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Literary Networks and Digital Media in Contemporary African Literatures

Aurélie JOURNO

Résumés

À partir de récents travaux autour de la production culturelle numérique en Afrique (Ligaga, Adenekan, Nyabola) cet article s’intéresse aux médias numériques et aux espaces virtuels — blogs, réseaux sociaux — en lien avec les pratiques littéraires contemporaines en Afrique. Son objectif est d’examiner les problématiques propres à la production et à la circulation des textes contemporains « nés sur internet », ainsi que les réseaux, à la fois virtuels et matériels, qui les sous-tendent. Il s’appuie sur un éventail d’exemples tirés de l’Afrique anglophone contemporaine, allant des magazines en ligne (Bakwa, Saraba, Jalada, Hekaya) et des fictions publiées sur Facebook, aux romans populaires parus à compte d’auteur. Les auteurs de ces romans utilisent réseaux sociaux et blogs pour produire, promouvoir, et faire circuler leur travail, à l’image de l’écrivaine nigériane Myne Whitman et de la romancière sud-africaine Dudu Busani-Dube.
Dans un premier temps l’article, examine les rapports complexes que les productions numériques contemporaines entretiennent avec la matérialité du tirage papier et la valeur littéraire qui lui est généralement associée. Dans un second temps, il interroge l’idée largement répandue selon laquelle les espaces numériques ne sont dépendants ni d’un ancrage géographique, ni du secteur de l’édition et de ses structures de pouvoir. Enfin, en analysant deux initiatives kényanes récentes (Jalada et Hekaya), l’article se penche sur les périmètres d’action et les incarnations géographiques de ces réseaux littéraires virtuels, ainsi que sur leurs interactions avec les réseaux matériels et les réseaux sociaux, à travers des événements comme les festivals ou les ateliers d’écriture.

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Texte intégral

Nothing is recently born.
All things are not new,
from primeval times they have been.
Only oscillations in form, we see and feel.
Or what are communal tales
told under gleaming trees
in the village square to
Facebook, Twitter and others?
Yemi Soneye, 2010

1One of the ways in which the internet and digital media have been apprehended is through the ideas of newness and of revolution. The encounter between the literary and the digital is one of many “first contact narratives” (Liu 1), that foreground irreversible change rather than elements of continuity. However, as Liu states, when a new media is understood as “fully embedded in history rather than (as when it is facilely said that the internet makes books obsolete) post-historical, then it appears to be trickily both before and after its time, both (to borrow from Peter Krapp’s analysis) avant la lettre and déjà vu” (Liu 12). On the continent, this statement echoes the poem quoted above and Achille Mbembe’s claim that “Africa was digital before the digital” (Mbembe). Mbembe stresses the central role of circulation and mobility in African cultures, past and present, as well as their flexibility and capacity for innovation, features that, according to him, are also central to the “spirit of the digital” (Mbembe). In reading literature produced and circulated in the digital age — mainly from 2000 to the mid-2010’s —, it therefore seems necessary to bear in mind the celebratory rhetoric underlying narratives that present the Internet and digital spaces as radically new, democratic, unmoored to geographical boundaries, and unbound by structural constraints of all sorts. However, these narratives might obscure the digital’s continuity and entanglement with pre-existing literary geographies, media, as well as local and global political and economic structures.

  • 1 It is worth noting however that those figures are based on infrastructures that allow for Internet (...)

2Over recent years, a growing field of research has been devoted to African literature produced and circulated online, whether around popular culture (Ligaga 2012; Yékù 2015&2017), Facebook fiction from Southern Africa (Bosch Santana 2018) or Tanzania (Reuster-Jahn; Diegner), or contemporary short stories and poetry from Nigeria and Kenya (Adenekan 2012; Adenekan 2016; Adenekan & Cousins). If, as Ligaga has argued, much had been written previously about the Internet, those studies “tended to focus on issues of lack” (Ligaga 1), obscuring the vibrancy of online activity. Recent reports tend to mitigate this perspective, highlighting the increasing use of smartphones to access the internet (Sambira), and as reading devices (Kulesz 49-52), especially among the youth, as well as the development of ICT hubs in major cities across the continent and their role as a drive for innovation (Kalan). The continental “digital divide” (Mutula 2007) remains, of course, an issue, as a brief look at the latest numbers published in March 2021 by WorldStats regarding Internet penetration in Africa confirms1: with an average of 39.3% Internet penetration and 12.8% of world Internet users, Internet penetration rates remain below the world average of 58.8% (WorldStats 2021). However, the growth in Internet users on the continent rose by 5,500% between 2000 and 2020 (WorldStats 2021). Despite this tremendous growth, within the continent, the divide between countries remains very wide: while Kenya has a very high internet penetration rate (85.2%) other countries, like Malawi, still have low rates (13.8%). This leads to the necessity to nuance and complicate any picture of the Internet in “Africa” and to keep in mind that discourses around connectivity tend to leave out the unconnected (Oguibe). Furthermore, though Internet-connectivity has been increasing on the African continent, access to services is often constrained by corporate concerns and geo-restricted through regional lockouts on key services (Counted & Arawole), thus making it impossible to conceive the Internet as a singular, equal and homogenous space.

