By Toyin Falola
In an earlier piece, I traced the historiography of African literature and wrote about anticipations of how the panelists at the last edition of the Toyin Falola Interviews (in conjunction with the Pan-African Writers Association) would propose ways of rethinking African literature. Today, I will be spotlighting and extrapolating the views of Cheru, the only female panelist and the Vice President (Southern Region) of the Association. Cheru had many interesting perspectives on the questions and issues raised.
There is largely an imbalance between the financial stability of critics and writers, based mainly on the fact that a higher percentage of critics are employed at universities, thus having a stable source of income compared to literary writers. In stating her perception of this imbalance and approaches to springing up a reward system that balances the financial strength of both critics and writers, Cheru started with writers’ mentality and our perception of writing—especially as a full-time job—as one of the biggest stumbling blocks to writers’ achievement of financial stability.
Passion is the key ingredient in the making of literary writers, which makes the bulk of writers venture into writing as a means of expressing themselves and connecting with their deep passion for literature and writing. However, it should be known that passion is not enough to build a successful writing career. The writer must step out from the mentality of writing as a second option and realize that it is a full-time career that passionate writers can pursue, thus approaching writing as a professional. This means that writers need to improve their writing skills and develop a career path that can help them turn a profit.
Cheru further went towards the controversial side when she stated she does not see any excuse for writers to be poor or “unable to put food on their table.” As controversial as this may seem, Cheru is not wrong because there are several opportunities out there that literary writers can tap into once they have taken writing as a professional career and not just as a hobby. Writers can earn money through the ability to market their ideas.
In reality, many African writers do not invest enough in producing, promoting, and distributing their works, which could be due to the lack of funds to invest in such. However, professionalism is required at every stage of the book creation process, from story-writing through publishing to distribution and promotion. Writers should be ready to be strategic about the stories they want to tell, the impacts they hope to make, and the people they want to engage with their stories. They should be prepared to attend events, launch their books, and promote them. They must learn to network with other writers and join the right writing communities.
Another issue relating to African literature is African writers positioning themselves for prizes, especially Western prizes. These prizes, among other things, provide writers with references and proof of their outstanding works. Some of these prizes come with substantial monetary rewards that serve as the gateway to more opportunities for several writers on a continent where success in the writing world is based largely on grit, talent, and passion, with the stark absence of access to practical writing-related degrees and writing workshops.
Notably, all the panelists at the last discussion are award-winning writers. Having won writing-related awards in the past could well have given credence to their emergence during the selection process because awards and recognition are a good means of gauging one’s impacts and qualifications across all walks of life. The question that rears its head then is: what does winning awards, or otherwise, mean for one’s career as a literary writer, African literature as a whole, and for up-and-coming writers? Prize obsession could evolve into a fast-spreading phenomenon if it has not already. Thus, is prize obsession justified, given that winning awards and prizes could contribute to a writer’s career?
For Cheru, awards and prizes should not be the focus, and she strongly advocates against them. As she said, some of these awards and prizes have the style and pattern they look for in literary works. Only writers who pander to the box created by the awarding institutions qualify for the awards and eventually win. Cheru believes that the bulk of the awarding institutions from the West, which are incidentally the institutions with substantial monetary rewards for African writers, tend to favor negative African stories or those that portray Africa as that suffering, never-to-develop continent of people who look up to and need the salvation of the West. It may seem counter-intuitive to advocate against prize obsession, as there is a need to balance the reward system for writers and raise awareness of their financial stability.
However, having many African literary works pandering toward certain narratives with the hopes of winning prizes does not augur well for the continent. Thus, African writers need not write for prizes. This is not to say writers be anti-prize or reject nominations. Cheru’s message is that writers should write for all the reasons they want to, strive to document Africa’s history, and portray Africa as a continent rich in human and natural resources. They could very well opt for writing against the ills in African society and the poor leadership that bedevils the continent. But the primary motivating factor for writing should not be the hopes that such writing will get nominated for foreign prizes. If the prizes come in the end, then writers can celebrate.
It is also important to encourage the new generation of African writers to find their voice and write without pandering to the style and narrative awarding institutions watch out for in African literature. Success for literary writers should not necessarily be measured by how many awards they win. Success can also be defined by how well one’s literary works meet the demands of one’s audiences. In defining African literature from a gender perspective, there are questions like: Should there be a special focus on writings by African women and for African women? Should we give special attention to writing by African women? Should there be dedicated support for grooming female African writers? These are sub-forms of larger questions of gender equality, equal opportunities for all, and feminism.
Cheru does not subscribe to the idea that African literary works should be segmented across gender lines. For her, some female-related African literary works are sponsored, and the sponsors have some narratives they want to foster. This puts writers under pressure to write what fits into the narrative, thus crippling their creative freedom, as the focus is placed on highlighting issues rather than writing naturally and on the basis that there is an audience that needs to be reached with the writer’s creative thought flows. Cheru also believes that there is a generalization of Africa-related cultural beliefs and values viz-a-viz the treatment and consideration of women. Of truth, several African traditional practices are flawed in their treatment and acknowledgment of the female gender. However, Cheru believes that the roots of these issues run deeper than what sponsored gender-based African literary works currently portray and that it is a multi-perspective issue that must be addressed.
There is also the need to strategically boost the visibility of African writers and African literature. All over the world, public places like airports and train stations and even hotels are good points of call for literary works; sadly, African literature is missing from the equation. There is the need to give visibility to African books in a way that shows we are ready to actively promote literature by our people. Rethinking African literature entails reforming African literary writers’ mindset, as well as the mentality toward African literature. African writers need to be more audience-aware, to better understand the trends in world literature and how to make Africa the centerpiece of those trends.