By Madhlozi Moyo
The highlight of my experience at this year’s Africa Writes Festival was meeting some established African authors, as well as new authors from Africa and the Diaspora. The event, held at the British Library in London from 29th June to 1st July, had a broad menu that included in-depth engagement on the nature and meaning of African literature, and friendly chit-chat on the sidelines. Obviously, I couldn’t attend all the events, but will give an overview of my experience of the festival.
For me, the events began with the ‘Mostly Lit Live in Conversation with Afua Hirsch,’ the author of Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging. She was joined by Alex Reads, Raifa Rafiq, and Derek Owusu in a discussion that was mostly about being Black in Britain, and the effect this has on one’s identity. The major lesson, for me, was that the African writer must not close him/herself off from issues of race. There was a general consensus that literature has a role to play in improving race relations.
After this session, I was delighted to meet Doreen Baingana for the first time, a Mawazo director – the institute organized our trip. I enjoyed meeting the cast of people she quickly introduced me to, and we exchanged ideas and contacts, especially in the realm of publication.
Thereafter, Doreen Anyango, another Mawazo workshop participant, and I attended the “Meet the Publishers” session where aspiring authors pitched their manuscripts. Although we had spent hours perfecting our pitches, we were not lucky enough to be picked by the raffle system. Still, we learned a lot about the intricacies of the business side of the book publishing industry. We aspiring authors were encouraged to make our manuscripts as attractive and as near perfect as we could, as the next step would be to secure an agent. We listened to pitches by budding writers from Kenya and Nigeria, among other places, whose stories were as diverse as their backgrounds. The panel of judges, themselves publishers, made useful comments on overwriting, structure, form, etc. I will never forget the comment, “Write like you are applying for a job.” The major lesson for me was that in a pitch, one needs a balance between the introduction of the work and of the self. Also, one needs to have a thick skin. Another take-away was that if a book fails to get published, there is a 90% chance that there is something wrong with the manuscript itself, not with the author or the publisher.
The next stop was the Caine Prize Conversation, which started with an announcement by Miles Morland himself, that the Miles Morland Scholarship for African Writers 2018 was now open to submissions.
The panel included four nominees: Stacey Hardy from South Africa, Olufunke Ogundimu and Wole Talabi from Nigeria, and Makena Onjerika from Kenya. The fifth nominee, Nonyelum Ekwempu from Nigeria, was not present. They read excerpts from their short stories, after which they fielded questions from the audience, such as, ‘What is an African story?’ The panelists concurred that although stories may be political, they shouldn’t be polemic; they are stories first and foremost. They seek to show us what it means to be human.
It was a shame that I couldn’t attend the Africa Writes party later that evening as I was exhausted. However, I managed to pitch my work to a number of interested and interesting people on the sidelines of the panels, some of them agents and publishers.
The next morning, I was especially delighted to attend the session, ‘The Making and Re-making of Zimbabwe’ which featured two Zimbabwean authors, Novuyo Rosa Tshuma and Panashe Chigumadzi. Their novels, House of Stone and These Bones will Rise Again, respectively, aroused a lot of debate, which I contributed to as a fellow Zimbabwean. It was such a pleasure to buy their books, get them signed, and even take photos with the two authors. I felt at home at this panel discussion.
The last event of the festival was another highlight: ‘African Books to Inspire’, chaired by Panashe Chigumadzi, featuring Novuyo Rosa Tshuma, Akwaeke Emezi and Ayesha Harruna Attah. They discussed their favorite books that were central to their development as authors, including Fanon’s, The Wretched of the Earth, and books by Dambudzo Marechera and Yvonne Vera, among many others. After this session, the vibrant crowd thinned out as people reluctantly dispersed.
I have brought home with me a good number of books bought at the festival bookstore, including Kintu, authored by our very own Mawazo workshop facilitator, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, and I look forward to digging in.