Thoughts on reactions to my essay on Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s Tram 83

by Ikhide R. Ikheloa

Since publication of my essay on Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s book, Tram 83 (here), I have read some interesting feedback, most recently from Richard Oduor Oduku and Zukiswa Wanner . I thank them for engaging me respectfully, and found many of the numerous comments on their wall enlightening, entertaining even. A few thoughts:

1. My essay isn’t so much about Tram 83, but about the politics and power of narrative and how we conduct business. It’s an old debate!🚶🏿Sounds harsh, but after reading Tram 83, I wonder if the narrative that passes for “African literature” in the West helps or hurts “Africa.”

2. Many African writers of stature have attained fame and decent living from attaching themselves to the title “African writer.” Prizes, grants, fellowships, conferences are devoted to “African writing” and these things are heavily subscribed to by the same African writers who now chafe at the term. You can’t have it both ways. If you have allowed yourself to be defined (and limited) by a term, the reader should be forgiven for looking at you through that lens. You can’t be posing as a Western-sponsored African writer, and when asked questions you drop the tag, “African.” As I have said repeatedly in the past, the perks aren’t free! 😐

3. The reader as a consumer has every right to be prescriptive in terms of what he/she wants. You don’t have to cater to the consumer, it’s all right, this consumer can always go elsewhere, there is plenty supply out there, most of the good stuff is actually free. It works both ways; the writer should never feel any obligation to satisfy any readership. There are tons of readers out there, find your audience.

4. There is no true fiction; our people say that it is what is in your heart when you are sober that comes out of your mouth when you are drunk! Let it not be said that African fiction as we know it today is the last refuge of scoundrels and cowards. If you come to my home and my ancestral land and you insult me, my loved ones and everything that I stand for in the name of fiction, I have every right to do the same to you in the name of fiction.

5. If it looks like I am harping on and on about the same things, it is because to be quite honest, much of orthodox African fiction as we see in books is prescriptive (yes, that word) mostly timid, lacking innovation, its creativity stifled by the work of Western editors and gatekeepers whose first allegiance is to a paying reading [Western] audience. African readership is hardly part of the equation. What is the purpose of the writing anyway? It does not educate, it does not entertain, it does not improve upon the silence. What are you doing?

6. What gets lost in translation is important. The unintended consequence might come across as utter disrespect. Remember, the act of telling our stories in English, and then on paper, is in itself two levels of translation. We are built in the oral tradition. Moving from French to English is this at least three layers of translation. A lot gets lost in translation. When the narrator in Tram 83 seems to mock a people whose cuisine is “dog cutlets and grilled rat” it is impossible to see them as human beings worth engaging in on a respectful level. It is your language, you already have power over the narrative, if I told you that your foie gras is obtained from doing savage things to the liver of a cute bird (the lovely goose) I am communicating to you that I don’t take you seriously. You are savages. Where I come from we don’t eat sautéed termites, we eat irikhun. If you do not understand why this is so offensive to the reader, then we are on different planets.

7. Again, the translation in Tram 83 did nothing for me, with all due respect. I read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in English, it was as if I was speaking Igbo, I read Camara Laye’s African Child in English and it was as if he was reading to me in his language. Do the people really eat “grilled rat”? Is that what they see on their plates?

8. Another point that I need to bring home: We may be mistaking Diaspora [African] writing for African writing. In the 21st century, in the age of social media, who are these voices? And yes, they are considered “African” voices. If you don’t agree with me, you are disagreeing with Alain Mabanckou and Ato Quayson, read their words. You are the ones setting people up for what they are not.

9. Excuse me if I am not impressed: At least in the case of Nigeria, the most benign of African writers engage in navel gazing and satisfying middle class pursuits of Western readers and merely document Africa’s social issues to line their pockets. The rest are in cahoots with ruler-thieves.

10. And please don’t tell me that activism is not their responsibility; they are in the West, happily attending protest marches against dictators like Trump, as they should, and driving debates on racism, gender identity, etc, etc.

11. I think you all should read Amatesiro Dore’s essay; it focuses on the binary of Diaspora v indigenous writer, who gets to be acknowledged and what this all means. http://www.thescoopng.com/2015/01/28/amatesiro-ede-nigeria-produced-writer-worth-reading-since-1960/

12. For me as a reader, this is all academic, I could tell you that we need new writing; we don’t, I am on the Internet and on social media, enjoying the best narrative coming out of Africa in decades. There is little translation and most of the writers are readers who don’t know that they are writers, lol.

13. In the 21st century, it is inappropriate to judge the work of a writer based solely on their published works. It especially does young African writers a disservice, the vast bulk of their work is digital. These books that you all crow over are important but they are like less than 0.1 percent of their output. Why do you insist on judging them by books alone? I won’t, I don’t have to.

14. Ultimately, Mujila’s narrator in Tram 83 may be right: “There are cities which don’t need literature: they are literature. They file past, chest thrust out, head on their shoulders. They are proud and full of confidence despite the garbage bags they cart around.

15. Dear African writer in the Diaspora, what is your mission? Africa is a basket case. We know that! In the 21st century, does the reader really need a book of fiction to see that much of Africa is a basket case? We know that! It is all over YouTube! We do not need you telling us ad nauseam, we certainly do not need you exaggerating Africa’s already dire condition for the West’s reading pleasure.

16. The charge that I am a “critic” is one I am too lazy to disown. I am a reader who writes. I buy most of my books with my own money, I am not affiliated with anyone and I say what I have to say in my own space. What you do with it is your own wahala. I have written creative non-fiction and published them in reputable journals and as part of books, so this is not about me. I am not necessarily reviewing books, I am using the books that I read to continue a long-running dialogue about us and how we allow others to see us. It is complicated, I guess. Bottom line: The writer should simply write and the reader should simply read. Everything else is drama. LOL!

Molon Labe. I have said my own. Oya come and beat me! 😎