twitter
facebook twitter tumblr newsletter
blog-zungu-174
Zunguzungu
By Aaron Bady
Anyone claiming to be an expert is selling something. I brandish my ignorance like a crucifix at vampires.
rss feed

We Are All Gawker Now

Who the hell knows what is really happening at Gawker, and who the hell cares? Answer: Gawker and Gawker. Which is the interesting thing to me about all of this, the way a story about Gawker has, primarily, been reported on Gawker. And without Gawker leaking internal Gawker memos to Gawker, would we know what’s happening at Gawker? And would we care?

Probably not, and probably not. Which is to say, simply: this is how “the news” is made. Not “reported,” which would imply that it was already news before news-media decided it was, but “made”: news is news because the news says it is. This is why Nick Denton gets points for admitting that his litmus test for a story’s newsworthiness is whether it’s “interesting”: he is interesting in publishing stories, primarily, that he is interested in publishing, and this tautology is the thing itself. How do you know if a thing is newsworthy? Well, if it’s on the news, then it must be news. There can therefore be no question of ever taking down a post, once the editorial collective has decided to put it up, because publishing is a self-fulfilling prophecy: having declared it to be news, it becomes news. This must be what takes the place of “the public interest” for a media organization that does not derive its sense of journalistic ethics from that sense of its social constituency. Gawker is because Gawker is: the purest of pure media, speech as a good absent other considerations. It is Reddit, but so very much better at it.

It’s not surprising, then, that the Gawker “Brand Book” is as wondrously and perfectly vacuous as it is. Here, for example, are all the phrases containing the word “real”:

So what really happened? What we want is the real story. We reveal what’s really happening without restraint, inhibition, or ulterior motives. We tell the real story. What We Do: Get the real story. Media Brands: We tell the real story. We explain what’s really happening. Explain the intricacies of the real story to the people who need to hear them most. Media Platform: We help anyone find the real story. To create and discover the real stories that matter to them. Commitment to surfacing the real story. This is what we ask you to do when finding the real story. To push beyond the surface to reveal the real story and diverse perspectives.

The word “real” is the fetish object whose incantatory rhythm lulls us into blissful submission, into overlooking the fact that the question “What is Gawker for?” could never have an answer. If Gawker had a purpose, it wouldn’t be Gawker. Gawker is for Gawker, world without end, amen, and the end of all our gawking will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. Gawker is as Gawker does, and as it turns out, Gawker sure as hell does.

Short Story Day Africa: Interview with Rachel Zadok

terra-incognita-ssda_20141123

Short Story Day Africa is a wonderful initiative that was started by the South African novelist Rachel Zadok — author of Gem Squash, Tokoloshe and Sister-Sister – and in the three years of their existence, they’ve already managed to do excellent things. In the last two years, they’ve put out two of the best anthologies of new fiction I’ve read in some time (Feast, Famine & Potluck and Terra Incognita: New Short Speculative Stories from Africa) as well as a lovely looking anthology of young fiction by young people, Rapunzel is Dead, that I just purchased for $0.99 (and so can you). They’re fundraising for their third anthology Water – you can donate here and I anticipate it will be amazing. Did I mention that you can donate here? You can donate here.

I had a chance to meet Rachel a month ago in Kampala, and interviewed her over email yesterday. A very lightly edited transcript is below.

AB: As you told Bwesigye in March, Short Story Day Africa (SSDA) began with a focus on Southern Africa, “but then decided to expand because writers from the north wanted in.” Could you talk about how that happened? 

RZ: We’d always intended the project to develop organically, though how we thought that would happen turned out to be very different to the end result. I guess we didn’t expect the response to the project that it got. I think, when it started, writers on the continent were looking for somewhere to publish their work, work that didn’t necessarily have appeal to a Western publishing industry that pretty much wanted to tell the same stories the media was telling about Africa. Social media was just a couple of years old and it was either get published in the West, or you were pretty much voiceless. In the first year, we just published an extended circle of writers we knew and writers they knew on a website I’d thrown together. We were email based then. The second year we were inundated with requests from writers to send us their stories, and we started the Facebook page. By the third year, writers beyond Southern Africa were asking to be included, so we changed the name, made a new Facebook page and opened it up to any African writer.

