Books – writer profiles & interviews

Writers Profiles

This regular feature profiles and celebrates our bright and best literary minds, with a particular emphasis on ground-break post-colonial writing that has changed accepted modes and forms of literature and broadened the scope of writing and ideas in and about Africa, often overlooked within today’s increasingly commercial and globalised publishing industry. Featuring a diverse range of styles and voices, it looks at these authors from a perspective of the present, from the spaces, the streets and pathways that trace their literary footprints, to the trace of their work that inscribe themselves in our current literary imagination.

Mafika Gwala
A socio-cultural critic, essayist, editor and poet, Mafika Gwala emerged as a significant writer and theorist in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. A major influenced a generation of South African writers and thinkers, he edited Black Review in 1973 and his poems, short stories and essays appeared in various journals and anthologies, locally and internationally.
While not as prolific as some of his contemporaries, Gwala is one of the most under-recognised and undervalued South African poets. Along with his friend and comrade, Steve Biko, he was a member of the black South African Student Organisation and the Black Communities Project in Durban. Gwala, who once said, “You cannot divorce language from power,” had a sensibility deeply rooted in the Black Consciousness movement. But his is a black consciousness soaked in working class grit.
Arrested at the same time as Biko, Gwala spent six months in detention. This was the year his first volume of poetry, Jol’iinkomo, was published. Jiving off a song popularised by the jazz diva, Miriam Makeba, Gwala writes: “I should bring some lines home/ to the kraal of my Black experience.”
Music features in much of his poetry: aside from Miriam Jol’iinkomo includes calls to Charlie Parker and Jimi Hendrix; the South African jazzman, Philip Tabane; and a howl of ecstatic grief mirroring Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme’. His 1982 No More Lullabies (1982) is full of verve and passion, steeped in the lilt and sway of the music English through the complex rhythms and lexis of Zulu culture.
Gwala is no less relevant or outspoken today. His trajectory makes him especially significant in light of contemporary questions and tensions: between tribalism and modernism, mother tongue and English, culture and capitalism. What would Gwala say? We ask the man himself.

Mongo Beti
A brilliant polemicist who claimed he entered literature through writing political tracts, Mongo Beti must be counted as one of the foremost African writers of the independence generation. While Beti’s trajectory in exile has been well documented less is known about his life in Cameroon and his dedication to writing the world (and generally doing the dirty work) from one own terrain of struggle.
Even while in exile, Beti remained vitally connected to the struggle in Cameroon, often intervening in politics and using his connections in France to rally on behalf of young writers. On his return in the 90s he took an active part in encourage engaged literacy and providing an outlet for critical texts and authors in the capital through his bookshop Yaoundé the Librairie des Peuples noirs (Bookstore of the Black Peoples) and engaging in “agricultural activities” in his village of Akometam.
Following first English translation of his first novel, Cruel City (published by Indiana University Press in February 20, 2013), we revisit this legacy, writing his significance from inside Cameroon, from the streets and from his texts, from Cruel City to La France contre l’Afrique, retour au Cameroun, from village to city, from the past to the current cultural schemas that define Yaoundé, its pathways and byways, short cuts dead-ends; from here to there.

Mothobi Mutloatse
In the preface to Forced Landing, a compilation of black writing published by Ravan in 1980, Mothobi Mutloatse writes: “We will have to donder conventional literature: old fashioned critic and reader alike. We are going to pee, spit and shit on literary convention before we are through; we are going to kick and pull and push and drag literature into the form we prefer.”
The statement is characteristic of Mutloatse fire-brand approach to literature and publishing. Over the last three decades he has challenged accepted forms and modes of expression, routinely crossing the borders that artificially separate the practices of journalism and literature, and writing out of and against apartheid, while simultaneously forwarding largely forgotten black literary and historical traditions. His call to “donder conventional literature”, gain a new urgency in increasing predictable white middle class literary landscape of South Africa today. Using this s a starting point we revisit his work and legacy, and ask what has become of his call for a “cultural history penned down by the black man himself.”

Pulsations.

Patrice Nganang’s just-launched journal, published in the US. An interview on the origins, intents and goals of the journal, with a (possible) focus on art as refusal to be politically silent.

Kojo Laing

It could be said that Kojo Laing is a writer without category. He’s a novelist and a poet, and both at the same time. Occasionally drawing on the techniques of surrealism, Laing’s poetry addresses themes of alienation and identity. His novels likewise combine the real and supernatural. His real skill however is in how he trespasses between worlds to create a a new species of writing. At once wholly familiar but deeply strange, it draws on both social realism and surrealism, often slipping by almost silently between then. One can revel in the extraordinary lyrical language, the metaphorical connections and magical transmutations, yet his work feels relentlessly urgent, restlessly youthful, utterly contemporary.

Similarly Binyavanga Wainana’s writing fits no known category. Born in a 70s, he is from a different generation and yet, like Laing, he has a love of language and gives equal weight to the telling of a tale as to the texture of that telling. His new book, One Day I Will Write About This Place is a memoir and thus necessarily real, but throughout he plays with language, and on practically every page he coins neologisms, plies us with puns, coaxes words, bends them, fashions them to sing and dance for the reader.

It could be said that Kojo Laing is a writer without category. He’s a novelist and a poet, and both at the same time. Occasionally drawing on the techniques of surrealism, Laing’s poetry addresses themes of alienation and identity. His novels likewise combine the real and supernatural. His real skill however is in how he trespasses between worlds to create a a new species of writing. At once wholly familiar but deeply strange, it draws on both social realism and surrealism, often slipping by almost silently between then. One can revel in the extraordinary lyrical language, the metaphorical connections and magical transmutations, yet his work feels relentlessly urgent, restlessly youthful, utterly contemporary.

A with Laing on the 25th Anniversary of Search Sweet Country (and its reissue by McSweeney’s) on the complex, intertwined relationship between place and text; on surrealism and satire, humour and verbal excess, hope and disillusionment; and of course on writing and life and eternally the wild, slippery, dangerous liaison between them.

 Meja Mwangi

Meja Mwangi began his prolific writing career in the 1970s, a decade after his more well-known compatriots such as Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Grace Ogot had been publishing their works. Yet like Ngugi, his works commanded serious attention. When he burst onto the scene with the award-winning Kill Me Quick in 1973, Mwangi was hailed in various quarters as a rising star in the East African literary constellation who was helping to disprove Taban lo Liyong’s oft-cited claim that East Africa was a literary desert. Filtering blaxploitation through local traditions, Kill Me Quick and Going Down River Road are the quintessential Nairobi novels. Baldwin’s influence is unmistakeable in the later and a work to counter its vision of Nairobi is yet to be written. Beginning in the late 1970s, Mwangi’s work took a “popular” turn, embracing genre fiction. To many of his admirers, these texts were disappointing, lacking the critical edge that had marked his earlier works, especially his urban novels. Mwangi’s response to this criticism has been sanguine: he has argued that at this point in Kenya’s literary history, it is simply important to provide texts that people will read, and since people buy and read these popular texts, these are the sorts that should be made available. Following this trajectory, he later moved onto film, but not before publishing half a dozen popular novels, in addition to short stories and children’s books.

We revisit Mwangi’s early career, exploring his vision of Nairobi, his blaxploitation and Baldwin links, and his political and literary trajectory.

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