The AfroAnthology Series, Nonfiction as a Revolutionary Act: A Dialogue with Basit Jamiu

THE AFROANTHOLOGY SERIES, NONFICTION AS A REVOLUTIONARY ACT

A DIALOGUE WITH BASIT JAMIU

Basit Jamiu is the Founding Editor of the AfroAnthology Series. His works have appeared in Saraba, Brittle Paper, AfriDiaspora, KalahariReview, AfricanWriter, PraxisMagOnline, ExpoundMag, and many other platforms. In 2018, he was the recipient of YNaija’s New Establishment list for his work at AfroAnthology. He has been described as among the “top curators and editors from Africa”. He tweets @CuratorBasit and watches TV Series among other fun activities.

Chisom Okwara

BY CHISOM OKWARA

This conversation took place via email in the comfort of an artistically decorated room atop the hill at Keffi, Nigeria and a room overlooking a wide, clean-cut lawn in Kigali, Rwanda.

Chisom: Hi Basit. I’m intensely resisting the urge to dive right into the AfroAnthology Series, your curatorial birth-child which has, in only two years, become one of the most revered African anthology series. Shall we start with an icebreaker—a walk down memory lane? In what I have come to call “sweet-emerging Nigerian writers’ 2015”, you were longlisted for the AMAB-HBF flash fiction competition for your story, “Daughters”. I happened to be on that list too, for a story of mine—“Lost”. At that stage in my writing journey, it was the closest I had ever come to a “list”, so the recognition meant a whole lot to me, and oh how badly I wanted to win those free books! Tell me, are the memories of that phase clear to you today, or have they become foggy? You sure have come a long way since then. I am curious to know if 2015 had any or much significance to your writing career. What were some of your emotions around the AMAB-HBF longlist? Prior to the longlist, what was the process of writing “Daughters”? Weaving through a marriage faltered by the pressure to birth a male child, infidelity, and feminal agony, “Daughters” was as poignant as it was redolent of cultural chokeholds, especially those that affect women. Do you think the themes you covered in it are still suggestive of our current world? What does that reveal about our strides as humanity, as culture custodians?

Basit: A lot of things have changed, interestingly. Even at that, many other things have remained the same. To everyone, here is the general question: are we keeping pace and evolving while shedding old, destructive cultural norms or simply unwilling to update? We can all agree that some people are doing better than others on matters of culture. Moving forward, I remember reading all the stories in the longlist and feeling satisfied to have made the strong list. I can’t remember the motive behind the story but I am particularly grateful that it got me into three literary workshops where I was able to meet Helon Habila, Ismael Beah, and NoViolet Bulawayo. These workshops didn’t so much teach me things about the craft of writing that I wasn’t already familiar with, more so, they were effective in granting the validation my younger self needed at that time to find my voice. As a writer yourself, you know that a little encouragement is needed at the earliest stage and I received ample of that from these older writers.

Chisom: Workshops with Helon, Ismael, and NoViolet – how exciting that must have been! And yes, validation makes all the difference in the early days of one’s writing journey. You ask if we are keeping pace and evolving while shedding old, destructive cultural norms and I think of a different kind of shedding, the kind that applies to creative nonfiction: shedding as peeling off, giving out, radiating, diffusing, casting—a life lived, a walk through time, a space inhabited. What do you think of nonfiction as a form of shedding?

Writers, like everyone else, have fears and anxieties and are capable of experiencing both joy and sadness. In this age of social media, where there is constant pressure to perform or look perfect, I believe that to boldly come out to say, “This is who I am, I won’t pretend just to fit your likeability status,” is itself a revolutionary act.

Basit: A few days ago, I rewatched Freedom Writers, a movie based on true life, produced by Richard LaGravenese (2007) about high school students who found healing by writing about their trauma and then sharing it with each other. All the stories were later published in a book, which led to the motion picture; it is a powerful film that reminded me of the importance of writing as an effective form of therapy. Before I watched this movie or curated the Selves Anthology, I had often heard reputable writers talk about how writing had made life livable for them. The great Stephen King, after his tragic accident in 1999, wrote a creative nonfiction piece titled “On Impact” which was later published in the New Yorker about the horrific incident, and he confessed in the story that writing made that painful experience bearable. 

Moving forward, in whatever channel one writes, if the intent is healing, I believe it is achievable. I strongly adhere to the opinion that creative nonfiction, because of its primary motive for unpacking raw emotion, can heal the writer. However, the decision to share it has two important advantages: (1) it is helping readers find healing by knowing that they are not alone and (2) freeing yourself from the weight of years and knowing that you are no longer a custodian of the pain, and again, you may have readers sending you feedback and reaching out about how your story has helped them stitch their lives together. That also helps the writer a lot in the healing process. 