The issue then was that the concept of celebrating the short story on the shortest day of the year no longer made any sense, because countries from the above the equator were participating, but we were kind of stuck with that.  21 June still remains the official day to SSDA celebrates short stories, but it always throws a bit of a conundrum at the team because it’s not really what we do anymore. What we do is: publish startling voices telling nuanced stories about Africa and assist them in developing their work. We profile writers and run mini-workshops online. We’re a support platform for African writers and publications featuring African writers.

I guess I mainly just know SSDA from the anthologies! Could you tell me more about the ways you function as a support platform outside of the work you publish?

We run a feature every Wednesday under the hashtag #WriterWednesday in which we interview an African writer and publish the interview on our website blog. Then, throughout the day, we publish links to their work, website etc etc on our social media sites.  So basically, our social media for the entire day, from the morning read to the final quote is by that writer.

We link back to the work other online journals are doing via our social media sites, so that they and the writers they publish get more attention. We also publish all their calls for submissions etc, on our social media sites.

On Facebook we run an event every two weeks called #WriterPrompt. It’s for writers to hone their skills and get writing advice. We provide a prompt and they write 200 word flash fiction stories. Everyone who writes is encouraged to comment on the other stories, and the writers edit and work on their skills as one would in any creative writing workshop. Tiah Beautement, a member of our team, runs the events and provides professional support – she’s a published writer but also has a lot of experience running workshops. It works as a mini-workshop, but also a way for writers to showcase their work. At the end of the event, we select one of the stories and run the story and an interview with the writer as the #WriterWednesday feature. It’s a way for emerging/unpublished writers to get a moment in the limelight.

Why do you feel like the South African literary scene has been so insulated from the rest of the continent? And is that changing?

There’s been a whole lot of upheaval in the SA literary scene of late, under headings ‘decolonising literature’ and #litapartheid, which refers to the white dominated publishing industry in South Africa. The weird thing is that, if you speak to South African writers on both sides of the race divide, both feel the other side has the better deal. White South African writers feel they stand very little chance of publication here or abroad, and that publishing houses favour black writers. Black writers feel that their work is of anthropological interest to white audiences, and that the structures of literary festivals and publishing houses capitalize on that.

Both are right to some extent, but I think the real issues are more complex. The readerships for local fiction are pitiful (read Tom Eaton’s scathing but very astute article about publishing in SA for more about that), books are incredibly expensive and everyone is looking at the wrong place to sell their work, i.e. the USA and Europe. No one is looking to the rest of Africa for markets. At least in the offices of the publishing houses, there seems to be this belief that beyond South Africa is a dark continent of illiterate hut dwellers. I asked my publisher to send my last novel to other publishers in other African countries, like Cassava Republic for example, but was told it was pointless, that there was no market.

It’s a total fallacy. But no one here is talking about the vibrant and growing publishing industry on the continent. It’s like shouting into a gale force wind of dissent if you bring it up. I did during a panel at the Franschhoek Literary Festival earlier this year and had people up in arms.

download

Why were people up in arms?

I’m not really sure why it hit such a nerve. I basically said that writers in South Africa needed to look to Africa as an alternative market, and not keep trying to publish in markets that had little interest in the stories we had to tell, unless they fit into a certain paradigm, and that writers moving off the continent ended up writing about the experience of being African in the diaspora, and that we were limiting the African story by only looking to the west for publication. One publisher said that if Africans were really interested in reading our novels they could buy them off Amazon, and another woman wanted to know why I thought the immigrant experience wasn’t a valid one, which I hadn’t actually said. I don’t think writers here are ready to admit that they’re not going to find an audience in Europe and the USA necessarily.

Why did you decide that the second anthology would be a speculative fiction anthology?

A very practical reason. All the submissions for the first anthology, Feast, Famine & Potluck, were literary fiction. When I asked why no genre writers had submitted work, they said they viewed SSDA as a project for literary writers. We didn’t want that. So we sent out a call for speculative fiction (including every genre under that umbrella, and literary fiction) and placed it the theme of exploring unchartered territory, Terra Incognita.

Since you write speculative fiction, I’d love to hear your thoughts on what seems to me to be a real boom in African writers writing in this category, these days.

I actually write what is considered by publishers to be literary fiction with speculative elements, and by other speculative fiction writers to be spec fic. I don’t know why there needs to be these categories. I find it confusing, unhelpful and divisive to label work in terms that either isolates the readers or makes writers feel insecure about their work. I choose to read work that appeals to me stylistically and has a subject matter I’m interested in. I don’t care if it’s spec fic, historical fiction or literary fiction. Besides which, all fiction is speculative.

