As writers are rulers of the page, they are also the serfs of the publishing world. They grovel and scrape through to eventual recognition. This is why today’s writers—African writers—have chosen to go through the established route of definable success…
By Chimezie Chika
The Reality of Leaving
On a rather sultry evening in 2018 or so, I stood on a pavement in Cherubim Junction in the city of Owerri in southeastern Nigeria, talking with an old friend, Chibuihe Obi, one of the most talented poets of this generation. It was getting dark and the traffic was picking up and the neon lights of Ikenegbu Road, which ended at the junction, was coming up; but we stood on that demarcating pavement in the middle of the road, discussing topics ranging from sexuality to the future of the young Nigerian writer in Nigeria.
At some point in our impassioned convo, they revealed to me that they would be leaving the country in a few days for a fellowship at Harvard. I was taken aback by how quickly their emigration had materialised; but I was also not very surprised. For as a queer person, Obi had been subject to attacks and threats in Nigeria, and it seemed rather unreasonable for them to remain in a place where their life was in constant danger.
I paused for a moment—and for a few seconds I cast around for what to say. Did I perhaps feel, in that instant, that a person of Obi’s prodigious talent should not be leaving the country in ideal circumstances? When I thought of it, there was no reason why he should remain. The reality hit me at that moment: was there no future for young writers in Africa? How do you create the time to practise your craft, shoulder the financial responsibility of your family, while trying to maintain mental equilibrium in this kind of society?
The economic value systems of developing nations frown on occupations such as writing and art, which yields no immediate financial returns, and is often viewed as no occupation at all—a side frivolity—mere hobbies—that shows no seriousness with one’s life. In the imagination of African parents, “hobbies” are not occupations; occupations are large granite establishments from the old world that demand a certain level of much-vaunted academic discomfort and maintain national prestige. Their conceptions of the ultimate dream for their children are the medical, engineering or legal professions. Anything beyond these is a monumental disappointment. If it can be helped, “writing” is entirely discouraged. As an acquaintance once said, “Writing? Anybody can do that. It’s nothing special.” This view may have changed slightly in some quarters in recent times, but it remains the same at its core. Truth be told, from an economic perspective, writing is not the easiest way to live a decent life in Africa, where the focus of developing countries is on increasing human capacity in the more practical sciences. To feed well solely as a creative writer in Africa is a fool’s errand, especially in a continent where much of the publishing infrastructure is in shambles.
The reality of the image of writing as an occupation, the mental demands of creativity, and the inevitable financial economics that follows them, are some of the reasons young African writers are leaving for mostly North America, where they seem to have found the space to pursue their dreams.
The Rise of MFA Programmes
The first generation of African writers was not privy to the teaching of the art of writing in classrooms, with a well-appointed curricula, assessments, thesis-writing, and a flurry of other academic activities. They were probably not entirely taken up with the idea. Chinua Achebe had even stated, in an interview in The Paris Review, that as far as writing goes, he thought it was best to stumble through the dark room alone and try to find your way. That way, he said, you learn a lot more about the process, which was very important to the development of any writer.
Certainly, Achebe’s views do not align with the rationale behind the founding of writing programmes in American universities. The first ever creative writing MFA program began at the University of Iowa in 1936, led by Wilbur Schramm, who felt that such a program was long overdue. Since then the notion of “workshopping” creative writing has bloated into a multi-million dollar enterprise spanning over 360 universities in the United States alone. Creative writing programmes today are widespread and considered a formal ladder on the road to being a creative writer. But it has not been without its criticisms, too, especially in its early years when there was still a sizable chunk of writers who flourished without undergoing such training. As of today, contemporary African writers such as Chinelo Okparanta, Yaa Gyasi, Nana Nkweti, Okwri Oduor, Arinze Ifeakandu, have graduated from that first, elite creative writing institution in Iowa.
For African writers, the need for MFA programs did not arise until well into the late 1990s and early 2000s. The vocation — or what might be more accurately called the “craft” — of the first few generations of African writers came out of prevailing political, social and economic conditions which was happening on a universal scale: colonialism. They had been former students of classics, sociology, medicine, and, sometimes, common workers. They had no need to “learn” how to write, for their pioneering act was to define the standing of Africa in the scheme of things to the teeming newly politically-conscious masses. Their writing had already been fully formed by an instance of racial epiphany for Africans. The literature came out of a national and cultural need; and even though it had the highest level of talent behind it, it also had mass appeal. As the walls of these foundations were being built through the years, the structures that these early pioneers—Achebe, Abrahams, Ngugi, Soyinka, La Guma, Laye, Sembene, and others—thrived on deteriorated in a gradual regression of Africa’s economic prospects. The later generations suddenly found themselves in an unpleasant situation where their vocation seemed an irrelevant pursuit on a scale of pressing needs. There was nothing on ground—by way of infrastructure and relevant institutions—to encourage continuity of the literary culture on the same scale as in the early days.