3Taking up the call for more research into non-Western Internets and electronic literature (Bosch Santana 2018, 190; Hu 7), the aim of this paper is to engage with digital media and online spaces — blogs, social media — in relation to contemporary literary practices in Africa and present a range of issues surrounding what has often been presented as a “revolution” or a technological turn, the impact of which, in the history of the book, would be comparable to Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, or even further to the shift from scroll to codex (Chartier). The rhetoric of revolution leads us to question the impact of the emergence and development of new media on all aspects of the production of literature: from the way literature is created, to the form(s) it inhabits and the ways it is attributed value, circulated, consumed and read.

Digital media: a “new materiality”?

  • 2 “digital publishing offers solutions to two of the major problems which face print publishing, name (...)
  • 3 They are too numerous to be extensively quoted here, for a comprehensive overview, see Zell (regard (...)
  • 4 This tension is not specific to Africa, however.

4The rise of virtual spaces — blogs, Facebook, online magazines — devoted to literary practice or commentary as well as of e-books on the continent raises the question of the form and materiality through which literature is produced, circulated and read. As book historian Roger Chartier has argued, there is an ambivalence and anxiety surrounding the potential effects of the internet on reading habits and on the economy of book production. Many saw the rise of the virtual spaces and social media platforms leading to the death of the reader, even the death of literature. In the publishing sector, the same ambivalence is visible: faced with a crisis in publishing, digital publishing is often presented as a potential solution, a cheaper way to produce and circulate books2 (Carré) that might exist alongside print while others predict digital books will replace printed books altogether (Chartier). On the continent, a growing number of initiatives promoting e-books3 in both the educational and literary markets, despite remaining concerns about accessibility, points to a relative consensus among African publishers that “digital and print will go hand in hand in the foreseeable future” (Zell 18). However, though Zell contends the most important is to get books to the readers through any media — print, e-books, smartphone apps — (19), he still presents new technologies and social media as having played an important role in “a diminishing reading culture in many countries in Africa” (19). This ambivalence or tension between the digital as a competitor to print and reading on the one hand, and as a new form and platform that might on the contrary revive reading and writing on the other hand is palpable here4.

  • 5 In her paper, Harris makes a case for considering the public space of the “streets” as a site of li (...)

5Much of the discussion around literature produced online seems to focus on a shift from the printed text, often collapsed with the book, to the screen, no longer limited to the dissemination of (moving) images and sound, but now a space of textual proliferation as well, one that might, in turn, produce new ways of reading and writing. However, as Ashleigh Harris notes, the realization that much literature on the continent is produced and circulated in more or less formal spaces outside the book, both on- and offline, might be a timely call for literary scholars to “move away from the book as the primary site of the literary” to consider “street literature5” as well as more ephemeral online forms.

  • 6 In the Displacement special issue (2015), for instance, we read the following “This special issue i (...)
  • 7 New products sold by publishers such as POD (Print On Demand) books also reflect this. As Julian Co (...)