I think it would be easy to box the appeal of spec fic for African writers, but I doubt the answer of why is so simple. Maybe and it’s because it lends itself to being able to discuss issues without the risk of landing up in hot water? Maybe, for some writers, it fits the story they’re working on? Maybe it’s just one of those things that becomes popular via osmosis? I think we have to be careful of looking at African spec fic and trying to pin some sort of anthropological reason onto its existence.

What does SSDA bring to the literary landscape that wouldn’t otherwise be there?

An openness to all kinds of stories that you wouldn’t traditionally find in one anthology. We have a reading process that choses readers from a wide range of cultures, and every story is read by three readers who score it. A story that appeals to a reader in Uganda and Botswana sometimes scores low with a reader in South Africa, for example. In a way, the stories are curated by an African readership rather than a single entity. Those stories are then edited by two editors who work closely with the writers over three months to develop the story but also the skills of writer without every imposing voice. It’s intense and it can be trying, but it’s a beautiful thing.

I love the fact that you don’t simply select short stories, but that you work to develop the stories you’ve accepted. [say more about that process? Perhaps a good example/anecdote?]

It’s difficult to give an anecdote without naming the story, but I’ll try. One story scored two 10s (10 out of 10 – yes, it’s like ice-skating our scoring system) from a reader in Botswana and a reader in Nigeria., and 2 from the South African reader. I read the story and found it challenging – honestly I just couldn’t see what they had loved so much to score two perfect 10s – but because it has scored so highly from two of the readers who come from a different narrative sensibility – perhaps a traditional way of telling stories that is lacking my personal history – we went ahead and included it. We then realised that the story needed to be read out loud to be truly appreciated. It’s a beautiful piece of prose poetry that I’ve come to appreciate, but when I first saw it I didn’t get it. If it had been just me curating the anthology, that voice would not have been heard.

feast-famine-potluck_ssda_20141123

Why have you focused specifically on the short story? I ask partly because of the strange way the Caine prize (AKA the “African Booker”) is a prize for short stories, and because it seems like that’s where so much of the action is, these days.

Honestly, there are only three of us in the SSDA team!

Jokes aside, I don’t know why the ‘African Booker’ focused on the short story. A lot of people feel the reason was an insulting one, but I also think perhaps the short story in Africa is like the short story in the USA. People love them. We love to write them and we love to read them. In the UK, short stories are not popular, nor do they sell very well in South Africa. I think the literary scene is just a vibrant and growing one where many forms of literature are appreciated still. Also, people are publishing on the internet quite a lot now, and that lends itself better to short stories than novels.

How is SSDA funded? The anthologies are gorgeous and very high quality. But I’m assuming that sales don’t cover the operating costs? 

Well thank you. We do make an effort. Funds come from a variety of sources. Worldreader gives us seed funding every year and that covers the cost of the editing. But he majority comes from crowdfunding. We pre-sell the anthologies before we’ve even selected the stories, and we sell sponsorships.

We’ve been very lucky because the project was designed around the idea of community, as in an African writing and reading community both on the continent and beyond, and people have responded to that. There’s a sense of ownership, that it belongs to the community. So people give in kind as well as cash. Last year Fox & Raven, a small indie publisher, e-formatted the books for us. This year, Electric Book Works is formatting the ebooks.

We still need to raise money to pay the team and the writers, as well as our admin costs, hence the crowdfunding. If you go to the donate page on our website, all the ways people can fund us are listed. http://shortstorydayafrica.org/donate/

rapunzel-is-dead

Inside Out, Namwali Serpell’s “The Sack”

Möbius_strip

Namwali Serpell’s “The Sack” stands on its own, if it must. When I discussed the story with a classroom full of undergraduates—as part of my “Global Contemporary Short Story” class—I think they found it both rewarding and challenging, which is a nice way of saying it was frustrating, but that there can be something nice about being frustrated. There is a certain formal unity to the story, in that the beginning feels like a beginning and the ending feels like an ending—leaving the middle free to feel like itself—and yet, at the same time, that narrative arc does anything but resolve. It ends up where it began, yet inverted, like running your hand along a Möbius strip until you reach the same point (but underneath) and there’s nothing to do but keep going until you get back to the beginning. If you began in the sack, you end up on the outside, or vice versa: if once you saw from the outside, now you see from the inside. But in the very neat and precise machinery of the story’s narrative completion, it un-resolves itself, taking you back to the beginning… only now, you’re inside out, upside down, looking out from looking in. If you turn a sack inside out, you’ll find yourself holding, again, a sack.

