The recent African Writers’ Conference in Nairobi was a collaboration between the African Writers’ Development Trust and the Writers Guild Kenya. The African Writers Development Trust was an initiative of Anthony Onugba, a Nigerian writer, scriptwriter, film-maker and IT consultant.
Tom Odhiambo interviewed him about the conference, the African Writers Development Trust initiative and African literature in general.
Tell us something about yourself — who is Anthony Onugba?
Anthony Onugba is a Nigerian born author of six books. These include Amanda’s Crime, The Chronicle of Christ, Reflections, Darien, Three Men and a Bottle, and Mixed Emotions. He has lots of manuscripts that he has decided never to publish — for reasons even he does not know — and he is also a scriptwriter and studied film production and directing for film. Anthony is the creator of Writers Space Africa.
I am also the founder and vice-president of the African Writers Development Trust. I initiated the Annual African Writers’ Conference and African Writers Awards. I am certified in project management and IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL). I also consult for non-governmental organisations and facilitate at various workshops on conflict management and prevention, leadership, creative writing and film. Currently I serve as the executive director of the African Writers Development Trust (AWDT). I live in Nigeria.
Could you say something about the African Writers Conference in Kenya this year?
The African Writers Conference is a dream of mine to bring together writers of African descent so that we can network, collaborate and ultimately create a unified African literary space. The dream is to rotate the conference among African countries. The maiden edition was held in Nigeria last year. We brought in Nahida Esmail from Tanzania as the keynote speaker and Faith Mutheu from Kenya as a discussant along with a Nigerian. Faith belongs to Writers Guild Kenya (WGK). WGK has been very supportive of the conference endeavour. This is why we are planning the African Writers Residency to be held in Kenya next year.
How did AWDT come about, when and what does it seek to achieve?
AWDT is an NGO that promotes a reading culture, encourages cross-cultural learning, sharing of creative ideas, mentoring and capacity building among writers. We do this by providing publishing grants, educational grants, learning opportunities and other projects to empower writers.
What makes this initiative different from many such others that have been born this century and are already dead?
I think it is the scope that makes us different as well as the kind of work that we do. For example, AWDT publishes two literary magazines: Writers Space Africa (WSA) and Poetica Magazine. WSA is an international literary magazine, which features a rich diversity of writings from African writers to a global audience. Poetica, on the other hand, is strictly for African poets and poetry. In addition, we shall begin the African Literary Journal this year. It will be released after the conference. These magazines are not for sale but available for free download. This means we are not driven by the desire to make money but we are driven by passion.
Is there really ‘African literature’? Or are we generalising too much?
It depends on what we agree to be our definition of African literature. Is it literature written by Africans? Is it literature written about Africa even by non-Africans? Is it literature with an African setting? Or is it literature written and published in Africa? But then I agree that African literature exists not as a generalised term. But I will go with the opinion that African literature is literature written and published in Africa.
What do you think needs to be done for African literature to cross national borders more than it is doing today?
We need a wider acceptance, not by the West, but by Africans. If Africans all over the world purchase African literature, this will create a surge in demand, thereby forcing distributors to ensure that they have loads of African literature on their shelves. The other thing is that we need more book fairs such as the Kenyan International Book Fair. We need perhaps an East African book fair, a West African book fair, etc.
How about readership? How do African publishers increase the number of readers?
By publishing good and well-edited content. They also need to advertise. There are hardly book adverts in Africa. In addition, publishers need to use social media more often. Writers, too, must ensure they have a website. This is very important.
Nigeria produces tens of new writers every year. What’s the secret that Kenyans should know?
I am not sure there is a secret. From my analysis — I may be wrong — Nigeria produces lots of self-published writers compared to Kenya. Secondly, Nigeria has a very large population so the ratio will be incomparable.
Do you think a generational turn has happened in African literature?
In Nigeria, not quite. It is still a struggle. The reason is because even in the university, books being used are still books by older writers. However, the new generation are not giving up yet. They are dominating cyberspace with their words. They are the ones you read in magazines and anthologies.
What are the prospects for the new generation of African writers?
Now, the challenge with the new generation writers is the struggle for acceptance. Many writers are trying too hard to be known. This has caused a problem whereby writers now write to win a prize or two just to become relevant in the literary cycle. This is why there are some writers, even from Nigeria, who fizzle out after winning a lot of money from one literary prize or the other. Most relocate out of the continent and you hardly read from them any more. The Ngugis and the like, for instance, did not write for prizes. They wrote because they had an impactful story to tell.
What do you think is the creative/critical significance of African diaspora writers to Aflit?
Earlier, I mentioned the purchase of books. That is a start. Another is pooling resources together and providing publishing grants, writers residencies, etc. where African writers can develop their craft even more.
Any last words for budding Kenyan writers?
I think that Kenyan writers need to network more. This is important not just in Kenya but in Africa. Writers need to also write for a cause. And finally, keep on writing, even after winning a prize. Also, even if you do not win a prize, keep on writing. That African story, or poem, needs to be written.
Tom Odhiambo teaches literature at the University of Nairobi. [email protected]