Perusing and listening in on an archive of 350 emerging as well as well-established African poets has never been easier.
One reason that there’s been so much interest in the challenges and prospects of several new African presses is that books in Africa are often luxury goods. In my own home country Zimbabwe, which has one of the highest literacy rates on the continent, a recent regulation placed a 40% duty tax on all imported books. And African readers often cite their frustration at the limited circulation of their work by local authors – as in a recent Facebook exchange between Kenyans eager to discuss the work of award-winning Kenyan poet, Clifton Gachagua.
This is the first in a series of posts about contemporary African poetry and where to find it. The series borrows its title from an album by the great South African pianist Dollar Brand (now Abdullah Ibrahim). First released in 1974, the album seems a perfect mirror of what’s most exciting about the writing and publishing coming out of Africa (and its recent diasporas) these days. The album opens with Ntsikana’s Bell, a song attributed to a Xhosa figure influential in Africanizing Christianity in the seventeenth century, and the other tracks draw on Swazi and Muslim influences. The album’s hopeful declaration of a present anchored in indigenous histories and honoring diversity resounds through the communities of writers and readers increasingly accessible through internet publishing, new presses, and a variety of audio formats. For lovers of poetry, there is good news from Africa.
Jalada is a “pan-African writers collective” based in Nairobi that has been publishing anthologies of new writing on-line since early 2014. They publish poetry alongside fiction, photographs, essays and reviews, as well as occasional interviews – or Jalada Conversations. Their most recent (and largest) anthology just came out this week, and it looks like a game-changer. Each issue is assembled around a theme and this quarter’s, The Language Issue, brings one of the most long-running debates in African writing – what binds such a vast diversity of locations and cultures together, and how do we reconcile the imperative to enrich local vernaculars with literature and the access that a lingua franca like English, Arabic or Kiswahili enables.