What you need to know:
- Music travels across the continent in spite of all these challenges as do movies.
- Perhaps there is something to learn from the way music travels and is distributed? Also, publishers cannot work as independent units.
You know him because of Born On A Tuesday and you love him because of his Twitter handle. Abigail Arunga caught up with Elnathan John on his thoughts about most things literature, and what he's reading right now.
What do you think can make the distribution of African literature on the continent better?
The acute problem of poor distribution is primarily a problem of infrastructure and inextricably linked to the level of development and poor trade connections between African countries and regions.
So at the core of it, it is part of the larger problem of under development and poor economies. However, as with most things on the continent, publishers have to find a way around it, around the poor to non-existent infrastructure. I often ask myself how the music and movie industries, especially in Nigeria have faced this challenge and seem to have overcome it.
Music travels across the continent in spite of all these challenges as do movies. Perhaps there is something to learn from the way music travels and is distributed? Also, publishers cannot work as independent units.
They must come together and build an infrastructure that works for all of them. I have often said that in countries like Nigeria, there are not enough publishers making enough money to compete with each other. They must collaborate and build together. None of them can make it on their own.
Why do you think, if you can speak on this, that after all these conversations on the relevance of prizes and self-recognition et al, we still hold so much stake in getting a nod from the international world of literature?
This is not peculiar to literature or African literature. It is unfortunately how power and the world works and has always worked: throughout history there have always been “great" centres of learning, of medicine, of science, of trade, of religion(s), and by extension, centres of power and people have always made pilgrimages to these centres to seek validation for their work. It is similar to the way cities attract people seeking to strike out and make it.
Again, having international centres driven by capitalism will mean that those who can plug themselves into the big machine of consumption will be seen to be “stars".
While this has created an unhealthy obsession with “foreign" validation, this does not have to mean the erasure of all others. Humans will always have hierarchies.
There is nothing anyone can do about this. The tragedy occurs when there aren’t alternatives, alternative centres, alternative sources of acclaim, alternative ways of granting recognition to persons who have skills and apply themselves.
Having these alternatives will mean that while international recognition exists we can also have robust mechanisms and spaces for recognising work that might not necessarily be “popular”. Not all great work will appeal to masses across borders. However, there is space for everyone.
We need to develop the spaces for those not already at the top of this capitalist hierarchy or those who do not wish to compete in this machine, to thrive. We must accept also that thriving will mean different things to different writers and that popular appeal is not the only thing that makes great literature.
When do you think African literati will cease and desist talk about circles in literature? And why do you think these circles and collectives have a tendency to self-destruct?
As long as there are humans there will be circles. However the smaller the pool of resources or the field of play the more toxic these circles become. Where the space is too small and too many people are trying to please too few gatekeepers to get too few opportunities, the result will be circles which destroy or self-destruct. Not circles that build, or grow or drive development of skills and opportunities.
If all our countries had robust publishing, decent festivals, residencies and fellowships, then you might not have a space where people so desperately seek to either enter these spaces or exclude others from them. Imagine if there were even only 25 countries on the continent having robust publishing and a scene that feeds off not just talent within but interacts with other countries on the continent. Imagine 25 major literary festivals on the continent, 25 residencies, 25 important centres speaking to and with each other.
There is no alternative to development in Africa. There is no alternative to our countries functioning. There is not alternative to having institutions which support literature and not act as the whip of the gatekeepers who demand adoration, loyalty and control.
Anything else will lead us back to the same place: everyone struggling for the same slots in the same foreign residencies, fighting for foreign publishers, queuing for foreign fellowships, and trying for foreign acclaim.
You recently announced that you would not be reachable for some time. What project are you working on, can I get a small synopsis, perhaps, maybe?
I am completing a novel set mostly in the 19th century, in the mountains of what is today north east Nigeria. Hopefully I can get the first draft out before I drown in the pile of books for the Man Booker International Prize 2019 which grows by the week as entries pour in.
And of course I have to ask - what are some of your current contemporary favourites, in the last year or two? And whose writing do you want to see more of?
I have no favourites. I read everything from everywhere. These days I am reading a lot of fabulous books from China, Korea and Japan.