Intimacy and the Exploration of Self: New Nonfiction Writing

This panel was moderated by Ademola Adefolami and featured Howard Maximus, Tolu Daniel and Sibongile Fisher, all published in the ‘Selves’ anthology, a collection of personal essays that have reverberated through Africa.

Ademola opened the panel by citing a critique published online, which claimed the writers of the anthology were ‘merchants of trauma porn’, then went on to ask if dictating what stories got told wasn’t gatekeeping. In response, Tolu said the writers of the anthology come from a generation whose parents are ingrained in trauma and enforced silence. If anything, he believes these writers are brave. 

In Howard’s view, such arrogant opinions come from a place of privilege. Experience often makes us more empathetic, and this is one of the benefits of reading. He continued, saying that he didn’t think of an audience when writing, and thus, would never censor himself based on an imagined reaction of his readers and family.

Sibongile said she finds terms like ‘merchants of trauma’ dehumanising because black bodies and their experiences are often politicised. She believes it is not her responsibility as a writer to teach the reader how to see her. Furthermore, it is not her place as someone who comes from an oppressed community to teach her oppressors how to see her and so on. She said space and time defines our existence, because an event must take place in a defined space during a particular time. Existence is already political, so it does have to be a conscious decision. She believes telling personal stories humanises the dehumanised, and is an effective tool for archiving. Her rules for choosing a story to tell are a set of questions,

  • Is this story my own?
  • Do I know enough to talk about it?
  • Does this truth oppress another?

She concluded by sharing that creative non-fiction relies on personal experience and memory more than cold-facts, which doesn’t invalidate an experience. She believes that, the fact that you experience a thing means that it is true.