First published on The Mantle
I am making a list of small wonders, and it is five months long. In my work as Publisher and Managing Editor of an electronic literary magazine based in Nigeria, I have learned to listen closely for the sound of things to come. It is evident and without doubt that the emergent writer is as talented as any established writer. The difference is not merely skill — opportunity plays an equally important role.
My five-month long list of wonders is a series of conversations with writers who do not have a book published. These writers have been published mainly online, in less-respected journals, and most of them are not paid for their creative writing. The bias of the series — which I have named ‘Gambit’ — is fiction by writers of African descent. The word ‘Gambit’ is used literarily. I consider that the writers who I shall engage with are making opening remarks in obscure places. My intent is to assert that the obscure places (sites, journals, blogs) are as important as famous spaces.
The art of writing fiction thrives on validation. I often take with levity statements by successful novelists who claim they paid no attention to validation from publishers and readers. The truth about fiction, and writing, is that writers pay attention to encouragement, and it is doubtful that a writer whose talent is not praised will keep writing for long. To this end, I expect that ‘Gambit’ will provide some form of validation for the writers; a very modest validation, that is.
I also expect that the series will make the writers temerarious. Writing on the African continent should necessarily conform to the diversity that Africa suggests. The question of what story should be told and what story should not — as peddled by the likes of Wainaina, Ekine, Adichie, Ikheloa, Habila, etc. etc. — appears to be a question of ensuring diversity. Essentially, the current discourse is one that seeks to affirm that Africa is not just one thing, and one that seeks to argue that artistic endeavours should be fixed on a fluid and asymmetrical definition of Africanness. The new generation of writers, therefore, are those on whose shoulders the task of defining diversity lie. If anything, my generation of writers should be those for whom the primary concern is to write fiction/non-fiction in a manner that disregards any fixed notion of what Africa is, or what it is not, or even what it is imagined to become.
I am particularly interested in writers whose stories are in the first place, stories. I disagree with the idea that political stories should not be written because it is a mantra. My take is that we should be eager to question existence, whether it is fixed to the convenient label of political, or social, or even sexual. The argument is that there are other things Africans do aside being concerned with politics (that they fuck too). Well, to say that Africans do other things is to affirm that they do something in the first place, and this ‘something’ is as existent and a fact of life as any other less politicized indulgence.
As is clear, there are complexities surrounding the definition of the words I used in the previous paragraph — ‘Africa’, ‘politics’, ‘social.’ I am quick to suggest that these words are used conveniently; the fact of life is that labels and categories will always exist. But it is important that individuality is not glossed over in these labels. Simply, I will be seeking writers who seem to, through their work, hold the view that what has been tagged as mundane as well as what has been tagged as serious should be written about, with equal ferocity.
What follows from the above points is a hope that through Gambit, writers of my generation will understand their roles on the continent. This is not an attempt to imbue their writing with the force of social criticism, and neither is it an attempt to make them less aware of their contribution to the present dialogues. It is vain, in my thinking, to define literature aside its social context, even as Satre proposed, for important writers are often those whose work is stamped with social relevance.
Gambit will address African modernity, concisely. My talks with Bunmi Oloruntoba on African modernity have brought about 3bute, a literary anthology built on a webcomic engine. I make reference to 3bute here because it is a novel form of answering the question of what Africa is today. I am hoping that Gambit will take the question further by presenting writers who are grappling with the same conundrum.
There are ways of seeing Africa, as Susan Williams argues. One of those ways can be to see Africa through its literary identity. Gambit will bring together a group of ten emerging writers whose writing, it is hoped, will help construct a newer scope of this identity. More important to me is the need to ensure that the dialogue continues after each conversation. I trust that kind readers will comment on the various conversations, on engage directly on Twitter and Facebook with the authors. All the requisite details will be provided.
I am inspired by the work of Paris Review, Kenyon Review, Guardian Book Club, Bookworm/Michael Silverblatt, Radio Open Source, Lannan Foundation. But I am concerned that there are few models based in the African continent that openly engage with writers about the work they have produced, their personalities, and their creative process.
W.S. Merwin is right to suggest that poetry begins with delight and ends with wisdom. The same can be said for fiction; stories should entertain and delight, first. I consider that writing is the act of creating, and in creation, delight is present. Each conversation in the series is expected to bring delight before conferring wisdom. I expect that the personality of each writer comes to the fore before their ideology.
I mentioned that I am making a list of small wonders. Expect nothing less.