Tuesday, January 4, 2022

‘Afropolitanism’ and Diasporic Literature

‘They (read: we) are Afropolitans – the newest generation of African emigrants, coming soon or collected already at a law firm/chem lab/jazz lounge near you. You’ll know us by our funny blend of London fashion, New York jargon, African ethics, and academic successes.’ – Taiye Selasi, Bye-Bye Babar

 ‘Look at them leaving in droves, the children of the land, just look at them leaving in droves. Those with nothing are crossing borders. Those with strength are crossing borders. Those with ambitions are crossing borders. Those with hopes are crossing borders. Those in pain are crossing borders. Moving, running, emigrating, going, deserting, walking, quitting, flying, fleeing – to all over, to countries near and far, to countries unheard of, to countries whose names they cannot pronounce. They are leaving in droves.’   From NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names

Taiye Selasi delivers a TED Talk titled ‘Don't Ask Where I'm From, Ask Where I'm a Local’ in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo: TED Global)

An excerpt from Taiye Selasi’s seminal essay, Bye-Bye Babar, published by The LIP Magazine (3 Mar 2005), which popularized the term ‘Afropolitan’:

We are Afropolitans: not citizens, but Africans of the world.

 It isn’t hard to trace our genealogy. Starting in the 60’s, the young, gifted and broke left Africa in pursuit of higher education and happiness abroad. A study conducted in 1999 estimated that between 1960 and 1975 around 27,000 highly skilled Africans left the Continent for the West. Between 1975 and 1984, the number shot to 40,000 and then doubled again by 1987, representing about 30% of Africa’s highly skilled manpower. Unsurprisingly, the most popular destinations for these emigrants included Canada, Britain, and the United States; but Cold War politics produced unlikely scholarship opportunities in Eastern Bloc countries like Poland, as well.

 Some three decades later this scattered tribe of pharmacists, physicists, physicians (and the odd polygamist) has set up camp around the globe. The caricatures are familiar. The Nigerian physics professor with faux-Coogi sweater; the Kenyan marathonist with long legs and rolled r’s; the heavyset Gambian braiding hair in a house that smells of burnt Kanekalon. Even those unacquainted with synthetic extensions can conjure an image of the African immigrant with only the slightest of pop culture promptings: Eddie Murphy’s ‘Hello, Babar.’ But somewhere between the 1988 release of Coming to America and the 2001 crowning of a Nigerian Miss World, the general image of young Africans in the West transmorphed from goofy to gorgeous. Leaving off the painful question of cultural condescenscion in that beloved film, one wonders what happened in the years between Prince Akeem and Queen Agbani?

 One answer is: adolescence. The Africans that left Africa between 1960 and 1975 had children, and most overseas. Some of us were bred on African shores then shipped to the West for higher education; others born in much colder climates and sent home for cultural re-indoctrination. Either way, we spent the 80’s chasing after accolades, eating fufu at family parties, and listening to adults argue politics. By the turn of the century (the recent one), we were matching our parents in number of degrees, and/or achieving things our ‘people’ in the grand sense only dreamed of. This new demographic – dispersed across Brixton, Bethesda, Boston, Berlin – has come of age in the 21st century, redefining what it means to be African. Where our parents sought safety in traditional professions like doctoring, lawyering, banking, engineering, we are branching into fields like media, politics, music, venture capital, design. Nor are we shy about expressing our African influences (such as they are) in our work. Artists such as Keziah Jones, Trace founder and editor Claude Gruzintsky, architect David Adjaye, novelist Chimamanda Adichie – all exemplify what Gruzintsky calls the ‘21st century African...

 - Minna Salami is a Nigerian-Finnish writer, speaker and commentator on African feminism, society, culture and diaspora, among other topical issues. Her stated abodes are London and Lagos (Nigeria) although she has also lived or worked in Sweden, Spain and the United States. A prolific speaker, she has given talks in South Africa, USA, Nigeria, Gabon, Morocco, France, Sweden, Germany, Switzerland, Gambia, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands and Britain. She is a contributor to the Guardian Africa network and was named one of ‘40 African Change-makers Under 40’ by Applause Africa in 2014. Her other accolades include being the Africa Diaspora Awards 2013 winner of the ‘Outstanding Achievement in Media’ and the Women 4 Africa 2013 ‘Blogger of the Year’.

