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Literary light from the 'Dark Continent': A trio of emerging African authors


IANS Jaipur
Still largely perceived as the "Dark Continent" beset by underdevelopment, violence, instabilityand more, Africa is changing in many ways, not the least of which is in literature with a new crop of upcoming writers, whose work seeks to break these stereotypes and give a more credible voice about life there, with problems galore but also aspirations for better times.
And whether from West Africa or East Africa, they are not chary at challenging conventions and not at all circumscribed at describing the sordid reality that they have observed.
Kicking off a session titled "The Afropolitans" at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2018's final day on Monday, Nigerian-born Bangladeshi-American writer Abeer Y. Hoque asked the panelists -- Nigerians Chika Unigwe and Abubakar Adam Ibrahim and ASomali-British writer Nadifa Mohammed -- to describe the inspiration behind their novels.
Unigwe, whose "On Black Sisters' Street" stories is about four female Nigerian sex workers who travel from their homes to Brussels and auction themselves to clients, described her book as a story about women who "navigate their way to making a living and to the extent they succeed and fail" and that she had focussed on women "because migration is gendered in Nigeria; men do not immigrate to make a living".
The author, who had, at another session, maintained that chose to make their story not one of "victimisation," but rather, of their "agency" to make their own decisions and that having grown up in a conservative atmosphere, she was flabbergasted when she moved to Belgium and faced "the culture shock of sex being in the open".
For the book, she said she met Nigerian sex workers in Belgium and talked to them directly to research her book, and unlearned everything she "had learnt about sex and prostitution."
In this session, Unigwe, reflecting on her time researching in the red-light areas of Antwerp, said that "writing helps in building a sense of empathy".
"I could actually feel how it would feel if you are paraded naked and people are thinking whether to buy you or not.... You are actually hoping to be bought because you do not want to be a refugee in a country where you cannot take care of yourself. How sad is that?"
AIbrahim, whose "Season of Crimson Blossoms" seeks to demolish conservative stereotypes about Nigerian women, however maintained that "stereotypes can become the basis for a narrative to enlighten" people".
"I think the characters chose me to tell their stories. Readers from Northern Nigeria told me that the stories of women I projected were close to reality," he said.
Mohammed, whose "The Orchard of Lost Souls" offers insight into Somalia's history as it deals with interpersonal conflicts, maintained that she believes the measure of a great society is how they treat their women and disabled." She wanted to write this book because most literature about Somalia "is written by foreign journalists".
"Somalia has been portrayed as an archetype of a failed state, but I wanted to tell the story of the people who have stayed back: The soldiers, old women and people who could not escape the horrors of the war," said the author whose "Black Mamba Boy", set in 1930s Somalia spanning a decade of war and upheaval, all seen through the eyes of a small boy alone in the world and his journey through Djibouti, war-torn Eritrea and Sudan, to Egypt and from there, aboard a ship transporting Jewish refugees just released from German concentration camps,to Britain and freedom.
In conclusion, Unigwe pointed out that Nigeria had given the world the Man Booker International Prize-winning novelist Chinua Achebe.
"I think the evolution of African literature has been great. Now commercial publishers in Europe have started publishing our works and you can find them in bookstores easily.", she said, adding that African publishers have also emerged, and were starting to publish works by African authors.
(Vikas Datta can be contacted at

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First Published: Jan 29 2018 | 11:00 PM IST

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