Promoting Literature by Africans to Africans on the Continent
Most of the instant responses to the mention of Writivism have been to ask if it is about the use of writing for activism. It is not an easy feat to distance the word ‘Writivism’ a coinage of writing and activism-from the subjection of writing to ‘activism’. But on the 16th of May 2014, at the Franschhoek Literary Festival in South Africa, a mentor on the program, Yewande Omotoso explained most eloquently: Writivism is advocacy for African writing.
Writivism is an African continent-wide program run by the Kampala-based Centre for African Cultural Excellence, involving over 100 African writers. When we started in 2012, our focus was, and still is the writer and reader based in Africa. We run workshops in various cities with the help of individual writer-partners (this year in February the workshops were run in Kampala, Abuja, Cape Town, Nairobi and Harare), from which we recruit emerging writers for our online mentoring program. We pair them with established African writers (about 20 mentors for a cohort of over 60 emerging writers for 2014), who then work with them to develop flash fiction, that is published in various African newspapers and literary platforms. In 2014, the flash fiction is so far published by The Observer (Uganda), The Sunday Trust (Nigeria), BooksLive (South Africa), Deyu African, Muwado, and Mon pi Mon (Uganda) among others.
We also run a short story prize open to all emerging writers based on the continent; where “emerging” means those who are yet to have a book a published. We received over 200 entries from over 17 countries for this year’s prize, and a long-list of 14 stories was released on the 14th of May 2014 by the five member panel of judges comprising Ellen Banda-Aaku (Chair), Zukiswa Wanner, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Glaydah Namukasa and Emmanuel Sigauke. On the 1st of June 2014, the same panel will announce a short-list of five stories, whose writers will then travel to Kampala for public readings and the Writivism Festival (18-22 June), where The 2014 Writivism Anthology, comprising all the long-listed stories, edited by Sumayya Lee, will be launched. At the Festival, the winners of the short story prize shall be announced and in the days following the festival, shall tour various schools in Kampala to promote their work.
The Festival will be a celebration of African arts and culture beyond just literature and writing even though the latter remain the centre. We shall host prominent African contemporary writers like NoViolet Bulawayo, Zukiswa Wanner, Ayikwei Nii Parkes (who also sit on the Writivism Board of Trustees) among others, who shall facilitate master-classes, attend book-signing events among other literature promotion activities. What we are doing is exactly what Yewande said, we are making a case for the production and consumption of African Literature by Africans, without the need for Western mediation.
But we understand the skepticism of those who mistake Writivism, the portmanteau title of our program, for a trendy way to brand protest literature. Those who make faces when Writivism is mentioned. Activist writing, especially in the context of African Literature has been heavily criticised in recent times. We can safely trace this criticism to Dambudzo Marechera’s ‘If you write for a certain nation or race, then F*ck You’ missile which became a chorus of sorts in the 2000s for writers keen on avoiding ‘political’ issues in their work. Helon Habila, in an introduction to The Granta Book of the African Short Story calls this generation of writers the post post-colonial generation.
They write about a cosmopolitan African life, largely off the continent and almost unanimously rubbish any work that may seem concerned with ‘political’ issues. Some of them have called this type of literature poverty pornography, an attempt to denigrate protest literature and deny it, its artistic value. Some almost insinuate that there are racist undertones in the preference of protest literature by Western literary establishments.
The assumption that the target of African Literature is the West is one we challenge at Writivism. We engage African writers through and through and promote their work to African audiences because we believe that it is not true that all African writers write for the Western audience. We encourage writing for the African audience. We also are uncomfortable with the belief that there is a certain version of an African writer that all must fit in. We encourage the diversity of interests of African writers.
We do not give writers themes largely because it is up to them to choose whatever themes they want to address in their work. It is up to them to indulge in protest literature, or to write the African happy story. That is their freedom. It has no impact on whether they win the prize or not. It should not have. Our focus is on the promotion of this writing to the African audience. We want to see more African literature being read in Africa. Whether it is protest Literature or happy Literature, does not matter for us. If it is African Literature, we promote it.
Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire is a co-founder of the Center for African Cultural Excellence (www.cace-africa..org) that runs the Writivism program (www.writivism.com). He is also a judge for the 2014 Short Story Day Africa competition.