Berlin’s first African Book Festival “Writing in Migration” – under Olumide Popoola’s (When We Speak of Nothing, Cassava Republic Press, 2017) artistic direction – celebrates writers who employ their art to defy among other things an antiquated image of women. Of the festival’s 37 acclaimed guests, 22 women will take centre stage from 26th – 28th April, among them writers, poets, performers and activists. On the occasion of international women’s day, InterKontinental presents the festival’s women in more detail.

How do women in publishing open the gates?

The woman with the presumably most beautiful name in the British literary scene Sharmaine Lovegrove will host a panel entitled “Curating the Conversation. Influencing the Agenda. How do publishers and promoters of literature open the Gates?” The publisher, literary editor of ELLE UK, and advocate for diversity in literature and the media will guide the discussion on possible actions for editors, publishers, curators and promoters of literature from Africa and its diaspora. The German book market and visions for the future of the markets in Africa will be discussed as well. Joining Lovegrove in the conversation are Bibi Bakare-Yusuf who is not only founder of one of Africa’s leading publishing houses Cassava Republic Press but of the research centre Tapestry Consulting focusing on gender, sexuality and transformation in Nigeria; Anita Djafari – director of Litprom. Literatures of the World –  who dedicates herself to the promotion and dissemination of literature other than the Euro-American mainstream on the German book market as well as South African writer and feminist  Zukiswa Wanner, who significantly shapes conversations about the literary scene on the continent as a member of the Advisory Board of the Ake Arts and Book Festival in Nigeria. In her curatorial as well as her literary work, Wanner is dedicated to women’s empowerment for self-realisation. In this spirit, Nobantu the 35-year-old protagonist of her novel Behind Every Successful Man (Kwela, 2008), begins to question her role as a successful businessman’s spouse and mother of two.

Zukiswa Wanner will make an appearance as moderator of the panel “The F-Word. Women shaping the literary space”, too. In conversation with award-winning authors Chika Unigwe (On Black Sisters‘ Street, Vintage Books, 2009) und Yvonne Owuor (Dust, Vintage Books, 2014) and poet and icon of African feminism Jessica Horn she will debate the controversial question of feminism’s relevance for women in Africa. Does its branding as a white construct persist? Which African manifestations exist and what effect do feminist thinking and feminist action have on the lives and works of literary creators on the continent as well as in the diaspora?

The Nigerian-Finnish-Swedish activist Minna Salami, whose blog MsAfropolitan with its feminist, critical and afrocentrist perspective on contemporary culture and current affairs has been causing a stir, will also be present at the festival. She will discuss the sustained relevance of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s classic Decolonize the Mind together with his son and fellow writer Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ. Salami’s first book Sensuous Knowledge: A Radical Black Feminist Approach for Everyone is scheduled to be released in summer 2019.

As vice-president of the Royal Society of Literature, British writer Bernardine Evaristo systematically promotes the visibility of women and people of colour in the arts. Her novels, in which migration, transculturality and gender play a dominant role have been highly praised by feuilletons in the UK. Her novel in verse The Emperor’s Babe (Penguin, 2002) was named book of the decade by the London Times. The plot is set in Roman London where Zuleika, the feisty daughter of Nubian immigrants, becomes Roman Emperor Septimus Severus’ lover. Evaristo skilfully links antiquity to modern times and creatively and gently addresses female sexuality and sexualised violence.

Female excellence and female characters in the festival’s novels

Apart from the strong women on stage „Writing in Migration“ also revolves around powerful women characters in literature. As Sarah Ladipo Manyika says, she has known many older women who have led remarkable lives, but they are rarely represented in fiction – especially when it comes to black women. Therefore she has decided to simply write the stories she would love to read herself. Her novel Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream To The Sun (Cassava Republic Press, 2016) relates the life and times of a 75-year-old, eccentric Nigerian woman living in San Francisco which is at the same time a subtle tale of aging, friendship and loss. The author deliberately breaks the taboo around aging women’s sexual desire. Two female protagonists beyond the 70-year-mark stand at the centre of The Woman Next Door (Chatto&Windus, 2016) by Yewande Omotoso. Two neighbours who could not be more different are united in their mutual contempt for one another.

The complex dynamics of friendship, the manifold disenfranchisement of women as well as conflict-ridden mother-daughter relationships are focused on in the short story collections What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky (Tinder Press/Riverhead Books, 2017) by Lesley Nneka Arimah and Speak Gigantular (Jacaranda, 2017) by Irenosen Okojie. Yejide, the protagonist © Ayotolaof Ayobami Adebayo‘s Stay with me (Canongate Books, 2017) on the other hand is struggling to become the master of her own fate in a world where the purpose of the bond between a man and a woman imperatively is procreation.

Women’s entanglement with a repressive, heteronormative, patriarchal system poses a seemingly invincible challenge to Ijeoma in Chinelo Okparanta’s Under the Udala Trees (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015), who discovers her love for women early on and strives to remain true to herself when that is specifically forbidden. Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi with her epic novel Kintu (Transit Books, 2017) on the contrary dwells on the patriarchy as well but from a different perspective – a male one. Kintu outlines Uganda’s history and subverts Ugandans’ self-perception as a people, common conceptions of gender, religion and mental illness. Patriarchy is critically examined as a burden to men without putting any blame on women.

What about the men?

Not only the women writers at „Writing in Migration“ but also their male colleagues succeed in creating convincing women characters whose intelligence, agency, rebelliousness and determination qualify them as feminist role models. In Leye Adenle’s gripping thriller Easy Motion Tourist (Cassava Republic Press, 2017) Amaka, a fearless quick-witted attorney and diplomat’s daughter is the true hero of the story. As a self-proclaimed guardian angel of sex workers in the streets of Lagos, she does everything in her power to keep them safe and sets out on a one-woman-mission to take down the rich and powerful men who have identified them as easy prey for their dubious business. She is clever, self-determined and confident.

In A. Igoni Barretts satire Blackass (Chatto&Windus, 2015) women are without a doubt the more pragmatic and successful characters with the stronger backbone. While Furo and his father – unemployed and with a mediocre university degree – rely on the mother as a breadwinner, Furo’s sister Tekena appears to start a more promising academic career. Ironically the father loves to state that a man is supposed to be able to care for his wife while a woman could just marry rich.

As the festival’s headliner Chris Abani, winner of the Commonwealth Writers Prize, with his poignant novella Becoming Abigail (Akashik Press, 2006) contributes a tale of the sexual, physical and psychological abuse of 14-year-old Abigail whose fierce reaction to the violence she suffers can be read as a highly ambiguous depiction of female empowerment.

A total of 82 books will be presented at „Writing in Migration“. Femininity in all its nuances at dimensions is prominently featured in many of them.

Text: Venice Trommer

For more information on the festival click here

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