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

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


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Prince Mensah: There is broad consensus, from your responses, that the Internet (or technology, for that matter) cannot impact anybody unless it is utilized in conjunction with other forms of media. What are the available elements that can form efficient synergy with the Internet to provide the results we seek as writers? Nii has already mentioned radio, but I seek further opinion (and elaboration) from the other panelists.

Martin Egblewogbe: This is the crux of the matter. Technology will always be an aid, but its level of effectiveness will depend on many factors that may have nothing to do with the efficiency of the technology itself. The core of the matter for me is that we must ensure that writers are able to put out completed works, and have editorial input as well. Further, these should be available to critics. Our eyes should be on the long-term goal of ensuring the creation and preservation of works of art.

I believe that the way to do this is to create writing and reading groups, with the core being friends or neighbours. It should become part of our culture (the way storytelling was) for a group of people to meet and discuss a book that they have read, or that one of them has written. Once there are many such core groups, the next stage is to create connections between them. The final idea is to create a certain critical mass of people who are so keen on writing that they will hunt down a good writer, or good writing, wherever it may be found - and such a critical mass is a publisher's paradise. At the same time, the writer would have achieved the aim of critically assessed output.

Therefore, the Internet, radio, cell phones, etc. will work to bring people together for the purposes of literature appreciation.


Michelle Labossiere Brandt: Martin, I love your ideas!

I think there are many avenues that we can continue to explore and one of those is the increasing role of mixed media when it comes to poetry and writing. Poetry captures and broadens its audience base when it expands into video poetry. I love how that art form combines spoken word, music and film. The first video poem I did was not spoken but had the words written across the images with original music playing in the background, so in fact the audience was still reading! A few years ago I did a project with street youth for one of our annual poetry festivals, in which the kids made their own video poems. The kids loved it and it sparked a whole new interest in poetry with a bunch of youth who have grown up in a highly visual/techno era. It was a great merger of two art forms and one that I hope to see more of.


Nii Ayikwei Parkes: Personally, I have no problem with incomplete or flawed works; I think they create an opportunity to teach later writers about the pitfalls of rushing work AND they work well for examples to use in workshops on how to edit. My general approach is not to try to change things that require a high level of policing or interference to change - you can't stop people from wanting to get their work out early, and you could argue that no literary work is perfect anyway.

I find that one of the great things that technology will give us is an outlet for our own critical perspectives which will help moderate skewed Western perspectives. An example: recently the Guardian had someone do a blog piece on Ben Okri's The Famished Road and he said the book was a waste of space - within minutes respondents from across the globe were taking him to task, letting him know that he didn't understand the context or the subtext, and because of this he found he had to moderate his tone. Something as simple as that can change the way the world reads, and can expand the readership for writing from Africa. In the "print only" days, that Guardian piece would not have had those responses and would have become "law" in print, with everyone heralding it as authoritative; with the web, it became dialogue. I also remember one of my favourite reviews for my own novel came from South Africa because they understood, knew and could refer to a literary heritage that included Kojo Laing, whereas most of the European reviewers were making tenuous links with Alexander McCall Smith.

So it's about tying all the possible outlets together, but also joining in in the process of creating centres of critical authority, the business of myth-making that shapes readership in the world and also bestows esteem on our own creative output.


Ivor Hartmann: I think it is important to realise that although the Internet does have a relatively awesome range for a world audience, it does not replace everything that has come before it. Therefore what occurs online should be integrated with all other mediums possible (print, radio, TV, readings, book tours, shows, school outreach programs, etc.) for maximum potential effect.

When starting StoryTime, I went with an online mag because it was the easiest and cheapest way to start a lit mag and I had the skillset to do it alone with no cost but that of my time. But to be sure I would have rather gone with a print mag, if I could have at the time. There is still a prestige associated with print that has in many ways grown since the Internet explosion, mainly because when the kind of capital you need for print is on the line, the average final print product is inevitably of a higher quality than the average online product. So instead of seeing the Internet and its associated techs (ebooks, emags, etc.) as the one solution, we should be utilising all the other's in conjunction whenever possible.

