African Literature and the Internet

I participated in a discussion of African writing and the internet. Below is an excerpt, as well as a link to One Ghana One Voice (OGOV) for the rest of the discussion.

Prince Mensah: Considering the present shape of African writing, what visible steps are being taken to use the Internet as a medium of communication? Are those steps enough? What impact does all this have on indigenous readers who might or might not have access to the Internet?

Michelle Labossiere Brandt: The Internet is turning out to be a fantastic gift to the African writer, and an immediate way to publicize one’s creativity. It is the diving board, a place to launch and in doing so extends out to those readers who don’t have access to the Internet!

Let me use my own community as an example. Our goal as an organization (RIFE & RIFG) was twofold: bring poets from Africa and Canada together to publish an anthology to raise money for a project in Ghana, and educate the average Edmontonian poet and reader as to the incredible pool of African writers/poets. We have achieved those goals and it all started through the long arm of the Internet, one of our main sources being OGOV. Since that time a number of local non-African poets have now become interested in African literature/poetry. Some of these local poets don’t have access to the Internet but they are avid readers, and come out to poetry readings.

The long arm of the Internet is a bridge for global writers to share their talent and inspire one another and thereby perhaps impact the world at large in a positive and creative manner.

Emmanuel Sigauke: Most writers have websites, blogs, Twitter, and Facebook accounts, and they use these as tools to publicize their works, to create a platform. These are effective tools of communication, but as there is too much of a wide choice of information online, what’s needed is a more effective channeling of the information to make sure that it reaches as many people as possible. In other words, there should be networking, targeted linking of the media that the writers use.

While the Internet is helping develop the literature in urban Africa and in the Diaspora, there is still a wide gap in communication with the majority of African readers. Many people in African countries have no access to the Internet, so whatever programs are represented online should be replicated on the ground in different communities and especially at the grassroots level. Writers should also be involved in outreach programs that promote reading and writing in Africa.

Nii Ayikwei Parkes: The state of African writing is a big question. I’d say it’s abuzz with possibilities and disjointed (which is not necessarily a bad thing), meaning that the next few years will tell us what is really happening.

Steps being taken – as Michelle has shown, and Emmanuel has touched on – are as diverse as the forms and stages of writing themselves. I was recently contacted by a Ghanaian poet who sent me links to tracks from a forthcoming CD online to listen to. That triggered two thoughts – one, we use technology very quickly and effectively (I live in the UK and wouldn’t have thought of getting cross-continental feedback) and two, the Internet means that the distance between the practising writers and aspiring writers is very small – there is a lot of promise in that if we (the practising writers) stay accessible.

As for indigenous readers, this can only be better for them, because they barely had access to work when there was no Internet anyway so there is no way technology can impoverish them, it can only enrich their experience – even if it starts with something as simple as quotes in text messages.

Martin Egblewogbe: As a result of low Internet penetration in Africa, I strongly suspect that most users of literary websites dedicated to African writing tend to live in the diaspora, and may have a readership that is mainly non-African. In this regard, unless the target audience of a Ghanaian writer is global or non-African, there is a fundamental disconnect when the work is published online; this is the disconnect of speaking without the possibility of being heard. To most people on the continent, the publication simply doesn’t exist. Therefore, the impact in terms of widespread acknowledgement is naturally constricted (to an extent, this is also quite true of many hard publications).

It is quite clear that our social reflex has not yet quite adjusted to the Internet, especially when it comes to publishing literary works: we can see potential, we know it can be used for something, but we are not very sure what, or how it will be achieved. We may yet be surprised.

At this present time, the use of the Internet as a medium for publication has both detrimental and positive effects, both on the writer and the art, the extent of which depends on the fronts listed earlier. I will probably expand on this as the discussion progresses.

Ivor Hartmann: From my own interaction as, and with other African writers, I’d say we’re on the cusp of a never before seen explosion of African literature. This is not without its pitfalls: anyone can now self-publish, but this does not mean that what is self-published will be good. I say it often but it still holds true: writers have to have good editors. We still need gatekeepers, as not everyone who thinks they are a great writer (and we all think that of course), is necessarily so. But (and its a big “but”), there is plenty of room for mediocre writers too, and market forces.

In Africa (and Diaspora) we writers have the tendency to want to be the next Soyinka, Marechera, etc. In other words, to excel strictly in ‘literary’ writing. Who can blame us? They are Africa’s literary heroes whom we of course aspire to. This however leaves a wide open gap in all the other genres that needs to be filled, and is currently filled with imported writing. It is this gap that I’d like to see filled locally.

There is a desperate need for more (affordable) print books on the ground in Africa. We writers may have heartily embraced the online world, but not so much our potential local readers for many reasons (89.1% of Africa does not have online access). There is an ever growing technological divide, and the vast majority of Africa will not have access to the digital literature age that is fast upon us. This means that while African writers do indeed now have access to far more international markets, the same can not be said for local markets where affordable print still rules.

Read the full discussion at One Ghana One Voice.

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