Interview | 'Writivism is not just about creating the Africa we want, but the Africa we need'

The Writivism programme is one of the most exciting literary initiatives I have ever taken part of. Through attending their workshop in Cape Town, and joining a mentorship group, I was exposed to other writers from across the continent who challenged my prose and my outlook, and inspired me to do better. I recently got the opportunity to speak to Kagayi Peter, Writivism's Anglophone Coordinator. Like the programme itself, the conversation challenged my perceptions of what 'success' means in African literature, and the problem of classifying 'African' literature itself. 

Tell us about Writivism, for those who do not know about it.

Writivism is a literary iniative run under the organization Center for African Cultural excellence, registered in Kampala, Uganda. It offers varied spaces for literary creativity and action for African and Caribbean Literature to thrive today. Our main business is selling African Literature books across the African continent. But we also run a mentoring program where we connect budding writers (you have to apply) to established writers of Africa or Caribbean descent. The purpose is to be guided through writing and technique, the philosophy and fellowship of theme, the discipline of being a writer, among others. We also hold literary workshops in various cities across Africa throughout the first half of the year, where the chosen applicants get the opportunity or work with an established writer on improving their works. This year Dakar, Abidjan, Accra, Kampala and Goma domicile our literary intentions. The workshops held are for fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Each City has a particular workshop where the participants from Africa and various continents (as long as you are of African descent) congregate to harness their creativity. At the end, the poetry/story-compilations are published in book form. Then we also run a literary Prize for short stories, and this year we will introduce the Okot p’Bitek poetry Prize. We also run a literary festival in Kampala, Uganda (the cradle of Writivism) where writers meet and share experiences from the cosmology of their experience and place as writers today.

But Writivism, it must be noted, is not just ABOUT literary activity. Writivism is philosophy ingratiated out of the need for more African spaces in Africa not just for creativity, but free expression, the understanding of human values, and the need to share experiences past our colonial disenfranchisement. These are salient features for any sort of reconstruction of mass consciousness in our particular societies. Writivism is also not just about creating the Africa we want, but the Africa we need. As the saying goes, if the owner of the calabash calls it worthless, then the others will join him to pack it with rubbish.  For a sacred trans-cultural arena, with a unique political history/memory as a people today, what do we take forward? What have we left behind? What have we over-looked, what do we venerate, and so forth. These questions occupy our minds every minute.

Do you feel programmes such as Writivism are important?

This question is problematic. First, there is no other programme ‘such as’ Writivism, nor is Writivism like any other. The uniqueness of context and history of an organization must be taken into account in order to understand its contribution/role to the growth of literature today. Every literary initiative is born out of a unique encounter. And that uniqueness is not reflected in the programming, but in the history, and philosophy of it. Combining literary initiatives (or programmes as so-called) “such as” because of the outlook of scheduled activity only dehistrocizes the construction of their unique ethos. But if the question above intended to underscore the values such initiatives espouse, then yes, they are important today. New markets; new readerships; the need for the ‘African Diaspora’ to recall why “no one leaves home unless home won’t let you stay”; the critical citation for the need to create African literature for Africa; finding new African literature heroes; discussing the modus of creative expression; the place of indigenous language in world literature today and so forth. These things are important.  

What excites you about the current literary landscape?

There is more increased awareness about African literature on the East African part of the continent amongst the readership; some books, magazines and journals are now more accessible; various literary initiatives have been passages to many a good writer. The past decade has so many African writers tasting literary success because of the various initiatives. The list is really long. With new publishing houses on the continent, literary magazines and journals, and mostly, the making of new friends, finding like-minded people else sharing experiences of growth, literature is a more holistic experience now. But for me, the most important has been the attempt to bridge the space between the younger/emerging writers and the elder/established writers. That experience of interaction is vital for the steady growth of our literature. We really needed it.

However, not all brings excitement. I feel most initiatives are dams, not bridges (which we need more in these times) –they only assert the bifurcation of African societies even more because there is an obvious and conspicuous exclusion of a certain part of the general population; are heavily reliant on external funding, thus continuity and steady growth will never guaranteed beyond “give us this day our daily bread” mentality. Besides, until we have financial independence, the literary landscape will never belong, or be shaped by Africa, but one who funds it.

I see you are a poet! Tell us about the inclusion of more poetry in this year’s Writivism and the importance of this.

