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Photo: The Economist
Ugandan writer Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi is part of an African literary Renaissance.

Other than a day trip from Spain to Morocco decades ago, I have never set foot in Africa. But I have experienced it, in a way, by reading African writers such as Wole Soyinka and Chinua Acebe. Today, a new generation of young writers is offering the world fresh insight.

The Economist writes, “In 2003 Harriet Anena was a schoolgirl in northern Uganda, a region then at war. The army had ordered people into squalid, crowded camps; insurgents stalked the bush.

“ ‘We scratch our destiny / from hands of a curtailing fate,’ she scribbled, sitting beneath a mango tree. In poetry she found a way to ask questions that children, especially girls, were not supposed to ask. ‘I started writing for therapy,’ she says.

“This month Ms Anena recited those lines on the stage of the National Theatre in Kampala, melding drums, dance and poetry in an arresting evocation of love and war. Her performance was the highlight of this year’s Writivism festival, an annual celebration of creative writing, and a testament to the vitality of the country’s small but flourishing literary scene.

“Uganda was once at the fulcrum of African literature. It was at Makerere University, on a hill above Kampala, that giants such as Chinua Achebe and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o gathered in 1962 for the first African Writers’ Conference, a landmark event held on the eve of independence for many countries. …

“Yet in a place where history and politics weigh heavy, writers are finding fresh voice. A number of trailblazing authors have passed through FEMRITE, a non-profit founded in 1996 to publish and promote women’s writing in Uganda. Writivism, now in its seventh year, publishes an annual anthology and runs a short-story prize.

“And Ugandan literature can boast of an international superstar in Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi (pictured), whose debut novel Kintu is a multi-generational saga that ties oral myth to a recognisable present. …

“Encountering the names of familiar places in a novel ‘just blew by mind,’ says Nyana Kakoma, who runs a small publishing house in Kampala. ‘I said wait a minute, this is me, this is my life, this is Uganda as I know it.’

“Much of this new literature is strikingly political. The Betrothal, a play by Joshua Mmali, is a retelling of a multimillion-dollar corruption scandal that he covered as a journalist for the BBC; its performances at the National Theatre in Uganda last year were greeted with whoops of recognition from audiences. Bold writers can draw on the daily chronicles of hypocrisy and clampdowns recorded by a lively press. …

“War, corruption and sexism are not easy topics, and creative expression has its limits. Uganda has an authoritarian government, presided over by an ageing and increasingly testy strongman. This month Stella Nyanzi, an activist and academic, was sentenced to 18 months in prison after posting a poem on Facebook [about] the president’s mother.

“For all that, it would be a mistake to assume that Ugandan writing is glum, pious or austere. Young writers are finding humour in struggle, and joy in the everyday. There is the promise of freedom in their work. ‘Do not miss the chance to groove, my child,’ writes Peter Kagayi, a poet, ‘at the pattering of life’s raindrops.’ ”

More here.

 

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Photo: Akhil DT
“Censorship is anti-creation” … A quote from a lecture by Salman Rushdie, as seen on a StickLit poster on a Bangalore cement pillar. StickLit brings literature to the people using stickers.

In the New York metro and the T in Boston, I’ve enjoyed the poetry posters that give riders something more meaningful to read and ponder than ads. Now I’m learning about a new poetry-for-the-people effort in India. It uses poetry stickers in both English and a local language in site-specific venues.

Priyanka Sacheti reports at the Guardian, “There are thousands of street food carts in New Delhi. But only one has the opening lines of Riyazat Ullah Khan’s poem ‘Wazoodiyat’ on the side:

Where can the pauper keep his pain of existence?
He has no container but a heart.

“The sticker bearing the couplet is from a campaign called StickLit, which seeks to make literature more accessible by placing quotes in public spaces.

“Nidhin Kundathil and Manoj Pandey had the idea for the project while contemplating the advertisements, posters and billboards that are consumed almost subliminally on Indian streets.

