May 2015

Jeanne-Marie Jackson


Literary Writing in Africa: The Big Small

If you're interested in African literature and you haven't heard much about genre fiction over the past few years, then you've been living under a rock. The topic of genre in Africa -- romance, crime writing, Nollywood, and the like -- has gathered an amount of momentum that few rivals in either academic or popular conversations can match. From heated Twitter debates to a flurry of panels at conferences and literary festivals to academic volumes like 2013's Popular Culture in Africa: The Episteme of the Everyday (edited by Stephanie Newell and Onookome Okome), the tradition of literary-cultural studies associated with English names like Stuart Hall and Karin Barber continues to amass impressive intellectual energy. It is a turn that's been bolstered by some high-visibility examples, like the popular "spec fic" writer Lauren Beukes from South Africa, and growing interest in Nigeria's booming Nollywood film industry. The question of genre is, in all likelihood, the future of the African critical field: a way to harness the tools of literary studies to a more inclusive -- and, literally, far more populous -- set of readers and texts.

This is not a bad thing, and it's an overdue correction to the small sample of "great West African canon, plus Gordimer and Coetzee" that determined Africa's literary reputation for so long. At its best, critical work on genre is engaged with popular texts, in mass circulation, that augur new economic models for regional publishing. In this sense, the commercial end of things (think District Nine) is just the tip of a deep social iceberg. Attention to genre fiction also pushes back against a scandalously limited canon of "global" writers by considering real global reading practices, often among women and in African languages other than English. De-provincializing genre, so to speak, has emerged as a way to address the unique social and logistical challenges of publishing on the continent, given the low readerships of even key "literary" markets and the inaccessibility of its product (a print run of even 5,000 would be a huge success for an English novel in South Africa, for example, whose books are also subject to a luxury tax).

And yet, some of us aren't convinced. It is difficult to admit as much without sounding like an outdated curmudgeon, shaking white, male fists before an audience of F.R. Leavis holdovers in the name of the Great Tradition. While genre might be a marginalized field within elite U.S. and European literature departments, its voice in debates within and surrounding literary Africa is arguably the loudest. This creates an awkward sense of split intention, for privileged diasporic critics in particular: if you want an elite world literature audience, you drum up interest with big books and big names. If you want to speak to "what's really happening" on the continent, you turn to forms in less socially problematic circulation. Weighting this context even further in favor of genre-as-future is the fact that defenders of the genre/literary distinction -- in African writing and more broadly -- are often associated with Western-based literary prizes like the Caine or the Booker, whose historical and sociological biases are suspect to many. Regardless of how one feels about those prestige games in particular, though, it is not a good moment to be the one in the room who tries to redirect critical discourse back to the self-avowedly literary work.

I have so many colleagues, friends, and interlocutors working in the genre-fiction field that it is difficult to come up with an explanation for why I resist it. Is it a feeling that literary critics should study only that which has a tradition of being considered "good," in the conventional sense of well-wrought realism, "well-developed" plots, characters, and settings (what we could call The Jonathan Franzen Problem)? I don't think so, because I've got deep investments in traditions that by no means fit that description (Socialist Realism, for one). Could it be, on the other hand, that genre fiction doesn't innovate form or style, that our acceptance of it sacrifices the critical legacy of the avant-garde? I don't think that's it either, because I'm convinced that lots of forms can challenge convention, from video games to graphic novels. The closest I can come to a defense of the literary as a category we shouldn't abandon -- that we might want to keep fairly narrow -- is a sense that literary critics have ceded too much ground to the academic social sciences. Literary writing, at its best, has an oblique and refractive, rather than direct relation to social processes. Even this, though, I'm not sure I could stick to.

The most important absence from the genre-boom is none of the above: it is recognition of the fact that many writers working in and for Africa (whether or not you call them African writers, in light of an ongoing debate about that classification) believe in the enduring significance of the literary. Much as some of the most path-breaking current print venues in the United States emerged amidst mass proclamation of print culture's end (the Brooklyn-based, love-it-or-hate-it n+1, for example), outlets that provide a counter-emphasis to genre's ascendance have kept moving forward in both English and vernacular African literary space. African writers aside from the few names Western readers know continue to write books with frank literary aspirations, and most of them aren't "over-privileged" in comparison to genre in any convincing sense: the vast majority go widely unacknowledged. In other words, a literature that stakes claim to hard ideas rather than just sociological significance continues to thrive outside of both major publishing houses and major hubs, and there are risks to its being overlooked in favor of more popular engagements. While the literary world is a very big tent that has room for all sorts of conversations, it might be worth stating the obvious: African writers don't just write romance, science fiction, and crime.