What then is the value that creative writing programmes in the West hold for these writers? In his monograph, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, Mark McGurl declared that the MFA forms the biggest single influence on American literature since World War II. The basic question is this: is this influence solely based on the notion of getting to “learn” the craft, or was a symbolic economic cultural capital attached? Why are aspiring young African writers of the new millennium rushing abroad to nick an MFA programme as soon as possible?
The Significance for African Writers
While writing this essay, I asked a few young African writers currently studying in different creative writing programs across the United States, Canada and the UK why they chose to go for MFA programmes overseas. The answers varied. Survival. Scarce opportunities for creative writers within their native countries. A particular young Nigerian writer (I am disinclined to mention names for obvious reasons) studying in the UK said she left to pursue her writing. Why? I asked. Was it not possible to pursue writing in Nigeria? She talked about how it was near impossible to dream big as a writer in Nigeria, intimating an inherently unfair system which discourages the upward mobility of young writers.
“How do I put it?” asks a creative writing PhD candidate in a university in America’s far north. He would go on to paint a rather grim picture. “We cannot escape it. Our countries in Africa are completely negligent towards creativity, especially for writers. There are not enough platforms that incubate creative writing. Traditional publishers are few. We constantly look towards the West where there are long-established platforms for writers. The magazines and journals we strive to get published in are owned and controlled by the West. We strive to win their awards. We go to their universities for the MFAs and PhDs through which we hope to establish our careers. We connect with their editors. It is the plain truth. For instance, in Africa we do not have enough writing awards. America has thousands. As a writer if you want to be heard and seen, you have to look towards the West, even if you are living in Africa. The downside is that we have handed them the keys to control our African narratives. This is the story of our lives.”
In the past, there were symposiums, seminars, and conventions created to deliberate what it means to be an African writer. In these gatherings, heavy-faced academics and grave-looking writers sat for hours presenting and listening to formal papers on the postcolonial and neo-imperial implications of Africa’s political conditions. Today, this same question is answered on a more personal level. Inevitably, we are centering writers and their “story.” The question now is where writers can find these platforms to express themselves. Thus, as it follows, what does an African writer, confronted with the damning disadvantages of his native land, need to succeed? An MFA candidate at a university in the US state of California says it boils down to two things: audacity and a postgraduate degree in creative writing. Others agree more or less. “You need both the MFAs and the connections and the platforms that open up to you from there.” “You need to find your readers. And sadly, they might not be in Africa.”
Terver, a poet and essayist who lives in Nigeria, offered something insightful. “A writer needs to come from the middle class or walk his way into it,” he says. “Honestly, there is a big dent in the intellectual muscle of the continent, that the African writer doesn’t really have much currency. That’s why for anyone who really gets any recognition, such recognition comes from the West, outside, a place where there’s a solid intellectual base that appreciates WHAT a writer is. So the question becomes: how does the African writer get such recognition?”
“I think that the answer heads or gravitates towards the lighthouse. But of course you need a strong boat and winds in your favour. You need to belong to a class that affords you these things; call it money or what you want. This is why awards and recognition and MFAs have perhaps become more popular than the writing itself. Because these are the first sign of respect that precedes an African writer today, more than his works.”
One thing that is undeniable is the amount of solitary work that goes into writing, sometimes in desperate conditions. The mental canvas of toil is wide and tasking but it is passion that sustains the continued interest in writing. All through history, writers and readers are characterised as creatures of passion. Writers are the artificers of the reader’s malleable imagination—in a way, they own the readers and make them bend to the image they are projecting on the pages. As writers are rulers of the page, they are also the serfs of the publishing world. They grovel and scrape through to eventual recognition. This is why today’s writers—African writers—have chosen to go through the established route of definable success. The general opinion amongst these writers is that to leave the route of MFA and an introduction into the world of western publishing is to follow a garden forking path that will, in many instances, end in despair and squashed dreams.
MFA programmes are already incredibly powerful as it is; it can be argued that, while it is not exactly clear whether writing can be taught at a very basic level, its impact has been largely more positive than negative. Having or not having an MFA does not necessarily mean a better writing quality either way; it does not mean that the current crop of writers are necessarily better than older ones. One thing is certain, though: in the coming years, the influence of creative writing MFAs on the trajectory of African writers will be even more telling.
Cover image credit: Mohamed Hassan from Pixabay
Chimezie Chika’s short stories and essays have appeared in, amongst other places, The Question Marker, The Shallow Tales Review, The Lagos Review, Isele Magazine, Brittle Paper, Afrocritik and Aerodrome. He is the fiction editor of Ngiga Review. His interests range from culture to history, art, literature, and the environment. You can find him on Twitter @chimeziechika1.