Monica Cheru on Rethinking African Literature

(This is the final interview report with a panel of African writers on August 7. For transcripts: YouTube:


In a previous article, I traced the historiography of African literature and wrote about anticipations of how the panelists of the latest edition of the Toyin Falola Talks (in collaboration with the Pan-African Writers Association) suggest ways to rethink African literature. Today, I will highlight and extrapolate the insights of Cheru, the only female panelist and Vice President (South Region) of the Association. Cheru had many interesting perspectives on the questions and issues raised.

There is largely an imbalance between the financial stability of critics and writers, based mainly on the fact that a higher percentage of critics are employed in universities, thus having a stable source of income compared to literary writers. In laying out his perception of this imbalance and his approaches to implementing a reward system that balances the financial strength of critics and writers, Cheru began with the mentality of writers and our perception of writing – particularly as a writer. full-time employment – as one of the biggest stumbling blocks to achieving financial stability for writers.

Passion is the key ingredient in the training of literary writers, which makes most writers venture into writing as a way to express themselves and connect with their deep passion for literature and writing. . However, you should know that passion is not enough to build a successful writing career. The writer needs to get out of the mentality of writing as a second option and realize that it is a full-time career that passionate writers can pursue, thus approaching writing as a professional. This means writers need to improve their writing skills and develop a career path that can help them turn a profit.

Cheru went further to the controversial side when she said she saw no excuse for writers to be poor or “unable to put food on their table.” As controversial as it may sound, Cheru isn’t wrong because there are several opportunities literary writers can take advantage of once they choose writing as a professional career and not just a hobby. Writers can earn money through the ability to market their ideas.

In reality, many African writers do not invest enough in the production, promotion and dissemination of their works, which could be due to the lack of funds to invest in them. However, professionalism is required at every stage of the book creation process, from writing the story to publishing, distribution and promotion. Writers must be prepared to be strategic about the stories they want to tell, the impacts they hope to have, and the people they want to engage with with their stories. They must be ready to attend events, launch their books and promote them. They need to learn how to network with other writers and join the right writing communities.

Another problem with African literature is that African writers position themselves for awards, especially Western awards. These awards, among others, provide writers with credentials and proof of their outstanding works. Some of these prizes come with substantial monetary rewards that serve as a gateway to more opportunities for several writers in a continent where success in the world of writing is largely based on courage, talent and passion, with the complete absence of practical writing access. related degrees and writing workshops.

Notably, all of the panelists in the latest discussion are award-winning writers. Having won writing-related awards in the past might well have given credence to their emergence during the selection process, as awards and recognition are a good way to assess one’s impacts and qualifications in all areas of life. The question then is: what does winning or not winning awards mean for one’s career as a literary writer, African literature as a whole, and for aspiring writers? Price obsession could evolve into a fast-spreading phenomenon if it hasn’t already. So, is the obsession with prizes justified, given that winning awards and prizes could help a writer’s career?

For Cheru, rewards and prizes shouldn’t be the focus, and she strongly advises against them. As she said, some of these awards and accolades have the style and pattern they seek in literary works. Only writers who comply with the box created by the awarding institutions qualify for the prizes and end up winning. Cheru thinks that the bulk of Western institutions that reward, which incidentally are institutions offering substantial monetary rewards to African writers, tend to favor negative African stories or those that portray Africa as this suffering and never-developed continent. of people who admire and need the salvation of the West. It may seem counterintuitive to argue against the obsession with awards, as it is necessary to balance the reward system for writers and raise awareness of their financial stability.

However, the fact that many African literary works pander to certain narratives in the hope of winning prizes does not bode well for the continent. Thus, African writers do not need to write for prizes. That’s not to say the writers are anti-award or reject nominations. Cheru’s message is that writers should write for whatever reasons they want, strive to document African history and portray Africa as a continent rich in human and natural resources. They could very well opt for writing against the ills of African society and the bad leadership that plagues the continent. But the main motivator for writing shouldn’t be the hope that such writing will be nominated for foreign awards. If the awards come to an end, the writers can celebrate.

It is also important to encourage the new generation of African writers to find their voice and write without pandering to the style and storytelling that award institutions monitor in African literature. The success of literary writers doesn’t have to be measured by the number of awards they win. Success can also be defined by the extent to which its literary works meet the demands of its audience. In defining African literature from a gender perspective, there are questions like: Should special attention be given to the writings of African women and for African women? Should we pay particular attention to the writing of African women? Should there be dedicated support for the training of African women writers? They are sub-forms of larger issues like gender equality, equal opportunity for all and feminism.

Cheru does not subscribe to the idea that African literary works should be segmented by gender. For her, some African literary works related to women are sponsored, and the sponsors have narratives they want to promote. This puts writers under pressure to write what fits into the narrative, thereby crippling their creative freedom, as the emphasis is on highlighting issues rather than natural writing and on the basis that there is an audience that must be reached with the creative thinking of the writer. flows. Cheru also thinks that there is a generalization of cultural beliefs and values ​​related to Africa, namely the treatment and consideration of women. In truth, many traditional African practices are flawed in their treatment and recognition of the female gender. However, Cheru believes that the roots of these issues run deeper than currently portrayed in sponsored genre-based African literary works and that it is a multi-perspective problem that needs to be addressed.

There is also a need to strategically enhance the visibility of African writers and African literature. All over the world, public places like airports and train stations and even hotels are good stopover points for literary works; unfortunately, African literature is missing from the equation. There is a need to give visibility to African books in a way that shows that we are ready to actively promote the literature of our people. Rethinking African literature involves reforming the mindset of African literary writers, as well as the mentality towards African literature. African writers need to be more aware of the audience, better understand trends in world literature and how to make Africa the centerpiece of these trends.

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