In order to get a better handle on this other side of genre fiction's critical and academic sway, I thought it made sense to talk to someone who is nurturing non-popular literary culture, for lack of a better description, in an African space beyond the "big three" markets of Nigeria, South Africa, and increasingly, Kenya. Because I work in the southern part of the continent as a scholar, I asked the Zimbabwean writer and professor Emmanuel Sigauke, who is based in Sacramento, if he'd chat with me. Sigauke founded the online literary journal Munyori in 2007, and it's one of the only venues to publish in both English and Shona (the language spoken by about 70% of Zimbabweans). In addition to fiction, poetry, and essays, Munyori -- which means either "Writer" or "The Writer" -- publishes interviews and reviews. Its mission statement offers an account of the lonely writing process that may be difficult to try and imagine in relation to Africa, associated, more often than not, with larger-scale social formations:

We are ambitious; we dream to make a significant contribution to literature and the arts. We are writers too, and proudly call ourselves Vanyori, the plural form of the word, but the emphasis is on what each writer contributes, in that moment when the creation of art is a solitary process.

In the brief exchange that follows, I ask Sigauke about why this vision should matter today, and the challenges that sustaining it entails.

My first question for you is very simple. What is your sense of what the "literary" means to a journal like Munyori?

I established the journal first as a poetry-only publication to showcase the best world poetry the journal would receive, and as it gained popularity I decided (in 2010) to turn it into a multi-genre literary journal, using the word "literary" provisionally, as something I was moving toward. What I have in mind for the future is a companion print version along the lines of Granta or Chimurenga.

And of course (laughs), I was to focus mainly on works of a literary nature.

It's so fitting for this context that you use the phrase "best world poetry," which gets at this tricky question of literary curation. (I think it's a mission that a lot of people still believe in, even if they don't always articulate it well.) And it's also interesting that you mention Granta and Chimurenga as models, because they are both venues for critical thought, writ large, with literary writing as just one strain of that. So in that sense, they are quite different from the more explicit emphasis on artistic achievement in, say, The Paris Review or World Literature Today.

Do you imagine expanding your sense of what the literary includes as you move forward, or are you more concerned with maintaining a space for a smaller but more select kind of writing?

Although my vision has been for the journal being a venue of both literature and critical output, the submissions have driven the actual outcome. Its space as an online platform has attracted writers who seek exposure through this medium; so the "worldwide" reach enabled by the immediacy of the web has brought on board writers who believe in the flexibility of the platform, and less of the more traditional (perhaps strictly academic) writers and critics. Of course, as a small online journal, it tends to attract aspiring writers. Sometimes I feel that continuing to aim at "world literature" might not be as practical as focusing more on African, if not Southern African literature and criticism. In the past three years, the journal has seen an increase in African submissions of poetry and short fiction, and this might be the beginning of a sharper focus.

It's a really crucial point, that African literary writers are sort of squeezed on both ends of the transnational publishing spectrum: "world literature" is such a big tent that any venue geared toward it has to exclude as much promise as it includes, and then, within "local" scenes, poetry and short fiction have a very tiny share of the market. (I recently read an article in [Johannesburg newspaper] the Mail & Guardian on what people in sub-Saharan Africa are reading on their phones, for example, and not surprisingly, romance tops the list.)

So there is a very important role to play for projects like Munyori in terms of offering a regional platform for ambitious young writers, especially. In that sense it seems like a close comparison might be with LitNet in South Africa, and what the novelist Etienne van Heerden has done with fusing Afrikaans and English.

Can you speak a bit to the balance of Shona and English in Munyori? Why did you feel it was important to make space for Shona writing in this sort of venue? (I've just discovered the Shona story you published by Tendai Huchu, by the way, which got me really excited.)

