On the African Literary Hustle

By Sarah Brouillette |

NoViolet Bulawayo’s 2013 novel We Need New Names follows a gang of kids whose families have been left with nothing after their homes and possessions are taken from them and they are resettled in a shantytown called Paradise in Zimbabwe. They are victims of Robert Mugabe’s Operation Murambatsvina, or “Move the Trash,” officially known also as Operation Restore Order. A government campaign to clear slums across the country, from its start in 2005 it meant loss of homes and livelihoods for at least 700,000 people. Mugabe and other officials characterize the operation as a crackdown on illegal housing and black market commercial activities, and as an effort to reduce the risk of the spread of infectious disease in poor areas. Others, including the UN, describe it as a campaign to make homeless large sections of the urban and rural poor, who form much of the internal opposition to Mugabe’s government.

James Arnett has studied Bulawayo’s interest in the humanitarian response to this catastrophe, and in the broader situation of economic disarray in sub-Saharan Africa. With the global economic downturn, the diminishment of foreign state investments in development projects, the rise of predatory loans offered on draconian terms, exceptionally high unemployment, and catastrophic levels of inflation, a nation like Zimbabwe is rarely considered for any sort of capital investment – and when it is, the work on offer is exceptionally temporary and badly paid. There is little manufacturing infrastructure and little consolidated large-scale agriculture. There are massive rural and urban poor populations living on very little. In We Need New Names, there is no work for the main character’s parents near Paradise. Instead Darling’s mother trades at the border, and her father only comes home from itinerant work to die of AIDS in front of his daughter. What is left, in this context, for Darling and her friends, other than accepting charity? Hence the novel’s emphasis on the mediation of suffering.

Suffering on camera is one of the only means by which Zimbabwean children can have their needs met. To provide for themselves they must display their suffering bodies and trade on their capacity for generating feelings in developed-world consumers. Nothing is expected of them except that they suffer in a telegenic way, decorously and not too aggressively – no shouting, no scary over-eagerness  to receive recompense.

The novel’s wealthier characters, meanwhile, sport “Save Darfur” and “Invisible Children” t-shirts, while charities and NGOs fight for people’s attention and spare income. Often depicted are forms of slacktivism: virtual indulgence in feelings or postures of outrage and anger, betraying little understanding of the true extent of the problem, the real causes of poverty, and so on. In Bulawayo’s depiction, charities do not attempt to help people understand the circumstances that produce the conditions; they just manufacture images of suffering to secure charitable contributions. In a competitive marketplace, they need to “sell” the idea of charity to those wealthy enough to give. Meanwhile people in charity logo t-shirts take pictures of suffering children to share on Instagram.

Bulawayo features centrally in Ikhide Ikheloa’s controversial think piece “How Not to Write About Africa,” which concludes, based on a review of the entries for the 2011 Caine Prize competition, that new writers view Africa “through a very narrow prism, all in a bid to win the Caine Prize.” [2]  Ikheloa predicts Bulawayo’s win for her story “Hitting Budapest,” which became the first chapter in We Need New Names: “She sure can write, unfortunately her muse insists on sniffing around Africa’s sewers.” This assessment draws from a familiar argument about how African literature circulates in Western markets. Critics have argued that writers pander to Western readers drawn to “poverty porn” stories about “darkest Africa”; they produce “extroverted” or “self-anthropologizing” works that assume a non-African readership. [3] But, as Arnett describes, We Need New Names is less an instance of poverty porn than it is about the conditions of poverty porn’s production – it takes as one of its core assumptions the prurient and in this case also humanitarian or activist gaze of the developed-world reader-consumer. We see through Darling what it is to be looked upon, gawked at, in sympathy, prurient fascination, scorn, outrage, and more.

More than that though, Bulawayo is responding to what can be described as the NGOization of African literature. For the recent renaissance in African literature has had little do with development of viable literary readerships in Africa, and viably capitalized production facilities. The post-independence quest to develop literary readerships and publishing and printing trades faced massive hurdles; it was nearly stopped by IMF & World Bank structural adjustment and trade liberalization in the 1990s, and has now been all but abandoned. The field of contemporary Anglophone African literature relies instead on private donors, mainly but not exclusively American, supporting a transnational coterie of editors, writers, prize judges, event organizers, and workshop instructors. The literary works that arise from this milieu of course tend to be targeted at British and American markets. We might take a moment to consider how exactly this came to be the case.


