Adebayo Ayobami on “What is an African Story?”

UPDATED. During the recently concluded Writivism Festival at the Uganda Museum, I had the chance of meeting Nigerian writer Ayobami Adebayo and Shaun Randol of The Mantle to discuss the new anthology Gambit: Newer African Writing. In our private meeting we talked about a lot of things pertaining to the book and one of those things was “What is an African Story?” Having called the book “newer African writing” of course there were a few things to discuss. Here’s an excerpt from the conversation we had where Ayobami was answering the question of “What is an African story?” She however shared more articulately on the question in the podcast below. 

Ayobami Adebayo’s Stay with Me is forthcoming from Kwani?,Canongate, and Knopf. She has been a writer in residence at Ledig House, Hedgebrook and Thread. She’s the Fiction Editor at Saraba Magazine and holds B.A and M.A degrees in Literature from Obafemu Awolowo University and an M.A in Creative writing from the University of East Anglia.

Ayobami shares her thoughts more articulately in the podcast below on “African Writing” held at Writivism 2016.

I think the question of what an African story is is problematic. It comes from the idea that there are certain things that make an African story. So we went on a school visit and were talking to students and there was this young girl that walks up to me and says that she wants to write an “African story” and I’m like “Why don’t you just write about yourself?” And she’s like “No, I’m too Western, I need to write a real African story so…”

This is a girl who has grown up in Uganda, who feels that unless you write about calabashes or it’s in a village or there are proverbs, she’s not telling an African story.

We went on for almost ten minutes and what I was doing was trying to convince her that her experience is today – now, (her experience) is African. So I think it’s interesting how the word itself has come to carry so many connotations and I also feel that sometimes it’s too big a term and then sometimes I feel it’s too small a term to capture what I’m trying to do.

I’m African obviously but I feel like I want to tell a story and I’m trying to write about people, I’m trying to get into somebody’s head and (tell) a particular experience. I’m trying to stay true to that. In that sense I feel like (writing) is universal and sometimes I feel like what I’m writing comes from a particular lens that is very local (sometimes not all the time), but it’s Yoruba and it’s South West Nigeria and if you’re going to read that and say that is African, then there’s a problem. There’s the idea that makes a story from Nairobi suddenly become the African story.

You’re not going to read a story from England and say it’s the European story.

So the term itself , when applying it to the writing itself for me might be problematic but to me as a person of course I’m an African writer but I feel each story tries to do something else.

And I also understand the anxiety that many African writers have about being read a certain way. This is not a new discussion really, if you read the introduction to Wole Soyinka’s “The Death and The King’s Horseman” which I think was first produced in the 60’s , he has an introduction to it, like this is not about culture dislocation and I can see that anxiety, it’s reaching for something.. it’s a very spiritual book, it’s about what it means to be alive, and to be dead and to be a person

but at that time the African writers were being read as only speaking to colonialism and I guess he got frustrated with that personally and felt no “I want you to look at other things I’m trying to do”.

So I think there’s a bit of anxiety about  the reductive reception of what you’re doing, an existing argument that it’s going to remain defeated once it comes with the label African writing. So you could write  about motherhood and you’re not going to be grouped with Donoghue , you’re going to be “African writing”.

The point she  (Siyanda Writes) was trying to make is that the African story is being told by Africans in the diaspora but that means you’re saying they’re no longer African, that means you’re trying to define their identity, you’re saying they don’t have a right to tell the story. (James) Joyce spent a lot of time in Paris but no one is saying he wasn’t writing Irish Literature, so why are we having this discussion?

Ayobami shares her thoughts more articulately in the podcast below. (It is different from the above text.)


What are your thoughts? Share with us in the comments.

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3 thoughts on “Adebayo Ayobami on “What is an African Story?”

  1. A friend was struggling with this same thing. She felt that her writing was being influenced by what she thought her audience would perceive as African. The world is smaller now i think, and we now know that a lot of experiences are universal. Cheating husbands, rape, gossiping girlfriends are all things that can happen anywhere. She then felt backed into a corner to write bad stuff. War, disease because she felt that is more unique to Africa. I like what Adebayo Ayobami says about 'now'.

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    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Anne. Yes, the struggle about feel unaccepted or cornered is real in many corners.

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