It all began with a Twitter incident. Chigozie Obioma, author of The Fishermen, asks not to be tagged on reviews and readers’ comments. A Brittle Paper staff then writes a rather lovely piece in which she uses the incident to reflect on how social media and digital technology has changed the rules of writer-reader engagement. The post is clever and provocative but very respectful. To show that the post isn’t meant to be a personal jab at Obioma but instead an exploration of a genuinely literary concern, she ends it with a series of excellent questions, inviting the reader to reflect on what it means to speak of a literary public sphere.
Feel free to read it HERE.
That same day, Obioma comments on the blogpost, accusing us of running a “smear campaign” and pushing an agenda to “tear” him down.
Obioma is fully within his rights to call out any perceived wrong on our part. But since all his accusations about jealousy and tearing-down are counteracted by our high standard of blogging ethics, I see no reason to make any elaborate case in defense of the writer or of myself. Drumming up excitement about everything African and literary is what we do, and we are good at it. That’s our brand. So why would we set out on an agenda to bring Obioma down? How would it pay us to tear him down? We don’t know him personally. How could we possibly hate him?
But enough of that! What worries me is his perception of the African literary community. Obioma claims that he has felt viciously antagonized in the African literary community since the publication of his novel, and, particularly, since his Man Booker nominations. If it is the case that his concerns are valid, we need to take a hard look at what sort of intellectual and professional atmosphere we are fostering.
Here is the part of the comment that captures his concerns the most:
I have been appalled by interactions with Africans. I have received so many nasty mails, some so ridiculous that I had to disable the direct author contact link on my website. Various other “African writers” have engaged me in ways that approximate to hatred, some form of angst about what they believe is an unfair auspicious reception of my book. This has come from Africans—the very people I call my own. These smear campaigns, these vicious commentaries, these mean messages. I am not surprised, though. Where other people succeed in propping others up and basking in the success of the other, the African rejoices—or feels elevated—in tearing others down. It is why, from North to South, East to West, what you have is a continent failed states. Every one thinks for themselves, hence, that sense of community, of bettering yourself by raising others, is non-existent.
Within the context of an intellectual community, Obioma’s response comes across as, to put it mildly, discourteous.
Still, his concerns—which seem heartfelt—raises the question: is there a “pull-our-brother-down” culture in the African literary community?
If I go by my experiences, I’d say no. I’ve enjoyed overwhelming support with my work on Brittle Paper. I’ve worked with individuals in the community on projects. They’ve given me advise on things. I’ve promoted their books on Brittle Paper. I always receive emails from readers in different parts of the continent expressing appreciation for what Brittle Paper offers.
In fact, Obioma has benefited from this goodwill. We published Onyeka Nwelue’s lovely review of The Fishermen over a month before the novel was published [read it HERE.] When he made the Booker dozen, we published a congratulatory blogpost [HERE]. On our Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook pages, we publicized his success.
But since—to be fair—I can’t use my experience to measure the validity of Obioma’s concerns, I have to defer to the community itself and ask what your own experiences have been. I am saying this because it is important to foster a culture of inclusiveness.
We may not get along all the time. Novelists will always complain about critics and their many annoying ways. Critics will always point out to novelists that they have no reason to feel like they are the darlings of God’s creation. Readers will always be caught up in this tussle. Of course, bloggers like us will be on hand to make a spectacle of it all! It’s all part of the literary ecosystem we all inhabit and within which we all thrive.
But hatred and distrust? That’s something completely different from intellectual disagreement. When instead of goodwill, all we feel for one another is schadenfreude or “bad-belle,”—as we say in Nigeria—it prevents everyone from participating in the rituals of community building, one of which is giving and responding to criticism in a way that is upbuilding and that fosters intellectual engagement and camaraderie.
I hope we can put a stop to all the bitter remarks and use this incident as an occasion to think of more ways to strengthen our bonds and promote healthy and enabling intellectual relationships.
I am sure Obioma is lovely. His novel, which I have read, is significant and speaks to the fact that African literature is at the forefront of formal innovations.
Congrats to Obioma for making it to the short-list. Hope he wins! We are rooting for him.