Ernest Hemingway and the Country He Called Africa

Not too long ago (in January), I joined a few African writers in expression our dissatisfaction with a publisher’s reference to Africa as a country in the “Foreword” of an anthology of stories by African authors. The publisher (Author-Me.com) and the editor (Winona Rasheed) apologized for the error and promised to reissue the books with corrections. Still, both Author-Me and Rasheed, in their correspondence, managed to throw in the word “nation” in reference to all of Africa, and we left it at that; at least two publications were going to be corrected.

Since then, I have somehow been carrying out these internal debates, thinking about the history of Africa, thinking that perhaps Winona Rasheed does not (deep down) care so much about the imperialistic demarcations that led to the Africa map as we know it today; that somewhere in the discourse on Africa, does an argument by an Africa author defending the state of Africa as a continent end up self-defeating when one considers the made-up, often divisive and conflict-infested boundaries imposed by outsiders on Africa? Anyway, that Authorme-Rasheed incident left me thinking and searching for clues as to how this argument may be made to make sense; I usually seek clues in literature first.

And Ernest Hemingway, a writer I have always not had time to read, is no help.  Listen to him in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”:

“I love it. I’ve loved Africa… I’ve loved the country.”

“I love it too.”

Do I hear someone saying: So?

Well, “All these years I’ve thought Hemingway was not Rider Haggard.” I can’t bring in Joseph Conrad yet; I’m still entranced by that well-crafted nightmare  “Heart of Darkness.”  

But wait until I speed through Green Hills of Africa!

Valerie Tagwira Wins the NAMA Award

Valerie Tagwira’s first novel, Uncertainty of Hope, has won the NAMA award for best fiction. The awards ceremony, held on February 13 at the 7 Arts Theatre in Harare, Zimbabwe brought together seasoned and new artists.

The nominees of Outstanding Fiction Book were: White Man Crawling – John EppelThe Uncertainty of Hope – Valerie Tagwira

Tears of Water – Christopher Gwata

Valerie Tagwira has touched the hearts of many readers worldwide with her first novel, which has, to use Joyce Carol Oates’s terms, provoked, disturbed, and aroused our emotions about life in contemporary Zimbabwe. Some readers have begun to request that the author start work on a sequel.

VALERIE TAGWIRA TALKS ABOUT THE AWARD

Sigauke: What does this award mean to you, considering that this recognition of your work has come this early into your career?

Tagwira
: The award means that The Uncertainty of Hope is being accepted and recognised as an outstanding work of literature. I am pleased and I feel honoured.

I hope that receiving this award will translate into wider readership and distribution. This is important to me because when I set out to write The Uncertainty of Hope, my aim was to highlight a host of issues that affect women and their families in the political, social and economic climate that is prevailing in
Zimbabwe. I also wanted to show how decisions that are made at the top by the authorities can sometimes work against the interests of the ordinary man, woman and child. Hopefully, this award means that the message which drives The Uncertainty of Hope will reach a much wider audience. Also,this award is symbolic to me as a victory for the women who live under very difficult conditions,like the ones around whom The Uncertainty of Hope is centred; women who wake up at 3am and go to bed at midnight, doing back-breaking work just to keep their families fed.

Sigauke: Some readers have shown interest in reading a sequel. Do you think there is a possibility of extending the story into a sequel?

Tagwira: I don’t think I will write a sequel. However, there are themes that I started exploring in The Uncertainty of Hope that I would like to pick up and develop further. There are also characters that I would like to look at again and see if I can tell their stories from another angle.

Sigauke
: Although you lead a busy life as a medical doctor, you have extended the scope of your art to include short stories (and poetry). Do you see this trend growing? What can the readers expect from you next?

Tagwira: I am going to continue writing. With the short stories for example, one has been featured in the Dec/Jan 2008 volume of African Writing Online. Another is going to appear in a 2008 anthology by Weaver Press, and I have other short stories that are in various stages of completion.I am also going to keep writing poetry but I am not sure how much of it I will be submitting anywhere because it is the most personal form of writing that I am doing at present.

[Originally published at Munyori Poetry Journal]

New Munyori Issue on February 15

Question: Your persona in “Child of the Streets” presents a very interesting angle, all alone and lost among thousands of other city dwellers. Does he perhaps represent your own exile?