Considerably, sharing a creative work around a personal experience is part of the writer’s role as an agent of social change, and as I often say, someone who is afraid and wants to be a writer obviously underestimates this profession. Writing, looking back at history, is a dangerous profession. It is the most effective tool for social change and it often comes with a cost. As you read this, writers are currently being arrested, killed, ridiculed and brutalized. People were calling for the head of Salman Rushdie immediately after The Satanic Verses was published. Ayatollah Khemenie placed a price tag on his head like Rushdie was some Shekau. In Uganda, Stella Nyanzi was arrested for a poem she wrote and posted on Facebook.  J. M. Coetzee was banned from South Africa after his famous book Disgrace was published. There are so many horrific examples that show us that writing isn’t for the faint-hearted. 

Lastly, as a writer, I see writing as that extra medication I need after seeing a therapist. As with most people in Nigeria who can’t afford a therapist or find a good one, the only available channel can be writing, or talking to friends.

Chisom: As a writer and former teacher, Freedom Writers hit the core of my being, especially at the scene where the students stood in line and took forward steps to acknowledge their lived experiencesheavy, painful realitiesstories they finally got to tell when they found their voice. Yes, writing heals. Yes, writing gives meaning to life, and yes, writing sparks change. It demands fearlessness because it is inherently an art of freedom, and as you pointed out, we have the lives of esteemed writers who have written through and are still writing through oppression and attack, ridicule and brutality, exile, and displacement to show for it. We also have stories of young Africans writing through instability, anxiety, migration, pain, desire. 

I remember reading Selves over three consecutive weekends in Yaba, Lagos; hours of suspension and weightlessness, of surrender to lives and worlds both similar and different to mine. I found my fears and cares in the middle of sentences, paid homage to cultures in the spaces between paragraphs, and acknowledged the depth of humanity, the breadth of life and living: Hauwa’s grief, Kenechi’s America, Sibongile’s childbirth. To me, Selves represents everything non-fiction stands for, symbolizes everything nonfiction islife as collage, people like pebbles, places as sand and sea and sky and water. In the reviews and responses to Selves, have there been unforgettable testaments of connection, healing, change? How have those made you feel as a curator, a nonfiction writer, a human?

Basit: Generally, the reaction has been very moving, from platforms and individual readers. As you may recall, pieces from Selves have won an award, been shortlisted for major prizes and they are continuously being discussed at prestigious literary festivals. Apart from being widely reviewed, Selves was also amongst OkayAfrica’s five best books in 2018. This was a big deal for my team and I. All these are testaments to the value that the creative nonfiction stories in Selves have brought to its readers. In 2018 at Kabafest, after a panel around the book where I was among the four panelists with TJ Benson, Umar Turaki, Hauwa Shafii Nuhu, a few readers came to speak to me about the effect of the stories and how it had helped them. I remember a particular reader who called it her “literary Bible.” She said she always goes back to read a particular piece to find strength and hope. In 2019, there were two panels around the book both at Kabafest and Aké Festival. I continue to receive personal messages about the importance of the collection and as curator, the reaction has made all the efforts and sleepless nights worth it. It has also emboldened my resolve to contribute to the progress of African literature for as long as I can.

Chisom: How encouraging! It’s inspiring to see how wide stories can go, how far they can take us, how deeply they can resonate in others. How far do you think we’ve come, as a continent, in the creative nonfiction genre? Have we made progress? We have a few anthologies, prominent of which are Safe House and Selves, and we have seen increasing publication of works of creative nonfiction by African writers on Long Reads, Popula, Granta; we also have books⁠—both within and outside the literary landscape. Do you think this growth says something about an evolution of storytelling on the continent, a sort of cultural reorientation⁠—towards the unapologetic placement of “self” as/at the centre, revelation of realities to both the world and to oneself⁠—possibly thriving on the annihilation of self-consciousness, shame or any of their many cousins? You earlier mentioned that writing is not for the faint-hearted. What degree of strength, or courage does it take to write creative non-fiction? What (else) do you think it takes to write creative-nonfiction well?

Basit: I suppose we have not come very far, but we are definitely making progress. The great Ellah Alfrey Wakatama concluded in Safe House that creative nonfiction is at its germinal stage. Creative Nonfiction stories represent the smallest percentage of all the literary output coming from Africa. Our primary focus at AfroAnthology Series is to do more, to improve both the quality and quantity. I am not sure there is any evolution of storytelling happening at the moment, I will need more time to look critically on that. I suppose this sort of writing has always been there, it is just that there were no platforms for them, in other words, there was very little attention for its kind and definitely not many writers were writing like that in the past. The need for that kind of writing is now more urgent, hence the attention has grown everywhere in the world. I completely agree that it takes courage to write creative nonfiction that revolves around the self, and if I understand your evolution of storytelling in the continent to mean that more works that center on the self are now being published, then I will say it is only because writers are taking their courage partly from other writers who have towed that part. But all in all, writing is a hard, very hard thing to pull off. However, writing about the self and putting it out there is harder and probably the bravest thing in the world at the moment.

Chisom: Looking back, I would replace my usage of ‘evolution’ with ‘evolvement’ as regards the growing visibility of creative nonfiction in the African literary landscape. I agree with you, this sort of writing has always been there. It’s a good thing that people like you are doing the tough work of bringing it to the fore. Last year, on Witsprouts, you wrote an honest and stirring reflection on battling fundraising challenges and depression in the bid to get Selves in print. You outlined your life lessons from curating nonfiction in Africa; the first was “it is important to be strong for your dreams” and the third was “creating something out of nothing is a lot more complex and crazy than it appears in success stories.” How do you stay strong for your dream now, having gone through the peculiar rigour and pain of beginner writing and curation?

