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African fiction boom sparks identity debate

Questions over the definition of an African writer abound as interest in fiction from the continent rises.

Last Modified: 03 Aug 2013 04:28
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Tope Folarin won the Caine Prize in July for a story about a Nigerian evangelical church in the US south [David Fleming]

When Tope Folarin was awarded the Caine Prize, Africa's top literary award, his winning entry "Miracle" took on a new sense of prophecy.

In the story, set in a Nigerian evangelical church in a southern US state, an audience desperate for miracles makes collective prayers with a visiting pastor.

"We need our parents to understand that we are Americans. We need our children to understand they are Nigerians," they pray, in a supplication which symbolises a common dilemma over identities among diaspora communities.

When Folarin, a 31-year-old self-described "Nigerian American" was announced winner, the debate over what it means to be African was catalysed. 

Does an African passport make you authentic? Is it the way you talk? The experiences you have had? Or are roots based on where your parents are from?

"It's something I anticipated," he says. "The moment they said my name, I thought 'Okay, now it starts ...' There has been some controversy.

"Some people on Twitter and blogs have questions about my 'privilege', which is ironic. There is the sense that I grew up in a mansion in America, and was shuttled off to school, which is absolutely not the case."

While publishers who had before rejected his manuscripts emailed him with offers of negotiation, critics questioned his identity. 

The award is open to citizens - passport-holders - of an African nation, writers who were born on the continent, and those, like Folarin, who have African parents.

"How African do you have to be?" asked the Daily Maverick.

"To be Nigerian, even when you’ve barely lived in Nigeria, when your passport and diplomas and associations all say something else, well, that is a kind of faith, too," wrote the New Inquiry.

The LA Times said Folarin's resume, though impressive, "doesn't have a strong connection to Africa, the continent meant to be highlighted by the award".

Identity crises

Folarin does not shy away from the subject. 

He has visited Nigeria once as a child and spent time in South Africa, but the bulk of his life has been in the US, with stints in Britain for education and work.

"I have the blue passport," he says.

He's a Rhodes scholar, his parents would have liked him to be a lawyer but he has worked for Google, joined in to help the Obama campaign and spent spare time writing fiction. 

"When I was growing up in Utah, I was the only black person around, so people were questioning why I belonged there. Then when I moved to Texas, I wasn't black enough because of the way I spoke and because of the fact that I was from Utah. And then I went to Morehouse College (a private, all-male, historically black school) and I wasn't upper-class black enough. Identity has been an ongoing discussion in my life. This is merely another permutation of a discussions that I have been dealing with for a very long time."

Identity has been an ongoing discussion in my life. This is merely another permutation of a discussion that I have been dealing with for a very long time.

- Tope Folarin, Caine Prize winner

And as much as Folarin's African roots and entitlement have been argued over, so too were the 'western' identities of some authors who were recognised in April by the literary journal Granta.

At least three of the “Best Young British Novelists”, a slate collated every decade, have African origins.

"A majority of the writers were either born outside Britain or are the children of immigrants, from countries as far-flung as ... Nigeria," said the The New York Times' Larry Rohter, who noted that "half of the excerpts that are to be published in the magazine’s spring edition take place partly or entirely outside Britain".

British author Philip Hensher, writing for The Spectator, said: "Clearly, the magazine wanted to express a notion of British prose as voiced by international writers," before advising that the Pakistani writer Kamila Shamsie, who was in the process of acquiring British citizenship at the time, should not have been included.

The long list for the Man Booker Prize, meanwhile, announced in July, has been exasperatingly described as "diverse" - in part because of its inclusion of NoViolet Bulawayo's debut novel from Zimbabwe, We Need New Names.

Rising tide

These discussion comes at a time of increased interest in African writing.

"In the past three or four years, publishers have taken more notice of African writing," says Folarin. "There does seem to be a rising tide, especially with African women, Nigerian women in particular."

But there are concerns that authors based outside of the continent have an advantage in terms of access to publishing houses and creative writing education, and therefore a wider audience.

Readers all around the world identify with stories told by Africans about Africa

- Ellah Allfrey, editor

"What we now know, which wasn't the case 10 years ago, is actually that readers all around the world identify with stories told by Africans about Africa," says Ellah Allfrey, a journalist and the former deputy editor at Granta. 

"Writing has always been going on [in Africa]. At the last workshop I ran in Nairobi [the Kenyan capital], writers were very much engaged with the environment that they are living in. Often when you are reading writers that have been published in the west, there's sometimes a sense of someone who is writing to the outside. The very best of them don't do that."

In terms of education, writing programmes exist in South Africa - the University of Witerwatersrand has a strong creative writing tradition, for example, but "the rest of the continent by and large doesn't," she says.

"There are English departments, and English language departments, but not that focused on creative writing."

To fill the gap, established writers like Chimamanda Adiche and Binyavanga Wainaina hold regular programmes, while the British Council and Kenyan-based Kwani Trust literary network also offers writing sessions to aspiring authors.

'Looking inward'

Elsewhere, Allfrey is a patron on "the first ever pan-African prize" for first-time published writers.

The upcoming award, backed by telecoms company Etisalat Nigeria, is attempting to empower players in Africa's literary scene inside the borders, including publishers, agents and, of course, writers.

The winning novelist will take home £15,000 ($23,000), be sent on a three-city book tour in Africa and be awarded a fellowship on the University of East Anglia's creative writing programme in Britain.

So far, about 200 entries have been sent in for consideration, mostly from Africa's most populous nation Nigeria, and unlike the Caine Prize, Etisalat's rules are stricter: writers must have African citizenship.

You don't get that many African writers who break through to the international market...the time really has come to look inward and look at new talent

- Ebi Atawodi, Etisalat Nigeria spokesperson

"You don't get that many African writers who break through to the international market," says Ebi Atawodi, who runs Events and Sponsorship at Etisalat. "The African writers that we talk about and become commonplace in the international space tend to be the same names…the time really has come to look inward and look at new talent."

The submission deadline for that prize is August 30, and "we're hoping that we'll start to see African writers talking about spaceships and science fiction, or engaging in genre writing," says Atawodi, as opposed to stories with "so much emphasis on the setting".

One complaint already aimed at the prize, which has been vented at the Caine too, is that writers must submit their fiction in English.

With a continent comprising more than 2,000 languages in over 50 countries, and about one billion people, questions - whether about identity or language - are unlikely to be silenced.

“This obsession with identity will become less important in the 21st century just because so many of us come from so many places that it ceases to become a meaningful discussion,” says Folarin. Perhaps that is another prophecy.

Follow Anealla Safdar on Twitter: @anealla

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Al Jazeera
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