A Writer’s Festival Manifesto
how writer's festivals stack up, according to Mukoma Wa Ngugi
A Writer’s Festival Manifesto
Mukoma Wa Ngugi
Have you ever been to a bar on stilts in the middle of an ocean with a bunch of writers?
If you are like most writers who also attend literary festivals, you probably have a similar story to tell. Recently, I have been thinking about what makes a successful literary festival. To my mind, as a writer, a successful literary festival is one where the organizers understand and appreciate the writers as professionals and design their festivals to give back to writers (at least, they give back more than they take).
High on my list of literary festivals is the Calabash festival, organized by the poet Kwame Dawes and artist, Justine Henzell in Treasure Beach, Jamaica.
This festival remains with me for many reasons. I come from a family of writers – my sister, Wanjiku Wa Ngugi’s first book, The Fall of Saints had just been published and so the invitation had been extended to her, my father Ngugi Wa Thiong’o and I so that the three of us shared the stage. So the event, billed as a family affair was bound to be personally fulfilling. There were morning runs with my younger brother and Colum McCann to the beat of the reggae music blaring from people’s homes.
But the location of this festival added an unquantifiable life changing value.
The stage itself is by the ocean – I mean the ocean is literally less than one hundred feet behind you; so to get on stage you turn your back on the ocean to speak to an ocean of over 2,000 black faces in front of you. This was a moment of Gilroy’s Black Atlantic connection – an occasion where there is no disjuncture between my words and my audience, no secondary explanations needed. And the events were well staggered out so that there was plenty of time to hang out with the other writers and book lovers. By the beach.
I take festivals seriously and see them as part of my work as a writer and scholar. I grow through conversation and learning from others. For example, I wrote a novel, Mrs. Shaw in 2007. In the novel told in alternating chapters, one character keeps a journal and another character fictionalizes that diary. There was just something about the novel that did not work and for six years I had not figured out why. Then a few drinks into one late night at the 2013 Callaloo Conference, in the cozy bar at the hotel we were staying, I mentioned this to Ben Okri. And he said, “Hey – just put the diary in the middle.” Something clicked. I got back home and reworked it, and submitted it to the Ohio University Press’s Modern African Writing series and within a few weeks it had been accepted for publication.
I’m sure many people reading this could share similar stories, where alcohol-laced, casual conversations with other writers and scholars have unlocked something in their writing. The play, that is so much fun, is also serious work for us.
So, it’s reasonable to see why festival organizers might feel like they are doing writers a favor. After all, we get to meet other writers and people in the industry that we would not otherwise meet on the festival’s dime. In addition to media exposure, we get to interact with our readers, and we get introduced to future readers. We get to travel to locations we would not otherwise afford to visit. But – and this is a big but – it only sounds like a favor if festival organizers do not see writers as professional workers whose work is to write and produce culture.
And, I’d argue – and I don’t think I’m alone – it’s this co-creation of culture that should be – well, cultivated at these festivals.
Take for example the careful and interested readers at the Berlin Lit Fest who helped me rethink my audience for Nairobi Heat. This is a novel in which the main character, Ishmael is an African American detective investigating a murder case that takes him to Kenya; so, naturally, I thought, when I started writing that my immediate audience for the novel would be African and African American. But, as it happened, the German translation was embraced in ways I would not have thought possible when writing. As a scholar, I have always thought of African literature as a contribution to world literature. But now I could see a disjuncture between the way I read African literature, and how I perceived myself as writing it. And, beyond that – the bookstores in Germany? They actually pay writers to read! Something I have yet to encounter in the United States.
Similarly of value, but just starting out: the Ake Festival in Abekouta, Nigeria and the Story Moja Festival in Nairobi Kenya are what I would call insurgent festivals. That is festivals that are actively fighting for the growth of the African literary tradition. They want to connect readers to the writers, writers to agents and publishers, and aspiring writers to established writers. At the 2009 Story Moja Festival, in addition to leading a poetry-writing workshop, I was one of the judges of a high school poetry performance. At the same time there is such a huge national interest in these festivals that they are covered by national media giving invaluable publicity for writers and their works.
