In spite of the challenges, African literature has witnessed tremendous growth and positive evolutionary bouts since the advent of the digital era. Today, 12 November, The Toyin Falola Interviews, in collaboration with the Pan-African Writers’ Association, will host a panel discussion on the topic “African Literature and the Digital World.” In this piece, I have only scraped the top layers of what there is to discuss. Our panelists will go fully in-depth on several nuances, dimensions, and realities of African literature in the digital era.
The second week of November reminds us of African Literature Day. It is a good moment for creative writers and their readers to interact at a most intense level. In partnership with the Pan-African Writers Association, The Toyin Falola Interviews is pleased to be associated with the moment and to feature ideas on the frontiers of African literary journeys.
Every form of literature, whether fictitious or not, is founded on thoughts — thoughts jointly shared by the populace; contrarian thoughts held by a select number of people and propagated through writing; thoughts that reflect beliefs, norms, cultures, and values that the individual stands by, in a way that reflects the human society they are a part of. Since our thoughts form the basis of our literature, it suffices to say that literature is a portal that opens us to the thought processes, worldviews, and evolution of any given society or conglomerate of societies. Africa is not left out.
African literature’s rich and diverse history — exploring multiple mediums from the oral and then written, and comprising thousands of languages, cultures, beliefs, and societies — has seen systemic changes in how it is produced, perceived, interacted with, distributed, and critiqued — a huge thanks to the digital era. These changes have encompassed a variety of aspects, including literary creation, publishing and distribution, while also presenting opportunities and challenges, giving a voice to independent writer-publishers, and rightly positioning Africa as a force in the literary world.
Digital Tools and African Literary Creation
Since the advent of the digital age, the creative process has witnessed a reinvention, and African authors have not been left out. This reinvention has mostly been in the availability of digital tools to facilitate a smoother creative process for authors. Although becoming an author is still a Herculean task, however the access of African writers to word processors, internet research, and writing and editing software has brought about a more structured and faster writing and editing process, giving authors the ability to collaborate with their fellow African authors in the diaspora or other African countries. Although I had authored several books well before the mainstream digital age, I have seen a more productive career as an African author since this age commenced, evident in the sheer number of books I have been able to author or co-author, in comparison to what I could achieve in the pre-digital era.
The coming of the digital age has afforded authors the opportunity to infuse their writing with African-centric styles — humour, idioms, proverbs, oral traditions, folklore, and oral poetry — thanks to digital word processors and language processing software. This, in turn, has served as a more effective way to preserve the oral traditions and richness of African cultures.
Another all-important influence of the digital age on African literature is the exponential rise in self-publishing. Prior to the mass digital era, numerous challenges militated against African authors, especially as they struggled to get favourable publishing contracts for their writings. This meant that there were more writers than authors of African descent, thus leading to an indirect stifling of the African voice. Digital publishing platforms such as Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing, PublishDrive, Okadabooks, Apple Books, and AfricaRead, among others, have made it possible for authors to self-publish at more affordable rates and without the roadblock of being rejected by traditional publishing houses and agencies.
Aside from giving a home to emerging voices, these online communities have also created an ecosystem to facilitate worldwide visibility for and engagement with African literature. They now serve as online cafes for discussions, recommendations, and even literary events that bring African authors together. Thanks to social media, African authors can situate their voices within the already established online communities and reach global audiences…
The recently minted independence of African authors to self-publish has led to a surge in the number of authors from the continent, making it possible for several diverse voices to be heard and giving room for multiple narratives, all needed ingredients for the full evolution and positioning of the African continent, without the constraints, censure, or limitations that would have come with traditional publishing. This also means that authors do not have to pick pseudonyms or be famous to get published.
Digital Platforms for Publishing and Distribution
The democratisation of book publishing and distribution in the digital era is yet another important point of discourse. Prior to the digital era, agencies and book publishing companies were the sole guardians and gatekeepers of authorship — they decided who could publish, what they could publish, and whom the published books could reach. The downside to this was that while books misrepresenting African cultures and the African people — written by colonial historians who had little to no encounter with the people or their continent — were gaining global penetration, the books that African authors afterward wrote to counter the misrepresented histories and wrong narratives did not gain as much global penetration.
Today, the digital era has not only made it possible to self-publish, but it has also made book distribution more flexible, allowing authors to cater to a wide range of audiences across print books, e-books, and audiobooks. For example, Google Books, Project Gutenberg, and several other digital platforms have made African literary classics reach a larger global audience by digitally archiving books that were written prior to the digital era.
