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The shades of African writers The shades of African writers
by Abigail George
2010-07-01 09:00:28
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Literally African writers are caught up, swept away from a great height by words, clichés by other writers; be they American or European. African broadcasts, radio bulletins, screaming headlines that fill the reader with sheer terrifying horror.  This is what gives our writers form. It gives South African writers a distinct, outspoken yet separate voice from other writers on the continent.

We use every physical and emotional experience that we have gone through to the full. We leave nothing behind only grounded by our temporary fears, exile, the drumming ache of our brokenness, the feverish anticipation that comes with the looking at the white page and the hidden trauma that becomes relevant with social changes and upheavals in a cross-section of communities across the continent.

African writers work is extraordinary in its depth and scope. We have fought a dogged and valiant struggle to find an outspoken and fruitful voice on an international platform and to win writing prizes on an international stage.

Writing is fast becoming a seductive pastime what with blogging on the internet. Now anyone can do it. Seeing your work in print, the words can be quite exquisite and can leave a first timer jubilant. It is one feeling that you can never wish entirely away. Why would you want to do that? It is your stamp of immortality sealed with delicious approval.

Good writers have to be avid readers. If you don’t read books (it doesn’t have to be intellectual, thick, high brow, a tome, wordy or abstract) how can you expect to grow in the genre that is your craft? How can you mould these starved, imaginative words to see them fit like thunder on the page, wait with bated breath as the wonderful idea of it dies out finally like ash in the embers of a fire; as it pursues and endures with freedom?

A writer’s education begins from birth when we attack, chortle our first words to our mother’s pleasure and our father’s delight. At first it comes with a strangled cry that threatens to choke or throttle us until it finally reaches a nonsense, yet charming mumbling.

As writers we often become so attached to our work that we love shielding it from prying hands and eyes, from any searching human face, scared of any criticism that would follow it lest we let go of it and surrender it to the jaded universe. Writers are on the whole sensitive creatures whatever gender or nationality they might be when it comes to what their mind’s eye gave birth to.

The Russian writer Vladimir Nabakov once said, ‘The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamouring to become visible.’

Truer words were never spoken. To reach that ‘miraculous feeling’ something magnificent must manifest itself. Often the words are there, hovering within reach but they remain shut up, shut out like sunlight caught between clenched fingers in a winter chill.

Now at school level for the first time we are being introduced to our kin; we are finding kindred spirits in African poets and writers; their language, their slang. In the arena in which African writers find ourselves in, all is not calm and peaceful, we find ourselves in rooms with walls that threaten to close in on us that we can only pretend to escape from in present company lest we divulge painful secrets from the cosmopolitan past of the African continent.

Writing gives us a new awareness of peace, gives rise to translucent images from our own unique perspective, telling arguments that comes with caution and issues warnings.

It is funny how a brush with poverty can put everything in perspective.

This has daily become an African writer’s burden to blaze trails under fire, to remain stoic, steadfastly encouraged where boundaries are drawn, across the borderline.

The racial tension in communities living on the brink of disharmony is suggestive and often lends itself to the outpourings of African writers on the page.

We are near danger now. We are failing readers who need to become literate in a society that fails to discover their gifts. We are failing those learners at a grass roots level because it doesn’t benefit, suit the elite social classes at tertiary institutions to do so. They see it as not being their duty. Everything they do is out of obligation. It is time to put these words into action; to stop dragging it on for years; we have to chase after it before it is too late. How can the problems we are facing with underprivileged teenagers left wanting, lacking skills, education and knowledge be more obvious?

We are near a fall out of writing from academics and intellectuals. Society says writers have something to say even in this day and age of African renaissance, the raging madness that sometimes comes with having a talent for creative expression and taking anti-depressants. There have been case histories of writers whose depression or mental illness have been linked to their spirited creativity and their prolifically stunning work. It came from childhood. Writers like Bessie Head and the Afrikaans poetess Ingrid Jonker.

Writing is an instrument. It is meant to be used as a useful tool to integrate nations, individuals across the barriers of faith, class and colour.

Writers wait for inspiration to hit them when they feel at their lowest; guess at the intensity behind their words. It is always the critic’s or the reader’s approval they are after. There was a time when we lived in turbulent times when books were censored, banned, writers lived in far off countries exiled, the shape and prowess of their intellect, their moving words lost forever, but now we live in relative personal freedom to put our thoughts, to pour our feelings down on paper, drown out the myriad of voices in our heads that threaten to overwhelm us, that we can’t seem to drown out, that threaten to go public with our permanent permission. This is just a day in the life of a writer; the trials of an African writer. Some days it is hard to take it slow.

Words with their quaint expressions that they give up captivate us from a young age for those who born naturally with this gift of writing.

The beauty of an African writer is that he writes from his heart. He is often self-taught by self-awareness from what he distinguishes around him, people who have died terrible but honourable deaths in the heartbreak of warfare, famine, men, women and children who have seen the revival of religion in churches, seen tragedy in refugee camps, colonialism, coups, revolutionaries.

Here African writers memorise the bleak pain, stunned hurt, the blank looks on the faces of children, women, men; innocent civilians who are innocent and do not understand this punishment. The African continent has a lot to answer for but Europe and America even more so.

History is our nemesis. It serves to instruct African writers as they seek honesty through pouring their heart out on paper. It does not become fade with time yet it grows with a faint, gnawing pressure like birds feeding on carrion.

The writer absorbs all this sorrow into near perfect, organic, neat, immaculate, clean images that he can draw from and expound on the screen of his laptop, computer, binder or pages of his scribbler. The writer makes notes, forms opinions amid blurred states of displeasure. Writers young and old can only seek truth from their own personal life experience.

Steve Biko said, ‘We have set out on a quest for true humanity, and somewhere on the horizon, we can see the glittering prize. Let us march forth with courage and determination, drawing strength from our common plight and our brotherhood. In time, we shall be in a position to bestow on South Africa the greatest possible gift – a more human face.’

All African writers should be selfless, humble and giving. It is demanded from us because of our history. We have all been half-formed by the time we reach adolescence and young adulthood; even at birth (although we can’t put it into words yet, since we speak a nonsensical language) already by what this continent has been ravaged by. We have not journeyed gently in our past. It seeks to serve us with destinations where the ends do not come quicker or quieter than was expected.

Now there is no time to relax; to take cognisance of the fact that there is a wavering stillness in the air. It is a stillness that places an extreme demand on us in this culture that we live in and our social and psychological spaces. It places an extreme demand on our enduring sources as well. They help us keep focus.

We have to roll up our sleeves and get to work to find elegant solutions and needed answers. We must let the young discover storytelling from their elders; their grandmothers and books and literature for themselves in the local libraries

Arguments, debates, politics, history, stories told in mother-tongue in the eleven languages of South Africa and even more African languages have yet to be told. Research has to be done. Interviews have to be done. It must be known by now that words by young and old, however self-conscious they might be, matter.

It is not yet over. The shades of African writers are just awakening.

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