Zvisinei Sandi’s Answer: Giggs tends to look rather like a mental image, doesn’t he? Almost like the majestic bull with the evil leprechaun sitting on it’s back. But Giggs is a real person – a lonely, homeless teenager, strong and full of promise, but wasted among Harare’s rubbish pits. I met him a few years ago while interviewing homeless people for my novel, Vagrant Souls. We sat and talked, shared my packed lunch, I gave him the few Zim dollars in my purse, and then he walked away. I never saw him again. “Child of the Streets” is a mixture of what he told me, and the impression I had of him. On whether he reminds me of my own exile… Yes, he does. Rather poignantly.

[Appearing in Munyori Poetry Journal on February 15].

Winona Rasheed Apologizes for Calling Africa Country

“My name is Winona Rasheed, and I am asking that you please except my sincere apology in referring to Africa as a country instead of the continent that it is. This anthology of African writers will be revised so that it refers to Africa as a continent.”

These words from Winona Rasheed came a few hours after the owner of Author-Me.com, Bruce Cook, left statement on Wordsbody stating that reprints of the Africa anthology containing the error would reflect the correct representation of Africa as a continent. Author-me.com’s apology was timely, as discussions of the error was beginning to spread all over blogosphere, with some speculating that the use of the words may have been poetic, a special use of the word that deviates from convention, an invention; besides, isn’t the word “continent” itself just a made-up signifier, which bears no inherent relationship to the signified?

But, as readers of Wordsbody had inferred, the use of the word was indeed erroneous: “It was not my intentions to offend anyone with my mention of Africa.” Rasheed added, “Regardless of the error, country versus continent, it does not take away from our writers, or any human being who has literary talent.”

In her long statement, Winona Rasheed restated Bruce Cook’s argument that the error does not take away from the value of the work Author-Me-com is doing to promote African writers:
“These books aren’t about Winona Rasheed. These books even with the error in Africa’s description are about the heart of Africa and its people. It is about the talented artists who are making a name for themselves; and yes, I am proud to be able to help them accomplish this goal.”

A passionate promoter of writings from Africa, Rasheed believes that the writers have to be given a chance to showcase their works, even though Africa has many problems. Rasheed wrote, “Would anyone say that Africa is a nation without conflict and turmoil?”

Perhaps someone might argue that such a nation (whatever the word means) does not exist, or, in the interest of artistic promotion, accept the apology and pretend not to have noticed the slipping in of the word “nation.”

Preview of new Munyori Poetry Journal Issue

The next issue of Munyori will showcase works by these ten poets: Zvisinei Sandi, Prince Mensah, Tim Kahl, Shilla Mutamba, Carol Lyn Grellas, Jerry Barrow, Tad Richard, Jason Viscanti, Gary Beck, and Gu Xie. Three new interviews will feature Zvisinei Sandi, Prince Mensah, and Tim Kahl. As always, Munyori welcomes essays and book reviews.

Publisher to Correct Africa-is-Country Error

The owner and publisher of Author-Me-com, Bruce Cook, has claimed primary responsibility for his company’s reference to Africa as a country. In a letter to Wordsbody, the blogger who first exposed this error, Cook said, “I agree that this is quite serious, although I imagine that similar errors occur with many who have not had the opportunity to visit a distant country.”

Author-Me.com has been instrumental in promoting budding writers from African countries, including such award-winning authors as Monica Arac de Nyeko of Uganda and others. Cook told the Nigerian Vanguard in January 2008 that helping African writers was a dream come true for him since he had always wanted to provide a forum for the talent Africa had to offer. So to have his managing editor, Winona Rasheed, make this error must have come as a shock.

“Please permit me to speak in Winona’s behalf here, for I read your blog as an unfair personal bashing of her, with complete failure to recognize her work, ” wrote Cook , adding, “She has worked for author-me.com for over 4 years and has freely (no compensation) devoted at least 20 hours a week to helping African writers and managing an international crew of editors. I believe that judging her person by this one error is unfair.” He admitted that he did not intend, through his defence of Winona Rasheed, to “minimize the importance of the error”, but he acknowledged that “ignorance of Africa and its situation is so prevalent in the USA that it distresses anyone who cares.”

In an effort to address this issue, Bruce Cook has promised to re-issue the books with corrections. “Regretfully, with a book, the issues already sold will contain the error,” he wrote.

Cook has asked Wordsbody and everyone who criticized Rasheed for this error to give her “the credit she deserves for working so hard in behalf of African writers, who deserve to have much greater opportunities in the literary world.”

