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Cover by Tope Akintayo.

Selves: An Afro Anthology of Creative Nonfiction is a forthcoming anthology of creative nonfiction, curated by Basit Jamiu and featuring writers from across the continent. Its cover is by Tope Akintayo. One of the pieces from it—“The Miseducation of Gratitude,” by Sibongile Fisher—recently appeared in Enkare Review. Selves is introduced by Brittle Paper deputy editor Otosirieze Obi-Young.

The Confessional Generation

In her introduction to Safe House: Explorations in Creative Nonfiction (2016), the collaboration anthology by Commonwealth Writers and Cassava Republic which has become a major point of reference, the editor and critic Ellah Allfrey observes that, relative to fiction, creative nonfiction from Africa is “in a germinal phase.” It is a safe observation; but from the anthology came Hawa Jande Golakai’s “Fugee,” a witty, affecting interrogation of the Ebola crisis in Liberia. And later that year, from Granta, came Pwaangulongii Dauod’s “Africa’s Future Has No Space for Stupid Black Men,” an electrifying, defiant account of an underground LGBTIQ club in Nigeria. The following year, and from Granta also, came Binyavanga Wainaina’s “Since Everything Was Suddening into a Hurricane,” a groundbreakingly innovative rarity. These three works were shortlisted for the inaugural Brittle Paper Award for Creative Nonfiction, and side by side with the other shortlisted works—Bernard Matambo’s “Working the City,” a poetic tale of visa application; Rotimi Babatunde’s “Out of Germany: Traveling with the Caine Prize,” a poignant re-visitation of historical ironies; Bethuel Muthee’s “Naijographia,” a psychogeographical exploration of Nairobi; Oris Aigbokhaevbolo’s “Uniben Boy in Berlin,” a juxtaposition of cities; and Troy Onyango’s “How It Ends,” a beautiful behavioural study—reveal the promise of something more in the genre: range. So that I find myself leaning away from Allfrey’s suggestion, and agreeing with Kwanele Sosibo’s conclusion, in his the Guardian & Mail review of Safe House, that “creative nonfiction on the continent is past the germinal phase.”

But to agree with Sosibo is not to play down Allfrey’s wording: because creative nonfiction, as far as the establishment of stable literary traditions is concerned, is still growing. The skill is here, the willingness in abundance, but the tradition, when compared to what has been in fiction and has been revitalized in poetry, is still emerging, like the newest generation of writers on the continent who, remarkably, have taken to it.

The contributors to Selves: An Afro Anthology of Creative Nonfiction belong to this generation. Aside from their skills having been honed on the continent rather than in the West, these writers stand out for their boldness in expressing themselves, for their lack of fear in, to paraphrase Henri J.M. Nouwen, going where it hurts. Powerful miners of personal stories, theirs is a confessional generation. In general, you will find them on social media emoting boundlessly, sharing the spoken and unspoken, their lives an invitation for participation. In particular, you will find that they write fiction well, have breathed life back into the poetry scene, but that it is in nonfiction that they are unshackled, unspooling confessions in a hitherto unconventional manner. Through emotional honesty as raw as it is brave, they are taking the genre to places their predecessors shied away from, leading important conversations about trauma, about sex and sexuality, about depression and vulnerability and private shame: Take a look, for example, at the catalogue of Nigerian emotions published in Catapult since last year.

Firm in this new tradition, the pieces in Selves flit from the flourishing creative to the tonally essayistic, but they all share one thing in common: heart. Force, intellectual and emotional, that moves: through love and heartbreak, through politics and history, through death and mourning, in depression. They read like pain-filled cuts from an eclectic, socially conscious rap album: Sibongile Fisher’s sure-footed, poetic reinterpretation of Lauryn Hill’s 1998 album frames a soulbreaking autobiography of love, motherhood, family, and wounds; TJ Benson affectively strings bits of personal history while tracing his fear of water; Sada Malumfashi takes us on a raving tour of both a city and a man, and in prose punctuated by memorable lines; Umar Turaki revisits, through a plural perspective, his father’s demise to raw effect; Ama Asantewa Diaka feels, in grief-laden breakups and visitations to a gynaecologist, for healing; Gbolahan Badmus elevates his teeth to character status in a vulnerable, often-humourous reminiscence of childhood and adolescence.

Mapule Mohulatsi offers an ethno-lingual survey of her South African upbringing, reflecting remarkably on the seminal power and inseparability of writing and the tongue; Qamarun Nisa probes for self-discovery while weighing depression and the meaning of resigning one’s body to powers from without; Kenechi Uzor confesses literary and political disappointment, similarities and discrepancies between his home country of Nigeria and the U.S.A.; Hauwa Shaffii Nuhu deals with the pain of losing a mother-like aunt; Alithnayn Abdulkareem sums up her Muslim family’s distrust of her free-spirited millennial daughterhood; Kevin Alaneme recounts the disaster-by-disaster horror of ordinary Nigerians in the face of Boko Haram’s atrocities; Howard M-B Maximus recollects a childhood dominated by his father; and Acan Innocent Immaculate reclaims the beauty of her dark skin and its centrality to her identity.

That we have Selves is down to the rise of independent anthologies on the literary scene: projects curated without commissioning by magazines or publishing houses, by young creatives unwilling to be held back by the absence of funding or the presence of gate-keeping, but which still boast quality. The queer art group 14’s We Are Flowers (2017) and The Inward Gaze (2018); Art Naija Series’ Enter Naija: The Book of Places (2016) and Work Naija: The Book of Vocations (2017); the romance-themed Gossamer: Valentine Stories (2016) and Love Stories from Africa (2017); and the thematically-diverse A Mosaic of Torn Places (2017): these independent projects, published as free e-books on Brittle Paper, have all been well received, with the first four creating space, in addition to writing, for stunning visual art. In this sense, theirs, ours, is also a Fighting Generation—fighting to be seen, in a culture that grants visibility only to the privileged, fighting for their talents to be let to speak for themselves, against a system that mostly prioritizes class over substance. But the space into which Selves steps into is partly uncharted: It just might be the first independent anthology to gather only creative nonfiction from across the continent. The curation by Basit Jamiu, an editor at Enkare Review, is applaudable, but even more admirable is the hunger with which he pursued it for one year, that decisive hunger to fill a gap.

You may break, you may mend, you will learn: You have in your hands a clear-voiced reminder of the unnegotiable importance of personal stories, their potential for transformation, their channeling into art, into fractured, crystalline multiples of their creators’ beings. Selves is an invitation to partake in a ripening promise, a step into years to come.



About the Author:

Otosirieze Obi-Young’s fiction has appeared in The Threepenny Review and Transition, and has been shortlisted for the Miles Morland Scholarship and the Gerald Kraak Award in 2016, and nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2015. The curator of the Art Naija Series (Enter Naija: The Book of Places in 2016, Work Naija: The Book of Vocations in 2017), he teaches English at Godfrey Okoye University, Enugu, Nigeria. He is Deputy Editor at Brittle Paper.

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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.

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