Helon Habila (1967) was born in Nigeria. After studying literature at the university of Jos he started working as a writer and journalist in Lagos. He now lives in the US, where he works as a teacher.
Kopano Matlwa (1985) is a writer and medical student from South Africa. She currently studies at Oxford University, England.
Vamba Sherif (1973) is from Liberia but partly grew up in Kuwait until he and his family fled the country because of the Gulf War. He has been living in the Netherlands since 1993.
Storytelling has always been a part of African culture, but the translation to literature is only just beginning. What is the role of the contemporary African writer? At the start of the Dutch literature festival Writers Unlimited, Radio Netherlands Worldwide talked to three African writers from different corners of the continent.
A taste of African culture brings some warmth to the cold winter in The Hague, the Netherlands. The Writers Unlimited literature festival celebrates its 17th anniversary with a packed programme filled with lectures, discussions, music, movies and food.
The festival offers an annual platform for writers from all over the world, but this year the African influences are remarkable. Babah Tarawally, a writer from Sierra Leone and program coordinator of the event, has certainly made his mark.
“I tried to build up a festival that I would like, where I would go to,” Tarawally, who lives in the Netherlands, explains. “It was clear from the start that Africa should be on top. Over the past few years we’ve heard very negative and strange stories about the continent. As though it was a continent from space. I see myself as an ambassador. It is my obligation to make sure I represent Africa in a positive way”.
Seeking the truth
Yet, African literature is not a bed of roses. And that can get in the way, note Helon Habila, Kopano Matlwa and Vamba Sherif, all three of them African writers. “The mistakes some African writers make, is that they think they are obliged to write about typical African themes,” says Habila. “We don’t all write about war or polygamy; we write about life.” Matlwa agrees: “For me, the point of a writer – or for that matter all human beings – is to take responsibility for seeking the truth.”
“Many critics tend to characterise African literature as something exotic,” adds Sherif. “But that’s not the point: of course we are influenced by our culture, but we are also inspired by Russian, Arabic or American novels. It’s a bit frustrating sometimes. We are diverse, we have different themes. We write about how we see the world.” Habila: “African writers sometimes get rejected because their work is not African enough. Even if the manuscript is good.”
No white Africans
It reminds Sherif of a confrontation he recently had at the Africa Study Centre in Leiden, the Netherlands. “I met up with one of the people there, whom I’ve known for many years, to discuss my latest novel (The Witness). To my surprise she was disappointed, and you know why? Because the main character is a white man. She said: ‘I don’t believe this belongs to African literature.’”
“As there are no white Africans!” says Matlwa. “Yes,” sighs Habila. “That’s the cliché. People think Africans should be black.”
A different eye
“We believe that writers look differently at the world than ordinary people,” says Tarawally. “Writers have a different eye when they look at issues. Writers look at social and political issues in the sense that’s it’s not from the flat point of view, but they can unravel the depth. That’s what I hope to achieve this year with our theme ‘Keep on dreaming’.”
In Africa there is a revolution going on, slowly but surely, and that includes literature. But there is still a long way to go. “There are not enough African writers,” confirms Matlwa. “Really, there are few compared to how many people inhabit the continent.”
“We’ve been talking over the past years about the African literature revolution,” adds Sherif. “Storytelling has always been in our culture. But it’s clearly still the beginning.”
Whole new generation
Habila: “Publishing is a business; you need companies, infrastructure, reviewers and marketeers. You need stability. And that’s what is happening; when there is more stability, there will be more writers. And with the upcoming of the internet you find a whole new generation of Africans writing short stories.” “A whole new generation of writers,” repeats Sherif. “And they will be what eventually will define African literature.”