OGOV Roundtable Discussion #6 - African Writing and The Internet (Part One)

Our sixth Roundtable Discussion is focused on African Writing and The Internet. This discussion was moderated by Prince Mensah, and features Michelle Labossiere Brandt, Martin Egblewogbe, Ivor Hartmann, Nii Ayikwei Parkes and Emmanuel Sigauke (participant bios here). It took place by email throughout January 2011.

The following is the part one (of two) of the discussion. After you are done reading, please be sure to use the comment section to join the conversation yourself.


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Prince Mensah: Considering the present shape of African writing, what visible steps are being taken to use the Internet as a medium of communication? Are those steps enough? What impact does all this have on indigenous readers who might or might not have access to the Internet?

Michelle Labossiere Brandt: The Internet is turning out to be a fantastic gift to the African writer, and an immediate way to publicize one's creativity. It is the diving board, a place to launch and in doing so extends out to those readers who don't have access to the Internet!

Let me use my own community as an example. Our goal as an organization (RIFE & RIFG) was twofold: bring poets from Africa and Canada together to publish an anthology to raise money for a project in Ghana, and educate the average Edmontonian poet and reader as to the incredible pool of African writers/poets. We have achieved those goals and it all started through the long arm of the Internet, one of our main sources being OGOV. Since that time a number of local non-African poets have now become interested in African literature/poetry. Some of these local poets don't have access to the Internet but they are avid readers, and come out to poetry readings.

The long arm of the Internet is a bridge for global writers to share their talent and inspire one another and thereby perhaps impact the world at large in a positive and creative manner.


Emmanuel Sigauke: Most writers have websites, blogs, Twitter, and Facebook accounts, and they use these as tools to publicize their works, to create a platform. These are effective tools of communication, but as there is too much of a wide choice of information online, what’s needed is a more effective channeling of the information to make sure that it reaches as many people as possible. In other words, there should be networking, targeted linking of the media that the writers use.

While the Internet is helping develop the literature in urban African and in the Diaspora, there is still a wide gap in communication with the majority of African readers. Many people in African countries have no access to the Internet, so whatever programs are represented online should be replicated on the ground in different communities and especially at the grassroots level. Writers should also be involved in outreach programs that promote reading and writing in Africa.


Nii Ayikwei Parkes: The state of African writing is a big question. I'd say it's abuzz with possibilities and disjointed (which is not necessarily a bad thing), meaning that the next few years will tell us what is really happening.

Steps being taken - as Michelle has shown, and Emmanuel has touched on - are as diverse as the forms and stages of writing themselves. I was recently contacted by a Ghanaian poet who sent me links to tracks from a forthcoming CD online to listen to. That triggered two thoughts - one, we use technology very quickly and effectively (I live in the UK and wouldn't have thought of getting cross-continental feedback) and two, the Internet means that the distance between the practising writers and aspiring writers is very small - there is a lot of promise in that if we (the practising writers) stay accessible.

As for indigenous readers, this can only be better for them, because they barely had access to work when there was no Internet anyway so there is no way technology can impoverish them, it can only enrich their experience - even if it starts with something as simple as quotes in text messages.


Martin Egblewogbe: As a result of low Internet penetration in Africa, I strongly suspect that most users of literary websites dedicated to African writing tend to live in the diaspora, and may have a readership that is mainly non-African. In this regard, unless the target audience of a Ghanaian writer is global or non-African, there is a fundamental disconnect when the work is published online; this is the disconnect of speaking without the possibility of being heard. To most people on the continent, the publication simply doesn't exist. Therefore, the impact in terms of widespread acknowledgement is naturally constricted (to an extent, this is also quite true of many hard publications).

It is quite clear that our social reflex has not yet quite adjusted to the Internet, especially when it comes to publishing literary works: we can see potential, we know it can be used for something, but we are not very sure what, or how it will be achieved. We may yet be surprised.

At this present time, the use of the Internet as a medium for publication has both detrimental and positive effects, both on the writer and the art, the extent of which depends on the fronts listed earlier. I will probably expand on this as the discussion progresses.


Ivor Hartmann: From my own interaction as, and with other African writers, I'd say we're on the cusp of a never before seen explosion of African literature. This is not without its pitfalls: anyone can now self-publish, but this does not mean that what is self-published will be good. I say it often but it still holds true: writers have to have good editors. We still need gatekeepers, as not everyone who thinks they are a great writer (and we all think that of course), is necessarily so. But (and its a big "but"), there is plenty of room for mediocre writers too, and market forces.

