There is Magic in African Literature (full Oxford article)

The African Writers Series and its contemporary value in the context of 21st Century African fiction.

(published in the 2022 University of Oxford, African Studies Centre Newsletter)



I wish to thank Onyeka Nwelue, James Currey and Professor Miles Larmer (and the African Studies Centre) for their support and in facilitating my activities as the James Currey Society Fellow to the University of Oxford in 2022. 

After running the 4-week James Currey Society Writing & Publishing Workshop at the African Studies Centre, my time culminated in a lecture event on 14 February 2022. Opened by Onyeka Nwelue, and leading a Q&A with James Currey on his life and legacy with the African Writers Series, Professor Larmer then introduced me for my lecture to members of the audience – both in the lecture theatre as well as virtually online. Questions had already been raised by those in attendance relating to publishing, genres and themes within African literature and the AWS. I hoped to shine some light on these.

My 14 February 2022 lecture in Oxford


There is magic in African literature.

As the embodiment of 1980s South Africa, as a teenager, I was not aware of the African Writers Series, let alone its impact around the world, and therefore came late to many of the writers and the rich stories from the Continent. I found their works individually rather than through the body of work that is the AWS, discovering the writers who had reached the status of household names, even in South Africa, by the mid 1990s – in particular Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, and Nadine Gordimer. These were the tip of the iceberg.

I became involved in writing in the early 2000s, and was involved in the African Speculative Fiction Society as a charter member. In many of the discussion amongst us writers from the Continent, there was talk of this entity The African Writers Series. And though I knew the names of the writers they would mention, I had no context for what this body of work was. I began looking into it, and soon realised the significance those works and what the publishers put together from the early 1960s until its closure in 2003.

In terms of what James Currey contributed, his tenure was one of the most prolific of the AWS. It went from around thirty books published, to over two hundred titles added during James Currey’s time from the late 60s to the mid 80s. Having the opportunity to meet and talk with the man himself, one key element stood out in terms of how the AWS successfully operated: there was no single veto right from any team member in a work submitted for publication. If a team member believed in it, it had value to the whole. This is the magic of the African Writers Series – making for a broad range of literary work.

Over the years, my research into the African Writers Series revealed a wealth of themes and genres which, at first glance, tackle social issues like colonialism, racism, and traditional beliefs versus Western religions. I soon realised there was a lot more to it.

The AWS gave voice to writers on the Continent, in troubling times in the 1960s, through apartheid, and into the 90s. It gave those writers a voice. It put those cultures on the map. It gave those cultures dignity. They were being written about by those people. And it was an opportunity for dispelling the notion of what the West perceived Africa to be. In that, from my perspective, traditional beliefs really came to the fore. Not just in nice cultural rites and rituals: it dispelled the myths of what those rituals might be. Words like superstition, witchcraft and black magic no longer had a place. That was how Africa and those cultures, rituals, belief systems, mythologies, folktales and oral traditions were perceived and portrayed by the West.

The other important point was on the impact of the African Writers Series, yes, reaching global status, but it brought African stories to Africans. This came through in the conversations I was having with my contemporary writers.

While I was on a virtual panel at WorldCon/Discon3 in December 2021 – The Nommo and Other Awards for African SFF – one of the other panellists remarked on a common issue felt by African writers of genre fiction (speculative fiction covering fantasy, folktale-based fantasy, science fiction etc.): we are not considered writers of literature. We are on the fringes of publishing and audiences, and we are not considered literary contributors. I had already begun my research into the AWS in earnest, and took that opportunity to highlight some of my findings.

I selected the first 101 titles of the African Writers Series, making sure I covered part of James Currey’s tenure, into the mid 1970s. 45 of these 101 titles contained very clear genres and themes of traditional beliefs, magic, fantasy, speculative fiction and magical realism.

In the broad theme of Traditional Beliefs, these were not just mentioning a culture’s beliefs in day-to-day life, but actually going the step further and bringing the magic and fantasy into the narrative, like spells, spirit realms, afterlives; along with the speculative: alternate realities and fictional African countries. From my perspective as a science fiction and fantasy writer, these are all genres that are very much explicit, and not in the background of these 45 titles I picked out. They are weaved in and integral to the stories.

Yet, when we look at this body of work, it is referred to as a “literary” genre. To me, seeing what is there as if for the first time, it is far more than that. And many of these works are genre-fluid – by including multiple of these aspects, and defying what most western categories would pigeonhole them into.

Take Bessie Head’s Maru, one would think it would have been marketed as magical realism, but it wasn’t.

We have the opportunity, now, to reread the 300 plus works in a new light, look at the traditional beliefs, the storytelling, the oral storytelling, and how they weave in their proverbs, traditional beliefs, and magic into their works, seamlessly. They do not stand as simply literary fiction. They cover all depths and breadths of what I consider to be speculative fiction.

Going back to the WorldCon panel: for the other panellists this was a revelation to be part of and contributing to this literary community.


The James Currey Society Writing & Publishing Workshop:

As a significant part of my fellowship to the University of Oxford, I was asked to run the 4-week James Currey Society Writing and Publishing Workshop, where we had participants coming in from all over the world, from all over the Continent. Needless to say, having Mr Currey attend the workshop was both daunting and surreal.

