I am in my sunroom looking out the window, wishing I could travel. I would love to just go away from America for a bit. I really don’t care where I go. Nigeria would be great.
I miss my mother, Izuma. She has all these wondrous stories, and I am thinking it would be great to just sit before her and write down everything she says — in longhand. Yes, on pen and paper. Are you surprised? LOL, yes, I do my best writing with pen on paper.
There is something about how my emotions flow from my heart to pen to paper through my right hand. The intensity is crushing yet so liberating. If only I had the time to transcribe all that longhand into the digital word. My best writing sits in one cardboard box. Would you like me to send it to you? When I move on to the next pantheon, my kids will bin that box of luscious anxieties. They don’t care much for ink on paper — unless it is on a check. Wait, my youngest, Fearless Fang barely knows what a check is, but he knows all my bank card numbers by heart. *shrugs*
Someone once suggested I should convert the contents of that box of scribbles into a book. I should make some money off my day dreams. You know the answer to that; I don’t much care for the printed book, and it is my great desire to die without having birthed a book. There are too many books on earth anyway. Why torture a printing press with what will not be read?
Today, strangely, I remember my first book. I was about four or five years old. It was a picture book of animals. You poked the animal, and it emitted a sound. I loved that book. My favorite animal was the elephant. I loved her sound. Once, my parents also bought me a volume of short stories from a traveling salesman. Uncle Arthur’s Bedtime Stories. Several volumes. I read them all in a week. My mother was upset with me, how could I be this ungrateful? These things cost money, she moaned!
So why write a book? I do believe that people are more intolerant of long essays and books than they were a decade ago. They have other distractions. Welcome to the 21st century. Who is writing fiction these days? What is the nature of the dialogue that they use to represent youth? If you are not steeped in the culture of youths, in the digital world, writing fiction would be a distortion of literature, of history. If you have never written a DM, never sent a text or FB message, never chatted with a spirit you may or may not meet someday, you should not be writing about, or, for young folks. That would be fiction. In the worst way.
Today’s generation of young readers especially has been trained by social media to take information in fairly quick digestible bites. The commentators who get traffic, who engage thousands are not those who rigorously confront issues in long form, and yes, often times those who threw issues into the room in bite-sized bombs. Dysfunctions mushroom where there are opportunities. It is a failure of leadership, and I blame writers for some of this. They have largely refused to meet readers where they are.
Don’t get me wrong. I love reading and sharing long pieces. I also enjoy writing them. Sadly, few people read them. Anything beyond 800 words and you have lost your audience, unless you know the trick of keeping them glued to their antsy seats for 3,000 words. That is most likely not going to happen. There are tweets to share and Facebook pictures and rants to “like.” It doesn’t help that many of these tomes have typically exhausted the burden of their ideas by the first paragraph.
In my daily trek across the Internet, I often come across lengthy essays that I want to share with my followers on social media. I find that if I trick them with a teaser paragraph followed by a link to the entire piece, they are more likely to read it. Many times on Facebook, I would share the entire essay piecemeal in several bite-sized paragraph chunks. People tend to engage the work that way. Just dumping it on readers is a good way of hastening its journey to the e-dustbin.
My point? Writers should be respectful of readers’ time and reading habits. Try to be concise, make your points upfront and early and keep it short. There is a place for long pieces and by all means write them as I do, but the format and presentation must be in a manner that engages this generation.
In this piece, Ray Willliams bemoans a rising anti-Intellectualism and the “Dumbing Down” of America: “There is a growing and disturbing trend of anti-intellectual elitism in American culture. It’s the dismissal of science, the arts, and humanities and their replacement by entertainment, self-righteousness, ignorance, and deliberate gullibility.”
I think that is condescending poppycock. Writers should not bemoan the lack of a reading culture. There is that to a limited degree, but in general writers should provide leadership by going to where the readers are and feeding them knowledge the way they want it. This failure of leadership is world-wide, but it is more acute in African communities where a generation of readers are self-medicating while intellectuals roam the cafes of Europe and America sipping red wine and muttering about the loss of something called “the reading culture.” I have said my own.
