African Writers Gather in London

by Ike Anya

Temi’s Cyber Kitchen in Bethnal Green throbbed recently as writers of African descent in the United Kingdom gathered to celebrate Black History Month, honour Buchi Emecheta and formally launch the African Writers Abroad website. It was an exciting evening marked by readings from Buchi Emecheta, arguably Britain’s foremost Black female writer and Helon Habila, winner of the 2001 Caine Prize for African writing.

The evening began with a welcome speech by Andrea Enisuoh, Women’s Committee Representative of the group who welcomed everyone and called on effervescent Kadija Sesay, Secretary of the group to talk about the origins and aims of the group. Kadija and Dr Vincent Mangombe, President of the group explained that the African Writers Abroad group was not a new association, pointing out that Buchi Emecheta and others had pioneered the association in 1993.However, as a group of people abroad, there were constant changes-members like Lauretta Ngcobo returned to South Africa at the end of apartheid while others took up positions in other parts of Europe and in America. He however explained the need for such an association to raise the visibility of African writers abroad, forge useful links with writers and publishers in Africa and abroad and encourage and provide resources to African writers. He revealed that African Writers Abroad is a centre of the international organization, PEN. Kadija discussed two programmes the organization is currently involved in, the Once Upon a Story orature/storytelling project and HerStories women writers programme.

Andrea Enisuoh introduced the guest of honour and first reader, Buchi Emecheta, recounting how Buchi had reacted when first informed of the plan to honour her. Her response-It’s about time. She explained that she had become used to being feted to dinners and events in the United States and other parts of Europe, but hardly ever in the Uk. She proceeded to read from her newest book, The New Tribe which explores the experiences of Africans in the contemporary United Kingdom. She then took questions from the audience, in the process, exhorting Africans abroad to discard the notion of putting their lives on hold, till they return home. Citing herself as an example, she explained that she had only expected to stay a few years in the UK, but as a result of the break-up of her marriage and a number of other factors had found herself staying nearly forty years. She raised the dilemmas that confront people in similar situations and summarized by saying “Home is where you and your loved ones are happy and at peace”. She therefore exhorted younger African writers abroad not to alienate themselves from the societies they found themselves in, but to make the best use of the opportunities available and demand for more.

She also revealed that prior to visiting the UK, she was more English than the English, having been taught at a school run by English missionaries to produce wives for the post-independence Nigerian elite. Her audience roared as she recounted how they were taught to warm the slippers for their husbands when they returned from work. This in tropical Africa! She also revealed how on arriving in England, she rebuked her husband for exchanging pleasantries with a bus conductor, as they had been taught not to fraternize with “servants and the working class”. Ms Emecheta confessed that her consciousness was raised by reading James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time soon after her arrival in London. Asked if she wrote for a particular audience, she said she initially wrote for women like her, but now wrote for the world, pointing out that she tended to write about what she knew about, quipping, “I can’t write about Princess Diana, as I never met her or moved in those circles. I write about university graduates working as cab drivers and issues like that.” Asked about the problems African writers faced getting published, she ascribed it to the fact that the publishing world for years had been dominated by white males of a certain class who therefore dictated what got published. She pointed out, however, that feminism had done a lot to change that, while emphasizing that she was no feminist. She was then presented with a bouquet of flowers.

Thereafter, libation was poured by Mrs George, using palm wine and in keeping with the evening theme of Libations. Andréa then introduced Helon Habila the next reader as the man of the moment. Helon, whose first novel, Waiting for an Angel is published this week by Penguin is being heralded as one of the fresh new voices of African writing. He read from the book which chronicles the life of a young journalist in a Nigeria ruled by the military dictator, Sani Abacha. He admitted that as a first book, it was to some extent, autobiographical, but pointed out that his protagonist was gaoled, a fate he never shared. Ever self-effacing, he also stressed that his book was first published in Nigeria after the death of the dictator. He discussed the challenges of writing in Nigeria, faced with economic hardship and the realities of life, describing how he wrote portions of the book by candlelight when electricity to his area was cut off for four months as a result of “technical problems”. When asked how he managed to keep writing under such conditions, he attributed it to a strong belief and desire to succeed. He said, “I had always wanted to be a writer and when I started writing this book, I knew it was make or break time. I had to write and finish it” Helon who is currently on a writer’s fellowship at the University of East Anglia, revealed how difficult it was to get his work published and how he spent all he had to self-publish his manuscript. He paid tribute to Dr Reuben Abati, of the editorial board of The Guardian, a Nigerian newspaper that assisted him with some funding even though they had never met. Prior to his request to him for a loan. He discussed his conviction to use the benefits of his current status to enable other talented African writers to gain exposure, revealing that together with Kadija Sesay, he is working on an anthology by African writers, details of which would be available in the African Writers Abroad website.

Another highlight of the occasion was the formal launching of the African Writers Abroad website by Stella Ahmadou who designed it. Kadija Sesay then gave a vote of thanks enjoining all present to give the association all the support it required. Buchi and Helon then signed copies of their books and highlife music boomed to signal the end of the formal part of the event.

Speaking privately, Buchi revealed how much she was looking forward to a forthcoming trip to Nigeria under the auspices of the British Council, where she will be guest speaker at the Association of Nigerian Authors annual conference in Asaba at the end of November.

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