The UK’s largest celebration of African Writing

Ahead of this year’s Africa Writes festival, which takes place at the British Library and Rich Mix from Friday 29 June to Sunday 1 July, we’ve invited the Royal African Society to take a look back at the history of their annual celebration of contemporary literature from Africa and the diaspora.

In 1962, the publisher Heinemann started the African Writers Series. Every year they published and promoted books by African authors like Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Flora Nwapa, in order to foster the literary communities developing across African countries. Over the years, the series introduced many of the great African writers to Western audiences. By the fiftieth anniversary, in 2012, an abundance of literature by African writers had been made available, and organisations such as the Caine Prize were working to champion African literature in the United Kingdom. Literary festivals in the UK, however, remained the domain of the white middle class. A report put together by Spread the Word, for instance, showed that just four per cent of speakers at the United Kingdom’s major literary festivals were from a BAME background. More needed to be done.

One autumn afternoon, Sheila Ruiz and her colleagues at the Royal African Society met with the former editor of the African Writers Series, James Currey, along with the new editor Lynette Lisk, to discuss the creation of a festival. The idea was simple – to offer an annual platform for literary talent from across Africa and its diaspora, showcasing well-known authors alongside those just beginning on their careers. A few meetings later and Africa Writes was born.

The festival’s first year, headlined by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, was held at SOAS in London, after which it moved to the British Library, which remains its home today. Over the years the festival’s audience has steadily grown as mainstream literature fans began to see it as a novel way of discovering new writing. The organisers have programmed many writers whose work has gone on to gain global attention: Windham Campbell Prize for Fiction winner Jennifer Makumbi presented her historical epic KINTU at the festival, which was later hailed as the ‘great Ugandan novel’; Warsan Shire read poetry that would be feature in Beyonce’s visual album Lemonade; and Yewande Omotoso launched her novel The Woman Next Door, subsequently shortlisted for the prestigious Dublin Literary Award. Literature written in a variety of African languages was showcased in discussions around the topic of translation. Festival organisers and audiences continued to champion writers from Africa and the diaspora.

Over the past seven years, a community has gathered around the annual event. The remarkably warm and energetic mood of the festival is one where readers meet their heroes, new literary connections are forged, the seeds of new books are planted, and audiences leave with minds buzzing and arms laden with books.

 Bringing together over 60 of the most influential voices in contemporary writing from Africa and its diaspora, this year’s festival features writers from Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, Somalia, Somaliland, Uganda, South Africa, UK, the USA and Zimbabwe, and highlights womxn and queer writers who are changing the face of African literature. Young poets Yomi Ṣode and Octavia Poetry Collective will appear in the festival headline events. The Africa Writes daytime programme includes book launches of writers from across the continent and the diaspora, panel discussions, workshops and an international book fair with classics, recent publications and rare finds.

In our current era with its apparent insularity and hardening borders, we look at both the history and the present of what it means to belong in Britain, and ask pressing questions about systems of knowledge, memory, and the relationship between the past and the future. Exploring themes of identity, migration and displacement, award-winning writer Leila Aboulela launches her new book Elsewhere, Home at the British Library – a collection of intimate stories of longing and exile set between Sudan and the UK (30 June). Hit books and pop-culture podcast Mostly Lit host a live version of their show with Afua Hirsch, journalist and author of Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging (30 June).

As Zimbabwe prepares for national elections in August, and the nation reconfigures following the deposition of Robert Mugabe, young writers Panashe Chigumadzi and Novuyo Rosa Tshuma launch their new books These Bones Will Rise Again and House of Stone , presenting inventive new ways of telling the nation’s story and discussing its future (1 July). Highlighted in these books are the interactions between the world of spirits and the self, also a feature of Akwaeke Emezi’s highly-anticipated debut Freshwater. The writer presents a pre-launch of her novel that explores the obanje of Ibgo spirituality and religion, and the metaphysics of identity and being (30 June).

This year’s Africa Writes festival takes place from 29 June – 1 July at the British Library & Rich Mix, London. Tickets are available here:

Africa Writes at a glance from Africa Writes on Vimeo.

The World Is a Narrow Bridge