I'm on my way to Africa Writes, the second annual Royal African Society literature and book festival, and I'm intrigued. First by its title which I find assertive and common sensical: of course a continent, of now 54 nations, writes! ...And yet how many people really know that? Secondly I'm first-date-anticipation excited. Inevitably you meet many of the same cross-continental artsy, politically-attuned people on this London circuit; what Taiye Selasi first identified as the Afropolitan. But what I'm really interested in (and I am not ashamed to say it!) is people-watching the wider gathering and marvelling at how the love of language can bind such a disparate bunch together.
Tonight four Diasporan-African writers in the English language will perform their poetry at an event called "Diaspora Writes Back." I must come clean at the outset and say that I am partial to two of the featured poets; Kenyan-born Somali Warsan Shire whose quiet London voice thrills and intimidates as much as her provocative questions and Nii Ayikwei Parkes, an old friend whose early pamphlet-publication "Eyes of a Boy, Lips of a Man" inspired me to take my writing more seriously. So although I silently dare Ugandan Nick Makoha and Leeto Thale of South Africa to impress me, I already feel pretty smug that I won't be disappointed.
After a brief introduction by Bernadine Evaristo, Nii starts the readings. What I most sense is the longing for his father; in each of his poems I meet his father alive. When Nii later explains that for him writing outside of his home country is a need to "stay sane" I begin to wonder if much of his writing doesn't stem from loss. And when he goes on to say that his "relationship to English is quite abstract" and because of this that he doesn't feel as emotional when writing in it, I then ask myself whether it's not this distance, his shield of other first languages, that allows him to make sense of the questions he is exploring in his work.
As Leeto's gentle South-African lilt fills the room, it's difficult not to concede that he's won my earlier, unspoken dare. I'm pulled into his speech-rhythm and feel myself whirled upwards on a hopeful dance. And more than this groove, I agree in my heart when he says that being African is a part of his work in the same way being African is who he is. He doesn't intentionally add it to his work, it's always there. He explains how as his confidence has grown he has pulled himself away from the expectation to only champion resistance work - the expected legacy of growing up in a racially divisive country . So in his pulse and beat, I am charmed by his creating what so ever it is he wants to talk about.
Nick's short powerful first piece is chilling. He builds the cult of a tyrant - an established dictator or a Big Man sure in his cruel confidence, just as easily recognisable in Kampala as in Accra. In the Q&A, he talks about writing as if God were in the next room and I like the unseen standard that he brings to bear on his own work.
Warsan! You have to roll the 'r' in her name a little emphatically. This soft voiced, strong mouthed Somali is irreverent, confident, flirty, funny and gifted. I love how she peppers her conversations with Somali as if the rest of the audience and I are a part of her clique and she's just telling us what happened to her last Tuesday. She makes me want to learn Somali so I get her in-jokes - that for me is the seduction of language. Her poems uncover truths that are hard to hear; how men who are absent can be taken by war, the police and other women. She talks of the beautiful scars of a young refugee woman and how that can make it hard to reopen boundaries. She is simply absorbing!
And then the evening comes to its end: what an edifying experience of talent that was! Where else would I have learnt that Somalia is "the land of poets?" This is why I want more of Africa Writes - I want to know that those who are interested in the stories that African authors are crafting can hear them. After all there are so many African experiences - one for every one of the one billion people that live on the continent. I want to hear these different stories that come from the rich and diverse canon that is now poetry in English.
It's a short festival - running until Sunday 7th July in collaboration with the British Library. On the 6th there are several previews and book launches, a tribute to the late Chinua Achebe and the chance to meet the Caine Prize shortlisted writers. The evening ends with Ngugi wa Thiong'o sharing the stage with his son Mukoma wa Ngugi to discuss the role of the African writer. There's a party later still. There are more panels, debates and workshops on the 7th, notably for young storytellers aged 8-12 years and aspiring writers between 13-19 year olds.
It's an ambitious programme, the full list of which can be found here: http://www.africawrites.org/programme/index.html.
Most events are free but require booking as seating is limited.
I'm already putting a reminder in my diary for next year to look out for it. African Writes is an essential idea and I hope it will receive the kind of publicity and word of mouth endorsement it deserves.