Aspects of the History of Literary Publishing in Africa

Walter Bgoya and Mary Jay, who have made their careers in the African book industries, write that in the early years of independence, only 9% of the African population was literate. However:

With the growth of literacy after independence, publishing developed; predominantly educational publishing by foreign-owned companies keen to develop an untapped market. Books were not originated within Africa, but from publishing decisions made in the north: ideas, writers, and decisions were not African. Even where they were originated by local branches of foreign companies publishing in European languages, it was the parent companies overseas and not the local branches that had the final decisions on their publication. [4]

Rather than developing local industries, state-based agencies like the East African Literature Bureau devised textbooks that were produced by foreign publishers. Supported by government contributions, the Bureau in effect “bore all the publishing risks for these commercial publishers.” It was an attractive deal for British publishers (less so the African taxpayers who helped to fund it, perhaps). No surprise then that by the close of the 1960s, about eighty British publishers had “some form of presence in Kenya.” They invested little, if any, of the profit they made within Africa. [5]

In the 1970s and early 1980s, parastatal and independent indigenous African publishing houses were established. However, African governments, by now preoccupied mostly with economic development, gave little or no support to them, “interpreting culture primarily as folklore and dancing to entertain government and political party leaders or visiting dignitaries,” as Bgoya and Jay write. [6] Authors and publishers were not protected by robust or enforced intellectual property law; piracy was common. International book donations stymied local production by flooding the market with cheap or free books. Materials costs remained high. Many governments did not see books as exceptionally important to national development. They refused to relax duties and taxes on what was needed for manufacture, and the high cost of paper, ink, machinery for printing and so on made it hard for publishers to sell cheap books. African governments favored state and parastatal publishing initiatives, especially for textbooks, as counters to foreign media dominance.

The IMF and World Bank structural adjustment policies put in place in the 1980s and 90s “compound[ed] the inherent problems of a weak sector.” [7] It became even harder to access financing, with up to 40% interest on bank loans and overdrafts. Already impoverished populations had even less to spend on nonessential items. Low literacy continued, especially in the non-indigenous languages in which books were mainly published. Distribution systems were further weakened; public libraries all but collapsed. Parastatal, university, and independent indigenous publishing were basically all on their last legs. Only foreign publishing houses, particularly British, which continued to supply books to tertiary-level institutions and universities, still made some money despite the crisis.

In this time, NGOs and private foreign foundations picked up a bit of the slack. The African Books Collective (ABC), which Bgoya headed, was a group of seventeen active publishers in sub-Saharan Africa. They first met in London in 1985 to discuss how to overcome hurdles. The preliminary meeting was funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) and built on a conference organized by the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation in 1984, “The Development of Autonomous Publishing in Africa.” ABC’s start-up capital came from three donors: SIDA, the Ford Foundation, and the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD). ABC-affiliated publishers struggled to sell titles internationally, due to the constraints of foreign exchange, expensive postage, and the impossible expense of effective international marketing. ABC was thus established in the UK, from where they marketed and distributed English-language titles worldwide. Donor support was thus for outward facing, extroverted literary production, rather than for the development of a local African literary readership.

In an account of her work with Zimbabwe’s Weaver Press, Irene Staunton notes that in the immediate postcolonial period the state and British publishers worked together to develop a flourishing textbook industry. Through the 1980s, a primary school textbook might be printed in upwards of 120,000 copies, and a secondary textbook in 30,000 copies. It soon became apparent, though, that the economy was not going to be dynamic enough to support universal public education. Staunton points out that, to accommodate growing numbers of graduates in employment, the economy would have had to grow at an annual rate of 12 per cent. Moreover, there was no substantially supported public library service – stock, salaries, and facilities maintenance are costly – and school libraries fared little better. In a country where the formal unemployment rate is over 85 per cent, people cannot afford books. Those that do sell moderately well “bring you closer to God, to money (self-help books are popular) and to passing an examination.” [8] This is not a context in which small publishers can thrive, and to focus specifically on the literary niche would be basically impossible.

