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Digital Debate: Africa Writes 2016 (Event)

When: Sat 2nd July

Where: The British Library

Are e-books here to stay? Will the digital world spell the end of physical books, and what will this mean for African literature? SpiceUK’s Georgia Chambers straddles the fragile line between the physical and the digital in a fascinating debate at this year’s Africa Writes festival. 

I’m at the British Library, one of the most famous public establishments in the world. As a self- confessed book nerd, I’ve never felt more at home, but in a venue as big as this, I’ve never felt more swallowed up, either.

“Do you know where the Africa Writes festival is?” I ask the security guard who half-heartedly searches my bag, perhaps for any controversial reading material. He stares at me blankly, and his security guard friend can do nothing but compliment my braids, which I appreciate; but only seems an ironic metaphor for the popular culture’s fascination with Africanness, whilst being oblivious to its origins.

I muttered something about the Elliot room, and was sent on my way to the conference centre. Even though I exaggerate myself as an academic, I have never been to something like this before, and I think it shows. A group of black women sit next to me catching up and embracing each other like old friends, and I feel like I’ve intruded on some kind of secret members only club.

One of the event organisers must have noticed my discomfort, and she came over to chat with me about the upcoming event. Her job was to make sure everyone was looked after and full y integrated into the events, which I thought was refreshing in a full on festival environment, considering the only thing they provide you with for comfort at Glastonbury is a half operating toilet.

The African Writes festival, which ran from the 1st-3rd July this year, is the Royal African Society’s annual literary festival. Every year, they showcase established and emerging talent from the African continent and its diaspora. The festival featured book launches, readings, author appearances, panel discussions, youth and children’s workshops, and more.

With so much going on, you can understand why although I was excited, I was also a little overwhelmed.

The event I attended was the Digital Debate, held on the Saturday. The debate addressed questions as to whether the rise in e books would mean the end of physical books and how companies are making African literature more accessible to a wider audience.

I know something of African literature, but I still think the best solution to fixing a technological problem is to switch it off and back on again, so I wasn’t sure how qualified I was to enter into the digital sphere of discussion.

The debate was hosted by Barbara Njau and Kudakwashe Kamupira of Bahati Books, with contributions from Nancy Adimora (of  literary website Afreada); Gersy Ifeanyi Ejimofo (of Digitalback books); writer Kiru Taye, Emma Shercliff (of Cassava Republic Press) and Henry Brefo, (co- founder of Afrikult)

Breaking Barriers

The panel was diverse and dynamic, with writers and digital publishers proving it’s possible to have one foot in the creative world and another in the business, an unheard of concept in a continent that is stereotypically considered to be innovatively incapable and economically backward.

“The reality is that digital outsells paperback,” began Kiru. I must admit, at this point, I was a bit confused by the whole debate. Kiru had seemed to point out the obvious, particularly to the millenials in attendance who had been born into the digital age. What more could we possibly have to learn about ebooks and iphones?

“There is a resistance to digital publishing in Africa,” responded Gersy, “the problem is not access; everyone has a smartphone. The barrier is paying for the content. “

She’s not wrong. In Ghana, more people are thought to have access to a mobile phone than a working toilet. It’s easy to recognise why Africa can be represented as such a bizarre paradox of extreme technological advancement and potential, yet significantly underdeveloped when it comes to basic services- and access to books.

But that’s exactly what these panellists seem to be keen to discuss; using their digital platforms to reach a wider audience in order to change, and perhaps challenge perceptions of African literature and culture.

Kiru takes me aback by introducing herself as first and foremost, a writer of erotica. In a popular culture obsessed with trap queens and side hoes in the persistent sexualisation of black women, it’s refreshingly controversial to see a black woman as a producer of sexuality rather than a victim of it.

they use their digital platforms to reach a wider audience in order to change and challenge perceptions of African literature and culture

Yet, as she points out, although her books were hugely popular online, she didn’t enjoy nearly as much success as white female writers such as E.L James, during the literary boom of erotic fiction. As this is primarily a debate about the digital rather than the physical (in all of its glories,) Kiru doesn’t go much into why, but it seems pretty evident that her books were considered dangerous in the way they challenged Eurocentric norms of sex and sexuality.

A question pops into my head and I’m faced with a battle between my curiosity and my social anxiety; fortunately, the former wins. Also fortunately, I’m somewhat hidden by the fantastic afro of the woman sitting in front of me.

“Do you believe digital publishing has the power to change the way African literature is taught and studied?”

They exchange looks with an expression I cannot quite decipher. I conclude that my question was stupid, so I try and save myself from social suicide.

“So, I did an African lit module at university, and we studied Out of Africa, A Grain of Wheat and The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born; although these are great books, they are also heavy with postcolonial narrative. Don’t you think African literature should be taught along a much wider spectrum?”

To my dismay, I feel immediately shut down by Emma: “that’s got nothing to do with digital publishing,” she says, “it’s down to your course convenor.”

“Actually, that’s a very good question;” Barbara interrupts “there would be an outcry if Shakespeare wasn’t included on a literature course, but African literature seems to be shoved into the background.”

 

Henry tells me that whilst it’s important to study the classics, such as the ones I mentioned, in order to provide a foundation for other African literature, digital publishing does have the capability of opening up this “other” to academics and ordinary folk alike. And I suppose that’s the essential food for thought I took away from this debate. The digital world is something that is accessible to just about everyone, regardless of age, background or academic status. If we are to understand Africa as more than just a literary wasteland, and if we are to understand the world and our place within it, it’s up to us to the humble reader to log on to something other than Facebook and get reading. And you don’t, Henry reminds me, need a literature degree to go out and explore African literature for yourself.