‘How to write about Africa’ Literary journals giving Africans space to ‘write back’ at global culture

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Lynsey Chutel

In his now iconic satirical essay ‘How to write about Africa’, Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina skewers every literary stereotype about the continent. His recipe for writing the African story — an orange sunset, noble animals Aids and a dash of Joseph Conrad — is hilarious until the realisation that it is all too true of fiction and non-fiction about Africa. Wainaina published that essay in the literary magazine Granta in 2006, as well as one of the first African journals challenging the very narrative Wainaina skewers.

In the last few years, literary jour-nals have sprung up all over the continent. Spurred by increasing internet access, online journals are creating a platform for short fiction, essays and poetry by Afri-can writers. Many of the journals have also created a supportive network for new writers sharing their expe-riences of 21st century Africa. Kwanini, which published Wainai-na’s essay, is the print publication of the Kwani Trust. The Trust started as an email chain to the question, “Are Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Meja Mwangi the only writers Kenyan publishers are interested in?”

Since 2003, the journal has pub-lished over 30 new writers and created an online and real-world community of new African voices. Similarly, Saraba was born out of two Nigerian writers swapping drafts rejection letters until they decided to create their own space. Started as a printed magazine with a handful of first-time writers in 2009, founders Emmanuel Iduma and Dami Ajayi attribute Saraba’s growth and evolution, and now thousands of downloads, directly to the internet. Editor of the Johannesburg Review of Books, Jennifer Malec, recognized a burgeoning moment on the continent’s literary scene that echoed a similar cultural moment in Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s.

The world has become accustomed to the opinions of those in “major literary cit-ies” like London, New York and Los Angeles, but Africa was excluded from that, said Malec. So, she and publisher Ben Williams, “saw a gap for a journal publishing long-form, top-quality writing by Africans on global literature and culture.”

The Johannesburg Review of Books and its contributors “‘write back’ to global centres of cultural power, showcasing the depth and value of African voices, and to locate Africa generally and Johan-nesburg specifically as major lit-erary centres in their own right,” Malec told Quartz. The growing popularity of online journals challenge the assump-tion that readers online only want short sentences and memes. Jour-nal publishers have found instead that readers wanted to engage with informed, well-written pieces. Young Africans and the diaspora are increasingly shirking nega-

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