6Looking at literature produced on digital media and circulated through the Internet and social media platforms requires us to question the link to the medium and its very materiality. In an online manifesto entitled “A [S]creed for Digital Fiction”, scholars of digital fiction offered the following definition of it: “fiction written for and read on a computer screen that pursues its verbal, discursive and/or conceptual complexity through the digital medium, and would lose something of its aesthetic and semiotic function if it were removed from that medium” and explicitly linked new literary art to the “new materiality” of the digital medium (Bell & al.). In such a definition, the texts produced for e-readers or even sold on mobile phone apps should not be considered “digital fiction”. As Stephanie Bosch Santana has argued, this narrow definition leaves “little room for the many forms of contemporary literature that move between the virtual and the material” (Bosch Santana 2018, 188-189), which is, for example, the case for many small magazines on the continent whether “digital native” or not. Each issue of the Nigerian online magazine Saraba, for instance, is presented as a downloadable pdf file meant to be printed, with recommendations regarding the best way to display it on a computer screen and print it6, hinting at the fact that online publishing is often a first, economical step towards print7. Emmanuel Iduma reflects on the idea of print as linked to a material object which can be owned: “There is something also about publishing in PDF that makes it really really cool; people have something to take away from the web” (my emphasis, Wallis 2013). Other online magazines, such as the Cameroonian magazine Bakwa, are at first glance organized as blogs with dated individual posts, classified in categories and numbered “issues”. The September 2018 issue, entitled “Pain” was the first to be presented as a downloadable pdf file. In the online presentation of the magazine, “A Brief History of Bakwa Magazine”, Dzekashu MacViban retraces the history of the magazine’s creation in 2011 and highlights its flexibility in form and periodicity:

  • 8 It is worth noting that their latest issue, “Family Politricks”, was published in print in February (...)

After six online issues, which were more often than not quarterly, we decided to switch to a less predictable weekly publishing model, in order to address urgent topics and fit into ever-evolving cyberspace. Flexibility had always been very important because it guaranteed adaptability and reinvention. […] As the year unfolds, we’ll roll-out various changes (some of which started last year) — from food reviews, to podcasts, and revert to quarterly themed issues. These issues, which will be on pdf, and longer than the content we feature on the website, will pick up where we ended, with issue 8. This will be followed by a reissue of our back issues in pdf, and who knows, maybe print8. (MacViban)

7As these examples show, the very form — as text and as sound — and content of online literature is shifting and eclectic, but in these cases, the attraction of print — and the value attached to it — remains: online publishing is not only concerned with exploring the potentialities of a new materiality but also with finding ways to produce and circulate content more cheaply and more rapidly.

8The Kenyan literary journal, Kwani?, on the other hand, though exclusively released in print, has included within its pages elements taken from existing blogs (Kwani? 4, 2007) or an email and its fictitious reply (“Fw…Fw”, Kwani? 1, 2003), or SMS messages (Kwani?5, 2008). Its third issue (2003) contains a love story by Roger Akena, written in Sheng and in the form of a photo novella featuring pictures of two iconic Nokia phones, on the screens of which the readers follow the SMS exchanges between two lovers. This embedding of digital texts in print, by reproducing on the page the way they might have looked on a screen, might be seen as a form of remediation (Bolter & Grusin) in reverse, with new media forms (emails, blog posts, SMS) being remediated in an older media (print magazine). It points to the magazine’s founders’ early acknowledgement of the vitality of virtual and digital spaces as unexplored and unofficial spaces of expression, because of the exclusion of those voices from print. In a 2006 interview with Doreen Strauhs, Binyavanga Wainaina thus stated: “Expression left the printed page a while ago” (qtd in Strauhs 126). Publishing such forms in print therefore points to the need to archive those transient forms, but also to validate them through print (Wallis 2016, 40). In the Kenyan context, this endeavor is intimately tied to issues of censorship and the historical status of print and more generally of mainstream media, that have historically been “seen as tools for articulating state power in the public and private lives of Kenyans” (Ligaga 3). In such a context, then, incorporating such forms into the “book” is also a political act.

9These examples point to the impossibility of conceiving digital media and spaces as cut off from their print counterparts, and to the dialogical relationship between print and digital media, through processes of multidirectional “remediation” (Bolter & Grusin), a relationship that is mediated by power and value structures.

10The changes brought about by digital publishing, as McViban’s quote also illustrates, might be read through the adjective “liquid” mobilized by Wesley Thompson in his analysis of digital publishing in South Africa (Thompson). He argues that: “In a digital format it is simple to reproduce extracts of books on websites and in new unforeseen ways, on a range of platforms. As it is liquid, the information can be commented on, spread virally via social media sites, and interacted with — it is no longer one-dimensional, but sinuous” (qtd in Zell 25). Distribution and content and knowledge production are also more “liquid,” as content is created and circulated more widely than ever before. As Yékú has argued in his analysis of Taiye Selasi’s fan fiction “Thighs Fell Apart”, published on the literary blog Brittle Paper, these new platforms “democratize and decentre authorial space, opening up more user-generated engagements and reformulations of traditional modes of cultural representations” (Yékú 2017, 263-264). The digital media is also beginning to be explored from a “hybrid, multi-platform perspective, drawing upon the different talents in the culture industry” and as a “social space gathered around certain stories and forms of narrative” (Bakare-Yusuf). The online collaboration between Ugandan poet Juliane Okot Bitek and Kenyan artist Wangechi Mutu to commemorate the Rwandan genocide, analyzed by Danson Kahyana, offers one such example (Kahyana).