In the first session I covered the history of the AWS and James Currey’s prolific tenure, and it was rewarding having James enlighten us all on various parts of his journey. Fascinated by my take on certain aspects of the AWS, he would probe my take on some of the works, making for a most rewarding experience, and an experience I will forever cherish.

Allowing the African Writers Series to speak for itself, I selected five works from the first 101 titles: Sol Plaatje’s Mhudi (1978/1938) AWS #201, Stanlake Samkange’s On Trial for My Country (1967) AWS #33, Wole Soyinka’s The Interpreters (1970) AWS #76, Bessie Head’s Maru (1972) AWS #10, and Short African Plays edited and compiled by Cosmo Pieterse (1972) AWS #101.

First, was Sol Plaatje’s Mhudi (1978/1938) AWS #201, which has a rich and interesting history. It was written in 1912 and only published in the 1930s, in a redacted form due to its incendiary content for the South African government of the time. It was then republished by the AWS, where the team went back to basics, back to the original translations and brought out all the original text. One of Mhudi’s key aspects, for me, is that it has a strong female protagonist – not only a female in a man’s bloody world – she is supporting other women, women supporting women in a man’s world. The narrative comments on how men mess up the world with their wars. 

“How wretched,” cried Mhudi sorrowfully, "that men in whose counsels we have no share should constantly wage war, drain women's eyes of tears and saturate the earth with God's best creation - the blood of the sons of women. What will convince them of the worthlessness of this game, I wonder?” – Mhudi, Sol Plaatje

My interest being in traditional beliefs allowed me to see the significance of Mhudi’s dreams. She is driven by her prophetic dreams, she believes in her dreams, the premonitions and she acts on those throughout the story. Along with proverbs and elements of magic, as well as the historical setting, make for a rich text.

Stanlake Samkange’s On Trial for My Country (1967) AWS #33 blew me away because on one hand it has three tiers to its oral storytelling structure; and on the other, it is set in a fantasy world.

We begin first with the narrator, as the author, in the story; followed by an old man he meets at a fireside in a cave, who relates his own story of when he died and went into the Afterlife. This brings the third level of the narration as he is witness to the trial of Cecil John Rhodes and the Matabele monarch Lobengula. Both men are forced to stand before their respective ancestors in the Afterlife, each questioned on their roles in the British takeover of the ancestral lands. From their own telling of their sides of the historical story; to witnesses brought in to give their accounts. 

When we consider Rhode’s perspective, his justifications, he tries to distinguish between duty to God and his religion vs duty to the crown and the Queen. The monarchy being the most important, and summed up in his belief that the more of the world that is absorbed by the British would mean “the end of all wars.”

It is a rich, speculative story (fictional accounts and justifications) by Samkange, banned in Rhodesia at the time, and set in a fantasy world in order to make sense of his own world.

When I looked to the book summary, nothing mentions the fantasy aspect of the story. They talk about the historical significance and the real-world, historical characters, but not this journey into the afterlife and the ancestors judging them.

Wole Soyinka, The Interpreters (1970) AWS #76. Soyinka’s approach to colonialism and the emergence of a new country stood out to me in how he used five protagonists, like archetypes of the new Nigerian society at the time of independence. Many of the AWS works up until this time featured people pushing back against colonial rule and, if anything, looking to their traditional beliefs and customs as guiding forces in their new world. The five protagonists, each standing in as the reader’s interpreters of the emerging society, are reluctant to completely throw out colonial infrastructures or turn fully to traditional beliefs, believing some customs to be outdated in this new Nigeria. In terms of the fantastical, using flashbacks to “visit” specific moments that have meaning to each character, Soyinka moves us seamlessly between the real world and the imagined world as the five figure themselves out and openly dissect one another’s experiences. 

Their view becomes one of utilising the good of tradition and the good of Western infrastructures in order to build a society from those rather than one replacing the other. Another aspect of the novel is the concept that there is not always a happy resolution to life.


“If the dead are not strong enough to be ever-present in our being, should they not be as they are, dead?” – The Interpreters, Wole Soyinka.


Bessie Head’s Maru (1972) AWS #101, I put on a level with a Shakespearean drama and has become one of my favourite novels. What Bessie Head did in terms of bringing in the traditional beliefs of the |Xam-ka, the Namakhoen, the ǂNūkhoen people of Botswana. Their mythologies about the relationship between the Sun and the Moon to those people – literally and metaphorically – the protagonist as the moon and the antagonist as the sun. In local mythology, the moon has the ability to eclipse the sun (and portends rain), and is a far gentler aspect than the sun’s harshness.

Head’s magical realism is magical, in that it weaves local culture into what, on the surface, appears to be a love story, a drama, centred around racism. What emerges is a multi-layered narrative by Bessie Head, demanding multiple reads.


“Moleka was a sun around which spun a billion satellites. All the sun had to do was radiate force, energy, light. Maru has no equivalent of it in his own kingdom. He had no sun like that, only an eternal and gentle interplay of shadows of light and peace.” – Maru, Bessie Head.