Serpell is the rare writer whose earliest fiction is already preceded by a formidable work of literary criticism, the book she published last year called Seven Modes of Uncertainty, but which has been in different stages of preparation for over a decade (it began as the PhD dissertation, she completed in 2008, though the project has grown and evolved quite a bit since then). I found it helpful to read. This is not always the case; many critics make terrible fiction writers, and many fiction writers make the worst critics. In her introduction, in fact, Serpell discusses a broadcasted conversation between Lionel Trilling and Vladimir Nabokov—respectively playing Critic and Author from central casting—and though Trilling was an author and Nabokov was, also, a critic, their conversation produced a symmetrical conflict between the outsider looking in to the work of art and the insider looking out. They saw anything but eye to eye. Or at least they did, in that moment, in that conversation in 1958. Who knows what Nabokov thought of his novel when he wasn’t performing Author? Or what Trilling thought of his own writing, when he was?

Among other things, the point was that critics and writers do not and cannot read the same way, but it’s fine that they don’t, and maybe even necessary that they stay at arm’s length. Perhaps what a critic can say is dependent on what a writer can say, but which the critic cannot, and vice versa? In any case, while Namwali Serpell is one person, her fiction writing and her critical writing are at most and at least adjacent to each other. In the reading below, she describes this adjacency as a conversation which she isn’t party to, like Jekyll scribbling marginalia in Hyde’s books, and said that she makes a point of alternating between academic and creative writing, with as little overlap as possible. There’s something about that suspension that feels exactly right, and I find myself—again—going back to the image of the Möbius strip, the way critical brain and creative brain are on opposite sides of the same single-sided strip.

How should we read “The Sack”?  It’s a story that is susceptible to being read as an allegory of reading, if one is so inclined to read it that way: as Lily Kroll observes, the story “calls into question the privilege of readers’ insight” by letting us follow a path that takes us back to where we started. Like so many stories, the opening tempts us to search for meaning, to pick up the pieces, to look for clues, and to discern connections. Who are these people? What is their history together? What is the story behind this story? But if we struggle to see in the story what it is initially hidden—to look in the sack to find what’s inside—we’ll find, looking inside, that we end up inside the sack, ourselves, peering out. What is inside a skin? Which is the inside, which the mask?

It seems likely that one of the two J’s of the story is a white man, for example, and the other a black man. Their names are Jacob and Joseph—there is a third, Naila, the woman who gives their mimetic triangle its second dimension, and a boy who may or may not be a function of a coupling—but the narrative withholds the knowledge of which J is “J” and which J is “the old man.” In the absence of Naila, it doesn’t seem to matter; a two-dimensional triangle reverts to a one dimensional form. By the same token, if one of them is white and one is black—if the old man means something when he says, of J, that “I know what the colour of my skin means to someone of our generation”—it’s hard to find where this withheld fact impacts the narrative, or what recovering it does for our reading of the story. What does it matter? What would it help us to know about their relationship? For a relationship apparently constituted by the phenomenology of race, race turns out to be one-sided, with nothing underneath. In being a story all about race, it finds that race is nothing to be about, all surface, no depth. Like a sack, perhaps? But a sack doesn’t need to be deep to contain oblivion.

If “The Sack” is about reading—if “reading” is what’s inside the sack—then it’s a sack whose outside contains everything else in the world: call the outside of a sack “the inside,” and suddenly it contains the whole world, bounded in nutshell, troubled only by bad dreams. If it’s about race, then it’s about how we struggle to look beneath surfaces that reveal nothing more than new surfaces. As we oscillate between white and black, between J and J, the inadequacy of the only thing we have becomes ever more perilously obvious. And if the story is about gender—and this, too, is what it’s primarily about—then it’s about the inevitable flattening of masculinity into violence when men are deprived of an other to be masculine against, the narcissism of the subject which men use women to blunt and muffle. Or perhaps it’s about something else entirely? Perhaps it definitely is.