“ ‘We thought of turning this [visual] experience on its head to create a completely new and refreshing alternative for passersby – [one] which was not just selling something, for a change,’ says Pandey, 32, a freelance writer in Darjeeling.

“The idea subsequently evolved: they would make what they call the world’s largest library – ‘the largest repository of good literature in public spaces: a library that’s free for all.’ So they hit the streets, putting up free-format stickers, posters and wall murals. …

“After starting in Bengaluru and Delhi in 2017, the project has spread all over India, with volunteers in various cities taking it up. The stickers are available from the StickLit website and the founders encourage people to download them and use them freely. …

“The founders encourage placement based on context: poems in railway stations, for example, when people have longer to contemplate them; shorter quotes and excerpts for busy streets. They also use place-specific languages – Hindi in Delhi, or Kannada in Bengaluru – alongside English. There are plans to share prison poetry in prisons as well.

“Kundathil, 33, a Bengaluru-based graphic artist, handles the design. He says he deliberately chooses bold, brightly-coloured fonts and minimal design elements in order not just to attract attention but to ensure that attention remains focused on the text.

“The list of authors chosen is inclusive and diverse, from Rushdie and former government minister Shashi Tharoor to newer voices such as Nishita Gill and Nikhil Mhaisne. They have also shared works of Kannada literary greats across Bengaluru. ‘A lot of our material consists of work by aspiring writers as well,’ Pandey says, adding that the project is open to submissions.

“ ‘We like to believe that people, especially the young, are drawn towards StickLit as they are not cynical,’ Pandey says. ‘They still believe that a pen can change the world. And we’d like to foster that.’ ”

More at the Guardian, here.

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blackorpheus01

I’ve always been interested in other countries and cultures and have tried to read books from afar if they are written in English or translated into English. Years ago, the works of Africa writers Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka were among my favorites. I have continued to read other African writers, but none have interested me as much as those two.

Recently I learned that some new authors have complained that African literary magazines — often the place to launch a writing career — have not been open to younger voices.

An article in Okay Africa provides an overview of the magazines that publish African literature and explains why the number of outlets has been increasing.

Tadiwa Madenga writes, “African literary magazines and journals don’t just shape literary culture, they offer the most rebellious responses to political and social movements. They not only respond to the cultures they’re in, these magazines also create distinct cultures of their own that reflect the personalities of their editors.

“Some are experimental and bold, some are satirical and polemic, some can also be aesthetically conservative, but they all find beautiful ways to confront the most pressing issues in society. Magazines archive stories that might not always gain the attention that books will, but are sometimes the most thrilling work in a writer’s career. Here are five of the most notable literary magazines that have shaped contemporary African literature.

“Based in Nigeria, Black Orpheus was groundbreaking as the first African literary periodical on the continent publishing works in English. It was founded in 1957 by German editor Ulli Beier, and was later edited by Wole Soyinka, Es’kia Mphahlele, and Abiola Irele. The magazine stopped printing in 1975.

“At a time when African writers needed spaces where they could simply gather and enjoy each other’s works, the magazine was started to promote African literature, publishing the works of literary giants like Chinua Achebe, Ama ata Aidoo, and Christopher Okigbo in their early career. The best part of the magazine was that it introduced literature from French, Spanish, and Portuguese speaking regions to an English speaking audience …

Transition was founded [in 1961] by Rajat Neogy in Kampala when Uganda, like other African nations, was gaining its independence. Like Black Orpheus, the magazine published notable writers like Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Nadine Gordimer, and Taban lo Liyong when they were new writers.

Transition … has had fearless takes on politics that eventually forced it to be transferred to Nigeria when Soyinka was editor, and later to the U.S. Transition is now housed at Harvard University and is still producing provocative work …

Kwani? began after a group of Kenyan writers, artists, and journalists became frustrated with the slow publishing scene in the country that mostly accommodated earlier writers like Ngugi from the Transition and Black Orpheus generation. A new publication was created in 2003 for emerging writers that has led to the incredible literature we enjoy today from Kenya. The journal has published works by writer like Yvonne Owuor, Parselelo Kantai, Andia Kisia, Uwem Akpan and Billy Kahora.