11Rather than oppose digital media to print, however, Soneye, in the poem quoted above, focuses on the link between “communal tales told under gleaming trees” and the virtual communal spaces of Facebook and Twitter. By framing such digital platforms as possible contemporary equivalents to the “village square”, where tales circulate between the teller and their audience, in a specific, localized space, the poem leads us to look at online platforms not only as (new) vehicles for tales, but also at the way in which they might re-institute telling as a communal act, one that triggers direct interaction with an audience, defined by a sense of belonging to a given community. As Dina Ligaga has shown in her study of Kenyan popular website mashada.com (2012), virtual spaces — “forums, blogs, chat room dialogues and various social networks” (4) — allowed what “had existed as oral communication,” as gossip and rumors to become online written texts, thus disrupting “Kenya’s dependence on the printed word as truth by legitimizing oral cultures that could now exist, unedited, side-by-side with well-researched written pieces” (4) as well as a highly policed public space. A number of studies have traced the remediation of oral literature and the reconceptualization of oral poetics in digital media, such as Yékù’s study on the Nigerian trickster hero Akpos (Yékù 2015). In this paper, Yékù clearly demonstrates how the use of modern trickster hero narratives engage with power relations in Nigeria and may “contest the hegemonic truths of dominant classes in Nigeria” and gesture towards a “recovery of popular agency” (246), through short forms — such as jokes written in the form of a dialogue — easily accessible online.

Virtual spaces as free, collaborative spaces of literary exchange?

12The discourses on digital media and literary practices often foreground the ideas that digital platforms represent spaces that are free from boundaries and constraints of all sorts. They are presented as spaces of modernization, of decentralization, of unimpeded circulation and of participatory, democratic exchange. In his interview with Rob Spillman, for instance, Binyavanga Wainaina provocatively calls for the death of print (“Print has to die”) and argues the future of literary production on the continent lies in the digital (Spillman). Similarly, Nigerian critic and blogger Ikhide Ikheola, in a 2012 interview with Emmanuel Iduma, stated: “the digital world has democratized the reading and writing culture. Writers are suddenly finding themselves being held more accountable publicly than before. I am excited to be part of that movement to democratize the literary culture” (Iduma). This democratizing process is presented as twofold. For writers, digital publishing might be a way to bypass traditional hierarchical publishing networks and their gatekeepers, giving more power to writers to retain complete control over what they want to publish rather than cater to specific markets and tastes imposed on them by the book markets (whether national or global). Readers, for their part, because they are presented as playing an active role in shaping, discussing and validating the content produced online, seem to become active participants in the production of literary value rather than mere consumers (Adenekan 2014, 139; Reuster-Jahn).

13Many African writers celebrate the internet as a space of opportunity. In his memoirs, Binyavanga Wainaina stresses the importance of the internet in his writing career, from his being able to publish his Caine Prize winning short story “Discovering Home” in the online American magazine G21, to his meeting Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and fellow writers on online forums (Wainana 189). In a Saraba issue dedicated to “Technology” (2010), Myne Whitman, in an article entitled “Writing and Publishing in the Age of Social Networking,” points to the role played by online spaces in almost all the steps of publishing her first book, Heart to Mend. She mentions that writing groups and online writing courses allow for the professionalization of literary practice, which led her to launch her personal blog. The blog served as a testing board for her work in progress, a space where the comments of readers and fellow bloggers shaped her work. Thanks to this, she was able to complete her manuscript, which, however, was refused by local and foreign publishers. She chose self-publishing and her Heart to Mend came out in December 2009. The arguments she gives in favor of self-publishing are twofold: on the one hand, she foregrounds the idea that doing away with publishing houses acting as intermediaries allowed her to retain “full control over the content, design, and marketing” (Whitman 2010, 5) of her book, and insists on the circulation of her book nationally and globally, two recurrent arguments made by self-published writers. Moreover, she presents social media and her blog as platforms that allowed her to publicize her book, writing: “If not for the social networking channels, A Heart to Mend would never have gone viral the way it did” (Whitman 2010, 6). She stresses the importance of mastering communication methods (“word-of-mouth tools”) on Twitter and Facebook, and once again, literary intermediaries — agents, publishers — seem to be made unnecessary. Zimbabwe-based Irene Staunton makes a similar point when she writes that very often self-published authors “will do better in terms of sales than a publisher would, as they are able to carry the book with them to informal selling points such as bars and cafes” (Staunton 51).