Nevertheless, Staunton claims, “writer” is a status to which many aspire. Weaver Press turns down many manuscripts, and Staunton is struck by the number of writers who confess they do not themselves read literature. Perhaps they have heard about, or joined, the Budding Writers Association of Zimbabwe, or the organization for Zimbabwe Women Writers. These are donor funded, they host workshops, they publish donor-subsidized anthologies, and have offered a space to people who want to write. Donors are thus clearly essential, given a situation in which people want occasions to write and to see their work in print, but find impediments preventing them from doing much reading, and so cannot form part of a purchasing reading community sustaining a viable industry.

In Zimbabwe during the 1980s and early 90s, new writers’ associations and workshops were complemented by the Zimbabwe International Book Fair, which partnered with ABC and the African Publishers Network, and was for a while quite a vibrant hub of literary activity in Africa. In more recent years, however, following the turmoil and reforms inescapable since the 1990s, most of this activity has subsided. At Weaver Press, most income has come from having titles prescribed in schools. Until the early 1990s, Staunton writes, “an A level title would sell around 30,000 copies during the three- or four-year period of prescription and an O level title considerably more.” Now, however, Weaver Press “would consider ourselves very fortunate to sell a tenth of this number.” Why is this? Because, as is true nearly everywhere, the number of students wanting to study literature has declined dramatically. Students report that literary books are hard to relate to; pressure on teachers to cover subjects with clear parameters and learning outcomes has grown; and “students don’t want to take a subject that has no obvious career path.” [9]  Instead, they enroll in business courses.

In Staunton’s experience, then, Weaver Press “functions more as a nonprofit” than as a commercial publishing house.” Nor does the future for literary publishers look very bright in her estimation. It will be donor-supported nonprofit work, not market-facing, having little or no for-profit future. Moreover, while direct donor aid from non-government sources, usually international, has stepped in to fill some gaps left in the wake of state-based support, it has been relatively modest and precarious. It has also supported bringing African books to international readers, instead of developing local markets, which is assumed to be a lost cause given the population’s overall levels of wealth, English-language literacy, and interest in literature.


Literature and the “Long Downturn”

Nor is this story unique to the African literary field. It is rather the case that, in general, the conditions integral to English-language literature’s flourishing are no longer in place. The African literary renaissance is an illustrative instance of a general situation. Summarizing a substantial scholarship on the “long downturn” plaguing global capitalism for several decades now, Joshua Clover writes that economies are increasingly “non-absorptive.” He argues also that, as “absorptive capitalism’s management style,” liberal democracy declines as well. [10] Declining with liberal democracy are things expressive of it, like literary writing.

There is considerable correlation between being at the center of literary production and being an advanced economy that passed through an industrial age, featuring the dominance of waged labor, public schooling, and mass literacy. No matter its subject, the expression of the literary involves those who have been trained in a particular mode of expression and embodying a particular sociolect. It is constitutive of the literary that it has been shaped and instantiated in this precise way, as one site of exploration and expression of relatively elite cultural power, which variously attends, props up, justifies, and responds to hegemonic formations of capital as they emerge and are subject to question and displacement.

Literary writing is as a category tied inexorably to the fate of dynamic, absorptive, “healthy” capitalism. With a dwindling tax base, rising debts, and high expenditures on national security and policing, most states are struggling to afford the social provisions they once did, including anything like extensively supported higher education, and library and other arts and culture funding. Many things that are necessary to the development of the specifically literary disposition are decreasingly available. These include the leisure and focus to read for relatively long periods of time, exposure to the kind of education that inculcates the value of the literary and other aesthetic experiences, available and relatively welcoming public institutions of expressive art and culture, and so on.

Curtailed in this decline of the literary are  things like English departments, the capacity to make a living only writing literary books, the belief that the state should support individual writers and artists, and so on. Literary writing is healthy when there is a relatively healthy labor market. Its moment of most expansive availability – the age of the Penguin paperback, say – required an enforceable copyright regime, universal public education, and high rates of employment. Its status declines with all these things; its interest diminishes as people are pushed out of secure professional life. A recent editorial in the journal Cultural Sociology argues that literature “is of little consequence” to twenty-first century elites. It has become, instead, “an object of cultural consumption, for dwindling and aging publics.” [11] No one would make the absurd claim that reading and writing literature are entirely outmoded. But literature is produced now in a general situation of decline.


