Literary Citizenship, Literary Feuds: African Edition

In my formative years as a writer, one of the things I quickly learned was that community is important. No one creates alone, of and by himself, I remember Henry Miller saying. A writer who wants others to interact with his work needs readers, publishers, fellow writers, agents, reviewers, critics, fans. There is a village behind every piece of literature. In essence, choosing to be a writer of any sort means one inadvertently decides to become a part of this literary community.

I learned early on that to exist in this community, like every other society, I have to get along with people. Don’t be a jackass was my earliest rule and I still abide by that today. I have learned to accumulate social currency through my literary citizenship: give to the community and receive in kind. You’ll always find me discussing books, writers, and things I want to see bloom and grow. I do everything from talking to other authors, reviewing or talking about books I find interesting, discussing with other people in the community. This is an especially good way to build a network of contacts who sometimes end up extremely helpful in the most unexpected of ways.

But there is a twist to this tale. All literary citizens are equal; but are some, especially within African communities, more equal than others?

Death by a thousand feuds

Anyone who listens in on the African literary space couldn’t have missed the brouhaha surrounding the Enkare Review on Twitter in early June. There have been other issues like this as well, scattered from East to West to South Africa. I mean, writers fight everywhere, right? Yes, but how much to the detriment of the community? It does keep me up at night, truly, wondering what the African concept of literary citizenship is.

Writing primarily in the SF and Crime fields, I’ve been opportune to have formed my first few literary friendships and tribes on the Western front before circling back to the African front. As a result, I’m able to compare the reception I’ve received from writers abroad to writers at home. While I have met the odd fellow out there who’s an ass, most others have been nothing but courteous. At home, however, is a different matter.

Over time, I have noticed a certain animosity beneath basic artist-to-artist relations between a sizable number of fellow African writers I meet. Be it online or at a physical event (hello Ake, bye Ake!), everyone seems to be sizing everyone else up. There seems to be a certain undertone of competitiveness to everything, a constant comparison of notes about who has been nominated for what, who has attended what school or workshop, whose has published what and where, that leaves everyone jaded and distracts from what artists are here to do in the first place: to create & support creation.

Beht why, tho?

Theories about the reasons for this are plentiful. Some say Africans have very few spaces for our literature at literary agencies, publishing houses, bestseller lists, the New York Times and MFA programs; and since there are so many of us fighting for those limited spaces, we need to go for it like dogs to a meagre meal. Some say it is in our nature to fight to please the West, to grovel for opportunities and relevance. Some say it’s in the blood of the black man to stomp on others during his climb, to make space only for himself.

I don’t care what the reason is. I just want to see it stop.

Be the change you want to see

Truth is, I don’t expect people to change soon. I’m not the revolutionary leader going to snap at everyone and lead a protest against African literature’s über competitiveness and the literary feuds it breeds. But one thing I will do is be the change I want to see.

This is me promising to play my part as an abiding literary citizen. I promise to do whatever it takes to holler, if I can, when I meet you at that event, online or in person. This is me saying nothing will stop me from being cordial and professional to fellow literary citizens, as I hope nothing will stop you either.

Come with me on this journey, and maybe together, we can make a dent in this mountain of feuds.


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