Relevance, Inclusion, Unlearning : Thoughts in my Writivism 2017 Diary

You go to Writivism and you expect to see somewhat the same faces you see in the Literary fraternity. And expectations always turn into reality. And they fulfil all those stereotypes and judgement on writer groups and events. It feels like we write for ourselves only. Today I appeal to you to understand the loneliness behind this thing called writing and these people called writers. And while some do not consider themselves lonely or in need of collaborating and being stained by the self absorption of other writers there are others that need to meet that better writer and get encouraged to write.

I heard a lot of voices on the grounds of The Square Place while I was there. And some, from the younger ones, those at university or below saying writing was rebellion. Their parents considered the “arts” useless. The biochemist who said these words continues to defy her parents and write. Another student talked about how he regularly wrote letters to the newspapers, starting from little 300 word pieces to 1000 word pieces, and seeing them published brought him joy. However his friends would always point to journalists in the industry and ask him what reward was in this pursuit. It seemed moneyless.

Billy Kahora (who has edited Kwani? and co written Nairobi Half Life) on a panel of why there are few East African novels and commenting on the issue of fear to publish a “bad novel” plainly said that writing is a strenuous affair and that he couldn’t afford to worry twice about his book, how to write it and how it will be received. He would just write.

The literary is particularly one that is not valued or invested in by the powers that matter because anyway “It is not in the government’s interest to enlighten its citizens”. The crude joke about Uganda/Africa and its reading culture seems to continue, that is

If you want to keep a secret from a Ugandan, hide it in a book.

Ideally we do not read, and those writing perhaps haven’t answered the question that Doreen Baingana asked “How important is a novel?”.

And yet it is not merely about novels. It is about storytelling and different media forms. The Kafunda Kreative panel explained that at the beginning of their project to document some of Uganda’s beautiful places, they relied a lot on bloggers to tell the story but after a while found it was easier to publish snippets and photos with maybe a line of text because “the attention span of the generation keeps getting shorter.”

During the Uganda Bloggers’ Happy Hour that focused on the future of storytelling, it was agreed that the future was free and there were many new forms of storytelling and many contexts especially as regards to what story one was telling e.g, Pru Nyamishana’s social justice stories, Simon Rakei’s Pathways to Free Education, and Carol Kagezi’s Voices of Abantu.

However, back to Billy Kahora’s point,

Writing is strenuous

Those with the better craft become those more successful or more accepted to the readers. Bikozulu’s long posts demystify the claim that there is a short attention span. However he has built his craft. Sadly, there are factors affecting building a good craft. The publishing systems in countries like South Africa, Nigeria are much better built and established than those in Uganda or Kenya.

Troy Onyango of Enkare Review noted how it was impossible to find a literary agent in East Africa and when he found one in South Africa, the story they wanted was not what him and his friend had in mind.

So writers look for the money different ways to tell their stories. After all, literature, according to Daniel Kalinaki’s keynote, plays a major role in preserving memory and identity. A lot of the current funding comes from foundations like Miles Morland Foundation or University partnerships like Univerity of Bristol or workshops from organisations like Short Story Day Africa. However in comparison to the number of aspiring storytellers, these seems so few and bring about the rise of the self publishers like Uganda’s Nick Twinamatsiko or Mulumba Ivan Matthias.

However perhaps it came down to the economy, one commented. Large literary populations like South Africa, Nigeria, USA make it easier as structures are well formed and reading/writing is an everyday thing.

That said, the story is looked at in many ways. And sometimes writers are at a fault for being stuck to one form of media. While one parent talked of the need to have his child read more than be occupied with Playstation, a friend observed that introducing him to the literary should not neccessarily be an anti Playstation thing for Playstation depends on writers as well. Movies depend on writers. Kahora implored the writers to try different forms and not be stuck with one form.

Free yourself creatively – Billy Kahora

Nii Ayikwei Parkes suggested telling stories was a very collaborative but very contextual endeavour. There needed to be building of partnerships with different players, a respect of archival, contracts and a focus on the art. For while we need to follow the money to get published sometimes we need to follow the art. His keynote was more on literary events, endeavours and one thing I noticed is that the value of the artist must be respected. This goes back to Kahora’s point. Writing is not easy.

Doreen Baingana agreed that workshops jumpstart writers, festivals celebrate books and their authors but the platforms for building this craft over a longer time which is more necessary are few and far between. However, there was then the Nigerian question. Why is this not a problem in Nigeria?

The answer from Igoni Barrett, was that

There is a sense of Nigerian-ness – Igoni Barrett

That in Nigeria, writing feels like building the country. Most Nigerian books that appeal to that sense of Nigerian-ness are well accepted while those that seem anti-Nigerian are not. He gave the example of  Chigozie Obioma who while being a popular author outside his country is not very welcome because of his Biafran leaning. He noted that while Chimamanda also speaks of Biafra, it is more in a pro-Nigerian sense, of unity.

It was interesting however, learning about how the literary question persists. Professor Okot Benge reminded us that according to Okot P’ Bitek it was merely creativity in language and that was in different forms from the written to the musical. That literature had cultural contexts.

Nonetheless, Daniel Kalinaki decried the death of intellectual curiosity, of the rise of a petty bourgeoisie who lacked interest in literature, of the editorial policies that give political matters precedence, of the conditioning of a population to only prefer the political, of the rise of a generation that was never allowed to ask questions, never allowed to think for themselves.

What matters is the question

“What matters is the question,” is something that Professor Mamdani said that Kalinaki re-echoed when asked on the issue of finding the most relevant topics as regards media. Professor Oscar Ssemweya noted there was a lack of higher order thinking skills. And it was noted we had to go beyond reading to reproduce facts to reading for enjoyment. Maybe literature would not be frowned upon, maybe writers will not be seen as unnecessary in a generation that grew up experiencing reading as punishment.

There was a lot. However, the most important points I picked for the writer, even in his loneliness was the matter of relevance and inclusion. There are the deaf, the illiterate, the non-English speakers, several classes that need the stories but may not be able to consume them in the way we tell them. Maybe workshops should not only be in the bubble of English speakers. Do we recognise efforts such as the recently held Buganda Book Fair? Do we know there is a host of different people out there? There are stories that need to be told but to who and when. What about craft?

…while this age has the most access to information, it is the most ignorant…

The sad realisation at the festival was that while this age has the most access to information, it is the most ignorant. Something that Binyamin Rukwengye bemoaned.

Generally there needs to be a whole lot of unlearning regards this entire thing. Perhaps the writer will not be such a lonely animal. Maybe efforts such as those of Nyana’s Sooo Many Stories will be lauded for making reading fun again, for creating intellectual curiosity among the young, or Kagayi’s efforts in making poetry cool among the teens, programs like Kelele at Makerere that allow writers to express themselves, the collaboration of different people in bringing different media together in telling the stories. Stories are important. The writer shouldn’t be so lonely. At least from a Ugandan perspective.

Photo : Ayam Patra


For more thoughts on the literary festival, please visit the #Writivism2017 hashtag on Twitter.

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2 thoughts on “Relevance, Inclusion, Unlearning : Thoughts in my Writivism 2017 Diary

  1. My love literature started in school, actually it started during 'story time' in nursery, maybe we need to start when they are much much younger. Enjoyed reading this, thanks for the blog post Joel.

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