Almost 50 years since the historic African writers’ conference at Makerere, a group of ambitious youthful writers is seeking to inject new life into the African literary scene.
Mostly run by writers and intellectuals in their 20s and 30s, Writivism incorporates participants from all over the continent in a series of workshops and mentorship programmes, competitions and events that culminate in its annual festival.
Writivism is passionate about advocacy for African writing. Why is advocacy for literature important?
Most of us grew up reading European writing, which is still predominant in the African market. It is because of this that we believe that it’s important to begin to create awareness about African literature produced in Africa in our time — and not just stop there. Writivism aims to make a statement that we can set our own standards and that the literature that we consume, doesn’t have to be that given to us by the West.
Isn’t it a reality though, that some of our own best writing comes in from ‘the West’ in the form of books published by Western publishers and writers trained in institutions there?
That may be true, but it is not always the case. Some of our biggest writers were nurtured locally before they were “discovered” by European or American publishers, which is a sign that we have a good local product to begin with.
I like to give the example of Teju Cole’s Every Day is for the Thief which was first published by Cassava Republic in 2007. It brought him to the attention of international publishers and now Random House has recently reissued it internationally as if it were new. We also forget that Chimamanda Adichie was first published locally by Farafina with Purple Hibiscus.
Writivism was described by Uganda’s Monitor newspaper as “activism with letters.” Is Writivism an ideology?
I wouldn’t call it that. I’d say it’s a reaction to the tradition we are moving towards, of a multipolar world where the West won’t be the centre any more. The East is gaining a lot of financial power and is projected to be the leading world power.
So the question is, what does Africa have, even if just in terms of soft power? If Africans started producing literature for themselves without the West as gatekeepers, then Writivism would have served its purpose.
Who funds Writivism?
We’re different from many other literary festivals in that 70 per cent of our expenditure is not cash. We get a lot of in-kind contributions from corporate groups and also writers themselves, because they believe in the cause. We don’t pay per diems. We get free tickets from local airlines and grants from the Open Society and the Danish embassy for other logistics.
This was the second Writivism festival. How would you compare it with the first, which took place in August last year?
This last one was big. About 5,000 people turned up, although many came for the Saturday World Music Day event and randomly ended up sitting in on our programmes.
In 2013, we had about 100 people coming in every day and the activities were starting at 4pm and they ran for only three days.
Last year, we had Zukiswa Wanner from South Africa, Onyeka Nwelue from Nigeria, Clifton Gachagua and Okwiri Oduor from Kenya and Ugandan writers like Beatrice Lamwaka, Hilda Twongyire, Glaydah Namukasa and Julius Ocwinyo.
This year, we have had some of these writers present but also others like NoViolet Bulawayo from Zimbabwe, Richard Ali from Nigeria, Nii Parkes from Ghana and the Writivism short story awardees from as far away as South Africa, Cameroon and Nigeria.
Is there a particular type of writing Writivism looks to promote?
We’re interested in all sorts. There’s no genre or style we single out; as long as it’s African we will highlight it.
What achievements would you say Writivism is most proud of so far?
We are proud of the fact that we’re still running even without resources and the goodwill many writers have shown in coming and giving of their time and energy. It’s no small thing having people like NoViolet, who was shortlisted for the Booker last year, coming by without being paid.
We’re also quite excited to see the intercontinental exchange that has started through our efforts, with over 100 authors from 17 Anglophone countries involved.
We didn’t expect to grow this big so soon, it’s amazing how quickly people are warming up to us in this short time of starting up. It’s also been great to see that two Writivism members have appeared on the Caine Prize shortlist to date — Efemia Chela and Okwiri Oduor, both in 2014.
What are your future plans?
We’re going into new countries. We had workshops in Cape Town, Nairobi, Harare, Abuja and Kampala last year. This year, we’re going into Accra, Gaborone and maybe Dar es Salaam and Kigali.
We also want to involve other writers in the project, those who are trying to create a different centre from Western neo-liberalism, writers like Junot Diaz. We also want to make the festival much better and do outreaches to learn from other festivals like Nigeria’s Ake Festival, Storymoja in Kenya and the Time of the Writer festival in South Africa.