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Personal reflections

Fellowships and residences play a crucial role in nurturing the talent of budding writers. But although Africa is full of creative and highly innovative individuals, it lacks avenues to support them. The ‘plain truth’, says Mildred K. Barya, ‘is that we need them so we have to create them.’

I find myself contemplating life, writing, and while in the past I’ve done so generally, nowadays bouts of clarity drop in, a mercy, and help concretise what is and has to be. I’ve thought about this particular article as personal reflections, as one woman’s case study in the importance of writing residences and more deeply as a thought on the future of African writing.

The personal is often a step away from universal application hence the reason I’ll ‘borrow’ from personal experiences while trying to understand the future of writing from African standpoint.

Besides ambition, desire and will, places and incidents that have been critical in shaping and improving my writing have come through writing fellowships and residences. In the absence of a mentoring component that’s sometimes part of writing residences and programs, and therefore necessary, there’s space and a nurturing/stimulating/inspiring/thought-provoking environment for the writer to work in. This can never be downplayed. New or old significant work/projects that might not be possible elsewhere become realised. The individual gains greater confidence and society progresses.

Often a writing residence, fellowship or programme forces one to think critically, to work alone consistently, and also to share ideas in a group that sometimes turns into life-long supportive partnerships. It’s not a good scene at the moment that the continent of Africa, full of creative and highly innovative individuals, lacks these supportive avenues for writers and researchers. For such a creative people you’d think this wouldn’t be a problem. What is missing? How come there are no structures to implement these very important systems?

There’s no one simple or single answer, and I’ll avoid getting into the mumbo-jumbo complexity of why and what. The plain truth is that we need them so we have to create them. Just like we need several other basic structures that some countries have achieved for themselves or are trying very hard to solve; education for all, clean water, good infrastructure, food production, a free and just civil society, and anything that contributes to human rights and sustainable development. Yes, those big words.

My appreciation therefore goes to Ayi Kwei Armah and the group who tried and put together the Per Sesh Writers Residence in the beautiful seaside Popenguine, Senegal. Whether it’s still running is another matter, but the initiative to put up a structure and implement it worked.

In October 2006, four of us were admitted to Per Sesh Writers Residence with Ayi Kwei Armah as our mentor. Aissatou Ka from Senegal, Sule Egya from Nigeria, Kofi Duodu from Ghana and yours truly from Uganda. It was an exciting time at many levels. Three of us were from English-speaking countries and the plunge into a French community was thrilling and challenging at the same time. Also, we were to be another’s keeper, to criticise each other’s writing and give constructive feedback (avoid fistfights), to learn and share writing goals, intellectual, cultural and Pan-African spirit, and also to respect the space that was nurturing our creative ambitions. It was an ideal time.

It was also a trying time. Any four people meant to share space for nine months can have very productive and some not-so productive discharges. Ugh, clinical. For writers I think the possibility of a war and peace at extreme ends was always inevitable. Or maybe it’s all of us. Armah was prepared for the challenge. Being the rational thinker that he is, he had in place a few rules to keep us out of trouble, and it was our responsibility to avoid anything toxic. Kofi did not complete the nine months because the setup didn’t work for him. Three of us persisted and survived. The guidance of a structure, availability of time and space to write, think, revise and work together were enough motivation.

I had the opportunity for the first time to dedicate long hours purely to writing and thinking. For once I didn’t have interruptions, I was far from home, I didn’t have distractions – friend’s weddings and all that jazz – the social activities that are wonderful for the fabric of the community but disastrous to an emerging writer. I use the term emerging here because in spite of having published two poetry books and a couple of short stories here and there, I was yet to tackle what would be my most ambitious form, the novel, and I was yet to appreciate the process of revision.