I totally agree with Nii's point that the Internet has enabled a fluidity and readers'/writers' responses that was previously unavailable, which did see authors made or broken by set-in-stone print reviews. This has led to the waning of critics power, because online everyone is a critic, and their opinions are heard. So what tends to happen now is trial-by-online-mass-opinion, which is both a good and bad thing. Good in the sense that now everyone gets to have their say, but bad because this is not always a well informed opinion, and quite often a knee-jerk response with no in-depth forethought. So a dual edged sword, indeed, but one worth having.


Emmanuel Sigauke: The question is whether the Internet alone is an adequate tool for African writers. I say not yet, but it has added value in the many ways we have pointed out. I see the processes where works are born online and are groomed into print publication (as in the case of StoryTime) being one way of enhancing the synergy we are suggesting because along with such metamorphosis come other processes, such as promotion by word of mouth, through publicity departments, author readings and workshops. One of the results we seek as writers is money (we hope that eventually we get paid for some of our work), and the Internet, especially in the Web 2.0 phase, tends to promote ease of access and higher rates of free availability of our art; it seems then that works that offer financial rewards still lean heavily towards print, and sometimes radio and TV.

As we harness the power of the Internet, we also need to seek ways to develop our writing on the web and keep it there; in other words, we have to start taking advantage of online networks as profitable avenues. I now focus on financial rewards because that's one of the avenues that offers writers a certain degree of independence and optimism, and a stronger belief in the power of web technologies.

Prince: Martin, in your last response, you spoke of "critical mass" arising out of concerted efforts among writers and lovers of literature in Africa. This, you stated, could lead to a "publisher's paradise." Are we, as writers, really utilizing what modern technology has to offer or are we limited by the type of readership we have?

Martin: I believe that writers are benefiting tremendously from modern technology - from the huge amounts of information available online to cheap flights; modern word processors and portable printers; etc. Yes, yes. One hopes that the quality of creative output is the better for all this.

As for readership, a lot of the time writers try to create for a certain readership, which leads to self-censorship and sometimes contorted products; and sometimes, perhaps, to fabulous pieces. I don't know which works better and in what way it works better if it does: to write blind to a readership or to write in awareness of what your readers want to read. I would defer to the former, truth to self seems to lurk therein.

Prince: Ivor, as a publisher, what are your insights into how technology can be used more effectively by African writers? With the Internet giving equal opportunity access to both great and mediocre writers, what can be done to ensure excellence and to maintain a standard that can create "a publisher's paradise", as Martin puts it, in the African literary landscape?

Ivor: I'm reminded here of Sturgeon's Law/Revelation that he coined in 1958 in response to the continual attacks on the Science Fiction genre, which states,
"After twenty years of wearying defense of science fiction against attacks of people who used the worst examples of the field for ammunition, and whose conclusion was that ninety percent of SF is crud. Using the same standards that categorize 90% of science fiction as trash, crud, or crap, it can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. are crap. In other words, the claim (or fact) that 90% of science fiction is crap is ultimately uninformative, because science fiction conforms to the same trends of quality as all other art forms."
And this applies to African Literature as well (because it applies to everything). So if you keep this in mind and are able to admit that not everything in African Literature is pure literary gold, and it never can be, then you begin to see that there will always inevitably be mediocre writing published. But, just like back then, it isn't only that outstanding 10% which is read by the reading public. Therefore African writers have to realise that we can't all be in that 10% and that is OK, because there really is room enough for every type of African writer.

So that said, what all African literature publishers can do is provide a high standard of the basics. And by that I mean, consistently publishing rigorously edited and proofed works, at the very least, no matter what format (online/print) they are published in. As the StoryTime editor I am sent a fair amount of self-published or fledgling publishers books and e-books, for possible blurbs. Quite often while I see the glimmer of a great story in the book, it is drowned-out by the obvious absence of rigorous editing and proofing. This is where the writers are let down and while there are many reasons for it, none of them are excusable. Because while the book may not be in that 10%, sometimes they could have been if more time was taken to cover the publishing basics. Something I learnt early on in my writing career is that whilst writing may be solitary, publishing that writing is most definitely a team effort.

Prince: Michelle, as a person who has promoted African literature for fundraising purposes, what are the challenges on the ground when it comes to giving local readers access to books? Also, as a Canadian, what are some suggestions and/or solutions that the African literary world can learn from Canada's own experiences?

