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African Literary Person of the Year

T he Brittle Paper African Literary Person of Year celebrates a literary personality who has taken the lead in challenging and, in the process, expanding our assumptions about what it means to be an African creative and what it means to speak of ideas and stories as African. It recognizes the literary figure who explores Africa as a powerful idea that can mean many different, beautiful, surprising, and unconventional things. This would be someone who has gone to great lengths to make us encounter Africa as an idea that does not restrain creativity but inspires the most boundary-pushing and revolutionary work.

2015

Nnedi Okorafor

Nnedi Okorafor. Image from Colorlines.

The way she writes about Africa is refreshingly different. Take for example her 2014 novel Lagoon. The novel follows the near-apocalyptic chaos that takes over Lagos when aliens land on its shores. In the novel, she pushes us to imagine a futuristic but recognizable Lagos swarming with aliens and creatures. The novel is a mashup of cultural iconographies that range from alien spaceships and viral youtube videos to Igbo ancestral masquerades and folkloric archetypes to Karl Marx and Danfo buses. She tells a story about Lagos by situating the city, its fears and anxieties, its history and its landscape within a global network of literary traditions and philosophical concerns. A novel such as Lagoon brings us to the conclusion that African life is so complex, so rich that to adequately give an account of it we have to draw inspiration from everywhere—from Nollywood but also from Star Wars, from Esu but also from American rappers, from Pentecostal churches but also from underground LGBT communities.

Her commitment to the craft is evident in the rapid expansion of her body of work. This year alone, she’s published two novels—The Book of Phoenix and Binti—and the children’s book Chicken in the Kitchen, not to mention the short stories. On social media, she shares her unbelievably hectic life as a university professor and a jet-setting writer booked for lectures and festivals the world over. This kind of commitment to the craft is worth celebrating.

In 2011, Okorafor wrote a post on her blog criticizing H. P. Lovecraft’s status as the face of the World Fantasy Award given his racist leanings. With that post, she joined a growing circle of novelists and critics who thought it was absurd that the bust of an avowed racist was mounted on the World Fantasy Award trophy. In the years that followed, she continued the conversation in interviews and social media posts and quickly became a major voice of dissent calling for change. This criticism paid off because last month, it was announced that the World Fantasy Award trophy would no longer include a bust of the racist writer—a victory that shows African literary voices shaping the global movement of ideas.

Okorafor is an African writer not merely because of her nationality but because, in an increasingly globalized world, she has done a lot to make readers the world over connect with Africa as an idea, as a culture of storytelling, and as a space where life is beautifully hybrid and dynamic.

2016

Petina Gappah

Petina Gappah. Image from The Guardian UK.

The Book of Memory is a beautiful book. It tells the story of a young woman whose life and body are caught in the clutches of that strange and beastly thing called the Law. In little over a year since The Book of Memory, Gappah released a new book. Rotten Row is a collection of short stories. Even in this collection, the law appears as the ghostly force shaping the lives of characters and their fate. Her engagement with the African legal archive through storytelling is truly remarkable particularly in the ways it opens up new aesthetic possibilities for African fiction.

Gappah is a hard-working writer. If you follow her Facebook updates closely, you might already know that she has a fourth book in the works. It is titled The Last Journey and takes us to an earlier time in Africa’s modern history. This kind of work ethic is worth celebrating. I am conscious of the fact that a good part of our readers here at Brittle Paper are aspiring writers. Thus, I’m always on the lookout for models that can inspire them and give them a realistic sense of what it takes to become a successful writer. Gappah’s experiences have been particularly useful in this regard.

She is open about her struggles as a writer. Not all writers are like that. There are some writers who build a deific aura around their craft. They give the impression that they have always been amazing and that they were essentially elected by the literary gods to pursue their craft. Gappah is different. She doesn’t take her success for granted. When her story “A Short History of Zaka the Zulu” was published in The New Yorker, she posted the most humbling and inspiring celebratory message on Facebook. She opened up about being rejected by The New Yorker many years ago. She even shared a photograph of the rejection letter, which she says played no small role in setting her on the path to becoming a seasoned writer. This is the kind of honesty that inspires. It encourages the struggling writer to stay the course and put in the work.

Gappah’s Facebook page is an electrifying space for intellectual discourse. One day she is sharing prized legal advice on Zimbabwean book importation tax laws, the next she’s igniting spirited conversations about Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize win. There is no elitist posturing. She posts about her favorite Issey Miyake jacket with as much ease as she delves into a linguistic problematic in Shona language and literary archive.