The African Literary Revival

What, then, of “the African literary hustle”? There are places where donor aid has been effective, for example Nairobi and Lagos, which have significant cultural economies. There is an important African literary community thriving across key cities. They are a coterie, often working with donor support for their publications and workshops, and able to build upon the connections and synergies that exist within any small relatively wealthy group of cultural producers and consumers – journalists, musicians, academics, and so on. Writers who belong to this particular coterie are published abroad, supported by US creative writing and English department professorships, and by US- and UK-based literary agencies, especially Andrew Wylie’s agency, which represents so many of the best known African writers, including Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Binyavanga Wainaina, Helen Oyeyemi, NoViolet Bulawayo, Teju Cole, Taiye Selasi, and Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor. As a result, while there is a small readership in these urban centers, it isn’t that important that there be local readers. These writers have bypassed the problem of the absent African reader. There is donor funding to support the activity of writing, to award prizes to authors, and to facilitate access to US and other foreign markets.

A key node in the network is Kwani Trust, which is funded by the US-based Ford Foundation. It was founded in 2003, when Binyavanga Wainaina, who won the 2002 Caine Prize for African Writing, returned to Kenya after 10 years as a student and journalist in South Africa. Kwani Trust is a Kenyan based literary network, which emerged from an email conversation among writers and other members of the cultural community. A group started to meet in person in Nairobi – often, as Kate Wallis reports, “in the garden of The East African editor Ali Zaidi and sculptor Irene Wanjiru” – and they decided it would be a good idea to start a new publishing house to publish African writers in Kenya. It also launched online the literary journal Kwani?, with Wainaina as its first editor, and secured its funding. In its early years, Kwani Trust received between 100,000 USD and 255,000 USD yearly from the Ford Foundation. These amounts have increased alongside the Trust’s output: in 2009 it was 395,000 USD; in 2011 it was 600,000 USD.

Doreen Strauhs has studied Kwani Trust as a primary example of a new phenomenon of specifically literary NGOS which offer a “distinct model for Anglophone African creative writing.” These “LINGOS” engage in supporting literary talent, events, and publishing in the nonprofit sector; they are registered as non-profits, or for tax purposes separate for-profit from non-profit activities, and grants from earned income. [10] They depend on international funding, and are independent of local governments. Kwani Trust was registered as a Trust in 2003 precisely because it was the “quickest legal body to form… to allow for the absorption of grants and donations.” [12]

This is not the first time that African literary production has had foreign backers, though funding through state departments has given way to money from private foundations. We know that in the 1960s donor funding was linked, often illicitly, to Cold War cultural diplomacy campaigns. The Mbari Clubs, the Chemchemi Creative Center, and Transition were all funded by the Congress for Cultural Freedom and by its parent organization, the Fairfield Foundation, which was backed by the CIA and worked in its interests. Transition head Rajat Neogy embodied ideals that Fairfield wanted to see strengthened: “multiparty democracy, freedom of speech; predominance of intellectual over bureaucratic, political, military and traditional tribal elites; and a continued cultural interchange with, and allegiance to the West.” [13] Many involved did not know they were beneficiaries of CIA funds, and the fact of their distance from official US prerogatives was useful given the common US claim that, unlike the Soviets, America supported the ideal of its writers’ and artists’ total freedom of expression.

For its part, the Ford Foundation’s general aims are not entirely unlike the Cold War CIA’s (and Ford too supported the Mbari Clubs): spreading liberal capitalist democracy globally. It presents itself as seeking to “secure the safety and well-being of citizens; expand democratization and civic participation … advance creativity in the arts; strengthen freedom of expression and celebrate diversity in heritage and identity; and build new partnerships for peace and social justice.” It would not support any publication that did not evidently support these goals; or, it supports culture to the extent that it can be indexed to the task of securing a peaceful policy despite conditions of general impoverishment and instability. It makes outlets for creative expression available to those who support similar aims.