14The “networks of relations of exchange” (Bourdieu 230) that structure the literary field and produce literature are here apparent but seem to be reframed or re-inscribed within different types of networks, which intersect with those of the historical publishing and distributing sectors, but in which personal relations and those developed on social media are presented as central. In an interview with the Johannesburg Review of Books, bestselling South-African writer Dudu Busani-Dube stresses her reliance on personal connections for the cover design of her first book of the Hlomu series: “The cover of my first book was modelled by my two colleagues. The picture was taken at my office parking lot by another colleague who is a photographer. It helped that my friend’s husband is a graphic designer, so he did my cover” (Malec). Echoing the way the podcasts analyzed in Kate Wallis’s and Madhu Krishnan’s paper operate, literary production is presented here as a form of entrepreneurship that relies on forms of “social cooperation” (Hardt and Negri 143) that ultimately blurs “the lines between the space of the family and the space of literary production” (Wallis and Krishnan 6). Also foregrounded in Dube’s discourse is the rejection of the perceived literary hierarchies and value system that structure the publishing industry (“I have total disregard for the rules of literature as they are, and what is perceived as a good book or good literature”) and the claim to a form of unmediated relationship to readers: “They inspire everything because they are who I write for and about” (Malec). What is at stake here is how such narratives place emphasis on forms of collaborative literary practices enabled through the internet and social media, practices that seem to provide an alternative to the traditional publishing circuits. If those narratives seem to “challenge the notion of the narcissistic authorial voice or the cult of the ‘genius’ that is at the heart of book production with its obsession over the individual celebrated author, which masks the collective efforts that is involved in any act of creation” (Bakare-Yusuf), self-publishing success stories, as told by writers, paradoxically reduce the “collective” to two entities. The main actors, or so goes the narrative, are the writer — who endorses a variety of roles, from agent to editor to publisher and publicist — and the readers — whose demand justifies the book, whose comments shape it, while, at all stages of the process, digital platforms are presented as key. The timeframe of book production is also considerably shortened, and many narratives focus on the speed at which books are written, produced and sold, leaving little room for various stages of editing that might improve the end-product. If the turn to self-publishing is explained by the difficulties faced by African writers to get published by publishing houses (Adenekan 2014, 137), the “short-circuiting” of such processes raises questions surrounding the quality of the writing produced, as Niyi Osundare argues: “Genuine authors, authors who stay long in the literary tradition are hardly ever made that way. Book publishing takes a long time. It also takes a long time to become an author, especially an enduring author” (Adesola).

15Adenekan likens digital publishing to Onitsha market popular literature, arguing that the online literature produced today captures the Zeitgeist of contemporary Africa, and that rather than debating the “literary” quality of such texts, one should, following Justin Reich, look at this “new set of shared cultural texts created and distributed outside the traditional, hierarchical publishing networks” (Reich, qtd in Adenekan 2014, 137) and the ways in which readers engage with them. Beyond the research mentioned earlier (Ligaga; Bosch Santana 2018), more detailed analyses around the nature, form and content of readers’ interactions through blogs’ comment sections and social media platforms are needed to balance the image often given of social media as a space of “relentless enthusiasm” (Silverman, qtd by Zell 17) and “glowing endorsement by fans” (Zell 17), where “going viral” forestalls any critical discussion about the content produced. If this celebratory rhetoric has a performative effect and might empower emerging writers, I believe specific case studies might allow for more nuanced analyses that would add complexity to this pessimistic vision — underlain by the binary divide between the seriousness of print opposed to the frivolity of the digital (“there is usually an absence of critical reviews, of the kind that one used to read in African literary magazines in their print formats, sadly now a vanishing species,” Zell 17, my emphasis). Exploring alternative and often digital platforms devoted to the curation of literature and to critical commentary, like blogs (US-based Brittle Paper, Kenya-based James Murua blog, and many others), might shed light on new forms of critical interventions online. Kate Wallis’s and Madhu Krishnan’s analysis of two contemporary literary podcasts as new spaces of “commoning” offers insights into how those critical interventions might find their way online, and presents “critical models that make visible the structures of literary and cultural production through ideas of relationality centered on the specifically social condition of interpersonal alliance-formation” (Wallis and Krishnan 16).