Perhaps the most remarkable act of artistic solidarity that Gappah performed this year is striking a one-of-kind deal with her UK publisher to make her book available in Zimbabwe. Readers in Harare, Bulawayo, Gweru, Masvingo, Mutare and Victoria Falls can now buy these books at half the typical markup. By taking on such a task, Gappah extends the sphere of the author’s responsibility considerably. It’s one thing to publish a book and be content to let the book do its usual rounds through London, New York and Paris. But it takes a certain kind of artistic commitment to take on the financial risk of making one’s books available to African readers. Gappah has said she’s learned a lot from the experiment and hopes it becomes the springboard for a sustainable book distribution model.

2017

Lola Shoneyin

Lola Shoneyin. Image from Guardian Life.

“If there was more space for people to think, do things and create, I just feel we would all be happier,” Lola Shoneyin says during a recent interview featured in the Nigerian Guardian. In many ways, Shoneyin’s life has been dedicated to breaking down the systemic structures that stifle creativity and expression. Both in her writing and her work as a community leader, Shoneyin tirelessly advocates for a culture of creative and critical thought. In 2017, Shoneyin, more than anyone else out there, has worked the hardest to provide platforms where communities of readers and writers are empowered to think, do, and create.

Shoneyin has authored three poetry collections but is best known for her debut novel The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives, a delightfully scathing critique of polygamy and a celebration of feminine bond. A favorite of playwrights, the novel has been adapted for stage and performed in different parts of the world. In the past few years, however, Shoneyin has spent less and less time under the literary spotlight as a writer. This is, in part, because she has become an architect of literary dreams, creating enabling conditions for other writers to succeed.

In 2012, she established the Ake Arts and Book Festival. In the short span of five years, Ake Festival has become a literary Mecca in a country where the literary arts still suffers considerable neglect. Nigerian journalist and filmmaker Wana Udobang couldn’t have been more accurate in calling Ake Festival a pilgrimage. The annual life cycle of the Nigerian literary scene now revolves around this festival that attracts writers and artists of different generations and communities around the globe.

This year, in addition to her work with Ake Festival, she spearheaded the inaugural edition of the Kaduna Book and Arts Festival, a historic event that helped challenge prejudiced assumptions about Northern Nigeria and staged a never-before witnessed dialogue between the north and the south within the context of literature and art. But what started out as a festival has now opened up other opportunities. Book Buzz Foundation, the not-for-profit organization behind Ake Festival and KABAFEST, is collaborating with an EU-funded initiative to provide training for writers and artists in northern states.

As part of Shoneyin’s commitment to creating conditions that make creative expression possible, she helped establish Ouida Books, a publishing outfit based in Lagos. In less than two years, Ouidah Books has provided publication opportunities to emergent voices, in addition to making the works of globally acclaimed writers such as Nnedi Okorafor and Ayobami Adebayo available to Nigerian readers.

2018

Bibi Bakare-Yusuf

As Publishing Director of one of Africa’s most beloved indie presses, Cassava Republic, Bakare-Yusuf is a life-line. How Bakare came into publishing is a well-known story in the literary community. In 2003, she went on a research trip to Nigeria. During her visit, she made a disheartening observation. “I was puzzled,” she says in a TED Talk, “by the book shelves I saw. Sadly, many of them were empty.” For someone like her who believes that nations and civilizations are built on the cultivation of the character and creativity that come with reading, the empty book shelves were heartbreaking. But she didn’t just sit there and complain. She didn’t wait till she had funding from some foundation. She didn’t wait till she had an MBA. She began to lay plans to establish a publishing start-up at great financial sacrifice to herself.

Bakare-Yusuf’s work with Cassava Republic was disruptive. It changed the way publishing was believed to work or not work in Africa. She broke a lot of rules and has never stopped finding ways to rethink and unthink established conventions. For example, in addition to traditional bookstores, she partnered with supermarkets, cafes and hair salons to sell books. She was one of the first African publishers to embrace the amazing work being done by Okada Books in digital publishing. In 2016, she struck a one-of-a-kind deal with Nigeria’s university entrance examination body Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB), in which Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s 2008 novel In Dependence was sold along with JAMB’s materials, out-smarting book pirates. The deal led to the book selling three million copies. Where others see debilitating challenges, Bakare-Yusuf sees opportunities to make a difference.

“Bibi understood the power of form and substance long before it was cool to do so,” Sisonke Msimang, author of Always Another Country and The Resurrection of Winnie Mandela, tells us in an email. “She’s a forerunner—both ahead of the pack and totally committed to enlarging the pack. She literally doesn’t care about expectations. Cassava Republic is a testament to the power of our African imaginations, it’s an antidote to pessimism, an insistent reminder that we have always created alternate realities for ourselves and indeed the world.”