Strauhs notes how consistently Kwani Trust writers insist that they work independently of any funding source; they “consider themselves as independent write-tanks.” [14] Kwani Trust operates at arm’s length from the Ford Foundation, and from the donor-funded Caine Prize, though there are clear connections of friendship and influence between Ford personnel, Caine judges and staff, and people involved with Kwani Trust. Many of the short stories that have won the Caine Prize or have been shortlisted were published in Kwani? and there has been speculation about Wainaina’s friendship with Nick Elam, a Caine Prize administrator. By Elam’s own account, while he knew the manager at the Ford Foundation in Kenya when Kwani Trust received funding, this wasn’t a factor in support for the venture. It’s not as though the Caine Prize set out to start a literary journal. [15]

Kwani Trust does not understand itself as being involved in a situation of dependency. Rather, they are “business partners of their donors with whom they choose to work together, supposedly only once the mutual objectives are in line with the LINGO’s agenda.” [16] Partnerships, cultural entrepreneurship, creative economies, keeping people in some sort of absorbing work: these are all key terms of Ford Foundation and related private donor activities across Africa, as well as in intergovernmental initiatives such as UNESCO’s supports for cultural development. That writers see their work as separate from any donor prerogative is symptomatic of the particular literary mentality that the Ford Foundation recognizes and supports – what one of Strauhs’ interviewees calls “a Kwani? sensibility.” [17] Strauhs observes that as a group Kwani Trust-affiliated writers agree that it is neither their job nor duty to fight for social and political change; they hate being pigeonholed in any way; they are not interested in debates, which they consider passé, about the politics of writing in English; they prefer to be transnational rather than tied to a particular African nation or identity (and indeed several, including Wainaina, work in US English departments); and they are eager to emphasize their autonomy both from the Ford Foundation and from Kwani Trust. [18] When Wainaina was himself named Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in 2006 – an award designed to recognize “potential to contribute to shaping the future of the world” – he turned the prize down. Reflecting on his decision later, he said it “would be an act of great fraudulence for me to accept the trite idea that I am ‘going to significantly impact world affairs.’” [19]

Kwani Trust’s ties with other African organization are crucial here. Kate Wallis’s recent chronicling of the networks of African literary prestige provides many fascinating details. Mentioning just a few of the events and synergies she details will be enough. In Lagos early in 2010, A. Igoni Barrett, who had been an editor for Farafina magazine, launched an event called Book Jam at an upscale shopping mall on Victoria Island. His initial goal in starting the event was the wish to sell more copies of his own short story collection From Caves of Rotten Teeth. Wallis points out that: “To encourage book-buying Barrett used Silverbird’s connections to source high profile ‘gifts’ from sponsors – from designer shirts to mobile phones – and everyone who bought a book was entered in a raffle draw to win that month’s prize.” [20] Authors involved include Helon Habila, Tsitsi Dangaremba, Uwem Akpan, Karen King-Aribisala, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. At one event, Wainaina encountered Barrett’s writing, and later, as Director of the Chinua Achebe Center at Bard College, offered Barrett a writing fellowship. Barrett was thus able to complete Love is Power, or Something Like That, which Wainaina forwarded to his own agent, Sarah Chalfant, at the Wylie Agency. Wylie agreed to represent him, and Love is Power, or Something Like That, along with Barrett’s novel Blackass, were soon under contract. They were published in the US by the non-profit independent publisher Graywolf Press, and in the UK by Chatto & Windus, an imprint owned by Penguin Random House.

Wainaina and Adichie are premier cultural brokers, facilitating other writers’ access to the mechanisms of publication and promotion. As Wallis details, they appear at events promoting new works, such as Farafina’s launch of Eghosa Imasuen’s Fine Boys, which took place in 2012 at a bookstore in the affluent Ikoyi area of Lagos. Farafina is Adichie’s longtime publisher in Nigeria, but the relationship goes much deeper than that. In 2007 Adichie launched what has become the annual Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop. Wainaina was himself in Lagos in 2012, and participated in the Fine Boys launch, because he was teaching with Adichie at the Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop, as he had been doing since 2007. An early version of the opening chapter of Fine Boys was published in Kwani? in 2010. Barrett not only worked at Farafina; it is his publisher in Nigeria. Barrett’s Blackass was commissioned by Eghosa Imasuen, who in 2013 became Chief Operating Officer of Kachifo Limited, which owns the Farafina imprint; Imasuen has co-taught the Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop with Adichie and Wainaina.