These are the kind of festivals that are, for me, necessities; I leave them feeling like I have helped build something, like each of my books is a brick in the growing African literary tradition.
There are many more festivals that come to mind such as the Africa Writes Festival in Britain, the Open Book Festival in South Africa, and the Kwani Lit Fest in Kenya that rank high in my list of festivals of high value to the writer. What I think writer friendly festivals have in common is that the organizers take at base value that writers are professionals who in addition to having to pay all sorts of dues to get their books published have to suspend their day to day professional and personal lives for a few days in order to be in attendance.
At the other end of the spectrum, however, there are those festivals that take more than they give. Let’s call these the less writer friendly festivals. You know the kind. Usually they are disorganized and the people running them aren’t good at communicating with the writers they’ve invited. For example, I recently made a last-minute, guilt- and angst- ridden decision to cancel an appearance at an international book festival. It was a book festival for which I was going to travel for 12 hours there and back for two-day multi city events. Yet the organizers were not communicative, and I had to keep pressing them for details. When, a few days before the event, I was able to piece all of the details together, the picture that emerged was not pretty; I could see nothing but a logistical nightmare. The paltry sum I was getting paid would have been soaked up by the little incidentals like airport parking, food, internet charges and replacements for left at home phone and computer chargers and convertors. I would then have come back to my regular teaching gig at Cornell University somewhere between exhausted and jet-lagged. I was not happy; my publishers were not happy; and the people who had bought tickets to come to see me were disappointed.
Some might say I missed out on a great festival, but in this case, I’d argue differently. Let me put it this way: I was supposed to leave on a Thursday, but now freed from the obligation of going to the festival, I was now able to meet with my students. I commute between Norwalk, CT and Ithaca, NY so after class I drove home and had dinner with my daughter and my in-laws. On Friday my wife and I attended a once a term teacher-parent conference at my daughter’s school, and later the three of us went out to dinner. Saturday morning, I worked on classroom stuff, did some edits on my forthcoming novel Mrs. Shaw, and I did some research for a scholarly book project. In the afternoon we went to visit friends we had not seen in a long time in New York City; took the kids to Central Park; picked up delicious Ethiopian food; drove back home; put our daughter to sleep and watched Philip Seymour Hoffman’s movie, The Master. My wife was going out of town on Sunday evening so I was able to postpone my Sunday commute to Monday. Sunday morning and afternoon, more research. Later in afternoon I played with my daughter, and then after a one-hour bed routine and she was asleep, I drafted this essay sitting by a fire with a good IPA beer in hand. Monday morning I dropped her off at school, drove back to Ithaca, worked for a few hours on the book project, prepped for Tuesday’s class, and then spent time on social media.
Not the most eventful or productive of weekends, true. But it was a weekend that almost never happened.
And this is precisely what the organizers of literary festivals ask us to give up – a weekend or some part of our daily lives that make us who we are, as writers.
What we as writers ask for in return from festival organizers is more than a good time – not just a walk on a beach. Simply put, festival organizers can take – but to be successful, they should also give.
Mukoma Wa Ngugi is an Assistant Professor of English at Cornell University and the author of the novels Black Star Nairobi, and Nairobi Heat, and a book of poems titled Hurling Words at Consciousness. A novel, Mrs. Shaw (Ohio University/Swallow Press) and a collection of poems, Hunting Words with my Father (Africa Poetry Fund/University of Nebraska Press) are forthcoming in 2015. He is the co-founder of the Mabati-Cornell Prize for African Literature and co-director of the Global South Project. In 2013, New African magazine named him one of the 100 most Influential Africans.
(Editor's note: In this first issue of Jam Tarts, see also "On Reading the Poem I Should have Written", by Mukoma Wa Ngugi.)