|Great Indaba, Crowne Plaza Monomotapa Hotel, Harare|
5 August 2004
Chairman, Professor Murapa, Members of the Zimbabwe International Book Fair (ZIBF) Board of Trustees here present, Members of the Diplomatic Corps, ZIBF Executive Director, Mr Samuel Matsangaise, Chairman of the Zimbabwe’s 75 Best Books Project Jury, Professor George Kahari, and his Jury, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I feel greatly honoured to be the guest of the Zimbabwe’s 75 Best Books Project of the 20th Century. This project follows on from the 100 Best African Books project, also a ZIBF initiative, that I had the pleasure of speaking about and promotingin London last year. All these initiatives are key in the long battle of restoring a proper, truer, perspective on African Literature because these are judgements from home; from Africans on African Literature.
As artists, be we musicians, writers or whatever, we usually have no problem with the idea of playing away from home: we believe in communication, and often some notion of universality: the belief that a truth we write about, or a vibe we are feeling will have some effect on someone else in another country. And that kind of love, that kind of positive reaction to your work from someone across the seas, is good. Nevertheless the deepest love you can feel, the response you want the most, is from someone who knows something about the world you’re describing. That’s the only way you, the artist, can know if you’ve got it right.
The problem for black artists is that, in the area of books especially, we rarely get to play at home. My novels and otherwork come out with Time Warner and Picador publishers in London, and there I deal with white editors and white PR people who then send my books out to be reviewed by the critics of the big newspapers, none of whom have black staff . In England we don’t have the economic strength, or the critics, to write books that can be propelled to great fame and sales on the back of black opinion.
I know that Africans on the continent frequently face the same problem. In a discussion I chaired on Film here, one of the speakers was talking about how hard it is to secure adequate funding for film in South Africa right now unless your film idea fits within the type of South African issues themes that the international Funders wish to see highlighted ^ which are curently Gender, AIDs etc. And I know that many feel that some of Africa’s most renowned filmmakers, such as Ousman Sembene, and Idrissa Ouedrago, produced work that was perhaps more geared to the International film Festival circuit than to domestic audiences.
From the posh white-patron sponsored Harlem Renaissance in america in the 1920s onwards, white points of interest, white fashions, have hada very large influnce on the type of black images that have been produced in the world. As a child of Nigerian immigrant parents growing up in London, my point of entry into African writing was Heinemann’s African writers series. Soyinka, Ngugi Wa thiongo, Achebe etc. Now all those writers are, to be sure, outstanding, but there was an almost uniform heaviness to the Heinemann titles that did used to frustrate me. They were mostly what i call ‘big-bottomed’ books – overtly big themes – the impact of colonilaism on countries, or other political themes, whereas I desperately wanted to just hear about everyday life in Africa; you know, the quotidian – banter at a market stall, a boy who fancies a girl across the road, whatever. I used to wonder /ask doesn’t anybody just have light, everyday moments in Africa? Do they go around grappling with colnialism all day? That can’tbe true, surely… Then as I got older it clicked realised that the type of African writers that we were getting in the west was to do ewith a paerticular Western interest in colonialism and its after effects on and that, as the western interrest in African post-independence politics died. , after their optimism about it disappeared, so too did the number of African writers coming out on westen lists. Witness the demise of the Heinemann African series.
Personally, i’ve never been the greatest fan of ‘big-bottomed’ litearture. I like small, I like microcosm, intimacy, specificity: Work that, rather thsan tackling the big themes head-on, on the nose , instead builds up a sense of a community thru its everyday sights and smells, the little hopes and dreams and jokes and slang of ordinary people; writing where the big themes are there, very possibly, but not centre stage. Unfortunately such work has been ill-served on the international stage. On various writers trips I’ve been on, be it in india, Nigeria, sotuh Africa, the talk from most crtics por writesr that I meet is 0always that there are a heap of writers often writing in local languges that capture the flavour of a Lagos, or a Mumbai far better, more truly, than those we know about in the west. I don’t quite know why such work struggles to get wide attention – the standard reason given is that such particular work is somehow not universal. But of course American particularity, be it in movies or music, hip-hop etc, sells across the world. what we think of as having, quote ‘universal appeal’ is, usually, i think, more to do with the economic strengths and marketing skills of a company or country.
And so I’m especialy happy to see that this list comprises not just work in English, but work in Ndbele and Shona. Not knowing either Shona or Ndebele, I haven’t been able to read any of these authors, but I hear that novelsa such as Chirikure Chirikure’ shortlisted ‘Hakurari” (‘noner Shall Sleep’).,is rich in local colour and challenges. Is truly alive and responsive to this great country of yours.
Your list is the first,vital step in the marketing, the profile, battle. But no matter how that ongoing battle pans out, you havetaken the key step of pof honouring your own storytellers. A society that does not honour its own writers risks losing them, as they tend to write for those that apprecite them, no matter how ignorant or distorted that appreciation. With this 75 Best Books Project, you are showing your best writers that their society appreciates their role and contribution to it. As I’ve said, Charity, Love, the best love must come from home. So congratulations, and Thank you for having, and for listening to me.