I say again to you, my favorite writer: Be bold. Create new frontiers. Wean yourself off orthodoxy and the stifling confines of the classroom. Contemporary African literature as taught in today’s classrooms is pathetically 20th century. The keepers of those gates overwhelmingly think of contemporary African literature as the three A’s: Achebe, Adichie, Abani. When pressed, they add Habila. It is pathetic, really. The bulk of our literature is on the Internet and ancient professors are still photocopying what Achebe wrote in 1958. This must stop.
Sure, there is a lot that is right with our literature. Many people are doing awesome work especially on the digital front. But let’s face it, they are stymied by a chronic lack of funding and the reactionary machinations of the powerful keepers of the king’s literary gates. I go to all these well-funded conferences and initiatives, and it is like being in the 20th century: books everywhere, no mention of the fact that 90% of African literature is digital. Let’s talk about these things. We are ignoring the amazing work of brilliant young people because powerful old people don’t read digital content. I cringe when I see these youngsters try to conform by writing wretched books that no one reads. In terms of literature in general, African writing specifically, what happens on the ground, when you leave the digital space comes across as a shoddy afterthought, patronizing even. Go to any land-based conference, all we talk about is books, books, books! Meanwhile we are perched on okadas, we are in matatus, reading from are cell phones. That is the real problem. I was at Africa Writes in London a while back, it was all about books, books, books, wretched books. We are distorting the history of our literature!
I would like to see in the halls of the conferences and gatherings, not just books but flat screen monitors and whatnot celebrating the world of Africa. Who reads books? I have attended conferences, book readings and the occasional workshop in the continent and they have been about books. It is depressing really. Because, our writers are doing the bulk of their work on the Internet and on social media. A while back, I attended conferences in the US and the UK, and I had to endure the obscene fixations of ancient literature professors many of whom told me they knew nothing or little of social media or the works of youngsters. To be honest, the intellectual laziness was appalling. Our readers are being poorly served.
When I visit Nigeria, I rarely see a single book in any household — apart from the bible or the Quran. Youngsters are not reading books. They don’t find books engaging and can’t afford them. I think they should be reading any and everything, but then it is what it is. They are reading their cellphones nonstop and chuckling. Writers and publishers have failed to meet the readers where they are; it is a failure of leadership.
With respect to the Internet, I do not see a digital divide. I see a digital bridge and yes, the Internet is the publisher of choice for young African writers and the cellphone is the new book. I was just home where everyone in my village over 16 has a cellphone and they are constantly reading it. It engages them: How do we tap into that? To be clear, the disconnect between the young and books (print) is not unique to Africa. It is just that IMHO, Africa can least afford it. Education should be a national security issue. In my school district we are finding that we need to go meet our youths where they have escaped to — Skype, social media, whatever. The backpack is becoming an app.
The most worrisome for me is that books are a wretched barometer today for measuring the trajectory and content of African literature. Why only books? Let’s encourage reading and inquisition, period! By the way, I have been in public education for over three decades, here in the United States. We are now moving all our texts to digital medium. I am excited. It has huge possibilities for closing the academic achievement gap! Good morning!
Don’t get me wrong; I was raised by books. I traveled the world in books as a little boy. It is impossible to diminish the awesome power of books especially in the 20th century. But look, Chinua Achebe took the medium at the time — the book and mesmerized the world with his mind. We were lucky; the gatekeepers smiled on him. How are we being innovative in the 21st century? How are we pushing the envelope? If I am obsessive about this, it is because I am anxious about who defines the trajectory of the narrative, the politics of literature, and more importantly as an educator I stay up at night dreaming of the day I can get millions to read Adichie rather than Linda Ikeji on their cellphones. I have nothing against books, I just think we are missing a great opportunity by ignoring Africa’s publisher of choice, The Internet.
I do have a blog but it is primarily for literature and all things literature. It’s been around for about six years. When Dele Olojede of NEXT shut down the newspaper’s website, I lost the final copies of three years’ work, about 150 articles I wrote weekly for the newspaper for three years. So, I came up with the idea of a blog that would archive my (important) works and that I would use for long-form literary incursions. I think I have been successful a bit in that regard. I still have my work flung all over the place online but to the question, why not write a book, I say, do you ask Flavour to record on a cassette? Why not? 💋
“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.
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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