In 1962, the Conference of African Writers of English Expression brought together the likes of Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Lewis Nkosi, Es’kia Mphahlele and Langston Hughes at Makerere University College in Kampala, Uganda. This mostly male group of writers discussed how to define African literature, outlined the role of the African writer in a world divided into communists and capitalists, and highlighted the responsibilities of the African towards the continent’s newly independent nation states.
In the years after the African Writers Conference, as it was later called, the ideas formalised at this gathering were reflected in some of the debates emerging alongside the growth of African literature – still considered a new and peculiar thing among literary practitioners in the West.
Nigerian writer and professor Solomon Ogbede Iyasere produced a measured takedown of African literary critics in his 1974 essay, African Critics on African Literature – A Study in Misplaced Hostility. He argued that well-founded suspicions of Western criticism had produced “apologetic defences of mediocre works”, in the name of “African cultural traditions” and “patriotic zeal”.
In the build-up to Wole Soyinka’s 1986 Nobel Prize win, the Bolekaja critics, comprised mainly but not exclusively of writers like Chinweizu Ibekwe, Onwuchekwa Jemie and Ihechukwu Madubuike, accused the poet and playwright of being an “anglo-modernist” with a “fidelity to the Hopkinsian butchery of English syntax and semantics”.
And then there was South African writer and academic Njabulo Ndebele’s keynote-address-turned-essay, The Rediscovery of the Ordinary. Here Ndebele accuses black South African literature (in English, mainly) of trafficking in a “spectacle of social absurdity”. What’s omitted from this widely misunderstood critique, however, is Ndebele’s efforts to offer a complex understanding of the aestheticism in black and protest literature.
In more recent times, there’ve been slight departures from these original conversations but the premise remains more or less the same: what is African writing, who gets to call themselves an African writer and which audience is African literature writing for?
Often it appears as though we’re having the same philosophical and moral debates on African literature since that meeting of mostly African male writers in Uganda in 1962. This exposes the simplistic evaluations of African literature which, as the scholar and critic Jeanne-Marie Jackson-Awotwi writes, split the industry into the “two default poles of ‘corporate global’ and ‘activist local’”. And despite some of the incisive critiques and discussions African writers have produced since then, we still seem unsure about how to read and engage with books by African writers.
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These matters are raised in a number of ways, sometimes at literary conferences and prize-giving ceremonies in Africa and abroad, and other times on Twitter threads, or Facebook posts bringing together writers, readers, critics, editors and scholars keen to discuss issues and trends within the canon’s mainstream.
Occasionally participants in these dialogues can treat casual flaws like chronic problems for which there are solutions. Common adages such as “African writers should write for Africans” or “we need to support our own” are uttered without much thought given to what the “average African” likes to read, or how pan-Africanist backing looks when some countries are more likely to uplift international publishing houses than local ones.
Fears over whether African writers are affirming the everyday experiences of their people can impose the kind of expectations that seem more appropriate for a politician, diplomat or tourism minister. And some of these talking points, however informative, possibly hint at the writer or critic’s very personal unease with their African identity and cultural traditions at a time where both those things seem under the threat of cultural imperialism.
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In 2013, Nigerian novelist Helon Habila reviewed NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names for The Guardian, in which he accused the Zimbabwean-born writer of advertising a “palpable anxiety to cover every ‘African’ topic”. In the following months, pushback against this allusion to poverty porn arrived in the Munyori Literary Journal, courtesy of Ugandan writer Brian Bwesigye, who stated that Habila was espousing the classist values of globe-trotting Afropolitans, whom he believed were “willing to erase African realities from the literary landscape”.
There’ve also been the more pulpy, quickfire takes such as the righteous jabs at African writers who pen “immigrant literature” (otherwise known as diasporic writing), the loud accusations of bad translations by self-styled and exiled literary uncles who have little experience translating works in other languages, but plenty of opinions on African writers drinking wine (the horror!) and some declarations about the need to write our own stories. And a few more, wait, actually a lot more reminders to write our own stories again and again, with little attempt to clarify what those stories should look like, and what would make them qualify as African.
Then there’s Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, an African writer who’s become a genre unto herself. Through a steady career of publishing acclaimed, best-selling books and offering commentary on race, gender and feminism, she’s arguably become the most visible and successful writer on the continent today. There was her TED Talk warning against the danger of a single story, her questionable comments on trans women, her status as a so-called problematic fave and her admiration of the former US secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton and former first lady Michelle Obama. In the world of African letters, there doesn’t appear to be a concern too big, frivolous or controversial to warrant extensive debate.
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Yet for the number of ways African literature wears its anti-imperialist and decolonial legacy on its sleeve, there appears to be scant discussion, at least publicly, on the effect of the West’s most devastating legacy on working African writers today: money. Though payment has been a notoriously prickly subject within journalism and publishing globally, the relative silence on freelance rates, the lack of remuneration for contributors to magazines and literary publications, outstanding invoices, book advances and newsroom salaries exposes a disconnect between the grand debates on moral and political issues versus the sobering reality for African writers and cultural workers on the ground.
Perhaps there are justifiable reasons for this. For starters, one could argue there are pressing matters that outweigh the frustrations of the African literary class. Many of our countries are still dealing with the demons of colonialism, not to mention the arrival of its younger and meaner sibling, neoliberalism.
In comparison to the pittance paid to gold and platinum miners in South Africa, the doubling of fuel prices which prompted Zimbabwe’s biggest labour union to call for a national strike, or the devastating effects of the health workers strike in Kenya, the grievances of African writers appear seem small, if not self-indulgent when put into this larger context. But given that some African writers come from the same economic backgrounds as other workers, it’s urgent that payment is pushed to the forefront of African literary discourse. Especially when the work of black and brown people living in the Global South has historically been undervalued.
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Since the early 2000s, there’s been a growing number of online African literary publications and culture magazines dedicated to giving a platform for African writers to showcase their work, while revealing the range of talent, skill and creativity on the continent and in the diaspora. Publications like The Kalahari Review, Brittle Paper, Agbowó, The Johannesburg Review of Books, The Chimurenga Chronic, Africa is a Country, Saraba, Kwani?, Prufrock and Jalada have been committed to spotlighting African voices that don’t catch the immediate attention of the Western liberal mainstream.
But with the exception of Saraba, Kwani?, The Chimurenga Chronic and The Johannesburg Review of Books, these publications are unable to pay their unsolicited writers or they have a by-invitation only writing policy. This means writers who aren’t established enough to demand or negotiate payment will have to deal with non-payment while hoping exposure will allow them to demand rates one day.
In the cases where payment is offered, it’s usually a modest flat fee which symbolises, more than anything, a future commitment to compensated work. A lack of funding and state grants coupled with the fact that these websites are often unpaid passion projects for the people who run them make it a much harder problem to solve.
But even if there are few solutions at present, there needs to be more transparency and accountability concerning money and payment for the legion of African freelancers, contributors, journalists and writers in the industry. This difficult conversation will get the ball rolling for a more practical and helpful approach for African writers looking to get paid.
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Khanya Khondlo Mtshali is a freelance writer and critic covering literature, history, politics, culture, fashion and art.