 In a post on her blog, ‘Ms. Afropolitan’, she gives her ‘32 views on Afropolitanism’ (7 October 2015). Below are the first five:

 1. Afropolitanism describes a part of my identity but also, and especially, it describes my philosophical position about the world.

 2. Afropolitanism is a conceptual space in which African heritage realities are both interrogated and understood with the tools and nuances of modern-day globalisation.

 3. Afropolitanism is a ‘glocal’ – global and local – space.

 4. Afropolitanism is not a geographical space but rather a social, cultural, political, philosophical, psychological, spiritual one.

 5. Furthermore, Afropolitanism is anachronistic. It encompasses existences, experiences and expressions which are simultaneously historic, present and futuristic.

 - Chika Unigwe, author of On Black Sisters’ Street, speaking to Tom Devriendt of Africa is a Country website:

Tom: ‘You live in Belgium. You have made Belgium your home. How do you look at what is happening in Nigeria at the moment?   

Chika: 'If home is where the heart is, then Nigeria is more of a home to me than Belgium where I have lived for over thirteen years. I’ve never been able to disengage from Nigeria, not mentally at least. What’s happening in Nigeria at the moment is a revolution of sorts, led by a generation that’s been let down, royally, by the government, and who feel that they have nothing else to lose.'

- Nigerian-born Chris Abani is a novelist, poet, essayist, screenwriter, academic and playwright. A professor at the Northwestern University (USA), he teaches Creative Writing (Fiction and Poetry) and Literature. The bio accompanying one of his TED Talk videos (posted on 13 Nov 2015 by Chicago Humanities Festival) describes the well-known writer as ‘a true citizen of the world.’ It goes on to say:

The self-identified ‘global Igbo’ is the son of an English mother and a Nigerian father who wrote his first novel at age 16. Through his prolific and varied writings – which include novels, novellas, plays, and poems – Abani has sought to capture the specifics of his own experience while conveying the political and emotional dramas that transcend and tie together disparate cultures.

Abani has also given TED Talks on ‘The Stories of Africa’ and ‘On Humanity’. At the former event he said:

I’ve been in the audience. I am a writer. And I’ve been watching people with slide shows. And scientists. And bankers. And I’ve been feeling a bit like a gangster rapper at a bar mitzvah: ‘What have I got to say about all this?’

…There has been a lot of talk about narratives in Africa. And what’s become increasingly clear to me is that we’re talking about news stories about Africa, we’re not really talking about African narratives, and it’s important to make a distinction…

In Africa, the complicated questions we want to ask about ‘what all of this means’ have been asked - from the rock paintings of the San people through the Sunjata Epics of Mali to modern contemporary literature. If you want to know about Africa, read our literature. And not just Things Fall Apart ’cause that would be like saying, ‘I’ve read Gone With the Wind so I know everything about America.’

 Before moving to the United States, Abani was twice jailed by the Nigerian gov’t. Incidentally, he’s such a great speaker that one is inclined to think that his writing must be as entertaining and enlightening.

GLOBAL IGBO: Chris Abani giving a talk at the Chicago Humanities Festival (USA)

- Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, originally from Zimbabwe, began her enviable literary career in England, as an editorial assistant at Penguin Press, where she worked on history and modern classics titles. She would later become Senior Editor at Jonathan Cape (Random House) and Deputy Editor of the influential literary journal, Granta. She has been on the judging panel of both the David Cohen Prize for Literature and the Caine Prize for African Writing, and chaired the judge’s panel of the Miles Morland Writing Scholarships.

A Fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, Ellah has been awarded an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE), for services to the publishing industry, by British royalty. Her motivation, in her own words:

My driving passion is the fact that I love books, I love writers and more than anything, I love reading and want to bring writers and their work to as many people as possible. It really is as simple as that. I don’t think one could survive long in what is quite a tough industry without that as the base point. I think the kinds of writers and books I have been interest in (African writers in particular), means that I was not always working along with the mainstream. At times that was a battle, but in the end I am pretty sure it was that interest, and the work I did (with help from a lot of incredibly supportive colleagues) that led to this award.