I found these things when I looked in this sack, in part, because I dreamed about them and then they came to life. You might dream something different, and find it. You might have no choice but to do so, because you have to choose. As Serpell observes in Seven Modes of Uncertainty, this is where reading cannot escape the problem of ethics: literature produces free choice because the reader must decide what something means,and yet it’s a free choice which the text forces on us. That’s an uncomfortable place to find yourself, as reader, to be forced to take responsibility for what you chose to put in the sack. Passivity can be an alibi for readers who prefer to keep their hands clean, to let the author carry the burden. But what if, instead of playing detective, soothsayer, code-breaker, psychoanalyst—instead of being readers who follow the trail of breadcrumbs as mindlessly as ants—what if we are projecting our dreams forward as we read, living out what we imagined into existence? One retreat from that paradox—that freedom which becomes mandatory  as you slide your hand along the Möbius strip and inside turns seamlessly into outside—is to take refuge inside the withheld narrative object, the un-said, to disown responsibility for the dream by finding it in the sack, suspending it there, burying it there, waiting for it there. It’s not in me, you might say, it’s in the sack. But if there is one thing “The Sack” does, it turns out, it’s to insist on turning that sack inside out.

“A sort of post-colonial studies joke”: Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation

Do you need to read Camus before you read Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation? If you read The Stranger ten years ago, twenty years ago, do you need to re-read it?

camusmeursault

I had a Camus phase, in adolescence. I read The Stranger—and even bought L’etranger, with the ambition of using it to improve my French—as well as The Plague, The Fall, and others whose titles I don’t remember. I know that I read them, because while I bought those books new, they looked used when I gave them away. But books I read when I was a teenager didn’t stay in my brain, or at least these haven’t. Of The Stranger, I remember that mother died today, and ennui, and existentialism, I guess. Smoking. Killing an Arab because of the sun. The last time I thought about The Stranger was probably when George Bush reported reading it in Crawford, on vacation, and we all made jokes like “Ah! A book about killing an Arab and not feeling bad about it! Seems legit!”

I remember those jokes much more clearly than I remember the scene in question. I remember the fact that Camus killed an Arab because of the sun, much better than I remember the actual experience of reading the book. I don’t remember the novel as philosophy, or even as novel. Which is to say, the book I read at some point in my teenage years has been thoroughly overwritten in my memory by my sense of why that novel is significant: it’s an exemplary text in the West’s literary erasure of its colonial empire. What I remember about The Stranger is not what it is ostensibly about, but what, in retrospect, it can be seen not to be about. What I remember about The Stranger, primarily, is why I don’t need to re-read it.

Most of the reviews of The Meursault Investigation frame Kamel Daoud’s novel in terms of its retort to the novel Camus is remembered to have written, by the sort of person who is likely to read Kamel Daoud’s novel. I am the sort of person who is likely to read Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation, for example, because I’m also the sort of person who has forgotten The Stranger in remembering what Camus erased: Africa. But because I am a reader who is aware that Africa exists, isn’t a book which “critiques” Camus in those terms a little bit superfluous? If my primary reference point for The Stranger is already the critique that is sometimes made of this Algerian-born French writer—the “perverse arrogance” that Achebe once described as Conrad’s choice, in Heart of Darkness, to reduce Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind—then why do I need to read “a bold riposte to Albert Camus’s existential classic,” as the Irish Times calls it? And yet, if I require that critique—if I need to be reminded of the existence of Africa—am I likely to read this novel? I bet I am not likely to read this novel.

I’ve constructed this somewhat elaborate problem not to criticize reviewers for staging Daoud-contre-Camus. I don’t know how else you’d introduce the book, honestly; it’s a novel whose first-person narrator, Harun, literally tells you that he’s speaking back to Camus and correcting his wrong-telling of the past. There is no novel without this framing; the first line of Daoud’s book is a revision of the famous first line of Camus’ novel. And the protagonist of Daoud’s novel has not only read Camus’ novel, but he presumes that you have as well; indeed, the novel is narrated to a journalist in the bar who literally has a copy of The Stranger in his briefcase. Without that context, the book literally makes no sense. But just as Harun conflates Camus and Meursault in his effort to repudiate both—turning a novel into a truth claim, so he can demonstrate that it is a fiction—something important is lost if we do the same thing to Kamel Daoud’s novel. Daoud is not Harun, any more than Camus was Meursault. And the inversion of a fiction is not truth. It’s another fiction.

