I love a bit of romance from time to time. Although, I haven’t read anything strictly under the genre of Romance in a while; not since I was an adolescent indulging in the likes of the Mills and Boon franchise, and even a teen book series not dissimilar to the Sweet Valley High books. As I said, I love a bit of romance but it isn’t usually accompanied by good taste.
Yet somehow my own reading history as a youth in London was echoed by the panellists discussing Romance in the Digital Age at Africa Writes; the Royal African Society Annual Literature and Book Festival this past weekend (3rd to 5th July) at the British Library. Both aforementioned book series were referenced on the panel of African authors, publishers, and scholars as examples of the limitations of the “modern” Romance genre available in the mainstream in both Western and African countries. But let me backtrack before getting into that.
I arrived at the festival on the Saturday and although I was only able to stay for two panel discussions, it was definitely worth taking a look-see. The festival was being held in the Conference Centre at the British Library; just before you reach the main entrance. Two women were stood outside the Centre in Africa Writes t-shirts, handing out booklets to the festival, and directing people to where it was held. I was intrigued by the way they were deciding who should receive a booklet – bald Caucasian man, no, but me with a kente print backpack as I casually tried to saunter past them to the clearly signposted festival, yes. I was grateful though; it was a useful booklet.
So I arrived and looked around for my friend who had agreed to accompany me but eventually cancelled half an hour later (you know who you are and you owe me an outing). Upon entering I was struck by the rainbow of Kente cloth colours adorning the bodies of the young and hopeful that filled my vision; and the literature fans from across the African continent animated with their excited chatter, only seemed to add to the positive buzz of the place.
As I took my seat ready for the first panel, I was further impressed by all the perfectly styled natural hair, twists, braids (hair really does say a lot about a person) and the multi-coloured beads that adorned the necks and wrists of so many. It was not what I would usually expect to find on the Euston Road, but maybe I’ve been living a sheltered life.
The panel on Romance in the Digital Age was riveting; where four panellists (Bibi Bakare-Yusuf, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Ndinda Kioko and Kiru Taye) and a facilitator (Emma Shercliff) discussed the term “African Romance” and its existence potentially segregating a subject that is universal to all nations: Love. This promoted further discussion about Romance as a genre and what it is currently seen as (Mills and Boon’s Eurocentric, fantastical characters versus more gritty, realistic stories) and how new African writers are trying to change that narrative.
One of the panellists, Kiru Taye, is an author of romance novels with plots predominantly based in African countries, and described how when writing one of her first novels (she is now on number 13) she had made the main characters millionaires, but her publishers were much more interested in characters who lived in the slums of African villages; representing their misguided and prejudiced views of the modern Africa we know today.
Abubakar Adam Ibrahim was the only man on the panel, and was asked what it was like to write romance from the male perspective (he recently contributed to a Valentine’s Day Anthology) and he recalled wistfully how he had only ever written one other romance story as a teenager, heartbroken over a girl. He had enjoyed the process though, and remarked on his interest in getting underneath the emotions of a story.
Ndinda Kioko described bringing sex into the conversation (she is part of a collective of writers called Jalada who published an anthology called Sext Me last year), as something that is lacking in terms of African literature and our approach to romance. She made special reference, as did other panellists, to the cultural norm across African countries that dictates a sex talk between a parent and child to be “don’t look at that boy or you’ll get pregnant” – pointing towards a shyness at discussing something that can play a big part in our understanding of romance, passion and desire. As an adage, Bibi Bakare-Yusuf described her distaste for the Mills and Boon books as a whole, and a desire through launching her publishing house Cassava Republic to tell alternative romance stories, from a feminist and empowering perspective.
These are all topics that have been written about at length throughout history, and panellists in their respective professions, were making strides towards bringing them to the fore, for readers from varying walks of life, and especially for those of African descent that are searching for characters who represent their own lives and cultural experiences. Perhaps this foray into redefining the Romance genre into something more realistic will help move the literature away from a stereotypical, formulaic view of romance that no longer exists, to the more complex but just as potent romantic relationships depicted by writers such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her book Purple Hibiscus.
The discussion could have gone on all day, but sadly we were limited to 45 minutes, so instead I resigned myself to follow the panellists on social media; a more acceptable version of stalking apparently. I stayed for one more discussion, which was a book launch of Frances Mensah Williams book From Pasta to Pigfoot; and I am planning a book review of her first fiction novel so keep an eye out for that article.
Although I only got a snapshot into the festival (I had to leave early due to a pulled muscle from overenthusiastic dancing earlier that morning), it was eye opening and raised some interesting questions. In particular about what it means to be Black British African (although that feels now like another redundant label not unlike “African Romance”), and whether we as writers who fall into this category should be trying to include all these strands of our heritage into more of our writing? And what about those of us with African roots but whose experience is predominantly UK based? Should we continue trying to get into the conversation about being African writers?
The answer, I feel is yes, because culture and identity is an individual journey, and any human experience is worth sharing. Whether you grew up in a Nigerian family in South London and got up on Saturdays at the crack of dawn to help your mum descale fish for a christening party happening the next day, or spent your summers on Labadi Beach in Accra, your African identity is yours alone to write about.
And Africa has been writing some really powerful pieces of literature. Anyone interested in modern literature today should grab their laptop, phone or iPad and start Googling #AfricaWrites now.
Written for Idan Quarterly July 2015