A four-day event which started from October 24, last week, the Ake Arts and Book Festival ends today in Lagos. But what is this event, currently tagged one of the biggest gathering of creatives in Africa, like?
‘Black Bodies. Grey Matter.’ This is Ake Arts and Book Festival’s 2019 theme, and it isn’t the first time it sounds this mysterious and exciting. Last year it was ‘Fantastical Futures,’ when it focused on a re-imagined future for Africa. It was the event’s first outing in Lagos.
In 2017 the gathering was held in Abeokuta, Ogun State, and had been so since it was founded in 2013 by Lola Shoneyin, author and founder of Book Buzz Foundation and a publishing house, Ouida Books. Themed ‘This F-Word,’ it had sought to foster solidarity amongst women across the continent and create an opportunity for them to share their journeys, explore barriers they face and to celebrate the art of storytelling.
Way back in 2016, the festival explored the theme, ‘Beneath the Skin,’ and featured the renowned Kenyan writer, Ngugi wa Thiong’o. In 2015, it was ‘Engaging the Fringe,’ 2014 ‘Bridges and Pathways,’ and ‘The Shadow of Memory in 2013.’
This year, perhaps due to its theme, Ake has more creatives, writers, filmmakers, poets, thinkers, actors, photographers, dancers and artists, from more African countries.
A poet turned novelist
An award-winning poet, Jumoke Verissimo’s debut novel, ‘A Small Silence,’ was published this year. In a book chat hosted by the Nigerian-German musician, Ade Bantu, she explained that she hasn’t left poetry. “In the book, you will see that,” she said, adding that in poetry one is always trying to find “the in-between.”
Verissimo specifically wanted a Nigerian publisher to bring her work to life, and she pointed out that her book is a Nigerian story. “There’s no point writing stories that no one reads at home,” she insisted.
It was challenging writing the novel, Verissimo confessed. She said: “I was trying to write about the people I see. When I am in a bus, I see how disgruntled and angry people are, and try to write about it.”
Pursuing an education in Canada, Verissimo revealed that leaving Nigeria “brought back my sanity,” but insisted that her stories are in her country.
Cornered by a question from a guest at the event, Chika Unigwe (who is an award-winning writer), Verissimo responded that she has not turned from poet to novelist, but that she is a writer who loves poetry. “I see poetry like theory, where you examine and interrogate,” she said.
Verissimo’s ‘A Small Silence’ explores the life of prof, an ex-prisoner, activist and retired academic, who becomes a reclusive after his release from prison. Alone, he pushes away family and friends, until an unexpected visitor at his door changes everything. Before now, she was known mainly for her debut collection of poetry, ‘I am Memory.’ Some of her poems are in translation in French, Japanese, Chinese, Norwegian, and Macedonian.
Why historical fiction?
Moderated by Tolulope Adeleru-Balogun, three authors took to the stage to dicuss ‘Historical Fiction for Today’s Africa.’ Among them was Tunde Leye author of four books and three novels, amongst which is the most recent, a historical fiction novel titled ‘Afonja: The Rise.’ Jennifer Makumbi, a Ugandan fiction writer whose debut novel, ‘Kintu,’ won the Kwani Manuscript Project in 2013. Also, Wayetu Moore, whose debut novel ‘She Would be King’ was named a best book of 2018 by Publishers Weekly, Booklist, Entertainment Weekly and BuzzFeed.
Responding to the question on why she chose to write historical fiction, Makumbi pointed out that she focused on the 1700s because “That is the point of history that isn’t told,” she said, and challenged the credibility of written sources and emphasised that, just like the oral source, it is highly inaccurate. As far as she is concerned, “The history you read depends on who wrote it.”
Drawn to history, Moore explained that she wanted to tell “a black and African story when the world is chaos for black bodies.”
Leye was careful when writing ‘Afonja: The Rise.’ He wanted to let what was historical remain sacred while he fictionalised the narrative in his novel. From the beginning, he wasn’t certain why he needed to write from history until it dawned on him “it was about identity.” He said: “There were events in history that precipitated our identities, and we are not talking about them.”
The book corner
One of this festival’s strong points is its bookstore. This year, holding at the Mike Adenuga Centre, books occupy shelves just around the entrance to the halls. Almost every African (and in some cases even non-Africans) who have, in recent times (and even not so recent), made a mark in literature have their books here. From Tope Folarin, author of ‘A Particular Kind of Black Man’ to George R.R. Martin’s ‘A Game of Thrones’ series, adapted into arguably the most popular TV show the world has ever seen.
The Nommo Awards
One of the major highlights of every Ake Arts and Book Festival is to unveil winners of the Nommo Awards, created to celebrate speculative fiction in four categories, comic book, novella, short fiction and novel.
Winners of this year’s award were revealed during the opening ceremony on Thursday presented by Mohale Mashigo and Wole Talabi. Akwaeke Emezi’s ‘Freshwater’ won in the Ilube Nommo Awards for Best Speculative Novel. The novel revolves around the life of an unusual Nigerian woman, Ada. From childhood she is a source of great concern to her parents and her lifes takes a dangerous turn when she travels to America for college.
The prize for the Best Speculative Novella went to ‘The Firebird’ by Nerine Dorman, which tracks the life of Lada, a member of the Order of Fennarin, who is one of the warrior-monks who oppose the demons and insurgents that threaten her home.
Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald emerged victorious in the Best Speculative Short Story for ‘The Witching Hour,’ a tale that delves into the exploits of two witches. Then lastly, Nnedi Okorafor and Leornado Romero took the Best Comic Book prize for ‘Shuri,’ centred on the Black Panther’s techno-genius sister. In this story, the Black Panther has disappeared, lost on a mission in space, and in his absence, everyone looks at the next in line for the throne.
Each winner got an ink drawing by Abdulkareem Baba Aminu. Those who won in the comic book and novel category get $1,000, while for the novella and short fiction received a cash prize of $500.
Goodbye 2019 Ake
The Ake Arts and Book Festival has, since 2013, brought many writers, poets, filmmakers, thinkers and artists to Nigeria. In the end, creatives disperse, refreshed and prepared to, perhaps, take on the world in their various arts. This year, guests such as Bernardine Everisto (joint winner of the 2019 Booker Prize for her book ‘Girl, Woman, Other’) is present, Helon Habila (the second African to win the Caine Prize for African Writing, and most recently author of ‘The Travellers’), and many others. This year’s event rounds off tonight after several book chats, panel discussions, a solo play and poetry performance.