In 2013 Kwani Trust hosted a party to celebrate its tenth anniversary; they launched, there, the Kenyan edition of Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s Dust (the US edition was published by Knopf, and the UK edition by Granta); and a Kenyan edition of Adichie’s Americanah. Owuor and Adichie appeared at the launch event in conversation with Wainaina. Owuor was part of the original conversations that led to the establishment of Kwani?. The first edition of the journal included her short story, “Weight of Whispers,” which won the Caine Prize. Kwani? issues repeatedly draw from a small group of writers — a necessity, perhaps, if one’s goal is “identifying and nurturing writers with potential” and engaging with their work in a sustained way. In issues 1 through 5, 103 authors were published, but there was a concentration of instances of publication within a small group, especially staff of the Trust or journal, associated volunteers, and founding members. [21] Also during the tenth anniversary celebrations, Kwani Trust’s literary prize for unpublished manuscripts was given out by judge Ellah Wakatama Allfrey. Allfrey, who was born in Zimbabwe, is former Deputy Editor of Granta, has been a judge for the Man Booker Prize, and is Deputy Chair of the Council of the Caine Prize. Wallis also mentions Muthoni Garland, who was involved in the beginnings of Kwani Trust and has frequently been published in Kwani?. In 2007 she started Storymoja with a group of other writers; it publishes more popular works and children’s books, and for six years collaborated with the Hay Festival to run the Storymoja Festival.

While it is fair to claim that the writing that emerges from this scene is Western-facing – targeted primarily at British and American markets – one could make the point with greater precision. The situation is one of donor-supported funding of networks of writers who are more dependent on each other as cultural brokers, on international donors, and on foreign markets, than they are on the existence of a local readership for literary works. Kwani Trust print publications are sold in bookshops, convenience stores, and supermarkets in Nairobi, and in select shops in Mombasa, but Kenya’s rural population is 77.8%. [22]  They are also sold online, but only 9 out of 100 people in Kenya have internet access. [23] The current issue of Kwani? is $17 USD, and a recent Kwaninis title – this is a spinoff pocketsize series – is $10 USD, which is too steep for the majority of Kenyans, where, the UN reports, the average daily earnings work out to about $4 USD, and most people live below the poverty line. As Strauhs points out – and at the risk stating the obvious – the people involved in the Trust’s advancement possess “habitus, economic situation, and social status” that are “dramatically different from the majority of the Kenyan population.” [24]


We Need New Names and Superfluity

Let’s return now to Bulawayo’s We Need New Names: with its interest in economic instability and how Darling experiences dependence on NGOs, it is clearly a work of and about non-absorptive economies. We can contrast it in this respect with a novel by another celebrated Zimbabwean novelist, engaged with an earlier period in Zimbabwe’s history: Nervous Conditions by Tsi Tsi Dangarembga, published in 1988. [25] Nervous Conditions is written from the point of view of an adult looking back at her childhood experience in a colonial education system that selected particular black children for education, the idea being that their families would somehow share in their success and select children would become leaders. The children are meant to be – and Tambu is, at first – grateful for the largess of the white settlers.

Rhodesia was set up as a colony in the late nineteenth century by the British South African Company, which sought to extract the area’s mineral wealth. The company had monopolistic trade rights in the region, command over country’s natural resources, and extraordinary powers of policing so long as it helped to ensure the “civilizing” and development of the natives. Its head was Cecil Rhodes, that exemplar of imperialist ideology and racism. The country having been colonized, resources in the process of being extracted, people conscripted into horrible work for little or no pay, and so on, were they then supposed to be glad if a few are selected to receive a good Christian education? This is the brutal scandal that Nervous Conditions depicts so well. It is exceedingly hard for Tambu to depart from the path laid out for her. She can’t help believing in it at least a little bit, because she doesn’t want to be trapped like her mother in service to a man in a Shona village her whole life. Indeed, throughout the novel, the ideology of development appears to be a way of accommodating kids and their families to a system of pied-piper like extraction of “gifted” individuals from their communities and placement into what seems to Tambu a reified world of higher-order, spiritualized pleasures. Things in her rich uncle’s Christian community are beautiful for no reason! Tambu finds this mind-blowing and seductive.

