By Bhakti Shringarpure
IN THE 21ST CENTURY, digital literary culture originating from the African continent has exploded. I still remember the early years, when Kindles first came into our lives and everyone was weighing in on whether ebooks were going to mean the death of literature. Back then, everything was fresh and interesting: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talks were going viral, entire conference panels were devoted to Teju Cole’s tweets, and spin-off blogs of the late Binyavanga Wainaina’s How to Write About Africa (2005) were the coolest thing. There were also macabre digital glitches, such as the way news of Chinua Achebe’s death would circulate every few months on Facebook years after he had passed away.
But those kinks have been worked out and most of the early debates have died down. We now take the massive role of the internet and digital technology for granted when it comes to literature. Our reading habits have been substantially altered: we read so much now on screens, circulate PDFs via email, follow famous writers online, write mini-reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, consume all kinds of viral book controversies, cry out on Twitter for more diversity in literature, and feverishly share listicles and book recommendations on our Facebook timelines.
Yet amid these transformations, African digital literary culture has not been given the credit it’s due for spearheading much of this revolution. Journalists and bloggers in the West, as well as scholars and students of African literature, keep proclaiming that the field is entering a renaissance. Writers of African heritage have made their presence felt in North America and Europe very strongly over the past two decades. In fact, two African writers — Tsitsi Dangarembga and Maaza Mengiste — were shortlisted for the Booker Prize this year in an unprecedented first. Small indie magazines, new awards and blogs, and an uptick in literary festivals have helped to make literature from the African continent accessible and alluring to Western readers.
But the dynamic digital impulses of African creativity have not only changed African literature but have also fundamentally altered literary culture as we know it.
Immediately after pandemic lockdowns were announced in March, writer Zukiswa Wanner, with the help of blogger James Murua, launched Afrolit Sans Frontieres, the first online literary festival held entirely on Instagram. A Twitter kerfuffle immediately ensued: the British platform BookBound, partner of Wasafiri magazine, announced that they were organizing the first ever literary festival online just days after Afrolit had already wrapped up its first season. Wanner blogged, “Sorry colonizers. Africa did it first. Don’t erase us. From them an oops. A we meant. A non-apology apology comes.” Not giving due credit and erasing the role of African writers has been par for the course in the short history of digital literary culture. It’s worth remembering that it was Teju Cole who declared that Twitter is an African city, and he meant it literally. Wainaina said that digital spaces have become micro-utopias for queer populations. Taiye Selasi coined the term Afropolitan and hurled it into the internet, where it stuck. Many aspects of digital literary culture that we take for granted have originated in or have been tried and tested in African countries.
The credit must go to the dynamic, creative, and forward-looking thinkers on the continent itself — the young and hip creators of popular platforms such as Saraba magazine or Kwani? back in the day; journals such as Jalada, Doek!, and Lolwe; presses such as Cassava Republic and Huza; and events such as Ake Arts and Book Festival, Hargeysa International Book Fair, Afrolit Sans Frontieres, and the Gaborone Book Festival. Innovators in African diaspora spaces in the United States and Europe have boosted the production of African literature, with websites like Brittle Paper and events like Berlin’s African Book Festival leading the way.
Scholars have also been trying to tell this story for a long time. African literature specialist Ainehi Edoro has taught courses titled “Social Media Fiction” and “How Social Media Works” at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Stephanie Bosch Santana at UCLA has written about Mike Maphoto’s wildly popular blog “Diary of a Zulu Girl,” which started as posts on Facebook that garnered over 10 million views. An anthology I edited in 2016, Literary Sudans, was the first to bring together stories from Sudan and South Sudan, but it launched as a special online issue at Warscapes magazine. Kwabena Opoku-Agyemang analyzed the hilarious collection of misattributed quotes from Ghana that went viral on Facebook, and that were eventually gathered in print as My Book of #GHCoats (2014), edited by Nana Awere Damoah. Finally, Nigerian scholar Shola Adenekan’s forthcoming book African Literature in the Digital Age will be a welcome addition to — and a much-needed corrective on — this history.
As we consider the generative literary networks that have emerged to link Africa and the West, it is impossible not to think about the role played by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who has become the face of this phenomenon. Adichie recently surprised her readers and the publishing industry when she launched her latest fiction entirely online as an ebook. “Zikora”, a 40-page saga of love, loneliness, pregnancy, and family, is free for Kindle subscribers. This might seem like an odd and confounding move for an award-winning A-list writer with a uniquely iconic status. But Adichie has actually been at the frontlines of this new and exciting digital literary culture.
Only in her early 40s, Adichie is one of the most influential literary figures of our time. Even though she is primarily a novelist, her name has become synonymous with such categories as “African writer,” “feminist icon,” and “global fame.” Adichie’s rapid rise as a public figure is not easy to explain. Her output of three novels, one story collection, two nonfiction pamphlets, and several short stories and essays over a period of almost two decades is well within the range of normal. But essays about her, interviews with her, memes and inspirational quotations derived from her, and op-eds attacking or defending her run into the thousands.
The internet has played a large role in her career trajectory due to her early TED talks, her participation in online forums alongside Wainaina back in the day, and the detailed exploration of blogging, social media, and digital celebrity in her 2013 novel Americanah. And that’s not all. She first released her manifesto on motherhood, “Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions,” on Facebook in 2016, and she curates a lively Instagram account with 678,000 followers. Adichie also maintains a whimsical website called “Ifemelu’s Blog,” which cleverly extends the life of Americanah’s protagonist, who started a similar blog in the novel. She has rigorously engaged digitality in ways that have generated a paradigm shift for literature published and distributed in the United States and Europe. A recent survey on which I collaborated shows that she is one of the most taught African and postcolonial writers in US and European universities today, in step with (if not outpacing) the three patriarchs of African literature: Chinua Achebe, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, and J. M. Coetzee.
“Zikora” will surely also end up on the same trajectory as “Dear Ijeawele”: online first, printed later. The embrace of this reverse publishing logic says a lot about both Adichie and the current character of African literature. Bold, unabashedly experimental, and with a complete disregard for the traditional logics of literary publishing, Adichie happily moves between the spaces reserved for A-list authors who write serious literature and the still-evolving digital spaces associated with struggling, popular, or genre writers.
When Kjersti Egerdahl, senior editor of Amazon Original Stories, was asked why Adichie had chosen them to release “Zikora,” she said that it was because Amazon’s high-speed publishing would allow the story to join the “cultural conversation ahead of the US election.” Yet if Adichie had willed it, her book could have been published and made available in print almost as readily. Adichie chose to publish online, and this decision should not be glossed over.
The release of “Zikora” also unleashes a whole new set of dilemmas. For starters, the launch triggered some bad memories of rock band U2 dumping its 2014 album Songs of Innocence for free on our iPhones. Getting something for free seldom inspires faith in its quality. Adichie’s decisions, including her open embrace of her celebrity status and unabashed use of social media, are confounding, especially if we are invested in the snooty exclusivity of high literature.
But Adichie is slowly shattering those hierarchies, fundamentally altering our understanding of what African literature is and should be. But her emergence has only been possible because of the bulwark of support she has been given within the daring and pioneering spaces of African digital culture. We are about to enter a new decade that, if anything, only promises to be more digital than ever before thanks to the global pandemic and its resultant lockdowns. As we do so, we should aim to account more honestly for the role being played by vibrant innovation, tech-savvy platforms, artistic experiments, and social media circuits in generating a widespread and infectious enthusiasm for literature coming out of Africa.