What is a book? Once we could proffer answers with the clearest certainty. Today, it is difficult to do so. In this vein, I am keen to explore what can be termed the “fragility of meaning,” under which heading I can rightly argue that a book is now without precise definition, and has formed the subject of a contested terrain. It is a fashionable contest, which in this decade will probably remain unending. Already there are numerous examples of how interesting this ongoing dialogue is, but as I am keenly interested in what definition the book has assumed for today’s Africa, I will shelve the less urgent appeal of what the global book is, and ask pointed questions.
So, it happens that Africa is a peculiar continent in many respects. Which is a wonderful thing, in my view. And which suggests that we can argue in peculiar ways about all things African. Thus, what will a book mean in Africa, today? If this question is settled, it will be possible to find for whom the written material is intended in Africa (the user of a product is often known after the product is contemplated or identified). There are pointers that could be helpful in defining this. These will include: who is writing and who is being addressed. I will, for the sake of clarity, take the book to mean a “product” with pages, bound together, or with some form of compilation. This will, arguably, be inclusive of the traditional book form and the newer model, the e-book.
What does who is writing tell us about the state of the African book, and for whom it is intended? Essentially, we are confronted with the question of who the African writer is. Three possible categories emerge: One, writers whose books are set in places within Africa as a geographic locale, and whose characters bear African names, talk in an African language, etc. Writers in this category do not, at the moment of their writing, live in Africa. They live and work in America, Europe, even Asia. Examples will include Biyanvanga Wainaina, Helon Habila, Chimamanda Adichie, Teju Cole, Chika Unigwe, Chris Abani, Petina Gappah, Emmanuel Siguake, etc.
The second category consists of writers who are of African descent but do not, in recent books, take on Africa as a direct setting for their writing, except perhaps where it is possible to draw a metaphorical significance from their work. This is a less populated category, and I can only think of Ben Okri’s Starbook as an indicative example.
And then there are writers living in Africa and publishing their books locally, writing about their respective countries and reflecting sensibilities that scarcely have a Diasporan flavour. We will have examples in Uche Peter Umez, Ivor Hartmann, Igoni Barrett, Eghosa Imasuen, Lauri Kabutsuile, etc.
I believe these writers are African writers for certain reasons, which has nothing to do with whether or not they are based in someplace that is called Africa or not. First, it is important that, if they will be called ‘African’ writers, they must be of African descent and hail from a location that can be found on the world map. This is a geographical construct alone, and I detest if Africa becomes an ideological haven of some sort, fashionable as it often is. Second, these writers are those who are concerned with the predicament and realities of the people who live in Africa. This concern might come off as some sort of protest, kinship, sentimentalism, longing, representation, and so forth. It can range from a novel about the Biafran War or Somalian pirates to a novel about a Nigerian-American taking walks and reflecting on 9/11. What matters is the author’s intention to speak in a peculiar way, in his own voice, from his own thought pattern, about Africa as a location.
The danger is where these writers are regarded as set-in-stone representatives of Africa, when they are considered as authoritative voices of all that Africa is. Which is why I agree with Chris Abani when he says that “It's very challenging to approach any conversation by talking about Africa. It’s way too big and way too complex, I would much rather talk about being Nigerian or being Ibo.” No writer, who is passionate about Africa, ought to be regarded as some sort of African Google. Ideally, each should represent a new African outlook, so that collecting the views of many African writers we can come to terms with African modernity, past, and destination.
In this regard, an African writer, defined in the categories I have contemplated, helps us to form an opinion of what an African book is, since an African writer will necessarily write an African book. For whom, then, is a book by an African writer intended? Getting a right perspective in this regard will ensure that we begin to think new ways of publishing, distribution and exchange.
It is not difficult to identify that Africans, whether literate or illiterate, are those for whom the African book is intended. It is unproductive to think books as commodity for only those who can afford, or to do little to ensure that books reach as many people as possible. If this becomes an objective, publishers and writers will begin to think of low-cost editions, author collectives that help in distribution, even self-publishing platforms that make books accessible. And what about books in audio format, read in part on the radio, made into movies? If those for whom the book is intended interact on various platforms, writers and their publishers should be willing to take to them the product in multifaceted avenues—the objective being that more and more people come to terms with who they are, and what is distinct about their African individualities.
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Chris Abani, Africa