Mentorship Opportunity for South African Writers

Hey, y’all!

A South African writer I’m personally familiar with, Karen Jennings, is offering a 12-week writing course in English to any South African citizen over the age of 18 – no prior writing experience required.

I met Karen through Writivism’s mentorship program, and she helped me edit a story that eventually made it into the longlist. From working with her over a period of approximately three months, I can personally vouch for her as a great and immensely helpful mentor.

Here’s a statement from Karen herself:

“I am a South African, married to a Brazilian, and in September of 2015, due to various circumstances, we were compelled to move from South Africa to Brazil. It has been a challenging and difficult time for me. Perhaps most difficult has been feeling removed from the country of my birth, a place that I love and had hoped always to be part of. This year I started to look at my life and consider how I could realistically be involved in the future of my country, in even the smallest of ways, at this distance and without the benefit of any sort of income to assist me. I was inspired by the organisers of Short Story Day Africa and Writivism who work incredibly hard to bring opportunities to African writers. With this in mind, I have decided to offer a mentorship/writing course to an aspiring writer for a period of 12 weeks, starting on 1 April 2019.”

The course information and other application details can be found via this link.

So, if you know anyone who might be interested, please pass the info along to them. 🙂

Thanks so much,

-Akotowaa.

An Unfortunately Political Post About the Importance of Non-Political Art

Warning: I circumlocute. (And I don’t mind it – or the fact that I just used a word which doesn’t officially exist – at all.)

Before we begin, let me establish that what I am not saying is that political art is not important. In fact, I am as capable of writing a whole post either about why it is so important, or even insisting that all art is political anyway – but that’s not what I feel the need to do right at this moment. Despite this introduction, I know from first-hand experience that human beings on the internet will roast whomever they want to roast no matter how legit, clear or how many the disclaimers are. I’mma keep writing tho’.

Now, I believe we’re all smart enough to barb that “political” implies far more than anything strictly governmental. It is with this broader connotation of “political” in mind that I am writing this post.

I know quite a number of people who seem unable to get particularly excited about any matters – especially creative matters – that do not, at least at surface level, have much to do with, for instance, the oppression of Black people in America, or political corruption in Africa, or fetishization, or patriarchy, or homophobia or, or, or…. So when it comes to art that seems to just want to exist because it can, art that although may contain some of these extremely relevant themes, does not necessarily make commentary on them their explicit focus, such people would rather just move on and try to find something more politically “relevant” to engage with. I genuinely believe that excessive display of this behavior/mindset is retrogressive. Now I’m going to go Jesus on you and give you a parable.

Once upon a time, there was a man who really wanted to be a landscape artist, to paint a variety of gorgeous mountains, rivers, deserts, and forests around the world. But one day, while in the paint shop purchasing numerous bottles of paint, the vendor told him, “I hope you know your paintings will never sell. Not with all this blue that you’re buying.”

The painter asked the vendor why not, and the vendor explained, “Because you’re wrong, as are all you landscape artists. The sky isn’t blue, never has been blue and never will be blue. It is only ever and will only ever be yellow.”

The painter got incredibly upset at the vendor and the two got into a heated argument. The vendor never acquiesced, though, and resorted to throwing insult after insult at the painter, who also refused for a long time to leave the matter alone, grab his paint and go. Hours later, the painter finally left the store.

Too upset to go home to his studio just yet, he sought the listening ear of his fellow citizens on his way back, seeking to vent to anyone. He stopped in a bakery and tried to garner sympathy for the ordeal he’d just been through. However, to his surprise, after listening to the painter for a minute, the baker responded, “But of course, the vendor was right. Who in this world ever heard of a blue sky?”

The painter was dumbfounded, but when he moved on, the haberdasher too took the side of the vendor. So did the grocer, the seamstress and the carpenter. It was past midnight when the painter returned home, despairing and wondering when the world had gone mad. But presently, the despair and confusion were replaced with a determined anger. He decided he was going to prove once and for all that the sky was indeed blue. So, he painted. He spent all night and all morning painting a blue sky.

Then, in the afternoon, with his latest canvas, he left his studio and went into town, and showed his beautiful sky to everyone he could find. Many people, however, were confused.

