Ideas for my monograph, African Literature in the Digital Age: Class and Sexual Politics in New Writing from Nigeria and Kenya – which has just been republished in paperback – began to take shape in early 2007, during a series of email conversations with the Kenyan thinker Dr Wambui Mwangi. Wambui was at the time, a scholar of political economy, at the University of Toronto, Canada. She and I talked about the power of the African story, and why Africans need to tell that story, rather than leaving it to outsiders to tell the continent’s stories from the outsider’s perspectives. Wambui pointed out to me why the age we live in is different from the age of the book, because of the power of the internet. Wambui asked me to use everything I have to talk about what this moment in time means for African voices. Wambui, in her infinite generosity, introduced me via email to ‘new’ African voices such as Billy Kahora, Shailja Patel, Martin Kimani, Keguro Macharia and the late Binyavanga Wainaina.
Such digital encounters led me to a network of writers, photographers, scholars, critics and readers, in various online communities, including listserv such as Concerned Kenyan Writers, Generation Kenya, Koroga, Krazitivity, Ederi, USA-Africa Dialogue. I also engaged with blogs such as Sokari Ekine’s BlackLooks, Wambui’s Diary of a Mad Kenyan Woman, Macharia’s Gukira, and Koroga. And of course, I studied postings on social media platforms. My interactions with these different literary spaces revolve around what Koleade Odutola (2012) refers to virtual ethnography. In my case, I was a participant-observer for some of the time, and an observer most of the time.
Why Nigeria and Kenya?
I settled mainly on Nigeria and Kenya as case studies because these two countries arguably produce the majority of most-talked-about writers in Anglophone African literature. The body of written works and intellectual productions coming from, and relating to, both countries is the most extensive in Anglophone African literature, outside of South Africa. For example, these two countries have together produced most of the winners of the Caine Prize for African Writing.
Furthermore, along with South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria possess the most digital hubs on the continent, thus putting them at the forefront of digital innovations in Africa. Many of the pioneering African bloggers come from Nigeria and Kenya, and digital culture is highly vibrant in these two countries, which is why both have caught the attention of digital conglomerates such as Google, Netflix, Facebook and Twitter, all of which have business interests in Kenya and Nigeria.
Throughout the book, the idea of African literary networks, comes to the fore. Here, I want to address an under-theorised aspect of African literary studies, by analysing digital literary networks and their importance to our understanding of African digital humanities, as well as the literary history of Nigeria and Kenya.
I utilise the concept of ‘network’ in analysing the many layers of the relationship between writers, readers, the literary marketplace, traditional publishing and the new media publishing platforms. Having studied computing for my first degree, my understanding of the concept of ‘network’ and its applications are both loosely based on networking morphology taught in information technology classes, which relates to the different structures and forms of networks. As a literary theorist, I apply the concept of network in unpacking the types of connections to be found within African literatures, and within the community of global literatures. Literary networks provide an important means to theorise the intersection of global politics, class and literature.
However, it is important to stress that digital networks also carry much of the hangover of market economies, because networks privilege some groups while marginalising others. Given this complexity, I place my analysis of digital literary networks in the context of Nigeria and Kenya within these settings: as a starting point for studying power dynamic within global literary networks; as providing a means to articulate literary history and development; as giving good insight into the way in which class operates within Kenyan and Nigerian literary circles; as recognizing that there is a digital network aesthetic that is being produced by African creative digital producers; and as insight to the notion that digital networks can be read as material metaphors.
Among the core elements that I observed in the course of my research for the book, is that much of the writing and thinking taking place around African literature in the digital space reflects transnational conversations and modes of labour that the middle classes tend to indulge in. Additionally, as identity keeps changing in time and space, writers and some of their readers can be said to fit into multiple relationships and several subject positions—as members of the global professional middle class, and as Africans with nationalistic and Pan-Africanist sentiments.
Another equally important element that emerged from my observation is the intersectional links between class and sexuality, and how these are foregrounded by body politics. Writers and artists alike have continuously used literature and the creative arts to inscribe society’s point of view and their own personal agenda on the African body. What I was trying to do in the book, is to direct readers to the way in which marginalised bodies— notably queer Africans and African women—have been inscribed upon by writers, by society and by both the print and new media machine. Literature in the digital space, and the discussions that come about through online writing, provide a counter to conservative and distorted views of African sexuality and history. Literature provides a voice for repressed identities in all their simple and complicated forms. This is because social media and weblogs are becoming ‘real’ spaces to discuss matters deemed too provocative, too dissident and too immoral to broach in ordinary and PHYSICAL public spaces.
Furthermore, the emerging creative writings unearth previously unseen patterns of sexual violence. This point cannot be overstressed: while the near ubiquity of mobile phones and internet cafés in Nigeria and Kenya means that acquiring and publishing online information has never been easier, increased access to consuming and producing digital information raises new challenges for those who use the digital space for sexual experimentation and to assert their true self.
The book finishes with an analysis of the quotidian in the context of literature that is produced and commented upon on social media. Here, I draw the reader’s attention to the near total neglect of the ordinary and the commonplace in African literary studies. The quotidian is often the foundation for much of Africa’s artistic endeavours; everyday objects are the tools with which writers produce fictional narratives and poems. Art is carved out of everyday emotions such as loving, crying, eating and praying. A lot of what we see in television and cinematic productions in Kenya and Nigeria speak to the everyday lived experience of Africans. Therefore, the quotidian deserves the same level of seriousness that the field of literary studies attaches to the phenomenal; not only because it is the stuff of the popular, but also because we cannot fully comprehend African humanity without it.
This guest post was written by Shola (Olorunshola) Adenekan, an associate professor of African literature at Ghent University, Belgium. Adenekan is the author of African Literature in the Digital Age (2021), and a recipient of a major grant from the European Research Council. He was previously a journalist, and currently the publishing-editor of an online magazine – www.thenewblackmagazine.com.
African Literature in the Digital Age
Class and Sexual Politics in New Writing from Nigeria and Kenya
by Shola Adenekan
9781847013637, paperback, £16.99/$24.95
Blog price*: £11.05/$16.22
*Offer is non-transferable and subject to change without notice.