How are you? What are you up to? I am going back and reading the old classics from the African Writers Series and Fontana books, you know, African writers that I read in the seventies. Many of them are now out of print, but you can still find old copies in used bookstores and online. What I remember is this: If I closed my eyes and you were reading a work of fiction to me from that era, I could tell you the writer. The writers I remember each had a unique voice, distinct from the other. It was like knowing the different styles of cooking in the neighborhood. I could always tell my mother’s jollof rice from the neighbor’s next door. Each pot had a voice. Similarly, each person’s writing should have a distinct voice that invites the reader to the playground of ideas.
Social media has had the effect of submerging me in the culture of the young, especially young Nigerians. Everything they do seems to be online. The culture is rich and the lingo fascinating. I love what all of you are doing on social media. I have said so on many occasions. When you are at your best, you give African writing a collective voice that is unique and different from any before it. There are many reasons for this.
The young writers of the late eighties, nineties and early 2000s found out quickly that the robust publishing houses that nurtured the voices of Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Wole Soyinka, Flora Nwapa, Chinua Achebe, etc. had died off. They turned to the West for relief, and they were turned loose on Western readership. While this was a boon to African literature, it came at a steep cost. Many of them wrote what they thought the average Western reader wanted to read; Africa of wars, disease and famine. A single story spawned what is now known as poverty porn. African literature became a form that depicted African life in pejorative terms. Today’s writers have largely turned to the Internet as the publisher of choice, and of necessity. From my perspective, it has been a good thing. Young writers are writing lovely stuff using what is standard English as spoken on the streets of Africa. When Elizabeth Oghale Ughoro writes on Facebook; “The rain is making yanga,” you understand instinctively what she is saying and your heart swells with longing at unapologetic prose that is not italicized or explained to the (white) Western reader. Google is your friend, she says, Google it. I love that. Bold and refreshing. African writers do need African publishing houses. Random House would edit that sentence to bland mush.
What you are doing on the Internet and on social media, all of that is literature. It explains why I am high on the words of your generation. Faithful to the oral tradition of our ancestors, you have turned social media into a rollicking playground that is addictive. There are all these new writers on social media entertaining us for free. What we get on social media we will never get from books, certainly not the ones edited and published in the West. Beyond that, it is the three dimensional nature of the discourse that thrills me, most postings birth a long rollicking thread to die for. No wonder in the 21st century, the book is fast becoming a distraction.
All over the world, the traditional or mainstream media is adjusting to this new reality by retooling to retain the readership — and market share. I say to young writers, retool or die. Yes. Retool or die. It is unrealistic to expect today’s reader to go through hundreds of pages of text without pictures, videos, etc. There is bad news for today’s writers churning out miles of one-dimensional text: the brains and minds of today’s readers have been genetically re-wired. They are programmed to read in 3-D. Their eyes are glued to the monitor, and every second they read the total convergence of text, audio and video. You must adapt. The reader is always right. Give her what she wants. Retool or die.
All of this is both good and bad news. Who do you read first thing in the morning? The person who writes is now proxy for content. There are no titles on Facebook, no page numbers, just ideas on the screen. Readers are faced with a new poverty, what I call the poverty of prosperity that is the embarrassment of literary riches on the Internet. To stand out, you must have a unique voice. If you sound like the other, no one will come to you. It is not enough to be a good writer these days, you must find a unique niche — and fill it with a full-throated voice. Anything less and you will just be another noisemaker on the e-streets. Use the new medium to your advantage by being a unique voice.
How do you find your voice? By branching out and walking away from the teeming mob. Many times people think of African writing only in terms of fiction. Which is interesting because I strongly believe that very few African writers write good readable fiction. What I read often is poorly fictionalized accounts of social anxieties. Some of the best writers on my reading list write essays, creative non-fiction, poetry, social commentary and investigative pieces. I think you should find what works for you and go for it. I know a few friends who write children’s literature. I love those. They partner with graphic artists and write really enchanting stories for our children. They remind me of Achebe who once said that he started writing stories for his children because the children’s story books he saw on the shelves were not written for his children. I am so grateful he wrote for his children because in so doing he wrote for my generation. I hope you write for your children’s generation someday. Tell me, have you eaten…?
“Dear Genevieve” is a writing-advice series. The weekly missive allows Ikhide Ikheloa, one of Africa’s foremost literary critic, to dish out prized advice on various aspects of writing. Stop by next Monday for the next email.
Read more from the series:
About the Author:
Ikhide R. Ikheloa or Pa Ikhide is a social and literary critic who writes non-stop on various online media. He was a columnist with Next Newspaper and the Daily Times, Nigeria, where he held forth and offered unsolicited opinions on any and everything to do with literature and the world. He has been published in books, journals and online magazines and he predicts: ‘The book and the library are dying. Ideas live.” Find him on twitter @ikhide