“What is it?” they would ask.

“Why, it’s a sky,” he would respond.

“But why is it blue?” they would criticize. “Skies are any color but blue!”

Consequently, this painter, for twenty years, painted blue sky after blue sky after blue sky. Rarely did he paint anything other than a blue sky. He became like a broken record, continuing to paint blue skies as the rest of the world moved on. At every exhibition and exposition, his messages were nearly identical. By the time he gave up the task, retired and put his paintbrushes down permanently, this man who had once wanted to be a world-famous landscape painter had never, even once, exhibited a single canvas of a whole landscape.

 

This Toni Morrison quote expresses what I want to say particularly with respect to racism:

“The function, the very serious function of racism, is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language, so you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly, so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Someone says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing.” – Toni Morrison.

Distraction. Miso-whatever is distraction, whatever-phobia is distraction, discrimination is distraction. It’s all distraction.

As if you couldn’t adequately include blue skies in several pictures of wholesome landscapes. Why let yourself be reduced? By the time my hypothetical painter dies, the only legacy he’s left is a one-dimensional representation of nothing but the same thing, when he had the opportunity to be so much more, even without ever compromising his conviction that skies could indeed be blue.

White authors write about any topic they like and get away with it. But heaven help the African-American who wants to make art about anything except Blackness, the African writer who wants to tell stories of anything other than colonialism, war or governmental corruption. Please, please, ma yɛn dwen. Let us think. The white people don’t have to waste years proving their existence is valid. They write whatever they like because their legitimacy to be is taken for granted – as everyone’s legitimacy to be should be. So, you see, the irony of the matter is that, as long as we keep predominantly responding to the dominant powers’ insistence that everyone else isn’t legit, we’re going to waste our whole lives saying, “We’re legit!” instead of legitimately living. Distraction.

I still think the best way to fight the distraction, oppression and reduction is to just be the complete human beings that we are. Being, oo. Not constantly talking about being, or talking about why it’s so important to talk about being, or throwing hands about people who keep suffocating being – but actually fighting the suffocation by continuing to be. To be. To be!

I recently watched, and thoroughly enjoyed a movie by France-exiled Vietnamese filmmaker, Tran Anh Hung, called “The Scent of Green Papayas.” It was about a house girl’s journey from poverty to pregnancy. It was a quiet, sensual and intimate movie. The circumstance of this girl’s living condition was, of course, the Vietnamese war. But the story was about her, this single human being, who wasn’t a soldier, wasn’t politically involved, wasn’t being chased down. Just being a house girl. And this movie made me as happy as the filmmaker’s response to a question he was asked in an interview. It’s not that I like that movie so much for what it was not. I liked it because what it was was beautiful. The movie was just being, and so were the characters. Here’s what Tran Anh Hung said:

“At first I thought, well, I can’t not talk about the war […]. I could have included certain things like news on the radio, a neighbor whose son is doing his military service […]. It did occur to me, but all this had nothing to do with the poem I wished to create. I was just not capable of having such external historical details enter into the poetic whole of my effort.” -Tran Anh Hung.

Let’s return to my painter parable. There’s at least one major problem with it: in real life, there might have been a super-huge number of people who would have been encouraging this painter to stay stuck on repeat, lying to him that he’s doing the Lord’s work by painting blue sky after blue sky. Not knowing, they themselves are being enemies of progress. Distraction and reduction. Danger of a single story. Speaking of the dangers of a single story, let’s talk about how our contribution to single story culture is related to the person who recently popularized the phrase.

I could rant about the pigeonholing of African writers – although nothing I can say will be more eloquent than Taiye Selasi’s words in what is still my favorite article on the internet.

As I write this, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has three novels out. Her first is my favorite: Purple Hibiscus. It’s also her least popular.  This used to confuse me and make me upset, but now that I think about it, the way the system is set up, it makes all the sense in the world. I don’t like the way the system is set up; I just understand the way it works a little more now. Her second novel is my least favorite, though it’s a good book and I’ve read it twice: Half of a Yellow Sun. I’m not speaking in this paragraph of how well I believe each novel was written; I’m speaking of the stories that appeal to me the most. I like stories, and the story of Purple Hibiscus happens to be the Adichie story I like the most.