In one of the novel’s early scenes, Tambu goes to a market to sell mealies she farmed herself to earn money to pay school fees that her father will not provide. She does not manage to sell much, but she sees white people for the first time – their scent and papery thin skin horrify her – and the man who agreed to drive her to the market gets involved in a confrontation with a racist couple. Apparently oblivious to the limitations placed on a rural African child’s schooling, they accuse her chaperone of exploiting her as child labor, and insist she should be in school. Her chaperone eventually calms them down by telling a sad story which we, like Tambu, do not hear, because it is in English. Whatever the story is, it works: they give the man an amount of money the mealies themselves would never have fetched. Tambu’s work is not rewarded; instead, she becomes a subject of charity because she has a sad story. This upsets her, but at least she can pay her school fees.

Let’s compare this to the most notable scene of market transaction in We Need New Names. The day “NGO” arrives, the children run to meet the lorry. They know not to crowd the NGO workers; they know not to yell too loudly. They know they will need to pose for photos. A local woman, Sis Betty, acts as intermediary. She counsels everyone in the proper decorum: smile, say thank you, look pleased but not too pleased. Don’t be demanding, don’t clamor. Darling notices that the photographer is especially interested in photos of her very young pregnant friend, and a boy whose shorts are torn at the back, exposing his rear end. She describes his photography as “taking away again” and wonders who will see the images. She notices, also, the “shiny things” on the fingers of one of the NGO staff. They are glinting in the sun.

Both novels revile the idea of the benevolence of the white savior. In Nervous Conditions, the white settlers’ charity, with the attendant implication that the colonial order is itself a gift for the colonized, is belied by the broad fact, emphasized throughout the novel, that their possession is premised on dispossession of those who are supposed to be grateful for (subsequent, belated) largesse. In We Need New Names, the idea of the “gift” given by NGO is undermined because Darling experiences the photography as a kind of capture. The fact of the children’s dependence on the arrival of this lorry is treated as a product of the history of uneven colonial and neo-colonial economies of which NGO workers have been beneficiaries. What could the woman’s flashing ring refer to but Cecil Rhodes’ diamond mines – murderous, profitable?

That said, the market scene in Nervous Conditions is part of a journey of development. Tambu learns that she does not want to be subject to charity. She wants to be educated and earn a living for herself by other means. Nervous Conditions presents the power to write one’s story as the fruit of the narrator’s postcolonial bildungsroman. Having experienced development, Tambu is by the end of her story ready to assess it and critique where necessary, and her work will enter the market as an intervention into an otherwise unquestioned tale of progress. It is largely about gaining a voice; being critical. In We Need New Names, the circumscribed subjects of charity have little scope to aspire to anything better. They fixate instead on fantasies of exit. Bulawayo’s work thus presents the sad story – the poverty porn – not as a conduit to anything but as, quite simply, exhausting. The story one is allowed to tell is less gaining a voice than having to accept posturing as a victim. The novel is, then,a self-reflexive work about not wanting to be pigeonholed. It resents the uneven relations that characterize the literary field. These relations ensure the African literary sphere’s extroverted reliance on donor support and American consumers.

Pushing the comparison further, it seems right to say that Nervous Conditions, written in the 1980s, is ultimately a work longing for fulsome workforce inclusion, and laments exclusions dictated by racist colonial hegemonies. The political horizon of the novel is, basically, more autonomously-determined inclusion and more effective economic protagonism. We Need New Names, published in 2013, is, in contrast, a novel about, and of course made by, the demise of fantasies of full labor force participation. It is about superfluity and the rise of the NGO, literary and otherwise, and about a diminishment of options for the African writer who hopes to secure some part of a dwindling audience for literary expression. Its political horizon is harder to discern, but it is something like end of the humanitarian-industrial complex – of the spectacularized suffering of the impoverished African child, the slacktivist t-shirt, the voluntourism, the conditions of economic destitution and the suffering-child-as-spectacle that follows.