“Edjabe is a Cameroonian journalist and a DJ who engages literature, music, and politics with a rebel spirit [in the magazine Chimurenga]. Edjabe founded Chimurenga in 2002 in Cape Town at a time where South Africans were having lively discussions about life during and after political and social revolutions. What makes Chimurenga unique is not only the amazing writing that they publish, but the ways the platform evokes other mediums with literature. …

“While the other literary magazines and journals where mostly print magazines, JALADA represents the digital moment where African literature is thriving on online platforms like Saraba, Enkare, and Brittle Paper. JALADA began after a group of writers from various African countries published their work on their own website which became so popular they began receiving submissions from other writers.”

Read more here.

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I confess that although I can see why children adore books by certain illustrators, sometimes I don’t like reading the artists’ words.

Richard Scarry, for example, with his delightful animals and five-seater pencil cars, writes text that can get boring pretty fast. And Beatrix Potter, whom I admire for a multitude of reasons, employs very big words and potentially scary themes.

Christian Blauvelt recently covered that angle at the BBC. He begins with Potter’s first line in a storybook.

“ ‘Your father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs McGregor.’

“Old Mrs Rabbit’s frightful warning to her children Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail and Peter appears on the opening page of Beatrix Potter’s first book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Aside from featuring perhaps the most dramatic use of a semicolon in children’s literature, it sets the tone for her work from the start: that horrors abound in a world of Darwinian struggle, but that these must be faced calmly.

“Your parents, and perhaps your children, may be devoured by a vengeful property owner, or sold for tobacco; you may have your tail ripped off by an angry owl; an invading rat might tie you up in string and include you as the key ingredient in a pudding. But life goes on – disappointments must be faced and tragedies overcome. …

“Potter’s tales have been consistently popular with adults, as well as children, since The Tale of Peter Rabbit was published in 1902 when she was 36 years old. This is not just because they feature adorable creatures in harrowing situations; her talking-animal stories also comment on the era’s class politics, gender roles, economics and domestic life.

“Did she examine British society through animals because she spent more time with animals than children, aside from her brother Bertram, when she was young? Because she wanted to rebel against the bourgeois values and morals of her wealthy middle class family – which had made its money in the textile industry – but only dared do so through furry surrogates? Because she could only publish children’s stories since her true passion, science, was a career field closed to women in the late 19th Century? Because she had a German tutor who introduced her to the back-to-nature ethos of the Romantics?” More.

Hmm. Maybe I’m being too anti-intellectual here, but I’d say Beatrix Potter just got a kick out of telling stories like that.

And maybe she was right that small children could handle the scary parts. My three-year-old grand-daughter for example, has always loved Peter Rabbit and could recite the fancy phrases by heart when she was only two. Reciting fancy phrases is great for language development.

Photo of Beatrix Potter’s art: Penguin
Beatrix Potter, an amateur scientist, was meticulous about representing nature accurately, even if the animals did wear clothes. Here Peter Rabbit gorges on Mr. McGregor’s carrots.

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When I was growing up in Rockland County, New York, my parents liked to buy art from artist friends and, when possible, offer other kinds of support. They hired the Hungarian-American artist André Dugo, for example, to paint a portrait of my brother Bo and me sitting in an armchair and reading one of the artist’s children’s books. We often read his book Pete the Crow or the books featuring a cardinal and a blue jay, or the one about the calf that ate the wrong kind of grass and puffed up like a balloon.

One day, Mr. Dugo came to our house to watch television with us. (We had one of the first TVs because my father was writing a story on Dumont for Fortune magazine.) We kept asking Mr. Dugo what he would like to see, and he kept saying he just wanted to see whatever we ordinarily watched.