To this day, I still believe that the commercialization of Half of a Yellow Sun is reliant on the fact that it heavily involves the Biafran War. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it is about the war – I think it is a love story – but I don’t believe it’s the love part of the novel that was its selling point in the commercial world. See, Those People love it when Africans be writing ’bout wars. Goodness knows why. But what I suspect is that to Them, anybody can write a love story – but don’t Africans have more important tragedies to be worrying about than love, anyway? Or, to put it in disrobed, Akotowian phrasing, “Aren’t Africans too busy being reduced to only tiny aspects of existence to be displaying themselves as complex, multifaceted, wholesome humans?”

“Can we really not imagine that the African novelist writes for love: love of craft, love of subject? Do we really believe that she is not an artist but an anthropologist, not a storyteller but a native informant?” – Taiye Selasi

Sometimes, I get sad because I feel like many of us don’t know how to simply let stories be stories when we’re dealing with any kind of product from creators we consider to be of historically or presently marginalized/oppressed identities. We always want them to do something, to challenge something, critique something, be representative of something – and not just any somethings, but the somethings we believe they should be doing, challenging, critiquing or representing – furthermore, not just anyhow, but explicitly; not like incorporating blue skies into our landscapes naturally, but making the blue skies take over nearly all of the canvas. Otherwise, the stories are not “relevant” to our societies. Ma yɛn dwen.

I believe many Africans I know dislike Americanah or find it inadequate because they came in not expecting to find a story about a Nigerian woman and a Nigerian man. They came in expecting the novel to do something political, like represent a nation, or a continent, or themselves, or to critique a nation, an oppressor, or someone else they don’t like, to do something other than tell you what Ifemelu and Obinze said, thought, did and felt. How can you be complaining that you don’t see yourself in the story or how it’s relevant to you, as if you hired Ms. Adichie to pseudonymously write your biography? Why is it so important for you to see yourself in Ifemelu? You live your real life, she lives her fictional one. But you’re too distracted by what you want one single character to represent for you, to properly lose yourself in a story that simply wants to self-identify as a story, or a character that simply wants to be herself or himself, a single character, not a template. Complaints that involve judgment about what kind of demographic an author’s audience is, or judgment of a character’s cultural relatability are in a completely different league from complaints such as “The story was boring,” or “The story was not well-told.” At least with the latter kind, you’ve paid attention to the story instead of being distracted by politics, reducing the art, reducing the author and reducing your mind.

I repeat: we fight distraction and reduction not just by talking about being, but by being. May we find the grace and the sense to let creators of various kinds be, and to let their creations be, and to realize that we are strengthening ourselves by being – and this, in the long run, is probably going to infuriate our oppressors more than nearly anything else we could do.

“People keep asking me to write about what I do (diversity, African scifi, powerful female characters, etc). I’d rather DO what I do.” – Nnedi Okorafor

Yasss, tell dem, sis!

We know we’ve made progress with being when the things we create aren’t seen as particularly extraordinary, earth-shattering novelties. Further expanded in a previous blog post (Stating the Obvious, I Think), and I stand by it.

Because of the nature of this post and how drenched it is in irony, I hope this is something that I won’t have to keep saying throughout my life. But the way the world is set up, I’m probably going to have to. Enough times to get sick of it. But even as I do that, I refuse to let it distract or reduce me. I have stories to write. I can’t waste my whole life trying to convince the world that skies can be blue. Ain’t gotta try to prove the truth everyday – although sometimes, the apologetics really dey hia. Moretimes, though, all I have to do is incorporate the truth without compromise. I am not a politician, I am not an academic, I am not a person who wants to spend my whole life critiquing, teaching or commenting on content. My personal responsibility as a creator is making content. Hell, I am the content. Selah.

-Akotowaa

The Super Solitary Art

They look over your shoulder and ask, with half-hearted curiosity, “What are you writing?” You wish you could adequately answer the question. As you’re struggling to come up with a satisfactory answer, your hands are also fidgeting a bit, trying to figure out how to handle that sudden urge to snap the notebook or the laptop shut. You’re so used to working in solitude, and are not yet comfortable with nakedness.