In the same vein, online literary journals and blogs have been a vital part of the distribution of African literature to a wider global audience. Several of these platforms — run by Africans mostly — have offered a home for the works of African authors, giving them visibility and setting the foundation for the raw and independent African voices and authors, especially the younger ones. These platforms also seek out collaborations with African literary heavyweights for contests and awards that could set the pace and establish the career of many young African writers. I have watched Lunaris Review, Brunel African Prize for Poetry, African Poetry Book Fund, Brittle Paper, The Chimurenga Chronic, Open Country Mag, All Africa, and several other platforms serve as the foundation for emerging and established African authors, such as Romeo Oriogun (recent winner of the NLNG Prize for Literature), Warsan Shire, and Tsitsi Dangarembga, among several others.
Aside from giving a home to emerging voices, these online communities have also created an ecosystem to facilitate worldwide visibility for and engagement with African literature. They now serve as online cafes for discussions, recommendations, and even literary events that bring African authors together. Thanks to social media, African authors can situate their voices within the already established online communities and reach global audiences by interacting with and belonging to online communities of African authors or simply using popular hashtags related to African literature.
African Literature and the Global Literary Canon
The facilitation of the integration of African literature into the global literary canon is perhaps the most significant contribution of the digital era to African literature. This era has brought about a steady recognition, positive positioning, and the prominence of authors and books from Africa on the global literary stage, hugely thanks to the affordability of translation and the provision of cross-cultural exchanges that the digital era has made smoother.
The digital divide also has limiting effects on African authors who have poor access to the internet and digital resources, shutting them off from accessing the now mostly digital global literary community. Another big issue caused by the digital era in African literature is the widespread copyright problems. Digitisation makes it difficult to protect the copyright of African books.
Since the advent of the mass digital era, there has been an exponential rise in the recognition attributed to African literature on the global scene. Several African authors — much more than there were prior to the digital age — have attained critical acclaim and global recognition, reaching a broader audience in fewer years of actively being an author than was possible before. Chimamanda Adichie, Bernadine Evaristo, Tomi Adeyemi, Ben Okri, and Aminatta Forna, among others, have received recognition and placements on the global literary map, thus contributing to the present attention that African literature is receiving.
Furthermore, translation projects have helped to integrate African literature into the global literary canon. Several African books have been translated into French, Greek, Chinese, Spanish, Italian, and other languages, helping the authors reach a wider audience and making African narratives more accessible.
Challenges and Opportunities of African Literature in the Digital Age
There’s no denying that African literature has seen tremendous growth and exposure in the digital age. Nonetheless, as with everything in life, there are downsides to the infusion of digital approaches in the African literary world. The first of them is the widening digital divide. African literature is increasingly tilting toward the digital, yet it is important not to forget that Africa is one of the slowest, if not the slowest, continent when it comes to the digital adoption. As of 2022, Statista reported Africa’s internet penetration rate to be 43.2 per cent, which is more than 20 per cent shy of the global average of 67.9 per cent. Several Africans still do not have access to stable internet or are not aware of the wide range of literature-related tools available online. This means that while Africa is rushing to adopt digitisation for its literary world, it may well be leaving about 60 per cent of its population unaware of the literary works being published on the continent. Even though there have been concerted efforts to publish literature in native languages, what use would that be if the target readers do not have access to the digital tools to read?
The digital divide also has limiting effects on African authors who have poor access to the internet and digital resources, shutting them off from accessing the now mostly digital global literary community. Another big issue caused by the digital era in African literature is the widespread copyright problems. Digitisation makes it difficult to protect the copyright of African books. Several African authors are subjected to cloned copies of their books, being shared widely as PDFs and even being publicly published on websites. This is especially true of books in print. The problem with this is that while it potentially brings a deeper penetration rate for the authors’ books into the markets, there is little to no evidence to show for that in terms of money earned.
In spite of the challenges, African literature has witnessed tremendous growth and positive evolutionary bouts since the advent of the digital era. Today, 12 November, The Toyin Falola Interviews, in collaboration with the Pan-African Writers’ Association, will host a panel discussion on the topic “African Literature and the Digital World.” In this piece, I have only scraped the top layers of what there is to discuss. Our panelists will go fully in-depth on several nuances, dimensions, and realities of African literature in the digital era. Join us.
Toyin Falola, a professor of History, University Distinguished Teaching Professor, and Jacob and Frances Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities at The University of Texas at Austin, is the Bobapitan of Ibadanland.
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