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The Ake Arts and Book Festival is an amazing event. It assembles some of the best minds in literature and art in one of Nigeria’s oldest cities.

Fans and readers get to meet and greet with high profile authors like Teju Cole, Taiye Selasi, Laila Lalami, and so on. Spirited conversations take place during panel discussions built on burning questions regarding literature, politics, aesthetic forms, and the practice of writing.

The festival has also become a pilgrim for aspiring writers, who flock there seeking community and the possibility of meeting one of their literary idols.

This year, Nigerian pop artists joined in the literary celebration, serenading festival attendees with their chart-topping hits. In just a few years, the Ake Arts and Book Festival, curated by Lola Shoneyin, has become one of the hottest festival tickets on the continent.

Go here and here to read some of the gushing reviews of the 2016 edition of the festival.

As with any cultural project, however, Ake Festival is not immune to criticism. Concerns have been voiced by certain members of the community. Okechukwu Ofili, blogger and founder of Okada Books, raises a few questions about the possible disconnect between the festival and the harsh realities that face writers and publishers in Nigeria.

I mean, I have no problems with the multiple book chats or the discussions on sexuality or the super star authors that show up and blow us away with their intelligence on sexy world topics.

But to me it ends up becoming one long repetitive literature class, where the current realities of the Nigerian publishing industry is temporarily ignored … like a sort of reality distortion.

For a second, you will think that publishing in Nigeria is sweet, that we have a plethora of local authors killing it in the industry, that book sales are just off the charts, that the recession is not taking a toll on our already dwindling revenue and that things are frankly rosy when it comes to publishing in Nigeria!

So rosy that we can afford to discuss European social issues from the African perspective, like “exploring horror fiction in Africa” when we should actually be discussing “The Horror of Selling Fiction in Nigeria: A True Life Story!”

It’s like that Nigerian man with the loud heavy diesel generator screaming in his backyard, trying to engage in deep conversations about the effects of Wind Mills on the migration patterns of birds in Surulere. Who bird help?

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I really love Ake and what it’s doing.

Especially its power to attract our most talented and intelligent people from all across the world into one room. But instead of just using our cumulative talents to talk about the migrating patterns of birds in a pseudo-dystopian society … let’s also use our talents to address the Generator in the room … the loud screaming Generator of our post-colonial publishing reality!

Read more.

As a blogger and the founder of a successful book distribution platform, Okechuckwu’s criticisms carry a lot of weight. He has extensive knowledge of the literary industry in Nigeria and the unique challenges that publishers and writers face. There is no doubt that he is speaking from a place of genuine concern.

So what is Ake festival? Is it a literary retreat where writers tune out the harsh realities they face out there in the unforgiving Nigerian/African economic climate?

To be fair, that’s how most literary festivals work. They are set up like quasi-pilgrims where writers and readers commune solely on the basis of their intellectual bond—far from the madding crowd.

That may well be the case. But the reality, especially for the aspiring writers in attendance, can be quite grim. For the average aspiring writer in Nigeria, the odds are so awful that he or she is essentially set up to fail. For the independent publisher, there are deep structural problems—from piracy to unstable market conditions—that make it almost impossible to succeed. Perhaps that’s why someone like Ofili finds it hard to perform a kind of triumphant celebration of African writing and literary culture within the context of these dire conditions.

The question then is: should the Ake Festival clear out a space to talk about these real-life conditions of literary production in Nigeria and other African localities or continue to be a retreat where writers are momentarily shielded from it all?

 

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Post image by Nmadiuto Uche.

Facebook link image via Kaficho

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I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

3 Responses to “Is the Ake Festival a Bubble? | Okechukwu Ofili Calls for a Reality Check” Subscribe

  1. Nnams December 5, 2016 at 12:46 pm #

    This doesn’t add up. Firstly , Ake is a festival to celebrate the art of books, emphasis on celebrate. Both commercially successful and commercially mehhh works were discussed and celebrated. It was a centered largely on African writing as a whole as well. Discussing the particularly Nigerian recession issue is not at all an issue. But how does that negate the validity of all other discussions held? How does our economic recession make us unqualified to discuss sexuality as we please ? How does it hold us back from dreaming up horror stories? How can horror stories even be described as European?

  2. Nmadiuto Uche December 6, 2016 at 2:41 am #

    We had a chat on this blogpost the day after: http://www.businessdayonline.com/okechukwu-ofili-at-the-ake-festival/

  3. moo December 6, 2016 at 5:49 am #

    I think his point is clear, and in my view pretty obvious. So maybe as a practical step next year or whenever there can be a discussion or Q and A about publishing-about being a publisher, about getting access to a publisher if you are an average person, or even access to a book agent.About supporting local publishers and book distributors in whatever way-because I’m sure there are people who want to support but don’t know how. About understandin why these issues are there in the first place-yes lets talk about recession, politics, funding etc.
    I mean what better place to have thesse discussions than at a book festival where there are both writers with incredible ideas and desire and passionate publishers-how productive will that be if someone who has writen science fiction can actually then go and publish it and make a living and go imagine some more. It can be productive and in that way it can celerbrate and encourage African writing-it doesn’t have to be a depressing discussion. It probably won’t be perfect but it can be a start.These festivals and stuff don’t just have to be talk shops where we can go and stroke our own intellectual egos and fawn over our favorites-we can bring the ideas/discussion and solutions together.

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