An Africa that talks back


Africa is being reimagined. One of the most striking things at the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) this year was the onrush of young writers from the continent, writers who want to drop the colonial hangover and tell stories of and explain their own local experiences. Young Ghanian writer Taiye Selasi set out some of the anticipations of this new identity and endeavour in her influential 2005 essay Bye-Bye, Babbar, where she coined the term ‘Afropolitans’ to refer to this cosmo poli – tan ised breed of young people. In their JLF sess ion, titled The Afropolitans, Selasi, Teju Cole and Ben Okri discussed their writing eff – orts to cut through the prevailing romanticism and see their home afresh. Selasi is from Ghana and Nigeria and has lived all over the world, Okri was born in Nigeria and now lives in the UK, while Cole was born in the US and raised in Nigeria. They spoke to TEHELKA about why this is both a very frightening and exhilarating time to be a young African writer — as Selasi says, one way or the other, they must talk back.

‘A rich text like Conrad’s can only be countered by good writing’

Ben Okri Author Of:  • The Famished Road  • A Time for New Dreams  Photos: Soumik Mukherjee
Ben Okri author of: • The Famished Road • A Time for New Dreams Photos: Soumik Mukherjee

Your books have been tagged as magic realism. Yet, in the country where you come from, myth and reality merge seamlessly. Is your writing closer to reality than magic?
I disagree with the label of magic realism. As a writer, one is trying to get stories to bend to reality. The reality in my writing is just the different versions of myths, history and beliefs.

Are there any common themes emanating from contemporary African literature?
Colonialism was once an idea addressed by most authors. We have moved past that. Now there are novels of the city, novels of the countryside, there is a wide range in African writing. All this is slowly changing the idea of African literature.

Taiye Selasi separated the Afropolitans (contemporary immigrant Africans) from the Africans living in Africa. Would you separate the writing of the two as well?
As Afropolitans, we may be living out of Africa, but the writing does not exist in a vacuum. It is African writing. Afropolitans are still affected by the realities of the world.

Would you say Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness continues to shape the perception of Africa to the outside world?
Chinua Achebe pointed out the untold damage that the book did to the perception of Africa and also hinted that Conrad was a racist. The book points out the danger of the power of good writing. It has been so persuasive because it is a very rich text. There is only one way to counter it, and that is with good writing, to write back.

Why do you choose to write in English instead of your own language?
This question of language has been debated by many African writers. But the past cannot be changed, and colonialism is a part of that. I have been taught in English and it is a part of the way I see the world. What is important is how to bend language to make it transparent to reality, to be a great writer.

It’s a question we often face in India: there is a notion that literature in other languages is being marginalised. Is that debate also raging in various African countries? 
There is a tragedy in the way in which language literature is being marginalised. Language is a filter of consciousness. The loss of language is the loss of culture, philosophy, of richness, as if a por tion of the earth has dis – app ear ed. We should support the preservation of language literature. We need many languages, we need it for the richness of humanity.

Sunaina Kumar is a Special Correspondent with

‘My Twitter feeds are like tiny compressed novels’

Teju Cole Author of: • Every Day is for the Thief • Open City
Teju Cole author of: • Every Day is for the Thief • Open City

As a writer, what are the political engagements that top your list of priorities?
I’m very concerned about the situation in Nigeria. Security is rapidly deteriorating because there is an Islamist fundamentalist group bombing cities. At the same time, people are fighting against the government for not responding to their needs. Seeing this happen gives me immense pride as a Nigerian. This generation is demanding its rights and saying, “We are citizens of the modern world and we can’t keep taking this abusive behaviour.” It is also very depressing because the leaders are not getting the message.

Were there any ideas you rejected before settling down with what kind of a novel Open City would turn out to be?
Not necessarily. I was living with the character of Julius — the idea of a young, unhappy psychiatrist. This idea came to me more than 10 years ago and around 2006, I realised the narrative that I needed to put Julius into would relate to a kind of grieving of the city. I kept going back into Julius’ world, it was a form of method acting because it’s been told in the first person.

In your head, is there a fairly organic connection between photography and being someone who walks the streets of a city like your protagonist Julius?
They are very closely connected, but what my photography and my writing have in common is that both pay close attention to the world of experience, to the world of sensations, to the visible world. In both my writing and photography, I hope to go beyond the obvious and look for the small, alluring detail.

Is there something you want to do with either writing or photography that relates to the situation in Nigeria?
I’m writing about Lagos now, but I don’t think of writing an explicitly political tract. Even the short stories of everyday disasters on Twitter are really a way of saying that small stories also have to be told. It’s by telling the story of a single person in the best way possible that you can illuminate an entire society. If you take too general a view, you actually just come up with clichés.

Poorva Rajaram

‘Love and sex Should get More playtime’

Taiye Selasi Author Of: • Ghana Must Go (FORTHCOMING)
Taiye Selasi Author Of: • Ghana Must Go (FORTHCOMING)

Why are you excited about African writing today?
It really does mark the beginning of a new era. I come to India twice a year, and the energy I see here, I’m beginning to see it in Ghana and Nigeria as well. In Nigeria, you have a youth rebellion against an oil company, which seems a very political moment, but then if you situate it in a novel and take a broader look at what’s happening, it’s young Africans willing to talk back. We’re always taught: don’t talk back to your elders. Well, yeah… we kind of have to. And if I’m excited about anything, it’s that African literature is beginning to talk back.

You said there are African novels that don’t have child soldiers or genocide. Why is that important?
The body of work in African literature is much broader than what most readers in the West, and in India, believe it to be. For example, (there’s ) Teju Cole, Ben Okri, Chimamanda Adichie. Helen Oyeyemi is a Nigerian author whose books have a bit of magic realism like Okri. Binyava nga Wainaina from Kenya writes beautifully in memoir form.

Are there themes and subjects that are still neglected in young African writing?
Love! I think it could get a little more playtime along with sex. But we’re getting there.

What about the criticism that you, Cole and Okri are all part of the diaspora and all of you write in English?
Get over it. That is the full extent of my very eloquent defence! I didn’t ask the UK to come to Nigeria and take it over, I didn’t ask for English to be the official language of Nigeria. I was born into that reality. I’ve gotten over it. So they can get over it too.

Gaurav Jain is Literary Editor, Tehelka.


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