Wordsbody, clarifying that the attack was not on Rasheed as a person as it was on the mistake, has welcomed Cook’s statement as ” an acceptable way forward on this matter.”

The error appeared in the forewords of the anthologies Africa 2007 and 2008.

Things Fall Apart 50th Anniversary Celebration

When Chinua Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart 50 years ago, he did not have any idea that the novel would gain the influence that has made it a towering influence in African literature. The novel has sold over 11 million copies worldwide and has been translated in over a dozen languages. Considered by many a rich introduction to African literature, the novel has touched the lives of many worldwide.

Peter Monaghan, a correspondent for The Chronicle of Higher Education  covered the event marking the 50th Anniversary in New York City.  Achebe is reported to have said:  “I was alone in my room, scribbling away, and if nobody had paid any attention at all to me, I wouldn’t have been terribly surprised.”

“Things Fall Apart does not idealize Nigerians; far from it. In Okonkwo, for example, Achebe depicts courage and nobility but also ignorance and cruelty. The mighty Okonkwo beats his wives and kills a child. Fellow villagers leave twin infants in the bush to die because twins are considered evil, and mutilate the bodies of dead children so that their ogbanje, or spirits, do not return to torment their mothers again,” Monoghan writes.

Literary Contests & their Discontents

This week witnessed what Wordsbody called a “stunner” in the world of literary contests when Zadie Smith announced that she had failed to find a winning story from the 2008 entries to The Willesden Herald Short Story Competition . In a letter to interested parties, she revealed that the literary world was in an appalling state, with bookstores increasingly stocking their shelves with poor quality, mediocre, “cookie-cutter” stories. Smith, a writer whose novels I own, went on to state that she and the other judges had been turned off by “hundreds of jolly stories of multicultural life on the streets of North London. Nor are we exclusively interested in cutesy American comedies, or self-referential post-modern vignettes, or college satires.”

She revealed what may count for good writing: “To be even clearer: if these things turn up and are brilliantly written, they will not be ignored. But we also welcome all those whose literary sympathies lie with Rimbaud or Capote, with Irving Rosenthal or Proust, with Svevo or Trocchi, with Ballard or Bellow, Denis Cooper or Diderot, with Coetzee or Patricia Highsmith, with street punks or Elizabethans, with Southern Gothic or with Nordic Crime, with Brutalists or Realists, with the Lyrical or the Encyclopedic, in the ivory tower, or amongst the trash that catches in the gutter. We welcome everybody. We have only one principle here: MAKE IT GOOD.”

Of course the world woke up to be shocked by these words and it immediately responded, furiously. Within ten hours, Zadie Smith and company posted another letter, which, in part, read:

“Bowing to common fury, the prize will be split equally amongst the shortlist, all of whom have written strong and worthy stories. Our honest problem was that we didn’t feel we had found a stand-out for the big prize, and we were trying to set the highest standard, but we did it clumsily and, as many have argued, there’s no reason not to award the money, since it’s there. Maybe you lot can read them when they’re up and choose your own favourite.”

Then things took a suprising turn; a majority of the writers declined the generous offer. Who would, right? The judges then announced they would stick to their original decision of keeping the money until next year. But comments kept flooding, and blogosphere went haywire, leading to another emotional turn of events: The judges decided then to give the money to charity and threatened to cancel the competition altogether.

Interesting moments in literature. MFAs should feast on this next week.

The Willesden Herald To Give Story Prize to Charity

First, the money was not going to be given away since no entrant had been “good enough”; then, responding to the fury of the writers, Willesden Herald was going to  split among the ten shortlist writers, who, feeling insulted, declined the offer. Willesden Herald then decided to stick to the original decision of not giving the award, but writer talk continued, and now the money is headed for England’s Comic Relief charity. The plug may be pulled on the competition altogether.

Writes Ossian of Willesden Herald: “Thanks again to all, and apologies for disrupting and upsetting so many people, but I hope you will feel that this outcome [giving the money away to charity] is an adaquate penance.”

This Time the Writers Tell Zadie Smith “No, Thank You”.

“As the majority of the writers have declined the offer of money and being listed and having their stories on the website, it has been decided that the original judgement will stand”.