Consider the Caine Prize, which Bulawayo herself won, and which has been one of the most important supports for the development of African writers in recent years. Its major funding comes from the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust, which was founded on Ernest Oppenheimer’s money, much of which came from gold and diamond mining. That glinting jeweled ring again – the exploited workers, profits accumulating in coffers of the European parent firms, and so on. Bulawayo has the NGO worker sport her fancy ring in a shantytown in Zimbabwe because she wants us to remember that humanitarian aid is a product of, rather than a solution to, a larger set of uneven relations. Those relations are there in the NGO’s photographs, and in the kids in the “Hitting Budapest” chapter wandering through the rich adjacent suburb gorging themselves on stolen fruit; and they are there in the Caine Prize also, in the donor-backed African literary field. This field is characterized by a widening gulf between wealth and deprivation – a gulf general to the global English-language literary milieu in the era of non-absorptive economies. Today we naturally witness a decline in material and affective supports for the acquisition of the literary disposition, and so find wrapped up together – in a classic story of deprivation and concentration of wealth – the declining interest in university English, the industry’s concern about how to secure new readerships, the reliance on donor funding, the rise of festivals as money-making events, the close coteries, the prestige events, the posh bookstores, the powerful agencies, and the prizing. Signs of concentrated vigor evince health and decline all at once.


*** I am grateful to Chi-Chi Okonkwo, Madhu Krishnan, Kate Wallis, and Arne De Boever for expert help with this piece.


Works Cited

[1] Bulawayo, NoViolet. We Need New Names. New York: Little, Brown & Co., 2013.

[2] Ikheloa, Ikhide. “The 2011 Caine Prize: How Not to Write About Africa.” May 2011. https://xokigbo.com/2012/03/11/the-2011-caine-prize-how-not-to-write-about-africa/

[3] Ede, Amatoritsero. “Narrative Moment and Self-Anthropologizing Discourse.” Research in African Literatures 46.3 (Fall 2015): 112-29. Julien, Eileen. “The Extroverted African Novel.” In The Novel, Volume 1: History, Geography and Culture. Ed. Franco Moretti et al. Princeton UP, 2007. 667-702.

[4] Bgoya, Walter, and Mary Jay. “Publishing in Africa from Independence to the Present Day.” Research in African Literatures 44.2 (Summer 2013): p. 6.

[5] Ibid., p. 19.

[6] Ibid., p. 19.

[7] Ibid., p. 20.

[8] Staunton, Irene. “Publishing for Pleasure in Zimbabwe: The Experience of Weaver Press.” Wasafiri 31.4 (December 2016): 49-54.

[9] Ibid., p. 52.

[10] Clover, Joshua. “Fanon: Absorption and Coloniality.” Conference paper, MLA, 5 Jan 2017.

[10] Strauhs, Doreen. African Literary NGOs: Power, Politics, and Participation. London: Palgrave, 2013, p. 22.

[11] Franssen, Thomas, and Giselinde Kuipers. “Sociology of Literature and Publishing in the Early 21st Century: Away from the Centre.” Cultural Sociology 9.3 (2015): 291-5.

[12] Ibid. p. 38.

[13] Adesokan, Akin. “Retelling a Forgettable Tale: Black Orpheus and Transition—Revisited.” African Quarterly on the Arts 1.3 (1996), p. 55.

[14] Strauhs, p. 63.

[15] Ibid., pp. 36-7.

[16] Strauhs, p. 64.

[17] Strauhs, p. 144.

[18] Ibid., pp. 104-5.

[19] Ibid., p. 101.

[20] Wallis, Kate. “Exchanges in Nairobi and Kenya: Conceptualizing pan-African literary networks and mapping world literary space.” Forthcoming 2017 in Research in African Literatures (Special issue: Interrogating the “Post-Nation” in African Literary Writing: Globalities and Localities), n.p.

[21] Strauhs, p. 144.

[22] Ibid., p. 83.

[23] Ibid., p. 86.

[24] Ibid., p. 146.

[25] Dangerembga, Tsi Tsi. Nervous Conditions. New York: Seal Press, 1988.

4 thoughts on “On the African Literary Hustle

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s