The Search for the Literary Tribe, By Adewale Ajadi
All my life I have been introduced to many tribes, for what are professional groupings if not tribes? They have their own languages, initiate you into their rituals or processes as they are called, define their own culture and delineate their worldview. Somehow, I have never stayed long enough to become socialised or to practice any orthodoxy long enough to exemplify any group. From the tribe of lawyers to economists, diversity experts, academics, journalists, consultants, I have made a life as a dilettante.
My trajectory in tribes start with excitement and the relief of being ‘accredited’, then moves on to curiosity about what it all means and discovery, some discernment, and eventually dislocation from group-think.
I wondered, when I was invited by PEN America to be part of the group of African writers at their World Voices 2015 Festival in New York, whether I would encounter a tribal dynamic. I thought it highly unlikely since writers are as diverse as grains of sand. I, especially, did not think it likely of African writers from diverse cultures, with diverse nationalities and motivations, personalities as well as orientations to constitute a monolithic tribe. I labeled the visit, in my self-serving calendar, as a rare opportunity to let it all hang out, a gift to my non-conformist, anarchistic side.
The first steps of PEN’s arrangement showed that perhaps I was not as prepared as I thought. I was asked about my agent in the initial discussion. I am honestly ignorant of agents, as I have come to realise. I am about publishers and publishing. In writing Omoluwabi 2.0, I had partnered with Bookcraft in Ibadan, and working under the protective support of the now enigmatic Bankole Olayebi, who did not expose me to the pain or rigour that I now know others go through.
In any case, I was blown away by the tolerance and flexibility that PEN showed my complex requests. I had been booked for three events and two media events. As I read through the profiles of the writers, there were quite a few who were inspirations – Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Alain Mabanckou. There were those whose writings were spices in the joy of living – Lola Shoneyin and Chimamanda Adichie, and my brother Binyavanga, whose personality itself is part of his capacity to define African triumph and speak truth to power. Time passes swiftly but New York Time seemed even faster. I had arrived earlier than most because of other commitments in the US. I had one initial commitment to PEN America, an interview with Arise TV, all 4 minutes of it.
There we were, the Opening Night at Great Hall, Cooper Union. Titled the ‘Future is now’, a distinguished group of writers had been asked to envision a future in 2025. A summary of their vision is the decline of the US/ West and a side glance towards a possible African resurgence. Their prose was eloquent. In all cases, the craft was apparent, even where the vision was tepid. My standout was Aminatta Forna’s reading on Ebola. It was stark and evocative of the tragedy, as true to the virus as to its dramatic and destructive pathway through the heart of Sierra Leone. Unfortunately, it spoke little about the future.
The after party was a reminder of my shyness to networking, born from my reticence to engaging in small talk and the dominance of that sort of interaction in literary circles. The tribe was gathering and staying in the same hotel; we ran into each other across the lobby all the time.
The inevitable late evening banter opened at the bar next to our hotel. On comparing notes, my first event, on gender in literature, seemed odd to colleagues. Yes, we were now colleagues even though I remained stubbornly sober, a result of a five-year alcohol free diet. I think in any other group I would have been seen as a stick in the mud, but for this tribe no one really noticed.
The ‘Writing gender’ event had a cast of five women and with me as the only male on the panel. The assumption that gender discussions was only about women came up a few times but rather than irritating it was amusing. Only once did it stand on the border, when Veronique Tadjo asked me how I felt being the lone male; was I not fearful, she quipped. My response was to the contrary, but her follow up left me in no doubt that as a man I had been stereotyped as she characterised my response as a form of antiquated thinking.
I enjoyed the event because it was moderated in ways that allowed contradictory narratives to sit beside each other for the audience to make their own meaning. For me, there is laziness in the orthodox conversation about gender; neither sex can fully realise the majesty and authenticity of their being without embracing the other – female and male. Especially troubling is that the models of masculinity in play for both sexes are obsolete and destructive. I passed on the after party and privately glowed in the space created that allowed me to truly engage in the discourse created by my colleagues, facilitated by the moderator and enabled by the audience.