In Africa (and Diaspora) we writers have the tendency to want to be the next Soyinka, Marechera, etc. In other words, to excel strictly in 'literary' writing. Who can blame us? They are Africa's literary heroes whom we of course aspire to. This however leaves a wide open gap in all the other genres that needs to be filled, and is currently filled with imported writing. It is this gap that I'd like to see filled locally.

There is a desperate need for more (affordable) print books on the ground in Africa. We writers may have heartily embraced the online world, but not so much our potential local readers for many reasons (89.1% of Africa does not have online access). There is an ever growing technological divide, and the vast majority of Africa will not have access to the digital literature age that is fast upon us. This means that while African writers do indeed now have access to far more international markets, the same can not be said for local markets where affordable print still rules.



Prince: Is the disconnect between the Internet-empowered African writer and the still dispossessed readership a consequence of socio-political neglect of basic literacy? Or is it the fault of African writers, that we do not put enough effort in reaching the 81.9% of the population (as Ivor aptly mentioned) with no access to the Internet? Has the Internet given a truly distinct voice to the African writer or has it become an echo chamber for post-colonial dreams and frustrations? Finally, regardless of how you answer the previous questions, what are your prescriptions for this malady?


Michelle: When I was in Ghana two years ago I watched as my fiancĂ©’s brother informally ran a library out of the family compound. He is university educated and had access to books that others wanted to read, so there was always someone waiting to borrow from him. The problem was he also had limited access to books. Literacy is a skill that demands practice so even when people learn to read if they don’t have access to that which will expand this skill, literacy decreases. I am of the belief that as we experience abundance it is important to give back to the community so that others might also experience that abundance, and as writers that means focusing not just on getting our literature out there, it means helping to create communities where literature is available. I watch as so many of my Canadian/African friends work at two or three jobs to help support loved ones back home and I am in awe of not only their stamina but of their love of family and community. As writers I think the focus has to be on giving back to Africa via increasing publishing houses and providing good literature for low cost, so that people can purchase or borrow through community libraries.

I cannot help but be concerned that the Internet and technology in general, with all its access to Westernized stories based purely on consumerism, will influence Africa in a way that is destructive. Those values must be counter-balanced with the brilliance of African traditions or people will move forward in a manner that is destructive to community. We have certainly seen that in Canada and the United States - the erosion of community values and a huge increase in narcissistic values. I am grateful for discussions like these which enlighten and may influence our fellow writers to give back in their area of speciality.


Ivor: Using the Internet simply comes down to access: either you can afford (and access) a home PC, smart phone, Internet cafe, etc. or not, and for the vast African majority at present, it is not. This means that the focus for Africa has to be on print books and incentives put forward by governments and NGO's that will get affordable books into the hands of the mass market. A good example is in South Africa where late last year it was proposed to scrap VAT on local books, an admirable move that is still going through parliament. At present most new print books are too costly, and so most local and international publishers have priced themselves out of the mass market, which means any mass literacy drive is doomed from the start. There are however exceptions: in Zimbabwe there is still a very strong reading culture (despite the current situation), which is supported by second- (third-, fourth-) hand books for sale on the streets at affordable prices. This means that there is a ready mass market in Zimbabwe if publishers could take advantage of it.


Nii: I'm sure we're all aware of the fact that the Internet does not exist in isolation, but I wanted to bring that back to the fore so that we don't lose the appreciation of the Internet as simply an 'additional' means of dissemination of creative work. It expands the range of what is available and how it is passed on, but it doesn't mean that what comes before disappears. Beyond that, the Internet is anchored in the real world, such that even if a village doesn't have Internet access and one of the village's migrants happens to visit and orally share a story that they came across on the Internet, then that story or its ideas have broken the boundaries of web into the imagination of some listener. The fact that things can be downloaded on memory sticks, laptops, viewed on 3G phones means that the lines of access/lack of access are not clearly defined - unless we are talking about constant access. In this example, the mention of the oral is significant because audio transcends literacy. The web carries creative output in a way that provides greater access in some cases than a book in a bookshelf right beside the target audience because of the 'socio-political neglect of basic literacy' that Prince mentioned.

