Women’s writing power coming into own in Africa

February 14th, 2011 - 2:07 pm ICT by IANS  

By Madhusree Chatterjee
New Delhi, Feb 14 (IANS) Women writers are coming into their own in African contemporary literature, dominating the shortlist - with nine out of 12 - for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize 2011 for best book and best first book from Africa.The shortlisted writers for the best book include Aminatta Forna (Sierra Leone) for “The Memory of Love,” Sukiswa Wanner (South Africa) for “Men of the South”, Bridget Pitt (Nigeria) for “The Unseen Leopard”, Sue Rabie (South Africa) for “Blood at Bay” and Patricia Schonstein (South Africa) for “Banquet at Brabazan”.

Those shortlisted for the best first book in Africa include Cynthia Jele (South Africa) for “Happiness is a Four Letter Word”, Chioma Okereke (Nigeria) for “Bitter Leaf”, Graeme Friedman (South Africa) for “The Fossil Artist”, Uzoma Uponi (Nigeria) for “Colour Blind”, E.C. Osundu (Nigeria) for “Voice of America” and Alastair Bruce (South Africa) for “Walls of Days”.

The African winners will compete against writers from the four Commonwealth regions for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize at the Sydney Writers’ Festival during May 16-22, said a statement issued by the Commonwealth Foundation.

Last year, the prize ceremony was held April 12 in India where Indian writer Rana Dasgupta won the prize for his book “Solo”, carrying home a purse of 10,000 pounds sterling, while the best first book prize of 5,000 pounds was awarded to Australia’s Glenda Guest for “Siddon Rock”.

The Commonwealth Writers’ Prize has played a key role in bringing African literature to an international audience, unearthing compelling stories in human experience.

Winners of the 2011 prize will follow in the footsteps of the biggest African names in fiction, including Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who won the best first book award in 2005 for her book “Purple Hibiscus”.

Ajoa Ayeboah-Afari, the Africa regional chair, said “one could not be struck by the dazzling diversity of the approaches to telling a love story, a recurring theme for the 2011 best book entries from the African region.”

“In a world now so focused on other creative forms, the talent demonstrated by these first works of fiction is awesome and gives hope for the future of creative writing in Africa,” Afari said.

“This year we are taking the prize to a new segment of audience in Australia. The prize underlines our commitment to promoting cultural exchange and diversity,” Commonwealth Foundation director Mark Collins said.

The 2011 pan-Commonwealth panel of judges, which will decide the overall winners, will be chaired by Nicholas Hasluck, who is also the chair of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.

The panel comprises the four regional chairpersons: Ajoa Yeboah-Afari (Africa), Antonia MacDonald-Smythe (Caribbean and Canada), Muneeza Shamsie (South Asia and Europe), and Paul Sharrad (South East Asia and Pacific).

According to South Africa-based editor and writer Helen Moffet, a new generation of African women writers is dabbling in a gamut of subjects like chick lit for the educated working women, thrillers, crime, humour, women’s issues and social realities.

The books cater to a growing commercial fiction market in the continent where exchange and arrival of quality global literature are still very slow, she said.

According to her, African women’s literature was exhibiting two broad trends.

“One was the desire to write more commercially acceptable fiction and the other a proclivity to experiment with new literary formats,” Moffet told IANS.

Commonwealth Prize winner Chimamanda Adichi, the best known among the current lot of women’s writers in Africa, said her prose “reflected a colonial assimilation of cultures”, a trend that coloured the neo-African literature.

Adichi attributes her style to “the westernisation of her native tongue Igbo.”

“My siblings and I, for example, speak an Igbo that is very different from my father’s because our Igbo has become anglicised. But my father’s Igbo is still quite beautiful and rich.

“I hope my writing somehow acknowledges my language experience, the fluidity - the fact that English is mine. But it’s a particular kind of English. I want to write about characters who speak mostly English, I suppose, but who also are very much part of another language,” Adichi told IANS in an interview.

(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at madhu.c@ians.in)

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