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BP Person of the Year

T he African Literary Person of Year Award celebrates the writer who has taken the lead in challenging and, in the process, expanding our assumptions about what it means to be an African writer and what it means to speak of a story 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 LagoonThe 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 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.

We cannot emphasize enough the importance of someone such as Shoneyin for the growth of African writing and literary culture. We need publishers, literary marketplaces, literary festivals, functional public schools, creative writing workshops, information literacy programs, and so on. That is why we need folks like Shoneyin who work tirelessly behind the scene to set up the durable structures needed to shore up our dreams of a bright future for African literature. For her, literature is welded to life. Ever since she returned to Nigeria in 2001, she has organized creative communities in cities where she lived. When she lived in Ibadan, she established the Ibadan Art Renaissance. When she lived in Abuja, she established Infusion with Dapo Oyewale.

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. They assemble at Ake, Abeokuta to reflect on global issues, using Africa as starting point. The festival draws a crowd of young readers and aspiring writers who find the talks, interviews, conversations, master classes, workshops, etc. both empowering and delightful. Like a wellspring of artistic inspiration, Ake Festival draws readers and writers from far-flung corners of the country and the world.

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.

No one, within the African literary community, has captured this opportunity-creating aspect of leadership as well as Shoneyin. Perhaps this is because Shoneyin comes to literature from the standpoints of a reader, a writer, a critic, and an entrepreneur. Equipped with these multiple angles of vision, Shoneyin is able to foster literary culture in ways that disrupt the status quo and, thus, enable more people to gain access to opportunities.

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.

Shoneyin understands that institutions are not built on the vision of a single individual but through the will and action of communities. Her success not only defines the terms of good leadership but also illustrates the dominance of women in the contemporary African literary scene.

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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