Literary Networks

16The collaborative practices mentioned earlier shed light on new forms of structuration of literary life, with fewer ties to the formal publishing sectors — historically linked, in Anglophone Africa, to British publishing houses — and often conceived of in terms of networks, that unfold both in the virtual space, and in physical spaces during events such as workshops, festivals and book launches, through interpersonal relationships. These new forms of structuration are often presented as mitigating and disrupting the hierarchies and power structures of national or world literary spaces. Binyavanga Wainaina, in an interview with Rob Spillman presents “all these amassed networks” as a formidable power for African literature: “You start to get the sense of this piling up of power and production, which is now larger than the sum of any parts you can see. That certainly has meant more to writing out of the continent than any other thing” (Spillman). Associated with digital media because of the “virtual networking” those allow, the notion of “network” celebrated as a new form of empowerment needs to be better defined to be a truly useful hermeneutical tool. In Les réseaux littéraires, Alain Vaillant, defines a literary network as “a non-institutional but stable system of relation and communication between various actors of literary life” (“un système, non-institutionnel mais stable, de relation et de communication entre divers acteurs de la vie littéraire”, Vaillant 125). As such, it is often parallel to institutional literary systems, and based on various forms of literary sociability. According to Vaillant, the shape and structure of the network has an impact on the way works are produced (their poetics) and attributed value.

17Some features of these emerging literary networks have been highlighted by scholars. Adenekan and Cousins have emphasized the belonging to an often transnational or diasporic African middle-class as a pre-requisite for writers to join and participate in such networks, because of the “ownership of such material goods, education, and technological skills necessary to participate” (2014, 6). One could argue that self-publishing also has a cost and requires capital. Kate Wallis’s research (Wallis 2018) has shown how emerging writers who connect with internationally published writers such as Binyavanga Wainaina or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie could in turn benefit from the material, symbolic but also relational capital the latter had gained through their international trajectory but also through the local literary institutions they created or associate with (Kwani Trust, Farafina Trust), highlighting how “physical exchanges in African cities, interpersonal relationships, and digital technology have all been vital to the construction of a literary network with the power not only to consecrate with cultural value, but to enable the creation and publication of writers and texts” (Wallis 2018, 181). The literary network Wallis analyses is described as “pan-African”, “operating across, outside, and between national spaces” (Wallis 2018, 169).

18This brings us to the issue of scope and geographies of literary networks made visible through digital technology and to common conceptions of the virtual space as freed from both time and place: “the Internet neatly obliterates the connection to geographical and temporal locations” write Cousins and Adenekan in their 2014 article. Adenekan has shown that writing online provides writers with greater thematic freedom (2014) and allows them to stage their belonging to some form of “transnational middle-class.” However, even in the case of the diasporic creative middle-classes, ties to the nation remain strong. Although they met online, the collective of intellectuals and writers behind the creation of Kwani? mainly consisted of Kenyans who launched a magazine, which was distributed nationally, and in which national issues (such as the fraught memory surrounding the Mau Mau, in its first issue) remained central, despite the journal’s promotion of an outward-looking and cosmopolitan approach to literature.