I think Ivor's first response covers the issue of the voice (I don't believe there is a distinct voice as the very issue we are talking about, the varying levels of access, posits that we will have varied perspectives) - and I do believe that the Internet helps us protect our voices e.g. the work of the Ghanaian poets I put online has allowed me to explain to several Western editors how my literary heritage differs from theirs and why I can't just conform my approach to writing to their tastes; it is so much easier to source books that our crippled library systems have lost all copies of (e.g. I have acquired some out-of-print anthologies, books and magazines featuring some of the early post-Independence writers and out of those publications I have gained context in understanding the development of my work).

As solutions go, I think I showed my hand early with the reference to audio - I think that radio, which we have a strong culture of in the entire Africa, should be linked more intimately to the output that comes via the Internet, with the stations acting as satellites to push literary content that comes by Internet to the ears that will bend to the fingers of that creative sound.


Michelle: Nii and Ivor, I just wanted to say both of your comments were extremely insightful and enlightening.


Nii: Thanks, Michelle.


Ivor: Thanks, Michelle. Nii, you made good point about utilising radio more.


Michelle: You're welcome both of you. I agree, Ivor, with your comment to Nii. I like the idea of using radio more... it also is in keeping with oral tradition. Good stuff!


Martin: Even among the functionally literate, the appreciation of literature is not widespread. The question of reading, and writing, is ancient, and fundamental. In reality, it is the question of art: how is art created, and appreciated?

It is not a problem if a work of art is not recognised by contemporaries, or indeed, even published. We find that this is the nature of art through the ages. It actually is due to human nature and social dynamics more than anything else: may we note the books that were ignored at the time of writing, print editions torched, and their writers persecuted, etc. The appearance of the Internet is unlikely to change this.

We may want to take a look at the traditional model of making literary works available to the population. The publisher may have no interests apart from the commercial: the end result is that the literary work enjoys distribution among the target demographic. The distribution of a work is usually more than the occasional writer can manage, and is unlikely to meet with much success either. The writer therefore cannot be blamed for anything, except perhaps putting out mediocre work.

What has the Internet done for the 'voice of the African writer'? The writer remains as he has always been: trying to put out a story; perhaps for love of words, the lure of financial gain, the force of the muse, or to make a philosophical statement. In the end, I believe that the availability of a channel of publication should be of more interest to the publisher than to the writer.

Do we assume that enabling Internet connectivity and ensuring literacy across the continent will lead to the people becoming avid readers? I doubt that this will happen. Even if we had 100% Internet coverage, I would be hard pressed to believe that more than 5% will be interested in following literature online. Yet even 5% is a large number. The question is, are there other ways of reaching that 5%?

As far as the Internet is concerned, I do not see a malady. We have a new tool that we do not know how to use. Time tells us what to do.


Emmanuel: We need to continue cultivating a strong readership, of both print and Internet-based writings. As an Internet-empowered African writer (and often I question the truth in a phrase like this), I also always strive to remain a strong reader, and my reading is driven by a quest for reading that grew up years ago in an African village. It seems that although I read works online, I continue to read (prefer even) print copies of books. Am I alone in feeling this way? Absolutely not; I continue to hear stories of people seen reading books on buses and trains in Zimbabwe, just as many do on buses and trains in London, New York, etc.

The issue then becomes, and remains, that of access, but I doubt that access alone, if the spirit is not there, is enough. One argument I have begun to make, as a Zimbabwean writer, is the frustration I have with fellow Zimbabweans in the diaspora, most of whom I suspect do not invest much time in reading African works. So, before we blame a "socio-political neglect", let's be courageous enough, even as writers, to blame the reader for not doing what it takes to make sure they read. And by reader we also mean "the Internet-empowered" African writers, most of whom don't read other Internet-empowered, or even dispossessed writers. It therefore takes both reader and writer to utilize the media methods (both old and new) that we have to promote readership.

As for the distinctiveness of the voice given to the African writer, I doubt that it would be unique from any other voice given to other kinds of writers in the world, but I am aware that the Internet has given wider exposure to more African writers. I can't tell yet if this has benefited the literature a great deal; in fact, I fear that instances of irresponsible Internet publishing or promotion may have tainted the literature a bit: frustrated people publishing their stories on blogs without the patience to learn the craft of the trade.

My prescription is to urge both readers and writers to value reading, to choose to read not only prescribed texts for school or work, but to read for pleasure - to get in the habit of always reading, always buying, or acquiring reading material.



Check back for Part Two of the roundtable, posted next week!
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