Hull Literature Festival 2001 8th - 18th November
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African Visions
African Visions
The best of African contemporary literature
Hull Truck Theatre,
Sunday 28th October

" You forget weather and landscape and
Song and hate and the colour of the sun on the
Flower blossom. Your skin could be
Green and your hair the bluest ever seen."
from Helon Habila's The Green Men

Amongst the huge range of subjects covered by daytime confessional chat shows I don't think I ever remember seeing 'I was a critic who knew next to nothing about the subject of the event I was reviewing.' Probably because, not surprisingly, many critics would be unwilling to appear as guests or maybe just because it's not a very snappy title. At any rate, Kilroy and Trish, if you do ever run with the idea let me know and I'll speak to your researchers. It's not something I'm proud of but I've worked my way through it and emerged a better person!

My ignorance was to be exposed at last Sunday evening's event at Hull Truck Theatre which was the first event in the African Visions strand of the Festival. Three writers, Zakes Mda and Ivan Vladislavic from South Africa and the Nigerian Helon Habila read from their work and then answered questions from the small but obviously committed audience. The event was chaired by the novelist Ama Ato Aidoo, like the others a writer with many plaudits to her name.

The evening started with an incredibly stilted introduction, read verbatim from notes, by the chair. Because of this I assumed that the Hull date was one of their first on the tour but later discovered it was the last. Whatever the reason, thankfully Ama Ato Aidoo loosened up as time went on. Zakes Mda , an avuncular teddy bear of a man, read first - a chapter entitled 'Seller of Songs' from a novel yet to be published. It was amusing and entertaining, in a story-telling style reminiscent of folk tales. The part I remember particularly was about hairy legs on a woman, and how to deal with them, which in context served as an indicator of an inter-racial relationship. Ivan Vladislavic, who looked rather grimly nervous but who was in fact exhausted and very pleasant to chat with afterwards, was likewise entertaining reading from a newly published satirical novel set in Johannesberg. His use of language was precise and concise ( no doubt in part a reflection of his job as editor ), a character being evoked quickly and effectively with the phrase a 'slab of gristle'. Helon Habila read a short story , Waiting for Angel , whose style of prose obviously drew from his first love - poetry. The angel of the title is that of death who reveals itself with a 'clapping motion of its wings'. Helon's delivery had more energy and more varation in pace and pitch than the other two which leads me to my problem with literary readings.

Why is it assumed that writers will make the best readers of their work? Indeed, arguably they are likely to be the worst as many are introspective people, working in a solitary occupation whose chosen medium is the written rather than the spoken word. Prose can be even more difficult because, if the chosen piece is from a novel, then it is by definition a fragment. However, this is not a criticism of these particular writers who delivered their work no worse than many others and who were not helped by a rather cold set and a largely empty auditorium.

For me the event really came to life a little in to the question session when we had got rid of the customary banalities such as 'Do you use a notebook or computer?' and 'Why do you write?' The writers were asked how they felt about labels such as ' African writers' and all agreed that such definitions can open doors but can close many others. Helon Habila aptly quoted " A tiger doesn't have to declare his tigritude" but reminded us that labels are as much about marketing strategies as anything else. From there the discussion started to explore issues such as identity and sense of audience. The effects of political oppression, not just when it was being exercised but also afterwards when there exists considerable freedom, the difference between writing from exile and under censorship, what it means to be a black African and a white African were, I felt, the most fascinating part of the evening.

In the end my ignorance was not a problem in the sense of appreciating the evening - these were writers talking about their work and the sense of commonality generated was life-affirming. Certainly I need to read more of names that are unfamiliar to me, but that applies whether those names are African, Polish or South American!

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