You’re kind of wishing that what they see with their eyes could be enough of an answer for them, but you know that the most useful thing they’ve managed to pick up is probably the title of the document, or the words in uppercase written at the top of the page. You already know that whichever two sentences they’ve processed out of everything available are in no way good enough to quench their curiosity. This bothers you, even though you know it’s probably inconsequential. You already know that in the editing process, at least 60% of what’s on this page is going to change anyway. It doesn’t yet reflect what’s in your head, which barely means anything, because what’s in your head also happens to change about every two seconds.

As you fumble with explanations to give that human looking over your shoulder, your brain keeps complaining to itself about itself, wishing its talent was something a bit more obvious, a bit more graphic, a bit less solitary, a whole lot more consumable. Why couldn’t you just be a visual artist? So that when someone asks you what you’re drawing, you can just avoid the question vocally by letting them look, letting them know that whatever they’re seeing is whatever you’re making. Why couldn’t you be a musician, so if someone asks what you’re doing, you can just unplug the headphones and play through the loudspeakers? Why couldn’t you be the kind of artist whose works-in-progress are at least in a presentable format? Who is going to read a collection of notes and half-formed paragraphs and understand whatever the hell you’re trying to create? (And in the moment you’re thinking these, you know in the back of your mind that every kind of artistry has its own set of issues, but you’re not in the mood to be objective right now. You’re flustered and frustrated.)

Your craft is so solitary and you get nervous because you feel like you can read people’s minds, and you think you know everything they’re thinking: that you never do anything, that you’re lazy, always sneaking off to lonely places probably to waste time or do mischievous things. You don’t blame them. They can’t see what you’re doing, for goodness’ sake. How can they trust that progress is being made when the only product is a document sitting on your computer and yours alone? Thoughts of showing people “whatever you have” in the middle of the process are repulsive to you because you can barely stand the nakedness that is allowing people to read the lyrical pile of crap that the world calls a “draft.” Won’t it turn them off to the final product forever? Won’t it destroy their perception of you as a literary hero when they see the far-less-than glamorous process by which a piece of writing goes from crappy to consumable?

When the human looking over your shoulder finally leaves, after having had to pretend they were fascinated by all the BS you were spewing to them, you look for relief by opening your social media apps. When you see a couple of those really lit, time-lapse videos of graphic or tattoo artists making masterpieces, the kinds of artists whose processes you can take in within 30 seconds, you close the apps, tell your hyperactive heart to be silent, your racing thoughts to slow down, and you pick up your pen.

You tell yourself to stop wishing, start writing. It’s the only sensible thing left to do.

-Akotowaa

When She Speaks Your Life

I wake up some days with unwanted particles of the sense of inadequacy sticking to my skin like the residue of dreams I never invited into my mind, and I want to flick them off, but they cling stubbornly like they are coated with adhesive. This is one of those days. Sunday, 19th February 2017. There is no apparent trigger. Thoughts of “my writing is not good enough” and “I don’t know how to do life but everyone else does” penetrate my mind’s firewall. Sometimes my firewall fizzles out into a mere tower of smoke whose ability to resist intrusion is laughable at best.

Many Sundays, I do not have the strength to rekindle the flames. The weight of the beginning week’s work begins to settle and my heart gets heavy. I pick up my phone and complain to my best friend, vaguely wondering how tired he must be by now of hearing me complain about the same damn things over and over again. I wonder if he has learnt these encouraging accolades that he always types in response by rote. And unfortunately, I wonder if either of us even believes them anymore, or if we ever truly did.

Church today is a healing service. The Holy Spirit speaks to pastors, directly revealing burdens, illnesses and infirmities borne by members of the congregation. We pray. A man’s eyesight, corrupted by some type of diabetes, begins to be restored. He can now read the worship lyrics on the screen and the small print on a business card. We barely hear him say the words, interrupting him with cheers and applause. He has tears in his eyes as he reads, and why shouldn’t he, when he has been the grateful medium for the performance of a miracle?

He is here. The Holy Spirit. I can sense his presence. I never wail or fall down dramatically when I do. My experience of her is through sensations within my skin, in my spine, within organs of my body that do and do not exist. Transcendental peace. He is here and he is working. Does he want to speak to me?