Basit: I figured a long time ago that to create something that will last, there is a need for the creator to be persistent and unceasingly intense. Starting from the moment the idea to curate an anthology of this kind came to me, I had outlined the challenges, evaluated them and looked forward to them. But it appeared that I had only prepared for the challenges of virtual publishing, that is the eBook. I was familiar with the terrain of eBook publishing because I had worked with others before I began my own journey. I have worked with them mostly as a contributor but I was following the progress from the inception to the publication time. When the eBook of Selves was published via Brittle Paper, I had everything under control; I was doing what I needed to do and it was producing results that I expected. When we decided to make the anthology into a print version, I had mistaken the challenges to be the same so I didn’t bother to do any pre-assessment and I suffered greatly as a result. Print publishing is totally different to eBook publishing. They have different approaches and as for print, one needs to learn the ropes before takeoff. In other words, years of experience as an insider. Subsequent collections from the AfroAnthology Series will not be available in print and if there is ever a strong need for it to appear in print, we will approach a reputable publishing house. 

Chisom: Seeing how impressive the AfroAnthology series is, I’m quite confident that in the near future, should hard copies be in demand, reputable publishers will come on board. Zooming into the trajectory that led to your work as curator and remains the backbone of your literary strides⁠—your writing, there is a strong sense of place, identity and beauty in most of your published stories. Of Lokoja, you have written about “the long hills overlooking the city and the vast river occupying its west side”, finding serendipity in its “green mountainous heights and ceaselessly flying birds” and “relishing the calm evening breeze” while floating through its bush paths. You described your desire to tell stories that speak to your identity in “One Day I will write about this place in flowery words”. In “Na For Sell”, you lauded Fati Abubakar’s “Bits of Borno” series for capturing, “in a marvellous way”, “the smiles, laughter and the survivalist spirit” of residents of Borno,  Boko Haram’s worst hit state. What inspires this resonance of beauty, identity and place in your writing?

Basit: The popular axiom which writers like Chimamanda and Ernest Hemingway have always held onto is to write what you know. For me, I am often writing from a familiar angle, a path that is very close to my lived experience. I have recounted in the past that, as a kid, I grew up in a small village where there is no cinema, library or bank. Reading appeared to be the only route to entertainment. In my formative years, books that I read had no names of my people and I was concerned that when I began to write I subconsciously used foreign names because my little self felt a story should never have a local name. I suppose it was due to the heavy influence of foreign authors. When I grew up and became familiar with African books, I still struggled with the difficulty to add local names to my earliest stories, which are obviously similar to the stories I have read. All of these happened before I turned 13. I have moved from that time to finding the voice to write stories that are evocative of my identity and I greatly enjoy doing so. In 2006, I moved to Lokoja, the capital city of Kogi State to attend an Islamic Secondary School and I spent six years in a boarding house. The death of the founder of Boko Haram, Yusuf; the ascendance of Yaradua and his death were things I discovered and discussed with my colleagues in the boarding house. The need to write from a place that is close to home is the realization that there are so many undocumented stories. When I choose to write, I pick from those stories and flesh them into something I hope will resonate with readers.

Chisom: And indeed, from what we’ve seen, when you choose to curate, you make room for stories of diverse lived experiences, touching the crevices of different African cities and countries yet unconfined to the shapes of their maps. 

You announced that the next AfroAnthology collection, “The Weight of Years” will be released this July, and the line-up of heavyweight contributors has got so many readers counting down. What should we expect from this collection?

Basit: One of the motives of our curation at AfroAnthology is to bring together our diverse human experiences and show readers that writers are human beings, just that⁠—perhaps the only distinguishing factor being our deep love for words. Writers, like everyone else, have fears and anxieties and are capable of experiencing both joy and sadness. In this age of social media, where there is constant pressure to perform or look perfect, I believe that to boldly come out to say, “This is who I am, I won’t pretend just to fit your likeability status,” is itself a revolutionary act. This is the precedence that the Selves Anthology has set, which “The Weight of Years” will consolidate.

Chisom: I can’t wait to read “The Weight of Years” and I am excited for all that’s to come from the AfroAnthology series! I am inspired by you and your team for the good work you are doing in promoting African literature. Thank you so much for making out time to have this dialogue with me. The countdown to “The Weight of Years” has just gotten louder! 

Basit: Thank you, Chisom.

Chisom Okwara

Chisom Okwara is a graduate of Social Sciences from the African Leadership University, Mauritius. She runs BRIM Ltd, a digital comms and content marketing company in Kigali. She is obsessed with fonts, free t-shirts, and fine sentences. You can find her writings on AfricanWriter, Praxis Magazine, Thrive Global, The Question Marker, Medium, her blog – Odetoateen, and her LinkedIn page.

CHISOM OKWARA

CONTRIBUTING INTERVIEWER FOR CREATIVE NON-FICTION

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