19The entanglement of virtual and material literary geographies emphasized by Stephanie Bosch Santana (2018, 190) is also visible in the way physical events such as workshops can lead to the development of networks of varying scales and scope, but that strongly rely on digital technology. Two examples are revealing here. The idea behind Jalada, a pan-african online magazine and “collective” launched in 2013, emerged during a workshop hosted by Kwani Trust in Nairobi, with Ellah Allfrey, a Zimbabwe-born UK-based Granta editor and judge for prizes dedicated to African writing, and two novelists among Granta’s Best of British Young Novelists list, in a venue provided by the British Council. This workshop allowed a conversation between writers from South Africa, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Nigeria and Kenya to start and continue online through a Google group which worked as a virtual literary salon/workshop where people posted their work and commented on one another’s work. The first issue of Jalada, “Sketch of a bald woman in semi-nude and other stories” on the topic of insanity, consisted of texts written exclusively by members of that group. They then opened the magazine to other contributors, and in 2015, Mukoma wa Ngugi, an early Kwani? contributor who had established the Cornell Mabati Prize for Kiswahili literature the previous year, contributed a poem in xhosa to Jalada’s Language issue (2015). This led to a collaboration with Ngugi wa Thiong’o to launch the connected 2016 Jalada Translation issue, in which Ngugi’s gikuyu parable “Ituĩka Rĩa Mũrũngarũ” (“The Upright Revolution”) was translated into almost 75 languages and hybrid languages (such as “Sheng”, “Kreol Morisien” or “Naija Languej”). The symbolic capital brought to the project by Ngugi wa Thiong’o allowed Jalada to gain recognition and visibility worldwide (with articles about the issue published in The Guardian or Le Monde). In a personal interview, Moses Kilolo also underlined the importance of social media and the Internet both in finding translators and in reaching a continental community of readers. The most read translation, according to Moses Kilolo, was the Sesotho version, something he explains by the “close-knit literary community” in Lesotho (personal interview, 2019). The translators are described on the Jalada website as “translators of all levels of experience, from a recent high school graduate to distinguished professors” (Jalada 2015). Through this initiative, a database of translators was set up, paving the way for future collaboration and professionalization.

  • 9 The Swahilipot hub was created in February 2016, and its aim, as stated on its webpage, is to offer (...)
  • 10 In a series of interviews conducted during the 2019 festival, many young writers and poets insisted (...)
  • 11 Collaborative authorship in the form of a “cadavre exquis”, where each participant takes up the sto (...)

20Another network was born through a workshop convened by Kwani and moderated by Yvonne Owuor and Billy Kahora in Mombasa in 2015 to promote writing from the Coast. The stories written during and following the workshop were to be published in the ninth edition of Kwani? but the publication was delayed. After participating in other workshops organised by Writivism (under the mentorship of Yewande Omotoso), the Miles Moreland Foundation and Nairobi-based Storymoja, one of the participants, Abu Amirah, an aspiring writer based in Mombasa, decided to launch an online magazine dedicated to promoting new voices from the Kenyan Coast: Hekaya (short story in Kiswahili) in 2017. The first issue entitled “Jihadi Brides and other stories” features stories in English and Kiswahili that talk to local issues (such as religious radicalization) and are steeped in Swahili and coastal culture. It launched the first edition of the Swahili Litfest in March 2019, aiming at celebrating the legacy of political and literary heroes of the Swahili Coast and discussing the future of literary and artistic production on the Coast. In collaboration with another participant in the Kwani workshop, Lubnah Abdulhallim, Hekaya also organizes monthly workshops in the Swahilipot hub9, symbolically located behind Fort Jesus and next to the offices of the Swahili Cultural Centre. After attending several workshops, Lubnah Abdulhallim decided to create the “Creative Writers League” that combines offline workshops and online mentoring, through a WhatsApp group where writers and poets share their work. A blogger herself, Lubnah Abdulhallim has encouraged aspiring writers and poets from the Coast to start their own blogs10. One of the key arguments made both by Abu Amirah and Lubnah Abdulhallim is the need to develop a local community of writers, in order to be able to “do things on [their] own terms” (Abu Amirah, personal interview) and “[do] something of [their] own rather than wait for other mentors to come along and mentor [them]” (Lubnah Abdulhallim, personal correspondence), but also to use collective and collaborative platforms as a way of locally increasing visibility around literary practice. Recently, Hekaya launched a travelling fiction initiative: working on a short write-up, writers and poets from the Coast (in Kenya and Tanzania) were invited to add 2000 words and pass it on to the next participants. The aim was to create a seamless, networked story that would incorporate the voices of emerging writers and poets, in English and in Kiswahili, all based on the Coast. The result was published in 2020 as a collective novel Kaskazini (Abu Amirah, personal interview 2019)11.

  • 12 One may note the rise of Africa-based literary festivals since the late 2000’s, parallel to the gro (...)