We wrote everyday and Armah took us through the technicalities of the writing craft. He had a whole book – ‘The Eloquence of Scribes’ – in which he’d designed our workshop format. Still we were surprised to hold our first novel drafts at the end of nine months in July 2007. Writing a novel, something I’d earnestly desired but had remained a tough challenge, was finally accomplished. Aissatou and Sule also had their first novels. My dream as a novel writer became a reality. I remember holding my draft and crying, feeling drained, drained but happy as if I’d come out of a great sickness. I’d never been able to write beyond 27 pages of a novel-in-progress. Now I had 600 pages. It was almost insane to believe, to accept. Earlier I’d spent five years thinking about writing a novel, starting one day and going limbo the next. Per Sesh helped me make that transition from being an occasional poet to a full-time writer. It set me on the prose path and anchored me in the prose world where I’m happy to dwell. I received invaluable attention and feedback from Armah and my colleagues, the kind of advice and encouragement that’s rare in a world where, depending on your lenses, you see a lot of selfishness and folly.

Of course our drafts were far from being finished products. We hoped to remove ‘weeds and cobwebs’ during the rewrite and revision process. But it comforted us that we had the drafts – a place to start. Somehow we knew we hadn’t ‘arrived’ yet. It was time for departure, a place to start. What was required now was patience to work on polishing what we had. I confess I was deluded it was going to be nip and tuck, rearranging pages here and there and deleting redundancies. Instead, it became another engaging struggle but the good news; the skeleton and flesh were there, while the spirit, brain and blood, the stylistics that would give it shape were lacking or existing in spurts. No mother gives birth to a baby and starts showing off the child still covered in blood, vernix, mucus and other fluids. With the help of a midwife, the baby is cleaned up, dressed and swathed in the best cloth before presenting the baby to the public. I’ve been doing the cleaning and the baby looks better and better. In some parts she shines, in others there’s still mucus to be removed. Also important is that ranging from months to years, you have to let the baby rest before you start fussing again. Only then do you notice the parts to clean. Good writing, yes, but good revision even better.

‘Knowing how way leads on to way’ (a wonderful line from Robert Frost) a writers experience in a residence often leads on to other important ventures; publications, or new stations in life. I think for me what began as nine months at Per Sesh Writers Residence gave me two years at TrustAfrica, where I wrote the organisation chronicle besides other writing and editing projects. It was during my residency at TrustAfrica that I published ‘Give Me Room to Move My Feet’, my third poetry collection. TrustAfrica gave me or led me on to the Syracuse University MFA program, among other factors. I know from Syracuse way leads on to way. Is it just personal? I wouldn’t be writing this if the non-personal wasn’t involved; other writers’ need to reach for the umbrella, their thirst for a network of writers who challenge our most private and public motivations, giving birth to innovative practices.

Not to overstate what is, I think a writing residence, workshop, and fellowship are the best things that could ever happen to a writer. Every great writer at some stage has taken advantage of these. Depending on the design, place and time, a writer writes more or/and better (skills are honed and the thinking is deep) and does less tamasha. It comes with territory. You may look in the mirror and recognise the person you’ve become, the critical writer not settling for less or second best. Flaws make you and become your strength, i.e. perfectionism, discipline, hard work… Quality becomes everything. Experience or nothing. You change.

You get obsessed with bestwriters as opposed to bestsellers. You stop imagining becoming a bestseller if you haven’t mastered skills of bestwriting. Bestwriting depends on subjective feeling while bestselling is clear to all. Millions, billions of copies sold. Simple. Bestwriting? You know it when you see it but you can’t always define it. It might contain universal appeal yet is highly personalised. It can be foggy trying to touch or reach it and that’s precisely why and what you must do – reach it. You cannot if you do not have three important cushions: Craft. Time. Place.

Per Sesh Writing Residence had a second batch but I’m not aware of a third. Ayesha Harruna Attah, who was in the second group, went on to publish ‘Harmattan Rain’, (Per Ankh Publishers) her first novel and was short-listed for the 2010 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, Africa Region. She was brave enough to come out of the workshop and say; my book is ready for the world. Finances aside, I think Armah, good vision and all, may not have foreseen how exhausting it was going to be. He was doing most everything so certainly he couldn’t carry on year in year out without a break or his own life and writing would suffer. It’s humbling how he volunteered his time and gave us his best knowledge 100 per cent of the time. I can’t help but wish that other writers of his generation were doing the same, giving opportunity to writers in Africa to dedicate time to writing, nurturing their skills, thinking and sharing literary passion with a committed mentor.

