What does Ake Festival 2019 theme ‘Black Bodies, Grey Matter’ mean to you?
My published writing has been around the corporate space. In that context I have seen how multi-national companies often bypass capable and talented local staff in favour of expatriates. One of my strong beliefs is the responsibility of expatriate managers to develop local talent and create a genuine succession plan. Not only is it the right thing to do, it makes good business sense. I am sure much of the discussion here will be how African ‘Grey Matter’ has been ignored, discarded, derided and discriminated against in the literary context but it is equally true in the corporate world.
You are asked to write an African femme fatale as an alien. What physical attributes would she have?
For me it would be all in the eyes. Sure, attractive physical features would be part of it but the hypnotism that takes that attraction into the realm of ‘fatal’ shines through the eyes. In addition, classical ‘femme fatales’ all have a keen intelligence about them. Cleopatra, Salome or Josephine Baker would be examples.
What book would you give to a dark-skinned young woman who has expressed an intent to buy bleaching cream?
Maya Angelou’s ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.’ The whole essence of her work is self-determination and self-esteem. I would hope that anyone reading and engaging with it would come to understand that bleaching is a fundamental denial of one’s self; an act of sublimation to another person’s idea of beauty, of worth. I can think of no one better than Maya Angelou for inspiring a positive sense of self.
Does the African writer have a specific role to play in the current world order?
Arguably, the role of the African Writer has never been so important. The rise of Trump and the official state sanctioning of racism and colourism in the US have ramifications across the globe. Young writers of colour need to be in the vanguard of the movement that affirms the dignity of all people regardless of race, colour, gender, sexuality, faith and place of birth. In the face of terms like ‘shithole’, ‘infestation’ and ‘go back to Africa,’ we need a counter narrative.
Secondly, we are beginning to see some recognition in the UK of the importance of Black History in the context of colonialism and empire. Black British writers such as David Olusoga and Akala have brought a subject hitherto deemed ‘subversive’ into the mainstream. In many African countries today, much of the teaching of History still reflects the colonial curriculum. Writing that reflects genuine African historical perspectives without looking through the lens of colonialism can be inspirational.
Which person do you think best represents an African perspective in the ongoing discourse on gender?
In a way, I hesitate to choose her as she is almost too visible at the moment, but clearly Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie stands out.
You’re giving a talk at a symposium on mental health, which African novels will you reference?
‘The Children of Segu’ by Maryse Condé covers the psychological impact of the traditional male-dominated society on various women characters, of physical and emotional violence on slaves and on individuals seeking to break out of religious subjugation.
Flora Nwapa’s ‘Efuru’ shows a totally different reaction to the role of women in rural Africa. In circumstances that would drive a weaker woman to servitude and depression, Efuru proves herself resistant to the psychological pressure imposed on her by the village traditionalists, and finds her escape through Uhamiri, the goddess of the lake. Her individualism and refusal to be cowed are a progenitor to feminism and an example of a refusal to be coerced into accepting the traditional male agenda.
Name a character from an African novel that you could rewrite as a different gender, and why.
I wouldn’t. Any protagonist’s gender would be a fundamental part of his or her character so it would not be same novel.