- In 2017, Vanessa King’ori was named publishing director of Britain’s Vogue publication. Vanessa, who is of mixed Kenyan-Caribbean heritage, was previously publisher at GQ Style and British GQ magazines, where she oversaw the highest total annual revenue for the brand in the prior decade. She was the youngest (and first female) publisher of British GQ and the first Black publisher in the magazine’s three decades of existence. Prior to her career at Condé Nast (publishers of various prestigious magazines), Vanessa worked at Esquire and the Evening Standard’s ES Magazine. In 2016, she was awarded an MBE in the Queen of England’s Birthday Honours List.                                        

‘QUEENING’: Vanessa King’ori, on the day she received her MBE  (Photo: gettyimages.co.uk)

 - Safia Elhillo (Arabic: صافية الحلو‎) is a Sudanese-American poet and spoken word performer. She won the 2015 Brunel University African Poetry Prize and the 2016 Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets, and was a Pushcart Prize nominee (2016). She is the author of The January Children (University of Nebraska Press, 2017).

Safia was born in Maryland (USA) to Sudanese parents. She received a BA from NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study and an MFA in poetry at the New School. She has received fellowships from Cave Canem, The Conversation, and Crescendo Literary and The Poetry Foundation’s Poetry Incubator. Her work has been translated into Arabic, Japanese, Greek, Portuguese, and Estonian.

- Maaza Mengiste is an Ethiopian-American writer. She was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and lived in Nigeria and Kenya before settling in the United States. She made her literary debut with the award-winning novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze.

- From an article in The Daily Nebraskan (USA), titled ‘UNL “African Digital Portal” Will Give Students Access To African Poetry, Artifacts’ (7 Feb 2018), written by

University of Nebraska-Lincoln students will soon be able to feel much closer to Africa through an online portal to the world of African poetry.

English professor Kwame Dawes is developing an online database for African poetry and artifacts. ‘The African Digital Portal’ will launch in 2019 and will feature artifacts, newspapers and manuscripts related to African poetry, dating from the 19th century to the modern era…

The African Poetry Book Fund was founded by Dawes in 2016 in order to advocate for the development and publication of poetry through collaboration with writers and scholars across the country. The organization is sponsored by UNL's Department of English, Ford Foundation and Prairie Schooner, a literary magazine published by UNL and University of Nebraska Press.


‘The APBF is committed to creating an open-access platform which will allow scholars, poets and lovers of poetry to freely access the data that will be available on the portal’ he said…

- Alain Mabanckou is one of the living giants of African lit. Born in Congo-Brazzaville, the French-language writer is currently a Professor of Literature at the University of California Los Angeles, USA. A novelist, journalist, essayist, poet, and academic, his best-known works are  Memoires de porc-épic (Memoirs of a Porcupine) which scooped the prestigious Prix Renaudot award and, more recently, Demain J'aurai Vingt Ans (Tomorrow I’ll Be Twenty). His first novel, Bleu-Blanc-Rouge, won the Grand Prix Littéraire d'Afrique Noire in 1999. His other works include Lumières de Pointe-Noire, Petit Piment, Quand le coq annoncera l'aube d'un autre jour, Tant que les arbres s'enracineront dans la terre, Lettre à Jimmy (James Baldwin) and L'Europe vue d'Afrique.

Congolese writer Alain Mabanckou (Photo: worldbookshelf.englishpen.org

Apart from being described by some Parisians as ‘the Samuel Beckett of Africa’, Mabanckou has earned many disctinctions, awards and nominations over the decades. These include the Prix de la Société des Poètes Français, Prix des Cinq Continents de la Francophonie, Prix Créateurs Sans Frontières, Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur par décret du Président de la République française, Académie Française prize, Man Booker International Prize (2015 finalist), Puterbaugh Fellow (2016) and 2017 Man Booker International Prize selection for the novel Black Moses (French title: Petit Piment).


Before taking up professorship at UCLA, Mabanckou taught Francophone Literature at the University of Michigan as an Assistant Professor. In 2016, he was appointed Visiting Professor at the Collège de France.

- Born in Hargeisa (now in the Republic of Somaliland), Nadifa Mohamed is an internationally known British-Somali novelist. She moved to England as a child and ended up living there permanently when a civil war broke out in Somalia and raged for many years (ultimately leading to the splintering of Somalia into different republics). Nadifa gained critical acclaim for her first novel, Black Mamba Boy (2010), which was based on her father's memories. The book was longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction and the Dylan Thomas Prize and shortlisted for the John Llewellyn-Rhys Memorial Prize and the Guardian First Book Award. It received the Betty Trask Prize from the Society of Authors in 2010. Another of her books, Orchard of Lost Souls, scooped the Somerset Maugham Prize.

