Op-ed: Bridging the language divide in literature by Africans

I am now less interested in top-ten lists and more in the journey towards a unified African literary landscape, writes Zukiswa Wanner

Collective Media
Jan 15, 2020 · 6 min read
'Water Birds on the Lakeshore' was published in English, French and kiSwahili. (Image: Goethe Institut)

Had you asked me, once upon a time, if I could compile the top-ten must-read books from Africa and its diaspora, I would have answered with an overconfident ‘hell yebo’. In fact, I once churned out such a list for some UK publication. After all, I had officially become a novelist with the publication of my first book. I also had read Ama Ata Aidoo and Fred Khumalo, E.Lynn Harris and Erica Kennedy, Jamaica Kincaid and Zadie Smith, and more.

Surely all of this meant I was an expert, right?

Twelve years later, I’m not so sure anymore. Not of myself (I am still brilliant) but of the wisdom of such lists.

To write one, I would need to acknowledge that I’ve likely missed out on many good, even great, texts beyond those acknowledged by big-money Western publishers and literary publications. Because there are many independent publishing houses, in Africa and in the diaspora, that producing good work in relative obscurity. Then there are my own limitations. I read well only English and Shona. I would need to note, in my list, that I am missing out on many books that may also be excellent from French, Spanish and Portuguese-speaking Africans on the continent and beyond. And then, of course, there is writing in Hausa and kiSwahili—among Africa’s most widely spoken languages — that I don’t have access to.

Older and hopefully wiser, I am now less interested in top-ten lists and more in the journey towards a unified African literary landscape. It is only in such a landscape that lists might tell us something beyond how little their authors know, or are willing to admit, of their own ignorance.

This necessary journey for the most part will, sadly and purely for pragmatic reasons, be rooted in colonial languages. On a continent with over 2,000 languages, we have to choose what we have in common over our differences. And if it is those colonial languages, so be it.

I’m not saying we should abandon writing and reading in languages indigenous to this continent, or teaching them to our children. Only that we should chart the journey based on reality. We have shown, anyway, the capacity to take these languages that were forced on us and make them our own, be it as patois, creole or pidgin.

With the fretting over whether to accept or reject colonial languages out of the way, we might be more free to think about more practical considerations, such as bridging the language divides — a question that has occupied my mind over the past decade.

Personal experience suggests literary festivals and active work on translation are among the answers to this question.

Literary festivals
In the last few years, the literary festival scene has grown exponentially — a far cry from when I grew up in the 1980s, and readers and writers seemed to wait all year for the Zimbabwe International Book Fair. In 2019 alone there were at least 60 literary festivals, from Casablanca to Mayotte and from Cape to Cairo. Some festivals stand out more than others.

Francophone Africa has the state-sponsored and long-running Salon Internationale du Livre d’Algiers, which pulls in crowds that buy books. In Lusophone Africa, Mozambique’s Poetas D’Alma International Festival has become the festival to attend. In Anglophone Africa, readers and writers take leave of their day-to-day lives to attend the Ake Festival in Lagos and Abantu Festival in Soweto.

The Macondo Festival in Nairobi, with its focus on Anglophone and Lusophone writing, was launched in 2019. If it proves sustainable, the festival could provide a nice model to cut across language barriers.

In fairness to them, though, apart from Abantu, all the festivals I’ve mentioned do generally invite writers who may not speak their lingua franca. They also provide a translator.

Which brings me to another of the answers: Translation.

Found in translation
In 2014, I was lucky to be selected as one of 39 writers under 40 in sub-Saharan Africa likely to set trends in African literature. I met some of those selected at a literary festival later that year in Port Harcourt. Among the writers in the group was Lola Shoneyin, founder and director of Ake Festival, who at the time was preparing for the festival’s second running. I was also lucky to meet Recaredo Boturu from Equitorial Guinea, Richard Ali A Mutu from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Renée Edwige Dro from Cote d’Ivoire. I would end up working with all four in different literary projects, despite working in different languages.

Boturu, who is Spanish-speaking, was one of the first people I sought out when Felipe Lomelli,a Mexican writer friend and one of the Bogota39, and I decided to start La Shamba, a blog to encourage South-South literary conversations. A labour of love more than anything else, the blog publishes short stories or essays in English, French, Spanish or Portuguese. Readers of the blog are encouraged to translate any story that resonates with them into one of the other languages­ — making it available to a wider range of people. A play on chambre, Spanish for ‘house’, and shamba,kiSwahili for ‘field’) La Shamba was, for me, a precursor to a bigger translation project that would prove true the supposed African proverb that if you want to go far, go together.

The Goethe-Institut in sub-Saharan Africa asked me in 2018 to suggest changes to their literary programme. My proposal was to publish a call for short stories in the Young Adult genre by African writers of any age. I chose YA because the majority of the population on the continent are youths. The plan was to select six to eight stories, whose authors would take part in eight workshops across the continent. I had hoped to have at least English, French and Portuguese represented. But no Lusophone authors came forward.

To my delight, however,we were able to include an African language, kiSwahili. And so it was that Dro and Ali Mutu became two of the French facilitators for the workshops. Dro would later go on to translate the French stories into English and the English into French for the anthology, Water Birds on the Lakeshore. In this way, we produced three anthologies of the same stories for 13 to 19 year olds — published in English, French and kiSwahili and made available to at least 20 countries in Africa. All 17 contributors to the anthology from 13 African countries travelled to the launch of the anthology at 2019 Ake Festival.And the English anthology was published by Ouida Books, founded by Shoneyin,the director of Ake.

I hope that, in future, writers from the diaspora will also have the opportunity to contribute to similar anthologies and that readers in their countries will have access to the books. Hosting multilingual festivals and translating texts, however, cost money. So it would be great if funds spent by African states actually reached the intended beneficiaries and philanthropists on the continent started investing in literature — each a separate topic all on its own. In the absence of local support, we must do what we can with what we are given, and continue to hope that it is enough to bring us closer to a more unified African literary landscape.

Wanner is an African writer and editor, and the curator of the Goethe-Institut’s Artistic Encounters. Her latest book, Hardly Working, a travel memoir of sorts, was published by Black Letter Media in 2018.

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