In her review of The Meursault Investigation, Laila Lalami suggests that “because they offer us a chance to look at the same story with new eyes, literary retellings have always been popular”:

“Jane Smiley’s “A Thousand Acres” reimagines “King Lear” on a farm in Iowa. Tayeb Salih’s “Season of Migration to the North” borrows its structure from Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” Jean Rhys’s “Wide Sargasso Sea” uncovers the story of the madwoman in Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre.” But to be successful, a literary retelling must not simply dress up an old story in new clothes. It must also be so convincing and so satisfying that we no longer think of the original story as the truth, but rather come to question it.”

Lalami’s own novel, The Moor’s Account, begins in exactly these terms: its protagonist (the titular “Moor”) has read the account that Cabeza de Vaca gave of the Narvaez expedition, and he writes to supplement and correct it, to tell the real story of what happened. It is fiction, but it opens up the space in which Cabeza de Vaca’s narrative becomes legible as equally fictional, just as creative. When I interviewed her about her book, I felt the need to re-read Cabeza de Vaca; as I read Daoud’s novel, I found myself needing to re-read the novel that Camus wrote in 1942, and I did. Especially when it comes to the imperial fictions that the West has been producing about its others, for centuries, re-telling a canonical story in terms of the consciousness it suppresses does a certain kind of very powerful work.

And yet, and yet, and yet. Why must I read Camus first, in order to read this book? (and if I must read Camus first, why must I read this book?) If reading this book takes me back, inevitably, to the observation that Camus has his limitations, and that’s why I read it, then there’s a tautology nested in the critique of Camus that ends up placing Camus back at the center. Camus remains the original, against which Daoud’s retort or comment or counter or supplement come to seem secondary. It feels like we’ve missed something, and maybe it’s the punchline.

It would do a disservice to Lalami’s own novel, in fact, to think of it only in terms of her imaginative revision of Cabeza de Vaca; the most interesting thing her novel does—if you ask me—is how she plays with the notion of captivity, exploring the forms of un-freedom that derive not from formal enslavement but from exile and deprivation: one can be rendered un-free by solitude and hunger, not only by chains. There is little or no economy in Cabeza de Vaca (and a scrupulous effort not to think about how where we are produces who we are), but Lalami’s effort to sketch out how macro-political waves wash across human societies and transform their fundamental sense of who they are and why is what makes The Moor’s Account vital and interesting.

By the same token, it does a real disservice to this strange and vibrant and conflicted book to think of it as primarily a retort to Camus, and to thereby frame it as a secondary literature. Maybe it’s not a literature at all? Camus is dead, but Literature is still alive today, and what seems most crucial about these kinds of literary re-tellings is that they unsettle the basis on which some stories get privileged over others. There is something radically anti-literary about this novel, in other words, and it seems as crucial to what it’s doing as any reference to Camus.After all, if Camus and his creation seem to blur together, Harun’s treatment of Camus as if he literally was Meursault is so flagrantly and blatantly wrong that it undercuts whatever pretensions this novel might otherwise seem to have to a corrective function. Harun is locked in the past, an this novel is his struggle to emerge. In place of the literary, then, the word “historical” suggests itself to me, if only in reference to the nightmare from which this novel seeks to awake. And it’s a book that would read very differently—and perhaps should—if its primary interlocutor were read to be Fanon instead of Camus.

(Next up: reading it through Fanon?)

Writing a bodaboda to Rideavism

buses

At the Writivism festival last week, in Kampala, Uganda, a certain conversational form played itself out over and over again: I know you from the internet, it’s so wonderful to finally meet you in person! I spoke variations on that theme to various people, people spoke it to me, and I overheard people speaking it to each other. Many of the guests at Writivism had already met each other, of course—there was a small reunion of some of the Africa39 writers, for example, who had all met at Port Harcourt last year, and many of the guests came with already-assembled cohorts (the Nigerians who came together, the Kenyans who took a bus from Nairobi, etc). But bylines and facebook profiles and author photos travel much faster and farther than bodies do, those sweaty meat-sacks which lag behind struggling to catch up. When you meet people you know but don’t know, recognition is always tempered by the surprise that they are who they turn out to be. They are the person you thought they were, but they are also… more. Sometimes less. And then there’s that disorienting delay while the two parts come into focus, as your brain struggles to process the fact that no, this person is the same person as the person who wrote that.  There is a gap, a lagging behind. People are always a little bit too much or a little bit too little.