- Ladan Osman (Somali: Laadan Cismaan) is a Somali-American poet and educator. Her poetry is revolves around her Somali and Muslim heritage. More bio from PoetryFoundation.org:

Ladan Osman was born in Somalia. She earned a BA at Otterbein College and an MFA at the University of Texas at Austin’s Michener Center for Writers. Her chapbook, Ordinary Heaven, appears in Seven New Generation African Poets (Slapering Hol Press, 2014). Her full-length collection The Kitchen-Dweller’s Testimony (University of Nebraska Press, 2015) won the Sillerman First Book Prize. Her work has appeared in Apogee, The Normal School, Prairie Schooner, Transition Magazine, and Waxwing.

Ladan has received fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center, Cave Canem, and the Michener Center. She is a contributing editor at The Offing and lives in Chicago.

- In an interview with BBC World Book Club – held in SA in April 2016 - exiled Somali writer Nurrudin Farah (From a Crooked Rib) spoke thus:

Once you are born Somali, you remain Somali forever. It’s just one of those things…I have, actually, the pride and pleasure to say that I have four passports, and therefore four nationalities, and I could claim any of them any time, any day…I see myself as a Somali and the reason is that I have fought very hard to stay Somali.

- At the age of only 23, Tomi Adeyemi became an Internet sensation in African literary circles when it was announced that her debut novel Children of Blood and Bone (the first installment in a YA West African fantasy series) was headed for the big screen in true Hollywood fashion. Some punters even described her as ‘the next J.K.Rowling’. Her biography on the popoular book review website GoodReads:

Tomi Adeyemi is a Nigerian-American writer and creative writing coach based in San Diego, California. Her debut novel, CHILDREN OF BLOOD AND BONE, comes out March 6th, 2018 and the movie is currently in development at Fox with the producers of Twilight and The Maze Runner attached. After graduating Harvard University with an honors degree in English literature, she received a fellowship that allowed her to study West African mythology and culture in Salvador, Brazil. When she’s not working on her novels or watching Scandal, she can be found blogging and teaching creative writing to her 3,500 subscribers at tomiadeyemi.com. Her website has been named one of the 101 best websites for writers by Writer’s Digest.

- From April 26th to April 28th 2018, Berlin played host to an African literature festival dubbed Writing in Migration. The event, a first of its kind, was curated by Nigerian-German writer Olumide Popoola and included no less than 37 different writers and artists from various African countries and backgrounds. Olumide Popoola (When We Speak of Nothing, Cassava Republic Press) has a PhD in Creative Writing and in addition to lecturing on the subject has published essays, poetry and fiction. Other writers at the event included Chris Abani (Nigeria), Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi (Uganda), Musa Okwonga (UK/Uganda), Zukiswa Wanner (SA), Yvonne Owuor (Kenya), Helon Habila (Nigeria), Mukoma wa Ngũgi (Kenya), Bernadino Evaristo (UK/Nigeria), Niq Mhlongo (SA), Abdilatif Abdalla (Kenya), Chinelo Okparanta (Nigeria), Elnathan John (Nigeria), Aỳbámi Adébáỳ (Nigeria) and Minna Salami (Finland/Nigeria).

 According to a statement on the organizers’ website:

In April 2018, InterKontinental presents for the first time a literary festival with and by African writers in Berlin. Curated by the German-Nigerian author Olumide Popoola the festival looks at transnationalism and migration in a more literary sense of ‘keeping in motion’.

For three days and with the help of fiction, poetry, lectures and panel discussions African reality of life will be focused on. How do writers from Africa or the diaspora negotiate the changes that come with displacement, forced or chosen? How do writers approach the constant flux of place, and identity? Are they still bound by tradition or being truthful to notions of an ‘African Identity’?

Writing in Migration brings authors from three continents to Berlin whose books are literary visions and trendsetters all over the world. Together with curator Olumide Popoola they encourage their audience: Read Outside The Box.

The event was the brainchild of a German agency known as InterKontinental. The agency’s clients include Clementine Burnley (UK/Cameroon), Jude Dibia (Nigeria), Mouhamadou Falilou Dioum (Senegal), Linda Gabriel (Zimbabwe), Elnathan John (Nigeria) and Musa Okwonga (Uganda).


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