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Black Literary History – An African Perspective

Black Literary History – An African Perspective

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Why does an ‘African perspective’ even matter? What roles do Africa, its authors, and its literature play in black history and the world literary canon? Why does ‘African’ seem to frequently be equated with ‘less than’, ‘inferior’, etc.? Why do we not talk more about African history outside of slavery and colonialism? What can African authors do to change the narrative around African Identity? What does it mean to be African? What is ‘African Literature’? 

Those are some of the questions that Inua Ellams, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, and Sylvia Arthur discussed during our event (and in the Libreria podcast, which we recorded beforehand).

To start things off, I asked the panelists what they think ‘African literature’ is, and if it is even a label that they’d subscribe to, the answers differed in phrasing, but they were unanimous in content: African literature can be defined in a million different ways, but what’s for sure is that it does exist. 

The rest of the evening was spent discussing different aspects of African literary history – from oral traditions and historical scripts such as Nsibidi, to the role and importance of the Timbuktu manuscripts and scrolls

I asked the panelists, rather provocatively, what they thought about former French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s remark that ‘the tragedy of Africa is that the African has not fully entered into history […] there is neither room for human endeavour nor the idea of progress’ – and all three of them were unanimous in their rebuke and rebuttal of the statesman’s remarks.

The proverbial red thread that weaved itself through the evening’s discussion was that it is high time for African authors to stop writing in response to outsiders’ opinions or demands, and instead to write for themselves, to themselves, in response to themselves. Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi said, in response to my question about what Westerners could do to help change the (negative) dominant narrative, that we should start reading more diversely and stop donating European books to African countries. “If you really want to give, buy African authors’ works and donate those”.

‘[…] It is not enough to have African writers. We need African publishers, editors, publicists, and book vendors. If we don’t have all of these and more, African literature will always be redacted through a different lens and it will always exist to serve the interests of others.’

– Sylvia Arthur

There was, of course, little left to say after such a statement. So we opened the floor to questions. After which, we had a little surprise for our audience: 

Since one of Literandra’s main aims is to promote and spotlight African literature, both in theory and in practice, we gifted every member of the audience with a copy of one of the participating authors’ books. So everyone got to go home with either Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi or Inua Ellams’ The Half God of Rainfall. Having said that, I am most proud of the fact that we were able to give and receive book donations for Libreria Ghana after the event. If for nothing else, the support that everyone showed for Sylvia and Libreria made the stress of organising the event worthwhile.

We ended the night on that note, and everyone rushed to get their book copies signed by the authors. Many of us stuck around for a chat and a drink. 

Our first event turned out to be a success. So much so, that we had to turn people away at the door because the room was full to absolute capacity. 

So, we would like to express our gratitude to everyone who helped us make this event come to life – to Sylvia for allowing us to support her in our own little way, to Inua Ellams and Jennifer N. Makumbi for taking part in the event, and to everyone who came to show support, buy books, cheer us on, and spread the word. The event would not have been what it turned out to be if it weren’t for you, so thank you a million times over and hopefully, we’ll see you again soon.

‘When we were trying to organise this event, we were told on a number of occasions, that having a panel event with only African authors may not be commercially viable. Tonight, we proved them wrong.’

– Alessandra

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