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#ALitFest20 – The Art of Empathy #1

12-15 August 2020

With the world in various stages of lockdown and travel severely restricted, many festivals have been opening their doors online this year. It’s been a way to continue bringing people together, offer a space for dialogue and inspiration, and probably also quite simply a way to survive. As I wrote earlier, I’m a bookworm who loves to combine travel with literary events. I'm always keeping an eye out for literary happenings near and far, but I don’t usually travel much beyond Europe. So, when I spotted the Abuja Literary Arts programme and tickets for its new virtual format I signed up immediately.

Hosted by the Abuja Literary Society, this year’s #ALitFest20 was the third edition. The new virtual format was an opportunity to bring together an even broader range of writers and artists than ever before. The organisers chose The Art of Empathy as the overarching theme and were keen to facilitate greater participation by the flourishing literary community across Africa.

“we aim to breach geographical barriers through inclusion and Pan-Africanism. The Festival appoints this theme in hopes of highlighting the importance, beauty and need for diversity and difference as well as the role of the creative in building bridges within and across societies.”

With 100 books & pieces, 50 authors & speakers, and 20 topics & discussions, the festival promised to be an exciting meeting place for writers, readers, translators, artists, poets, and musicians from across Africa. The online festival kicked off with poetry and publishing workshops on the Wednesday before officially opening on the Thursday.

The programme was jam-packed with events throughout the day and evening over the four days, many more than I could possibly take in fully. The translator within me was of course delighted to see that it included sessions on writing in African languages and the role of mother tongues as a tool for empathy. I also quickly added the Little Lit Children session to my diary too, eager to hear from Africans writing for children.*

Before those sessions, however, I tuned into a conversation about literature as a way of Preserving African History Through Prose. Skilfully moderated by Nigerian poet Kabura Zakama, writers Tsitsi Dangarembga, Phehello Mofokeng, and Mpush Ntabeni started with a discussion of faction as a genre, describing novels presenting a historical fiction narrative based on fact but fictionalising true events. Zimbabwean Dangarembga, shortlisted for this year's Booker Prize with This Mournable Body, explained that it’s important for Africans to have and own their own gaze, to be aware of the pressures, both internal and external, that impact it, and to see themselves as viable ‘subjects’ in life. She seeks to connect the gaze of the reader with her own gaze, to make something happen in the reader.

The discussion then moved on to the question of whether Africa has ‘one’ history, and what that history might be. Ntabeni noted that others had often written African history and had done so from a condescending, colonialist, and prejudiced perspective. Mofokeng talked about how he’d chosen to tell African history through music which travels through countries, making history more lively, showing that it’s not just wars and killing. Locating history both geographically and in time were important for Dangarembga who focuses on African women, generally excluded from most existing historical perspectives.

When asked why Africans should write faction as opposed to history books, all of the panellists agreed that fictional narratives are needed as a way of engaging readers. Dangarembga explained that information isn’t enough to ensure that people do the right thing. She hopes to reach readers through the emotional layers and more flexible positioning offered by prose and to impact them to the extent where they can change their behaviour. Creative writing is a way of helping people understand who they are and helping them to map their way, she added. Ntabeni pointed out the gaps that exist in historical accounts, the unhealthy silences created because the historians write from their own perspective. These gaps, however, are precisely what novelists like he noted:

“Sometimes to tell the truth you have to invent fiction.”

There are challenges, however, when it comes to writing these kinds of novels, and the three panellists shared some pointers. Dangarembga stressed the importance of sources, mentioning how difficult they can be to access, and how she’s struggled with this aspect of one particular topic she’d like to write about. She suggested two starting points - either a historical event, or a historical character – and encouraged other writers to go with the way that works best for them. Mofokeng touched on how he needed to find the right words to describe music, to capture the spiritual, not just the notes. Ntabeni concluded the session by saying that despite his struggles to get access to archives on South Africa, many of which are in the UK, he believes it’s important that Africans try to trace their memory, which although sometimes fragile, is something they’re trying their best to do.

These are only a few highlights that I took away from the panel which could easily have run on much longer. Check out the #ALitFest20 twitter account @alitfest to get a feel for what struck a chord with others at the festival, so many fantastic quotes encouraging writers to, just as moderator Zakama concluded:

‘Just go for it!’

Tsitsi Dangarembga is a Zimbabwean novelist, playwright, and filmmaker. Her first novel Nervous Conditions won the African section of the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 1989 and her latest novel This Mournable Body has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Follow her on Twitter @efie41209591.

Phehello Mofokeng is a South African publisher at Gecko, film-maker and dreamer. Read more about him here.

Mpush Ntabeni is a South African writer who has had short stories published in magazines and historical journals. He was also one of six writers from the African continent included in the collection of short stories, Africa Fresh! New Voices From The First Continent. His debut novel, The Broken River Tent, was published by BlackBird Books in 2018. Follow him on Twitter @mpushntabeni.

Kabura Zakama is a Nigerian poet who published in several anthologies and his collection of poems, The  Man Lived, won the 1999 ANA Poetry Prize. He is currently working on a second collection, Chant of the Angry, due in November 2020. Read more about him here.

*Stay tuned for my reflections on these other panels – coming soon.

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