Writers’ residences, fellowship facilities and workshops aren’t a one-person endeavour. They call for a certain kind of faith, hope, love and goodwill so that even when there’re no funds to run them, even when there’re no quick products (writing is not a quick fix. If you want quick goods make pancakes,) even when there’re products but one may not solely live off them, the support to engage in writing exists because you and someone care for it. It’s unfortunate many able people and groups want to support ‘clearly tangible projects with feasible outcomes and measurable results.’ The link that writing has to individual, national and global culture is not fully appreciated. The idea that a writer may not fully possess absolute proof what the project will be in the end but is ready to invest in the how is often dismissed. People forget that to support writing, like education, you have to invest in the process and hope that at the end you will have a quality product. It can’t be product first although it’s important to keep sight of goals.

That’s how we came to the creation of African Writers Trust (AWT). We being a group of African writers with like-minded goals and objectives. We try to nurture writers on the continent by conducting craft-focused workshops, connecting writers with others on the continent and Diaspora, and promoting their works. With Goretti Kyomuhendo at the forefront, we started in 2009 and have so far conducted two training workshops in Uganda for emerging writers. Our dream is the continent. Uganda is our starting place because it’s familiar and we know where to place our feet. We are slowly but steadily building steps in other countries, mobilising writers there, and promoting platforms that encourage creative writing. We are doing everything we can to raise and commit money, time and intellectual support for writers. We will do more. We believe each one of us has something to give. Our vision is to train all upcoming writers from Africa, to debunk borders and connect each one of us across our writing profession. We value African writing and the joy that comes from sharing with other writers news of the writing world, the challenges that writers face universally; handling rejections and writers blues, author-publisher relationships and so on. We do not lack stories to write but we must discover the best ways to write them.

With time we will build a writers residence and create fellowships for African writers to spend longer periods working on individual projects and benefiting from sustained immersion. This is not a competition. It would be a dream come true to have writers’ residences, arts councils and fellowships across Africa enabling writers with basic facilities – tools such as computers, internet access for quick research/searches, craft itself – to the more sophisticated. A lot of talent dies or is forced to produce half-baked products because time and funds, when available, are divided to cater for many other needs.

In my experience working with NGOs and foundations, I’ve learnt that bombarding folks and organisations for money isn’t perhaps a wise way to start. Some will gloat telling you we can’t fund such and such. Writers, hmm, we give tractors. Do you need tractors? Can you have a component that caters for gay rights? We’re interested in that. How about China’s influence… Before you know it, you’re lost. Your baby project has become someone else’s funding campaign, ideology or strategy.

Better to start with your own little pool however small. Be firm and with luck, people/groups/associations etc will actually come to you asking, how do we help, how do I support, what contribution can I make… It’s true when the student is ready the teacher appears.

It would be great for established writers to be concerned about future African writers and devote some time, money, whatever it takes to mentor emerging writers in Africa. With the exception of Ayi Kwei Armah, Ama Ata Aidoo, the late Ousmane Sembene, and just a few others, imagine what a boost it would be for budding writers if most of the other Africa’s great writers or even non-writers were to support writers’ outfits in Africa. We all don’t have to bear the same vision but imagine if Soyinka, Ngugi, Achebe, Ben Okri, and others had in Africa centres that facilitate the writing process. What we have currently is a disconnect; the older, successful writers seem to be in their own world while the young, poor upcoming writers have less means of sustenance and very little support to pursue writing. Everywhere else there’re hundreds if not thousands of writing residences, Arts Councils, fellowships and workshops built to support writers, except in Africa. I’m sure it took deliberate planning, time, care, love and effort to build them and it takes the same to maintain them. I haven’t even mentioned universities and other institutions of higher learning. What a vacuum, brothers and sisters. We can’t play games with this because this is the future.


* Mildred K Barya is a writer & poet.
* Please send comments to editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org or comment online at Pambazuka News.