Attending Africa Writes – the annual African literary festival in London – was an impulsive decision for me. A quick scour of the programme: a hop on the bus, and although 15 minutes late, I managed to sneak into the British Library auditorium without too many disapproving looks.
In the past, friends have raved about Africa Writes. Now running since 2012, the Royal African Society’s event is a growing platform for writers and readers to rub shoulders and celebrate creativity from across the Motherland and Diaspora.
The evening session opened with a five-strong panel of Africa39 writers. Africa39 is a Hay Festival and Rainbow Book Club project, which celebrates the best Sub-Saharan African writers under the age of 40.
Chaired by author and journalist Hannah Pool, the panel took turns to name their celebrated authors.
Somali-born Nadifa Mohamed spoke passionately about Ahmadou Kourouma’s book ‘Allah is Not Obliged’.
Comedic Nigerian author Chibundu Onuzo had the audience killing themselves laughing as she regaled her love of Wole Soyinka’s autobiographic piece ‘Ake’. “I have never seen a childhood so well imagined,” she told the audience.
For Kenyan writer and filmmaker Ndinda Kioko, one of her books of choice was Mariama Ba’s ‘So Long a Letter’. And while Nigerian writer and journalist Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s book offering escapes me – I remember it was tied up in exploring young love.
As an avid lover of Ghanaian hilife music, Nii Ayikwei Parkes’ selection made an impression on me. Parkes is a Ghanaian novelist, poet, and educator and chose the lyrics to A.B Crentil’s ‘Moses‘. He told the audience how this supposedly innocent song was a tribute to how Crentsil was able to subvert censorship. This sexualised song about biblical Moses ‘parting’ the Red Sea was a firm favourite in Ghana and was played for around two months in the 1970s before the authorities realised its licentious content.
These writers also explored why distribution of books by Africans remains woefully poor on the continent. Discussion also touched on African men and whether they were capable of romance.
But the topic that seemed to spark impassioned debate was that on societal labels.
Two years on from me meeting ‘Ghana Must Go’ author Taiye Selasi and it seems the Afropolitan word she coined still splits opinion. In her article ‘Bye Bye Babar‘, she describes Afropolitans as: ‘the newest generation of African emigrants’…., she added: ‘You’ll know us for our funny blend of London fashion, New York jargon, African ethics, and academic successes.‘
The ‘Urban Dictionary’ describes it as an African who was educated in the West but spends a significant amount of time in the mother country and the West. Other explanations exist which seem to marry Afropolitanism to a certain type of African….rich….educated and well-travelled.
Achimota-schooled Parkes, who originates from Ghana, railed against this idea. He was quick to call it BS (bullshit), pointing out that there is nothing new about cosmopolitanism across Africa.
What’s in a name?
But Onuzo – the youngest female to sign to publisher Faber & Faber at age 19 – gave us the flip side. “If people want to be called that let them”, she said.
Quite clearly, she has no problem with labels and believes that while to some, identifying as an African writer might be viewed as limiting, it also has its perks.
Being labelled as an ‘African writer’, has meant I has seen a lot more of the world, she told the audience.
“I was on a panel called…and I am not joking…. ‘Love in the time of Ebola’,” the audience at this stage is in stitches. “I saw the panel name but I thought…. who cares, I am going to Brazil!!!”
Video blogs with Nii Parkes
Judge for yourself what you think of these labels from this badly filmed clip from the night here and an impromptu interview here with the outspoken and erudite Parkes. Parkes is the winner of multiple international accolades including Ghana’s the Arts Critics and Reviewers Association of Ghana (ACRAG) award and France’s Prix Laure Bataillon. He is the author of novel ‘Tail of the Blue Bird’ and poetry ‘The Makings of You’.