There isn't much of a balance yet, since the majority of the submissions are in English, but I have brought on board a Shona editor, Tinashe Muchuri, who is passionate about preserving and promoting Shona. He blogs in Shona, writes most of his works in Shona, and he has his first Shona novel coming out soon. Before I asked him to volunteer on Munyori, he had been a long time contributor, first in English, of book reviews and interviews, but one day a Zim writer asked if I also published in Shona, and I couldn't come up with a reason why not, so that's how I opened the Shona section.

I'm still figuring out the best way to feature the works, whether or not the works should be translated. This is not something that's possible when you only work with a staff of volunteers, but as we grow, that's something we may pursue.

At the same time I posted a call for Shona works, I also made a call for those written in Ndebele [the third most widely spoken language in Zimbabwe]. A few people have expressed interest in volunteering as Ndebele editors. The aspect of balancing the languages will be a form of expansion, but then it raises the issue of the other languages that exist in Zimabwe: Where do you set the limit, using what criteria? But I am learning as I go, with a certain level of spontaneity.

And so, all the way from "world literature," we find ourselves having arrived back at the perennial problem of intra-African translation. The way you put it -- where is the limit, and what are the criteria? -- strikes me as exactly right. When literary critics move away from an interest in what is being read, and start to act as gatekeepers for what deserves to be read, we get a whole new set of mission-based inclusivity problems. What is it that's made you commit yourself to do this despite the small scale of literary publishing?

I am driven by the desire to promote writers and literature, as this has always been my passion, dating back to the 1990s in Zimbabwe when we were members of the budding Writers Association of Zimbabwe. Munyori has always been a platform for writers seeking exposure; I hope it continues to serve this primary purpose, with the hope for expansion.

I am tempted to consider book publishing, starting with collections of stories or poems, Munyori's best. Munyori has also partnered with initiatives like the Uganda-based Writivism by publishing the best submission to their annual short story contest. The vision is there, but it continues to evolve.

In terms of this desire for exposure, as you put it, what is your sense of who Munyori writers are addressing themselves to? Obviously, if they wanted lots of readers, they'd be publishing different sorts of material -- either at the level of locally popular but non-commercial fiction, or in the vein of transnational genre fiction that has so much traction right now (Lauren Beukes or District Nine, for example, from South Africa).

And yet, with the notable exception of Ivor Hartmann, most of what you publish seems to be very non-genre, though what this means is hard to put my finger on. The stories you've got up right now by people like Rumbidzai Makanga or Fungai Machirori -- two of my favorites -- seem to be more about stylistic polish, careful observation, maybe deep social emplacement rather than generic portability.

So are they writing chiefly for other literary Zimbabweans, for a small but engaged African literary public more broadly, or is it really about a deeper sense that the work just needs to be out there?

Great question. A part of each submission I enjoy a lot is the cover letter from each writer or poet. Repeatedly, the writers state that they want an opportunity to be featured in this world forum. So, for what it's worth, most of the writers perceive that Munyori reaches far, and I have been up there with them. Some describe it as "reputable," "world renowned," etc., but these are also things that should be said in a cover letter.

However, with Zimbabwean writers, and increasingly Nigerian, the submission often feels like a way to test on Munyori what new work they have just written (of course, I reject a lot, too); the more aggressive submissions from some African countries will have cover letters that request nominations for the Caine award if the story is published.

Writers like Rumbidzai, Fungai, NoViolet Bulawayo, have got many social media likes and shares for their stories featured on Munyori. It's hard to assess what this means exactly, but when I get the occasional "much-liked" writer from India, Nigeria, or the USA, there is that feeling that perhaps we actually have a global reach.

Munogona kushanda neMunyori, VaSigauke [you are doing great work with Munyori]. Thanks so much for this.

As a final note, Munyori's situation echoes that of any number of other Africa-based journals and initiatives, aside from the often-cited Kwani?, founded by the Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina, or Chimurenga. It both harnesses the popular potential of the Internet, and seeks the more boutique readership of a print publication. Munyori might seem like a paradox: It welcomes writers with limited access to the few international literary journals that have big readerships (readerships, that is, that rival those of ventures framed as "commentary"), but it does this with an eye to curating not just what is "interesting" about literary phenomena, but what is good in literature itself. It is a vulnerable bid, to be sure, but an important one. And it's not such a far cry to imagine it as the future of those stubborn literati on our side of the ocean, too.

Jeanne-Marie Jackson is an Assistant Professor in the English Department at Johns Hopkins University. You can see more of her writing here.