Things calm down after the healing. The pastor’s daughter sits in front of me to the left. She is doodling in a notebook, practicing calligraphy that I can see as soon as she puts the book down. It is gorgeous and I wonder if she is responsible for the calligraphic art on the walls and in the bathroom as well. Envy rises, pulling forth an unnecessarily long and troublesome string of connected thoughts.

I know a girl. I met her here in college. She is art without effort. You can see it in the way she dresses and the objects she owns. You can see it in the way her hand moves; whatever she draws is beautiful, she has made her room beautiful, everything she makes is beautiful, and she is beautiful. An evil thought: I would be beautiful too, if I was as creative as her.

Why am I an inadequate artist? How come, when I am constantly told I am creative, I can neither see nor manifest the creativity everyone else says I possess? I think of my dislike for a story I am writing and my cluelessness about how to begin another story I want to write. I start to panic. I start to pray.

A fictional demon called Screwtape encourages the ineffective prayers of humans who, for example, after praying for the virtue of being charitable, then try to elicit feelings of charity within themselves. As if humans can generate virtue. As if humans can give themselves what only God can gift to us. But if humans were able to manufacture the answers to their own prayers, they wouldn’t need to pray often, would they?

And so my prayer changes. Creativity is a gift and a virtue I have been mistakenly trying to generate. Of what I gave myself none, I cannot give myself more. Let its giver write through me to produce the content I was purposefully designed to produce, at the quality I was designed to produce it. Let him speak the words and use me as his medium. Why worry when he will provide?

The service ends. There is pizza for lunch and I join the queue. A woman I have never seen before walks up to me and smiles. I think she is coming to join the line behind me, but she remains at my side. So she is here to talk to me. I am used to church members engaging in friendly conversation with strangers for the sake of community, and I assume that’s what she’s here for. But I am wrong and the first sign is how she doesn’t ask me my name. This is because she is not here to ask me to tell her who I am; she is here to assure me of what I should already know about myself.

She asks me if I’m a student.

Yes, I reply, and I tell her my college.

Am I new here? She has never seen me in church before.

Well, I’ve never seen her either. I reply no, I have actually been coming since near the end of last semester, alternating between the early morning service and the late morning service.

“What are you studying?”

“I haven’t declared my major yet. I’m kind of studying everything right now.”

She smiles. A few seconds of silence.

“You are very creative. You are an artist.” She says them like statements, even though they should really be questions, given that she has no idea who I am.

“How do you know that?” I inquire, slightly startled. I look down at my ordinary black-tee-and-trousers outfit, wondering how anything about my person as presented could possibly have given it away, when I had never considered my outward appearance to be anything like my idea of self-styled wacky artist. “Do I look like I am?”

“No.”

“Then how did you know?”

She doesn’t answer.

“You just know?”

She smiles.

More moments of silence.

“You have a lot of passion. A lot of things you want to do as an artist.”

How do you know that?!” and I am nearly yelling now.

She smiles.

I am annoyed. Why won’t she answer my questions?

She asks me if she may pray over my hands. I am startled but I agree. I give her my hands, my favorite parts of my physical body, also the parts I curse and blame most often for causing my artistic inadequacy.

As I listen to her prayer, the words pass through my head as if my mind is a tube with two open-holed sides, but the meaning sticks, and I am freaking out. She is praying over my hands, over my artistry, and nearly repeating everything I prayed on my own a few minutes ago, back to me, back to God. She prays over my writing but does not know I am a writer. She prays over my drawing but does not know that I draw, that I wish I drew more often, that I envy artists, or how often I wish I was a better visual artist. She prays over the fruitfulness of any creative endeavor my hands deign to undertake, and I want to cry.

He is still here. The Holy Spirit. Working subtly, not in huge bangs nor in the deafening rush of a waterfall, but like a river whose reassuring trickling I am occasionally tuned in to hear. He heard my prayer. He prayed my prayer for me after he spoke my life. Perhaps he gave me that prayer in the first place.

Now that I have recovered somewhat from the shock of the moment, I just want to say: thank you.

-Akotowaa