As we worked our way through several programs, Mr. Dugo noted our reactions, sometimes asking questions.

Not many months after, a children’s book came out. It was called Tom’s Magic TV, and its premise was that a boy traveled through the TV screen and into adventures with sharks, circus clowns, puppets, cowboys and spacemen. Bo and I were not mentioned. The mother didn’t look like my mother. This was an early exposure to children’s-literature research — or poetic license.

I’m pretty sure that Gene Autry was the model for the cowboy adventure.

030916-Toms-Magic-TV-Dugo

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A day that Canadian short story writer Alice Munro wins the Nobel Prize for Literature might be a good day to talk about the power of fiction.

The NY Times took up the subject only last week. I think that reporter Pam Belluck must have been a little psychic. She wrote: “Say you are getting ready for a blind date or a job interview. What should you do? Besides shower and shave, of course, it turns out you should read — but not just anything. Something by Chekhov or Alice Munro will help you navigate new social territory better than a potboiler by Danielle Steel.

“That is the conclusion of a study published [October 3] in the journal Science. It found that after reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence — skills that come in especially handy when you are trying to read someone’s body language or gauge what they might be thinking.”

Emanuele Castano and David Comer Kidd, researchers in the New School for Social Research’s psychology department. say “the reason is that literary fiction often leaves more to the imagination, encouraging readers to make inferences about characters and be sensitive to emotional nuance and complexity. …

“ ‘It’s a really important result,’ said Nicholas Humphrey, an evolutionary psychologist who has written extensively about human intelligence, and who was not involved in the research. ‘That they would have subjects read for three to five minutes and that they would get these results is astonishing.’ ” More.

My own use of literary fiction is mainly for pleasure, not job interviews. But when things are bleak, Dickens can be the best medicine.

Photo of Charles Dickens from Biography.com

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You have heard of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the Depression era book on poverty in the South by James Agee and photographer Walker Evans. The forerunner was an article assigned by Fortune magazine to a young Agee but never published. This past Tuesday it was published as a book.

There are a couple aspacts to Christine Haughney’s NY Times story on the new book that intrigue me. One is the image of a young Agee moved by the plight of the sharecroppers and indignant at the magazine’s apparent exploitation of them.

The other is  how the original subjects, and later, their children, were embarrassed and didn’t want names used, but the grandchildren are able to see the beauty in their forebears.

Writes Haughney, “In 1936 Fortune magazine’s editors assigned a relatively unknown and disgruntled staff writer named James Agee to travel to Alabama for the summer and chronicle the lives of sharecroppers. When Agee returned, he was inspired by the subjects he had met and lived with, but frustrated by the limitations of the magazine format. His subjects, he argued, warranted far more than an article.

“What readers have known for decades is that Agee used his reporting material to create his 1941 book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a literary description of abject poverty in the South, accompanied by starkly haunting Walker Evans photographs.

“The original magazine article was never published, as Agee squabbled with his editors over what he felt was the exploitation and trivialization of destitute American families. In the early pages of Famous Men, he wrote that it was obscene for a commercial enterprise to ‘pry intimately into the lives of an undefended and appallingly damaged group of human beings.’ What readers are about to discover now is what all the fighting was about.

“Melville House [is publishing] Agee’s original, unprinted 30,000-word article in book form, under the title Cotton Tenants: Three Families. The publication gives Agee fans a glimpse of an early draft of what became a seminal work of American literature.

” ‘With the book, we have a much better map of him writing Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,’ said John Summers, who edited Cotton Tenants and printed an excerpt from the article in a literary journal he edits, The Baffler. …

“Irvin Fields, whose grandfather Bud Fields was featured in the book, said he didn’t mind that the names were now being published.

“ ‘It makes me appreciate my relatives for bearing up under those circumstances and making me appreciate what I’ve got today.’ ” More.

A photo by Walker Evans, from “Cotton Tenants: Three Families,” via Library of Congress

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