The event called ‘10 minutes’ was the next one and would be preceded by a radio interview for National Public Radio and WNYC. I enjoyed this interview recording with Alain Mabanckou and Yvonne Owuor. I really thought that it was a classic, even though I suspect it was not eventually broadcast. It was a uniquely dissident event, exquisitely off message. Yvonne was the catalyst, being very direct and challenging. It was permission to go to town. It was a honest challenge to the idea of African subservience and a robust case against Western standards and solutions, where existing African possibilities are ignored. It set a certain tone and now this is a tribe I could roll with.
The evening of that day, we the three from the initial interview had 90 minutes to pen our world of writing. By this time I had realised how different my writing contribution was to those of my colleagues. My only known and public fictional works were my plays, in fact one called Abyssinia. I had agreed with the moderator, Anderson Tepper, to focus my reading on fiction, and read from my unpublished novel, Cannibaligame.
Sensitive soul that I am, I became conscious that there is hierarchy in my new tribe. The novelists sit at the top, their works received as the most accomplished medium of narration. My discomfort with this coloured every subsequent contribution I made. The event however went well and the interaction was good. I was not a distinguished novelist but I hoped my responses were distinctive. The tribe went about its daily business. Aside from wandering around and renewing my acquaintance with New York, I visited the new restaurant and jazz club opened by a friend, Alexander Smalls. The rich Africa tinged food; his stories of Lagos, as if an absent lover; his celebration of Yellow Chilli’s seafood okra, all provided context to the dynamics of the tribe. I loved the emergent vibe: PEN, New York and Africa.
By the final event, titled ‘In and out of Africa’, I had relaxed, and signed off on initiation into the tribe. Our venue was a beautifully designed Harlem stage and the set up of the programme promised a lot. With three moderators and about eight writers, the audience sat banquet style with drinks and the opportunity to interact over three hours with the tribe. It was a good mix of different ages and backgrounds. The initial interaction with writers and audience went very well; I even renewed old acquaintances and dared a little bit of small talk.
The formal discussion part of the event was for me an anti-climax. The first moderator set up the conversation, framing an Africa defined by resistance to colonialism. Now, if there is anything more presumptuous and condescending, I do not know it. It was a complete contrast to what we set out in our National Public Radio interview. I tried to rush in first to disrupt this before the framing was established but I failed spectacularly. The discussion now devolved into a focus on established novelists. The moderators would extract quotes from the works of the writers within their now established framework of the idea that African writers belong to two generations: the independence generation, whose work of resistance is the foundation, and the new generation, allegedly indifferent to the past but writing outside the established political grain. I was pissed and maybe even angry. Nothing in this area is more upsetting than the intellectual laziness of Western civilisation where everything is reduced to dichotomies. It is as if without two polarising options thinking is killed and analysis impossible.
As if to affirm my worst fears, the Senegalese novelist Boris Diop took the framing like a machete and went after Alain, characterising Alain’s remarks that sought a spectrum beyond literature as political resistance as a disavowal of Achebe, Senghor et al.
Well, in that moment, I fantasised my outburst and slow march off the stage. I lost my appetite for the tribe and conversation, and it suited me as the moderators picked speaker after speaker around me till my colleagues demanded that I be included. By the end, I had once again discovered a new tribe, but as usual I did not belong. I however know now that the lack of availability of my book, even on bookshelves in Nigeria and the rest of Africa, is a problem, and that I have to finish that novel if for nothing but to include my work at that level so as to keep my voice in play even if only to disrupt and create disequilibrium.
I learnt something hauntingly beautiful that I was nominated onto that list, in part, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; so whatever our ‘imagined’ differences, hers is valued and humbling support. I have new friends like Alain, Lola, Anderson, Donica, Yvonne, and I am hopefully in a deeper relationship with the Kwani Collective. So maybe not a member of the tribe but invigorated to define African craft, standards and narratives that are not defined by what it is against or what it is validated by but as a pursuit of our authentic voices and stories, to make this an African century for posterity.