Is the work of a festival to harmonize those dissonances or to making music out of the cacophony? Maybe those gaps and surpluses are the point. Why else bring a group of Nigerians to Uganda, if not to explore what that ostensibly nominal distinction feels like in practice? “Africa” is one word for one continent, but if pan-Africanism was the thesis, nationalism was the antithesis, the vocabulary through which so much of the festival was articulated. “The Nigerian Literature Conversation.” Or maybe Writivism was the synthesis: Friendships across borders, but also clarity about where those borders still cut deep.

The internet is easy, after all, much too deceptively easy in its borderlessness. I was already facebook friends with many of the people that I met at Writivism, and there’s been a flurry of friending-ing in the days since the festival ended. It’s easy to do that. I’ve since tracked people down on twitter, and been tracked down, belatedly connecting electronically with people who hands I shook, or hugged, or simply poets whose performances were particularly electrifying. All you have to do is type and click and it’s done. But at the festival itself, when I would strike up a conversation, I found myself so often unsure whether I had already followed/friended them (and vice-versa); It is good to meet you! I would say (Do I already know you? I was afraid to ask.) Several times I thought I knew someone when I didn’t, or vice versa, and the only way to work through it was to awkwardly be awkward. Facebook makes it easy to know if you are friends with someone, and it’s rarely awkward. You’re rarely exposed.

Festivals are difficult, first and foremost, because of bodies. The primary organizational disaster of this particular festival was having it spread across Kampala, at three different venues separated by hours of snarling traffic. Bodies are the problem, even if we call that problem “traffic.” Too many bodies, and the lag in moving them to where they should go, when they don’t always want to, when they are hungry or tired or hot. There are a lot of bodies in Kampala. It’s a city in desperate need of multi-lane roads—that is, if it is to operate efficiently—and at the present time, it lacks them. (Though China is coming!) As a result, you can spend hours in traffic like it’s nothing, and although motorcycle taxis—here, called “Boda bodas”—are hardly a Ugandan innovation, there are so many of them because of the desperate need to increase the carrying capacity of over-swelled roads. If the traffic is jammed, a boda boda weaves through the gaps and gets your body moving. The price is that it exposes you: your body might be overturned and broken. An absolutely appalling number of people are injured and killed by boda boda accidents, but if you need to get where you need to get in time, you don’t have a lot of options.

In practice, this festival did not move bodies through space with anything like efficiency. And for a start: if there is one way not to organize a festival, it’s to not try to place different events at different parts of the city and then try to shuttle participants between them. You need to let those bodies find their own time and place and their own pace. You need to let them find the pathways and roads and tangents that are most comfortable for them, and to use those perambulatory digressions to find new communities. The last thing you want to do is micromanage movements in a city whose arteries are so sclerotic and unpredictable.  You’ll fail, and it will irritate people, especially when they’re hot and hungry and tired and confused. A firm organizational hand goes well with traffic that runs on time; when it doesn’t, you might find that a much looser grip gives people room to breathe. If you push them, they get angry; if you put them on a boda boda, things get dicey. What if they fall off? They are exposed.

“Boda boda,” I’m told, is a name that derives from the word “border,” and from the vehicles which people would use, in the 60’s and 70’s, to cross the Uganda-Kenya border without passing through official border crossings. It was for smuggling, or just for getting around the arbitrary lines that separated people whose lives and communities had always been complexly interrelated, and remained so, no matter what it said on maps. When Uganda and Kenya stopped being “British” in the 1960’s, the East African Community was the structure that was to lead to regional integration, but it didn’t, for lots of reasons. And while it’s a complicated, messy story, the end result was that regional connections were blocked and clotted; bicycle taxis, boda bodas, sprang up as a workaround. People find a way to get where they want to go, no matter where they are supposed to be and stay.

Festivals are notoriously difficult to write about, as an editor told me, when I was offering to write about this one. You can write a description of what happened, calling on names and panels and schedules and quotes, and you can produce a picture of the whole thing that will cohere into some kind of narrative of how it all happened. You can also produce a narrative—stripped of names and details—that will describe how it didn’t happen. I’m sort of delighted by the fact that the same person produced both narratives for the Star, in Nairobi, on the same day: The Writivism Festival 2015: Exploring all things and How to Not Organise a Literary Festival. Are these articles describing the same festival? But of course they are: festivals are difficult to write about because they are always, both, the dissonance and consonance at once, the coming-together and the pulling apart. So maybe you don’t write about them. Maybe you just go, listen, speak, and come back.