In his introduction to The Rise of the African Novel: Politics of Language, Identity, and Ownership, academic and novelist Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ raised, among others, “the question of language.”
Wa Ngũgĩ, who co-founded the Safal-Cornell (formerly Mabati-Cornell) Kiswahili Prize for African Literature admitted to being “…heavily implicated by having so far written all my published works in English”:
”I too am a victim of the English metaphysical empire that trapped us from the moment we started kindergarten. And while I raise the question of translation, my novels have been translated into German and French but not into a single African language. As I raise the question of publishing and distribution, my books have been published for the East African market by East African Educational Books (built on the foundation and structure of British educational publishing), but in Western Africa by the independent Cassava Publishing House and in Southern Africa by Kwela Books, both working against the model of educational publishing. And when in the last chapter, I consider how the post-Makerere writers are challenging the form of the realist novel, I do so as the author of two detective novels, and as someone who is asked at any reading or interview why I chose that form.”
My conversations with the writers shortlisted for the inaugural Island Prize—whose purpose is to “give writers from the continent of Africa (or the diaspora) a chance to showcase their work to a wider audience”—revealed mutual concerns about language, translation, publishing, markets, identity, and the realist novel.
Sarah, who considers literary fiction “the most powerful format for conveying an array of real-world ideas and problems,” could have written “…a set of short stories, treating each of the book’s four parts as its own tale” but settled for a novel because “family relationships are one of the core dealings of the book”: “…the cohesion of a novel was necessary. It was the glue holding the family members together.”
Doreen confessed that English is “…the only language in which I can write a hundred thousand words.” She was, however, careful about ensuring that the characters in her novel spoke English infused with “a distinct Ugandan flavour” as she looked towards the immense possibilities that exist for Ugandan and African literature.
Marina, who intends to continue writing mysteries and thrillers with strong female protagonists, highlighted the importance of continent-wide recognition: “Being shortlisted for the Island Prize was obviously a huge boost. And the most recent affirmation was signing my first novel, Double Edged, to Kwela Books.”
Hamza, who mostly wrote and read in Arabic during his childhood, and would like his novel to be translated into Arabic and French, was as wary of the challenges thrown up by a nascent publishing industry as he was excited by its prospects: “…we can still influence its structure as it builds itself, so that it allows for more diversity and meaningful opportunities for young writers.”
Joyce’s novel was a story she needed to tell, first, to herself: “Having lived the first seventeen years of my life in Cameroon, relocating to Nigeria was a lot more challenging than I anticipated…I guess my understanding of what I have experienced and witnessed came through as a novel.”
There was yet more common ground, among the writers, on several other questions—including of mental health, inspiration, reading preferences, editing, and experimentation—which both comforted and motivated me.
The entirety of our conversations will be shared here, at Africa in Dialogue, a day at a time, from 26th – 30th September, 2022.
I would like to express my appreciation for these long-suffering writers, who uncomplainingly answered all my questions. Their full names and countries of origin are listed here below, alongside the titles of their shortlisted manuscripts:
Delightful Cage – Joyce Odera Nwankwo (Nigeria)
A Darkness with Her Name On It – Doreen Anyango (Uganda)
Single Minded – Marina Auer (South Africa)
Sand Roses – Hamza Koudri (Algeria)
Glass Tower – Sarah Isaacs (South Africa)
More information about the writers shortlisted and longlisted for the 2021-2022 edition of the Island Prize can be found here and here. Submissions for the 2022-2023 edition are now open; for more information about entry requirements and how to submit an extract from your novel, follow the link here.
Davina was born in a university teaching hospital in Lusaka and raised on the grounds of Uganda’s oldest university in Kampala (from where she would later receive a BSc in Botany and Zoology and a PGDE in biological sciences). Her MSc (Zoology) research assessed the abundance and richness of forest-dependent birds in two tropical lowland rainforest fragments in central Uganda.
She writes poetry, fiction, and essays. Her short story, “Of Birds and Bees”, was shortlisted for the 2018 Short Story Day Africa Prize and the 2022 Gerald Kraak Prize. Her short story, “Touch Me Not”, was shortlisted for the 2020 Afritondo Short Story Prize.
She’s interested in the intersection between literature and science, will read anything with an arresting title, writes about topics that interest her, and is an aspiring wildlife photographer.