Elnathan John: This is how to be an African writer

by Elnathan John


An African writer must love rights. Human rights. Womens rights. Gay rights. Animal rights. In that order. If you do not understand it, Google it. That is what the fast internet in your new first world country is for.

To take this advice, first you have to be black. But so as not to cut out too many people, it is acceptable if one of your parents is at least partially black. Your mother could be mixed race- half Congolese, half Tamil and your father white Russian. As long as you call yourself black, you qualify. I am generous like that. Also doing a sufficiently black thing can qualify as calling yourself black. Like trying to grow dreadlocks. Or a healthy regular dose of complaining about white people, colonialism, neocolonialism, foreign aid or how Tyler Perry movies are bad for the image of black people. But if you are black-black like me, with no real need to prove your blackness, this is originally and totally for you.
This article is not for the writer whose readership is still limited to a lover, some family members, and friends on Facebook and Twitter whom you constantly bully to read your work. It is not for those who have self-published and invited their village and church elders to launch a self-help book. This is for the serious writers who no longer need to resort to emotional blackmail to make their lovers and family members read their work; who even forget to show their loved ones their work.
This is for you, who now have fan mail. You were just a Nigerian writer, a Kenyan writer, a Malawian writer, a Zimbabwean writer, a Ghanaian writer (who always got upset when people said ‘Ghananian’ writer). They probably even identified you in your country by your tribe or region: a Gikuyu writer, a Northern Nigerian writer, an Igbo writer. Your early publications had no evidence of a larger political consciousness and you wrote about subjects in your still-small world view- love, sibling rivalry, wicked step mothers. You even shortened your African name to make it easier to pronounce. You used the name ‘Rumba Amaechi when you wrote that first locally published work of yours. Rumba because, you didn’t want people to be turned off by Onwuzurumba and lose sight of the big picture- your story which you wanted the whole country to read. Or maybe on your birth certificate they named you Mary Nyambura Kahora and your friends just called you Mary. Mary Kahora.
This is the first step in your coming-of-Africanness. Your name. It is now sufficiently clear to you – your stories having been loved by the requisite number of white people and your private reading now expanded to include relevant black political material – that the name of an African, like the hair of an African female is quite political. It cannot be left to chance. Because, upon realizing the quality of your own writing, you cannot afford to remain in that tiny world view of yours. You must rise and join the throng of Africans bearing the continent on their shoulders. You must help Africa as it rises.
‘Mary’ will have to go. You cannot be preceded by a slave name. A name given by Bible thumping, racist colonialists also called missionaries. Nyambura Kahora is good enough.
Rumba must revert to Onwuzurumba and whatever ancestral middle name you discover your great aunts gave when they helped take care of you as a baby. Onwuzurumba Agu Amaechi. Do not be perturbed. People who love your writing will learn your name. Interviewers will call up their African friends and ask how it is pronounced. They will apologize if they get it wrong, and you, you will smile a magnanimous smile and say, that’s ok. Because you know, they tried. Toby has become Kunta Kinte again. And that is all that matters.
Because you are good at what you do, you will win or be nominated for some literary prize paid for by nice white people trying to promote literature in the third world or specifically in Africa. You need to prepare for this. Your coming-of-Africanness must be fairly advanced by this time enough not to disgrace the continent with your naivety. As a female, you will have sworn off non-kinky weaves, hair straightening chemicals and other debasing enhancements. Let Nicky Minaj keep disgracing the whole black race by wishing she was white with every dollar she earns. You are an African writer and you will do no such nonsense. As a male writer, you will wear your traditional dress, grow dreadlocks or a rough Afro, or wear some wrist beads or necklace you bought at an Afrocrap market (It doesn’t matter that the item will be made in China. China is now a great supporter of African progress. What matters is that it looks like it was made from an African bone, African wood or leather from a slain African animal).
You speak for Africa now. No longer Nigeria or Botswana or Kenya. An African writer must be an activist. It is irresponsible to just be a writer. Find some cause and talk about it in your interviews. It could be how wearing Indian hair is a sign of a complex or how white people should stop trying to save Africa. I would have suggested environmental causes like saving the African elephant, stopping the mass slaughter of chickens, or stopping the destruction of our forests but these areas have been covered by white celebrities and Wangari Maathai and god forbid that you take up a cause and end up looking white. And Wangari is Wangari- it is not cool to be a copy cat.
Do not take this activist/social commentary business for granted, because you will be asked hard questions about it by tricky white journalists. An African writer is expected to have an opinion about global politics and the politics of his or her corrupt and inept national government. The thing is, after winning your prize, you may be snatched by white people and lured to the UK or the US or some other European country. Never forget to keep in touch with local politics. Because when there is a bomb blast or rising militancy in your country, big or fatal enough to make the news in America or Britain, they will invite you as an expert and ask you questions as if you played football with the militants or bombers. Stay sharp. Memorize some statistics. Throw in some obscure local history. You will be fine.
As a white-affirmed, world-renowned, prize winning African writer, you are an official black savior. This means that the duty of defending Africa from the evil attacks of non-Africans and the inadvertent attacks of naïve fellow Africans rests squarely on your privileged black shoulders. You must not take any misrepresentation of Africa lying down. Not from white people.  And definitely not from African writers. If some upstart writer unaware of his place in the cosmos denigrates Africa by writing about bad, unacceptable things like HIV, war, rape, poverty, child soldiers, anal rape, street children, refugee camps, hunger, you must rise in righteous indignation and defend Africa. Because Africa is rising from these murky subjects. China is investing billions in Africa, we have more and more billionaires on Forbes, and gay marriage is legal in at least one African country. Even though you will by this time have largely left your own country to enjoy security, stable electricity, and fast internet in the first world, you must defend the right of Africa to rise. African writing must launder Africa’s image or be irrelevant. You must scold the scoundrels and put them in their proper place. Because that is what we do in Africa- older ones discipline younger ones.
And if any white person or group, whether one purporting to do good for Africa or not, denigrates Africa, by omission or by commission, it is your job to come down hard on them. Because white people need to know their place too in the cosmos. They shouldn’t stand in the way as we rise.
An African writer must love rights. Human rights. Womens rights. Gay rights. Animal rights. In that order. If you do not understand it, Google it. That is what the fast internet in your new first world country is for.
It is uncool to profess a foreign (especially white) religion. If you have one, (especially a non-African one) keep it to yourself. You did not become a popular African writer to further the cause of a white religion. Allow Jesus to handle his own business.
Most importantly, refer to yourself as an African writer. Begin every sentence with ‘As an African writer’. (However if you are of the new school and hip and find the term African writer too constricting, you may use the term Afropolitan.) Collapse the borders, make Africa a country again, for only in doing so can we make Africa great again. This name tag is your pass to heaven. I wish you a glorious hustle as you make the transition from local writer to African writer.
This post is published with permission from Elnathan John
Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

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