An African Literary Festival for the Age of Coronavirus

NAIROBI, Kenya — For the novelist Maaza Mengiste, the coronavirus lockdowns and stay-at-home measures that have taken hold around the world have brought back the sense of exile she felt when she and her family fled Ethiopia in the 1970s.

So it was a welcome reprieve when she was asked to participate in and help curate a virtual literary festival focused on connection — specifically, between writers of African origin and readers throughout the continent and globe.

“I jumped at the chance,” she said in a phone interview from Zurich. “Doing this online breaks a lot of boundaries that felt insurmountable.”

Afrolit Sans Frontieres, a series of hourlong readings and question-and-answer sessions held entirely on Facebook and Instagram, kicked off on March 23 and returned for a second edition in April. A third is scheduled to begin on May 25, to coincide with Africa Day, and a fourth is already in the works. In the face of the pandemic, with countless numbers of book fairs, tours and other literary events canceled or postponed, Afrolit stands out as a gathering where readers — for some sessions, hundreds have logged in — can hear from authors and talk to them about sometimes difficult or taboo subjects.

The South African writer Zukiswa Wanner, who was inspired to create the festival after watching John Legend’s at-home concert on Instagram, is determined to use this moment to center the work of African writers. “It’s like a writing master class and a festival in one,” Wanner, the award-winning author of nine books, said in a phone interview from Nairobi.

Writers have included Abubakar Adam Ibrahim of Nigeria, Hemley Boum of Cameroon, Bisi Adjapon of Ghana and Mohale Mashigo of South Africa. In the festival’s first edition, novelists read sex scenes from their books, explored the place of intimacy in African cultures and discussed love amid war and displacement. During the second edition, writers reflected on what they wish they were asked, both about themselves and their work.

The Eritrean-Ethiopian novelist Sulaiman Addonia spoke about having an epiphany during a late-evening walk and running home to jot down the title of his most recent novel, “Silence Is My Mother Tongue.” The Egyptian writer Mona Eltahawy spoke about maintaining bravery and courage in the face of attacks, while the Ugandan novelist Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi talked about the different mind-sets she gets into when writing a short story versus a novel.

Ishmael Beah, the Sierra Leonean author of the best-selling war memoir “A Long Way Gone,” wished people would ask him questions about his writing career and less about being a former child soldier. And Mukoma wa Ngugi, the novelist and academic and son of the prominent Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o, topped it all by playing the guitar.

Mengiste, the author of “Beneath the Lion’s Gaze” and “The Shadow King,” sees Afrolit as both a homecoming and an example of what African literary festivals could be. “What it has affirmed and reconfirmed for me, in a really wonderful way,” she said, “is what happens when African writers speak to an audience that doesn’t require them to explain ethnographic or sociological questions before they get to talk about creativity.”

The writers, she said, didn’t have to explain their backgrounds or the colonial histories of their home countries before talking about their work. Rather, the conversations went straight to the topics at hand.

“It was wonderful to have that experience,” Mengiste said, “and I have never had that in any other festival that I have been a part of.”

Wanner also wanted to transcend language barriers by involving authors not only from Anglophone countries but also from French, Portuguese and Arabic-speaking parts of Africa. The readings and question-and-answer sessions may happen in any language, or more than one language. Even the festival’s name, which combines English and French words, reflects that multilingual approach.

“If there was a way I could have thrown Portuguese in the title as well, I would have done that,” she said.

The Angolan writer Ondjaki (the pen name of Ndalu de Almeida) said the virtual festival allowed him to connect with writers — “in a very beautiful, accessible way,” he said — whom he might never have met except in European or American literary circles. As a writer in Portuguese — a language officially spoken in just six out of Africa’s 55 countries — Ondjaki said many Portuguese speakers don’t get a chance to access books from other writers in the continent unless they are translated.

Afrolit also pushed him, he said, to start reading writers like Chike Frankie Edozien of Nigeria and Remy Ngamije of Namibia.

For Troy Onyango, a Kenyan writer who moderated some of the Afrolit sessions, the pandemic has meant meditating on the present by trying to understand the past. Part of that includes reading novels like Tsitsi Dangarembga’s “Nervous Conditions,” which explores class, race and gender in pre-independence Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. It also has meant listening to more experienced writers about the insights to be gained from fiction and nonfiction.

“I don’t think before Covid-19 we would have imagined a literary festival in our living rooms,” Onyango said, “and just being able to access whichever writer and being able to ask them questions from the serious ones to the mundane ones.”

Last week, Wanner announced that Afrolit’s third edition will run under the title “Future. Present. Past.” The fourth, she said, will have the theme of “Long Story Short” and will exclusively feature poets and short story writers.

Afrolit is free, and Wanner isn’t making money from it. She hopes to get funding so that she’s able to pay the writers, especially the younger ones who might be working without the safety net of unemployment benefits or health insurance, she said. But if no funding comes through, she said, that doesn’t mean she will stop.

“This is something that we love and it’s important that people get to realize there is all this African literature,” she said. “Africa is writing. Africa is thriving.”

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