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.
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?
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!
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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