No matter how one looks at this matter, it comes back to Zadie Smith deciding that the shortlist writers to the  The Willesden Herald  Short Story contest were not “good enough” to warrant giving away the Prize. The writers, in declining the offer of splitting the money, are making a strong statement about their integrity, that one author’s dismissal, first, of their work, and her accomodation, later, of the stories as close to being good enough to receive a piece of the Prize, is not a good reason to act desperate. Good for them!

Let’s take a look at another quote from the Prize: ” Zadie was so disturbed by the idea of not selecting a winner that she even suggested she stand back and that the short-listing judges pick the winner. However, this would have deprived us of the patronage of a writer of Zadie’s stature and so this honourable offer was declined.” 

The judges have given their last word on this issue, and they look forward to writer enthusiasm for next year’s contest. They should double the prize money, and include the interest this year’s amount is going to gain.

The judges had more to say:   ” we do not regret running a competition that looks for excellence.”

Zadie Smith Decision Update; Be shocked.

In an even more bizzare literary moment, Zadie Smith has decided to let the “not-so-good” shortlisted writers in the Willesden Herald Short Story Contest split the 2008 prize, after readers posted harsh comments criticizing the initial decision. Was Zadie Smith pressured by reader feedback to reward these writers of works she had determined substandard? In an update on the Prize’s Blog, she wrote:

Bowing to common fury, the prize will be split equally amongst the shortlist, all of whom have written strong and worthy stories. Our honest problem was that we didn’t feel we had found a stand-out for the big prize, and we were trying to set the highest standard, but we did it clumsily and, as many have argued, there’s no reason not to award the money, since it’s there. Maybe you lot can read them when they’re up and choose your own favourite.

Poor Smith; can’t we live in a world where an exemplary author should be able to dictate what new talent is worthy, even if it means waiting a whole year to give away the award to “strong and worthy stories”?

Short Story Entries Not Good Enough, Zadie Smith Tells Contestants

“This is a difficult thing to write. Just like everybody, we at The Willesden Herald are concerned about the state of contemporary literature. We are depressed by the cookie-cutter process of contemporary publishing, the lack of truly challenging and original writing, and the small selection of pseudo-literary fictio-tainment that dominates our chain bookstores. We created this prize to support unpublished writers, and, with our five grand, we put our money where our mouths are,” writes Zadie Smith in a letter to the 2008 Willesden Herald International Short Story Prize entrants.

Smith argues that most entrants tried to reflect in their stories the themes that she has dealt with in her own novels, and this did not  impress her. The contest was looking for works “good enough” to win the 5000 pounds. 

This competition has been postponed to next year, when Zadie Smith will try again to find a story that’s “good enough”.

Sacramento Poetry Center Contests

Contest 1: The SPC has announced its 2008 Poetry contest, open to all poets.

This year’s entry fee is $4 per poem.

First, second and third prizes will be awarded [$100, $50, $25].

In addition, 10 honorable mentions will receive $10 gift certificates.

Please send two copies of each poem, one with your name and contact info, another without any identifying information on it.

No restrictions on length, subject or style.

Judging will be done by a suitably notable area poet whom SPC will announce [in other words, a poet to be named later].

Deadline: February 15, 2008
Fee: $4 per poem

Send poems to:

Sacramento Poetry Center Poetry Contest
The Sacramento Poetry Center
1719 25th Street
Sacramento, CA 95816

Contest 2: For High School students

Winners will receive prizes including a $100.00 Grand Prize, books, scholarships to the SPC Writers’ Conference (April 5, 2008), and publication in The Tule Review, Sacramento Poetry Center’s literary journal, or in Poetry Now, the official monthly newsletter of The Sacramento Poetry Center. Winners and Honorable Mentions will also be invited to perform their work on April 14, 2008 at The Sacramento Poetry Center’s venue at the HQ for the Arts, 1719 25th Street in Sacramento. No entry fees required.

Deadline: March 15, 2008
(3 poems maximum per student, please.)
Send poems to:
High School Poetry Contest
The Sacramento Poetry Center
1719 25th Street
Sacramento, CA 95816

Toni Morrison Endorses Obama

ABC Blogs reports that Toni Morrision has endorsed Baraka Obama for president. Staying true to her declaration that writers are political beings, the Nobel Laureate writes, “Our future is ripe, outrageously rich in its possibilities. Yet unleashing the glory of that future will require a difficult labor, and some may be so frightened of ts birth they will refuse to abandon their nostalgia for the womb.”

Certainly, a moment in literature worth capturing.