sat by the pool reading War and Peace. “You’re not really,” said Cousin Harold. “Not really what?” I asked. “Not really going to sit there reading that.” In my memory he seemed genuinely piqued, as though I would spoil the reading pleasure of those around me. I half considered putting a brown bag cover over its flap, but I didn’t have any brown bag, and I sat there for the week engrossed in the book.

Of course, Strout’s shaming was coming from the other direction. She was reading Tolstoy, after all.

But still it’s there, this feeling of being judged by others for the reading material you enjoy and this idea that some reading should be proudly proclaimed while others should make you feel guilty for enjoying. I don’t agree with that notion.

Like Keller, I feel that “once a novel is classified as ‘literature,’ something awful seems to happen; people start revering it and stop reading it. The book is placed on a high shelf, maybe even tucked inside a glass-fronted cabinet, and there it sits — admired to death, in effect. If Woolf still had a say in the matter, I think she’d much prefer glimpsing a copy of To the Lighthouse with a smear of suntan lotion on its crinkled cover or with a bug crushed between pages 101 and 102.”

Which is why I loved Cisneros’ response in the Times’ beach read piece most of all: “I never feel guilty about reading any kind of book. Books are medicine, each one a specific prescription for whatever ails us.” She recommends Cyndi Lauper: A Memoir by the way.