Where I come from, poetry and storytelling excavate the very fibre of child up-bringing. The first impressions formed on morality are instilled through what narratives you hear in song, rhythmic story-telling, patterns of dance and game-plays. The first encounter with imagination and endowed creativity is through these mediums. Poetry being added makes it exciting, especially if, like this year, you will spend 5 days with Kenyan Sitawa Namwalie learning from her experiences as a performance poet!

The importance of the inclusion of poetry on the programme is, it reveals African literary expressions in another creative and passionate way. There is also the further reach into that pool of unique writers to be added to the fiction and non-fiction pool we have built.

Poetry also defines our rites of passage depending on how we encounter it. What Writivism does is tap into the need to make relevant a writer’s voice. And when it comes to that, poetry is heavyweight.

What advice do you have for emerging African writers?

Do not write to be recognized. Invest time and energy into knowing your history, your craft, especially if it not rewarding. Read widely. Write what you know or what you want to know about. Share, not just your craft, but your heart, with the reader. At the end of the day advice is overrated, do it yourself. Rejection is part of the process, Criticism is good for you; the way you deal with it determines your growth. You are not an emerging writer if you were born to be one. Not everyone is obliged to like your work.

Writivism strongly promotes multi-linguism in literature. What impact do you think this has on the writing produced on the continent?

Of impact, (both on the writing and on the readership), the documentation of our stories elevates the value in them. One of the most immersing experiences I’ve had as a theater-goer was in 2015, at the Writivism festival, when Setswana actor Donald Molosi, for the first time in our country, staged his one-man play ‘Today it’s Me’ about a Ugandan hero. His monologues were in mostly in the English language imbibed with indigenous jargon here and there, but all his songs but for one were in Luganda, a language commonly used in the south of my country. The biggest compliment he received, in my opinion, was when someone in the audience suggested Uganda should adopt him! A jest indeed, but one which reflected the values placed upon the essence of work: empathy.

Every generation requires a certain kind of writer with a certain mindset. Mindset is vital for a writer. Language preselects mindset. It assists in the construction and deconstruction of relations. Thought and interpretation of setting, character treatment, thematic presentation and attitudes; all these are made of perception and thought. Language being the vehicle of expression of the people, a writer decimates their works reflected upon the backdrop of how well they are involved in it. Thus language is not just about meaning, or association. It is most importantly about communication; the intended thought passed on to the intended ear. At Writivism we promote multi-linguism to encourage writers to get closer to their heritage because we believe writers in Africa today should not only write of people, but for their people too.

But before appreciating the impact this has had on writing on the continent, one has to appreciate the historicity of the issue of language and ‘formal’ communication. It is impossible to discuss this issue here in Africa without referring to the legacy of late colonialism, especially the structures of ‘formal’ education. This is because the promotion of multi-linguism is not just a matter of literary expression, but of political transformations. Mindset is vital for change.

There’s a lot of debate on African immigrant literature doing well internationally. Yet at the same time we see Cassava Republic launching in London. Do you think the world is ready for truly African stories, set in Africa? Why do you think this shift has taken so long?

This question, it must be said, is problematic, yet emblematic of the never changing socio-political attitudes towards almost everything the world gets to ‘discover’ about Africa. I am dismayed, though not in disbelief, that right now the context is literature, but the attitude has always been ‘Africa, the unexplored comes into light’ whenever Europe picks interest in something ‘African.’ This exaltation as success of ‘finally Africa has arrived’ syndrome in the questioning of whether “the world is ready for ‘truly’ African stories, set in Africa” and “Cassava Republic is launching in London”, is common amongst those who will contextualize such episodes as “progress” and thus European approval of anything (or anyone) African is elevation of status.

I am not one of them.

About African “immigrant” literature doing well wherever it is, well that is because it is where it belongs. Literature, like a plant, will grow where its roots are firm. However immigration also is happening within the continent itself.

Finally, Africa with all its anthropological diversities cannot and should not be condensed into what appears to now be a classification of genre: “African Literature.” Africa is too deep to be fathomed in such a singular format. The cosmopolitan outlook of it as now branded by some “African” writers is cosmetic and pretentious more than ever of ‘Western Civilization’. Each country, each nation, each state should be appreciated for what her people are, and what their history tell us about them.