21The location and scope of the architecture of the networks behind these new initiatives vary from Jalada’s contemporary pan-Africanism that reactivates the language debate from the 1960s and uses digital platforms to promote translation and writing in African languages and reach continental audiences, to an initiative like Hekaya which, though transnational, is hinged upon the strong linguistic and cultural community of the Indian Ocean Coast, and which explicitly points to its inscription within a somewhat overshadowed or minorized centuries-long history of Kiswahili literature. These new networks rely heavily on digital platforms (WhatsApp groups, Facebook, blogs), but also exist beyond them in the physical encounters and exchanges that take place through the spaces of sociability that workshops and festivals represent12. As such they could be defined, following Bosch Santana, as “paravirtual”, “digital-age networks that […] operate ‘alongside and beyond’ the virtual sphere” (Bosch Santana 2019).

22The way such networks might evolve in time — how they might become institutions of sorts —, the way they intersect with institutions and literary structures — foreign foundations, donor cultural institutions — on the continent and outside it, the community they delineate through the use of language or their inscription in space on various scales, are aspects that need to be further studied, along with the works that will come out of those networks.

23Literary production online is ever-shifting and ever-evolving, with new platforms invested for literary creation and the circulation of texts. With the global pandemic for example, digital spaces have been invested by festivals and many events were held online, allowing for different audiences to come together. If digital spaces offer keys for new forms of collective, popular engagement with literary production and participate in questioning traditional notions of “authorship” and the reduction of literature to the “book”, they cannot be dissociated from the more traditional circuits of literature that still play a major role, financially and in the ways literary value is attributed. Still many questions remain to be further explored: one may for instance wonder whether forms of direct author/reader relationship may replace the value attributed by “traditional” publishing houses, that are still, in many respects, the tastemakers of foreign markets.

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Notes

1 It is worth noting however that those figures are based on infrastructures that allow for Internet access and do not necessarily reflect the actual number of Internet users.

2 “digital publishing offers solutions to two of the major problems which face print publishing, namely cost and distribution.” (Carré n.p.)

3 They are too numerous to be extensively quoted here, for a comprehensive overview, see Zell (regarding the Anglophone world) and Carré (for French and African languages).

4 This tension is not specific to Africa, however.

5 In her paper, Harris makes a case for considering the public space of the “streets” as a site of literary production for the youth (through books sold by street vendors, and public poetic performances), writing “With overhead-free initiatives, with free and open access to audiences, emerging in various parts of the city, the street becomes a sustained site on which youths sharpen their literary skills” (Harris 11).

6 In the Displacement special issue (2015), for instance, we read the following “This special issue is published in A4 and best viewed at 75% with bookmarks. Printing off a regular printer is recommended” (2).

7 New products sold by publishers such as POD (Print On Demand) books also reflect this. As Julian Cox, CEO of African Books Collective (ABC) pointed out in a recent interview: “Print-on-demand production is faster, cheaper, and requires lower up-front investment than traditional print technology: most importantly it avoids the costs of warehousing and freight” (Joulin).

8 It is worth noting that their latest issue, “Family Politricks”, was published in print in February 2021.

9 The Swahilipot hub was created in February 2016, and its aim, as stated on its webpage, is to offer a platform and a space where a local community of artists can collaborate and showcase their talent.

10 In a series of interviews conducted during the 2019 festival, many young writers and poets insisted on the role played by Lubnah Abdulhallim in encouraging them to start their blogs, and many have done so.

11 Collaborative authorship in the form of a “cadavre exquis”, where each participant takes up the story and continues it is also presented on Myne Whitman’s blog with the Cupid’s Risk serial story (Whitman, undated).

12 One may note the rise of Africa-based literary festivals since the late 2000’s, parallel to the growth of literature produced online. Examples of such festivals are the Storymoja festival (founded in 2008 in Kenya, in partnership with the British Hay festival), the Writivism Festival (created in 2013, Uganda), the Ake Arts and Books festival (founded in 2013, Nigeria).

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Référence électronique

Aurélie JOURNO, « Literary Networks and Digital Media in Contemporary African Literatures »E-rea [En ligne], 19.1 | 2021, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2021, consulté le 26 janvier 2022. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/erea/12822 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/erea.12822

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Auteur

Aurélie JOURNO

Aurélie Journo is a Lecturer with the English Department of the University Sorbonne Paris Nord working on contemporary East African literature. Her work focuses on literary networks and sociability, as well as on small magazines past and present, published in print and online. She has published papers in Postcolonial Text, Études Littéraires Africaines, Social Dynamics and chapters in books focusing on contemporary literary production from Anglophone Africa. She co-edited an issue for Itinéraires, Littératures, Textes, Cultures entitled “Interrogating the African Literary ‘Renaissance’” (2019).

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