Michelle: It has been a wonderful experience to publish the Sun and Snow Anthology and to have African and Canadian poets come together in such a beautiful book, but of course as with everything there have been challenges - first among them, money. If we had money we would be distributing the books to schools both here and in Ghana, but because we are a new and small organization without access to grants we have been limited. Our first objective as an organization is to help provide clean and affordable drinking water to communities, and our second objective is to assist with the creation and or sustaining of story-telling clubs/associations for both the young and the old, in various schools and communities through out the global community and to encourage the connection of those clubs to one another. We felt that publishing the Sun and Snow Anthology would do both: by bringing global poets together we would be promoting both African and Canadian poets and at the same time we as global poets would raise money for the Dixcove Hospital Water and Revitalization Project. As I look back at this I can see that our efforts have paid off in terms of promoting African literature/poetry here in Edmonton. Our collaboration has helped to create an interest in African Poetry and this year there was an African Poetry Night featured at the Edmonton Poetry Festival. Have we managed to sell all our poetry books to help raise money for the Dixcove Hospital? Unfortunately not. As far as getting our book into the hands of African readers we have failed and perhaps that is because we hoped to achieve two objectives through publishing, when we should have only been focusing on one. We are currently rethinking our perspective on this.

As far as lessons from Canada go, Edmonton has an incredibly supportive creative community, that is thriving! Is that because we are from the richest province in Canada? That could very well be. But I think there is more to it then meets the eye. The visiting writers I've met in Edmonton are quick to remark how supportive rather then competitive our creative community is here, and from my own experience I can see this is true. We have numerous poetry clubs and organizations and I can honestly say every one of them promotes the new poet by making them feel welcome. I thank the founding Elders in our poetry community who set up our main organization called The Stroll of Poets. Over and above that almost every poet I know belongs to smaller poetry groups where they challenge each other to write, write, write... and then to read or perform their art in front of an audience. Poetry here in Edmonton is not just an art form limited to the university educated with an English Degree. Poetry is promoted as an art form available to anyone young or old with a passion for reading and writing, highlighting the idea that you don't need a degree or money to write poetry. As a result we have a community that is truly egalitarian as opposed to elitist. This translates into support and healthy competition where many new and young writers feel encouraged enough to live out their passion. Does the African literary world have anything to learn from this? I'm not sure and perhaps that is not for me to answer. All I know is that as members of the poetry community we all win when we support one another to grow and expand!

Prince: Nii, in your last response, you mentioned an example of how the Internet has made it possible for Africans to correct other people's distortions of their literature in real time. Has the Internet (and technology, to a larger extent) opened erstwhile closed doors for African writing or has it shut the door on our ability to make an impact on world literature the way Soyinka, Achebe and Brutus did? As an African in Britain, can you shed light on your own experiences with technology, in the pursuit of your literary goals?

Nii: I would say that on the whole it has opened doors. For example, very early in my writing days I got an e-mail from a student in Australia doing a project on my poetry; he had only ever seen my work online and that was enough for him to list me as one of his poetry heroes. Of course, there are downsides, but - as is usually the case - they are within the artist's control. People may put work out that does nothing for their reputation, but if they have a sensible head on their shoulders that shouldn't happen too often - on one level readers like seeing their heroes' flaws, it makes them feel connected. As for the kind of impact that Soyinka, Achebe and Brutus had, I think it will take a while for that to happen again, but it's not because of technology. We have to remember that they were, and were actively heralded as, the vanguard, so they had reputations that ran alongside their achievements because everything they did had a huge platform immediately after it was completed. We have many more people claiming out attention now; I think our generation may take a while to get that kind of recognition, but when it comes there will be a sizable body of work to explore. There's the political context as well - the Achebe generation were doing things that the propaganda machine had said "Africans" could not do, so every word they wrote took on a political significance that our generation cannot command as we rise in the wake of the path they cleared up the mountain.

Personally, I've used technology to interact across language divides e.g. my readings in Italy and Germany are often accompanied by translations projected on a screen behind/beside me. I've used technology to create podcasts to give audiences a feel for my rendition of my own work. Also, I often use video to communicate ideas and share insights. Lastly, of course, I have a website, Twitter account, Facebook page, Myspace page and all that goes with that - and I use digital recorders in interviews to prepare for my novels, etc. I don't have a bad thing to say about technology - it's always about how it's used.
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