Updated: Nov 26
What are the intangible elements of our cultural heritage that bind Africans on the continent with those across the Diaspora?
Where language, land and sea borders, and religion may pose obstacles to keeping us connected, what I learnt from this year’s Africa Writes literary festival is that our distinct style of storytelling is an enduring thread that is replicated among our people – no matter where we are.
Debut authors like Ghanaian-American Blitz Bazawule and Nigerian-British Kelechi Okafor, and 2023 Caine Prize winners Woppa Diallo and Mame Bougouma Diene from Senegal, all spoke about the influences of elder mother figures in their childhoods who cultivated their storytelling passions.
What I loved about their stories was their cultural familiarity. We Africans live alongside our ancestors and what some call magic, mysticism, or superstition, we call just another aspect of everyday life for many Africans.
So, creating a story like Blitz’s debut novel ‘The Scent of Burnt Flowers’, where a lovelorn ghost and an apparition of Ghana’s first president Osagyefo Dr Kwame Nkrumah can exist alongside an African-American couple fleeing the USA for a new life in Ghana was not so fantastical – to me.
Blitz told me that growing up, his grandmother would tell stories to him in which the fantastical lived side-by-side with more conventional aspects of daily life.
“For me, my great fortune is that I grew up in a family of storytellers,” he told me. “My grandmother’s stories, my mother’s stories – those stories are the basis for me individually.
“We are non-linear storytelling people. We are cyclical in how we tell stories – so all those things have affected my storytelling.”
Stories, like these, often have moral messages interwoven into them and are a chance for inter-generational wisdom to be passed on.
In Woppa and Mame’s short story ‘A Soul of Small Places’, we learn how one woman’s trauma from sexual violence, results in her contemplating whether to end her life, go back to her husband’s family or flee.
In a conversation by a nearby river with a spirit we realise her dilemma. Fleeing or death would bring shame to her family and her husband’s, while returning to the home of her aggressors would result in a life of misery for her.
She chooses to remain by the river but as a stone statue instead – neither leaving her home nor returning, but ultimately sacrificing her life and happiness. This story, for me, spoke to the insurmountable societal expectations typically put on women where their feelings and desires usually come last.
Music and storytelling
Kelechi’s reading from her debut book of short stories: ‘Edge of Here’ – taps into another element of our intangible heritage. She narrated a portion of her book against the backdrop of folkloric Mandé rhythms from The Balimaya Project.
This form of storytelling, which channelled our griot heritage, heightened my suspense, feelings of nostalgia and emotions. Who needs high TV drama when you have this?
Voices from the diaspora
In the session: ‘London to Accra: British Ghanaians in Motion’, we heard from debut writers Marie-Claire Amuah, author of ‘One for Sorrow, Two for Joy’, and Krystle Zara Appiah, author of ‘Rootless’.
These authors scratch the surface on what seems to be a proliferation of novels by contemporary British-Ghanaian authors. Are traditional publishing houses embracing literature from contemporary African writers and creating more spaces for them?
Marie-Claire and Krystle talked about how chronicling their experiences of growing up in Ghanaian households in Britain and navigating these dual identities, informed their writing.
Keen to ensure that ‘Ghanaianess’ was not seen as monolithic, they celebrated the fact that more of these diasporan voices were being preserved in print. They also acknowledged that this was happening through storytelling in a way that included tackling tough and often taboo topics such as domestic violence and depression in their novels.
“I am not sure why so many of us are cropping up now, but I am personally very grateful for it,” said Krystle. “But it’s brilliant that publishing is making space for this. And hopefully in the future, we will see more people and more culture represented.”
Booktokers and bookstagrammers
Whether the gatekeepers of traditional publishing are making permanent spaces for our literature or not, movements over on social media are ensuring that the thirst for Black literature thrives.
I learnt, during a session chaired by Sarah Ozo-Irabor, called: Exploring the Role of Bookstagrammers & Booktokers in the Digital Age’, that it’s not uncommon for bookstagrammers and booktokers to read and review about 100 books in a year! Phew!
During the session, we heard from Nokukhanya Ntsaluba (@PrettyxBookish), Cindy (@BookofCinz), and Amyn Bawa-Allah (@lipglossmaffia). Thanks to contributions like theirs, which include reading manuscripts, they have amplified works from authors that, due to the challenges of distribution in parts of the African continent, would not have been so widely read.
Prolific poet Kwame Dawes, who closed the three-day festival provided yet another example of what we Africans in literature can do when established publishing spaces do not seem to be listening.
In a frank and humorous discussion with fellow poet Claudia Rankine, he explained why he created the African Poetry Book Fund to ensure African poets got an alternative route to getting their work published internationally.
He has also been working with writers to get these works translated into the indigenous languages of the writer so that their works are read by their communities too.
Kwame has worked with a host of names including Ghanaian poet Kofi Awoonor, who was the first poet to be published in his African Poetry Classics Series. Since then, Kofi Anyidoho is in the process of having his work translated into his indigenous language – Ewe, Kwame told participants at the festival.
A space for healing
One of the most powerful sessions at this year’s festival was co-led by author and journalist Azieb Pool and Pen Eritrea and International. I’ve never written a group poem before but during that session, I did - alongside about 27 other people that were in the session.
This was a truly interactive session which involved learning about Pen – global network of writers in over 100 countries across the globe who campaign to promote literature and defend freedom of expression.
We read poetry from writers that had been incarcerated for their words and were inspired to create our own – starting with a single word, and noting down the imagery that associated words conjured in our minds as we went round the room.
But the end, we had created something pretty impressive for our first time together and it got me reflecting on how powerful words can be.
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