“What I admire the most about Bibi is her ambition. Her vision is for Cassava Republic as a global business, a global brand,” says Emma Shercliff, Cassava Republic’s Sales & Rights Director. “The JAMB deal is a brilliant example of this ingenuity. Bibi constantly challenges the status quo and accepted wisdoms. This makes her a demanding colleague and she is equally exacting as an editor, and makes no bones about the demands she will place on authors. But it is this drive which explains why Cassava Republic has established a reputation for publishing such high-quality titles. Her publishing speaks for itself—her stated mission of curating an archive for the future means that every book she publishes, be it fiction or non-fiction, is innovative, thought-provoking and changes the conversation in some way. Bibi is also extremely collaborative, searching for opportunities to support other publishers, and to work together to promote African writers globally.”

Cassava Republic’s intervention has not gone unnoticed in global publishing. In April of this year, at the London Book Fair’s International Excellence Awards, Cassava Republic was recognized with the Inclusivity in Publishing Award. It set the tone for what was to continue. Later that month, the company published She Called Me Woman: Nigeria’s Queer Women Speak, co-edited by Azeenarh Mohammed, Chitra Nagarajan, and Rafeeat Aliyu. In May, it published Ayesha Haruna Attah’s slave trade era novel The Hundred Wells of Salaga. In September, it published Adenle’s follow-up thriller When Trouble Sleeps and secured the NLNG Prize-winning novelist Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s book publication rights. In October, it published Emmanuel Iduma’s A Stranger’s Pose, a mix of memoir, travelogue, and photography that reinveints African travel writing. And in December, at the third Abantu Book Festival, Bakare-Yusuf delivered the Keynote Address. Cassava Republic has now opened up shop in the UK and in the US, becoming the first African-run publishing house to do so in the former. By doing this, Bakare-Yusuf is reversing the flow of cultural knowledge. Africa is exporting its creative resources on its own terms, expanding its cultural influence, as opposed to passively waiting to be influenced by the West.

Bakare-Yusuf has a PhD in Gender Studies from the University of Warwick. She started out as an academic and, even in her entrepreneurial work, she has retained that academic passion for knowledge and teaching. Perhaps that is why she is not your run-of-the-mill business owner. She runs her business with heart and tons of love but also with a clear ideological objective. Every book she publishes, every writer she mentors, every reader she inspires, every critic she engages with contributes towards what she calls “an African archive of the future.” She is investing in a structure that will serve generations to come. Naturally, she does not hesitate to protest any erosion of the important work being done. In June, in a piece on its site, Cassava Republic warned against “the deletion of local publishing houses.”

She has been the “hustler extraordinaire of Cassava republic,” says Sylvia Ofili, author of Cassava Republic novel German Calendar No December. “For some reason, of all the conversations, mails and texts I have exchanged with Bibi over the years, this is the one that I have never forgotten: ‘Break the rules, Sylvia.’ She is an incorrigible rule breaker. Cassava republic and Bibi have been a study in patience, tenacity and perseverance.”

It is rare to find someone who is powerful, good at what they do, and also genuinely kind. There aren’t a lot of publishers who appreciate what bloggers and critics do for the literary industry the way Bakare-Yusuf does. She has said, time and again in interviews, that it takes a village to sustain a publishing industry, praising the work that sites like Africa Is a CountryAfrica in DialogueAfrica in WordsJames Murua’s Literature BlogThe Johannesburg Review of BooksThe Reading List, and the rest of us do.

Manyika, whose Like a Mule has now sold to publishers in six territories, perhaps sums it up best: “Bibi Bakare Yusuf is a visionary who, in the space of 12 years has brought the publishing house that she founded to international acclaim. She’s a pioneer and trend-setter with an impressive stable of authors, several of whom are prize winners and/or best sellers, including every single ‘Brittle Paper African Literary Person of the Year’ winner”—Nnedi Okorafor in 2015, Petina Gappah in 2016, and Lola Shoneyin in 2017. “Equally impressive,” Manyika continues, “is what Bibi does behind the scenes by way of encouragement, not only to her own authors but also to a wide circle of others as she seeks to transform and uplift the African publishing scene. Crucial to her success is the courage to champion issues that she knows to be important.”

In the name Cassava Republic, Bakare-Yusuf hoped to create a press that would make reading a cultural staple for the people, in much the same way that cassava is a food staple. But she ended up impacting the forces of global publishing by laying the foundation for Africa to lead the world in cultural and aesthetic innovation.

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