Short African Plays edited and compiled by Cosmo Pieterse (1972) AWS #101. As someone who has more short stories published than novels, I brought these plays into the workshop to illustrate the elegance of short-form writing. Another key reason for me featuring this anthology, and with my film and TV background, was to show the readability of plays and scripts, rather than thinking they require a performance to appreciate the content.

Three plays stood out, all three containing magic and fantasy elements: Ancestral Power by Kofi Awoonor (Ghana); The Magic Pool by Kuldip Sondhi (Kenya); and Life Everlasting by Pat Amadu Maddy (Sierra Leone).

Ancestral Power shows the arrogance and folly of someone who is able to wield the power of lightening. Pat Amadu Madd’s Life Everlasting, for me, is a dark comedy with pointed insights into life in the real world, but set in a starkly different rendition of Hell than what we are used to: rather than a place of torture and torment, it is a place to learn, love and accept who you are.

And finally, Kuldip Sondhi’s The Magic Pool features the tragic magic and fantasy around a water goddess, the spirit of the pool, as our protagonist struggles with who he is in the real world, longing to be accepted by his peers.


“In the realm where fantasies unfold,

Grown bright o’er this starlit forest pool. 

I come, wonderful boy, not from heaven or hell,

But from deep within these very waters,

Woken by your longings that weave a spell.”

 

– The Magic Pool, Kuldip Sondhi 


The final session was particularly lively; having discussions about the future of African publishing; looking to the African Writers Series as an example of what the possibilities are; and as James Currey said to me, it is fraught with infighting and opinions, and outside forces only interested in making profits. For us, as African writers and publishers, we have the opportunity to revisit the African Writers Series as a benchmark for any and all African literature to come and sets a precedent for all African literary forms.

The variety of methods of telling their stories, the melding of genres in single works, the steadfast reluctance to be bullied or thwarted from their goals of representing their cultures on paper for the world to see meant generations see themselves on paper. With dignity. And these are inspiring aspiring writers. And our jobs as existing writers and publishers from the Continent is to ensure there are mechanisms in place that will facilitate the next, and the next, and the next generation. We have to break down more barriers to entry. And we need to know what it really was that these writers and publishers did, and how they did it, to pave the way.

As an African, I believe in magic. I hope you do too. 


Ikenna Okeh & Kelvin Kellman share a moment of clarity and solidarity



February 2022 Workshop Testimonials:


The James Currey Writing and Publishing workshop has helped me learn a new art of storytelling using deep African rooted writing methodologies as taught by Stephen Embleton. His teaching methods are practical and easy to apply. The learnings will be with me for a very long time. I can’t thank Onyeka Nwelue enough for opening this world of possibilities to young Africans. – David Lanre Messan



The fellowship, under the auspices of the James Currey society, and the instruction of the fulgent Stephen Embleton, is a memorable interaction of writers and thinkers from dissimilar cultures that, after enthusiastic discuss and moments of learning and unlearning, ended with the simple resolve of pushing the frontiers of writing the African narrative further and beyond. – Kelvin Opeoluwa Kellman

 


The James Currey Writing and Publishing Workshop which was presented by the James Currey Society, in cooperation with the University of Oxford's African Studies Center happens to be one the best academic fellowship that I've attended as a scholar.

The program gave detailed teaching into Breaking of Literary Modules, Guide to Pitch, The Journey of African Writing and Plotting and Acts. James Currey Fellow, Stephen Embleton as a professional in the field of literature used the simplest means, by breaking down every topic simply and concisely for quick understanding.

This fellowship may be short term but have taught us a vast knowledge in the field of literature which I am grateful for. Thanks to the James Currey Society and the University of Oxford, African Study Centre for this precious opportunity. – Emmanuel Ikechukwu Umeonyirioha

 


The workshop assumed a life of its own on the last day. As the first workshop of the Society, it did well. I like it that it concentrated on the AWS, and that James Currey was there in person to give us insightful bits and clarity from a personal perspective. This also is a learning curve for him, and with this workshop, his career has been steered towards a path of clarity and more responsibility, not only as a writer, but as an active player in this generation of African writing. – Ikenna Okeh



My meeting of Stephen Embleton at the Oxford, at first, seemed a causal social event. But when he took the lecture session, reeling and detailing artefacts of literature, it soon turned to one of endearing follow up. And given his recent antecedents, he's a worthy fellow of the James Currey African Institute. – Idorenyin Akwaowo Amaunam

  

James Currey (centre) and head of the ASC, Professor Miles Larmer (James' right)

Thanking  everyone involved for the opportunity granted to me at the James Currey Writing & Publishing Workshop. The workshop was as expected, successful and insightful throughout and so much was learnt.

It is important to thank Dr. Onyeka Nwelue for making it possible and founding the James Currey Society, Prof. James Currey, for his thoughts, presence, impactful teachings and the facilitator Stephen Embleton. Through the workshop, we had basic, foundational and complete guild needed as a writer, storyteller or a filmmaker like myself, through exemplary models established by aficionado scholars, personnels and the African Writer’s Series (AWS).

Many thanks to you all. – Mishael Maro Amos, 28Studios



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