Photo: Molly Leon/PEN American Center
Regular attendees at PEN World Voices know that the advertised theme of a panel may have little relation with what you end up hearing from the participants. The more participants there are, the more this may be true.
“In and Out of Africa,” held at the Harlem Stage Gatehouse, featured eight African authors on one stage, with three moderators to keep things more or less on track. The authors included Adéwálé Àjàdí (Nigeria), Ananda Devi (Mauritius), Boubacar Boris Diop (Senegal), Billy Kahora (Kenya), Alain Mabanckou (Republic of Congo), Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor (Kenya), and Véronique Tadjo (Ivory Coast). The African American author Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts was unable to attend, but the ebullient Binyavanga Wainaina (Kenya) made a welcome and unbilled appearance.
“Which Africa? Myths and Other Tales” was the first of three themes the panelists addressed. The well-prepared Tadjo proposed the African water spirit Mami Wata as a “God-given figure for the artist,” an example of a powerful woman that can be adapted to modern times. However, the other participants didn’t take up this thread.
The second theme, “Exile and Return: African Literature Now and Then,” was more productive. Not much was said about exile and return, but the theme of “now and then” stimulated many interesting ideas and a little heat. The authors spoke of the older generation of African authors—Chinua Achebe, Elechi Amadi, Mongo Beti, Buchi Emecheta, Ousmane Sembène, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o—with a mixture of admiration and frustration.
These were the writers who created a voice for Africans emerging into independence. Moderator Philip Gourevitch noted that Achebe often said that what made him write novels was reading Joyce Cary, the Englishman whose novels of Africa (Mister Johnson, The African Witch) bolstered some of the most pernicious and misleading images of Africans. But the very success of the Achebes and Ngũgĩs has created expectations and assumptions that younger writers now have to cope with.
Mabanckou (Republic of the Congo) said, “I don’t want to portray the African writer as someone who is always protesting.” Not everybody, he said, is Mongo Beti, Chinua Achebe, or Aimé Césaire (the Martinican poet and exponent of négritude). “We have seen a lot of African literature,” he said, “where if you erase the shouting there is no literature.” As for him, “When I take up my pen I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t pick the topics, the topics pick me.”
Coping with the elders and their concerns does not mean dismissing them. Devi spoke of how she read the European classics in school and learned the Hindu myths at home, but did not discover herself as a writer until she read African authors. “It opened up an incredible world. It was a world that spoke to me.” Wainaina noted that before writing about the “now” in books like Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie went back to “then” to write about the Biafran war.
The final theme, “Crossing Borders: Writing and Translating,” had a special application to Diop, the author of Murambi: The Book of Bones, about the Rwandan genocide, and the new book The Knight and His Shadow. “For a long time I wrote in French and people asked me why. Then I started writing in Wolof and people said, ‘Who’s going to read that?’” According to Diop, if an African author publishes in Paris, 80 percent of sales will be in the West and 20 percent in Africa. “This has consequences in the way people write.”
Tadjo responded, saying, “I don’t like the question, ‘Why are you writing in French?’ You can’t say now [in francophone Africa] that French is an imported language.”
Toward the end of the event, Gourevitch asked about the 1998 project to bring ten African writers (Tadjo and Diop among them) to Rwanda, and to encourage them to reflect on the genocide of four years earlier. Why had there been no more efforts to encourage African writers to travel?
This comment spurred a dialogue, somewhat at cross-purposes, between Tadjo and Wainaina: Tadjo emphasized the importance of the act of mourning and solidarity that she and others carried out in 1998, and Wainaina stressed the intra-African work that has followed. “It is not the case,” he said, “that there is a vacuum between that project and now.”
The panel and moderators were uniformly strong, though I don’t have room to quote the memorable things each one said. Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, author of Dust, was comfortably silent for most of the afternoon, but when prompted, made one of the most writerly pronouncements of the day: “I was enjoying the listening, actually.”
For complete coverage of the 2015 PEN World Voices Festival, click here