The annual Fall for the Book festival drew dozens of amazing writers to Fairfax this past September, including authors such as Stephen King, Amy Tan, Claudia Rankine, and Benjamin Percy. Unfortunately it’s impossible to see all of these writers at the festival, but one event that I did get a chance to attend was the Writing Africa Panel, featuring readings by Helon Habila, E. C. Osondu, and Susi Wyss. These three distinct voices offered engaging and completely different stories inspired by Africa. During the Q&A, Susi Wyss made a comment that seemed to sum up a larger theme of the panel: through her writing, she said, she hopes to convey the idea that people are the same everywhere. She wants to react against the negative portrayal of Africa that we see so often in American media. This theme of expressing the true Africa is present in the works of all three writers.
Helon Habila read “The Second Death of Martin Lango,” a story that was recently commissioned by the Guardian to commemorate the 10th Anniversary of 9/11. In the story Habila describes a situation in which a man who has moved from Nigeria to the US by means of a visa lottery meets with a man who claims to be an acquaintance, Martin Lango. However, the real Martin Lango was killed before the story begins. The focus of this story seemed to be to entertain, by telling a clever and compelling story. Habila brings a plot of depth and deception to life with his clever, finely crafted dialogue and description. In this story the world isn’t quite what it seems and the nuances of modern story-telling are visible beneath the quick plot.
E. C. Osondu read “Waiting,” a story about Nigerian kids who were waiting for a photographer to take their pictures. The photographer had been expected before, but never showed up. Again, they were waiting, ultimately waiting for those pictures to be seen by American families who would adopt them and bring them to the almost mythical America that always seems just out of reach. Part of the charm of this story is that the kids all wore t-shirts with funny slogans on them, which determined each of their nicknames. “Paris” gets her name because her shirt reads “See Paris And Die.” One of the funniest parts of the story occurs when the narrator, Orlando (His t-shirt reads “Orlando, Florida”) says of Paris, “When she is coming toward me, I close my eyes because I don’t want to die.” This method of naming the characters was a clever and funny way to tell the story and to distinguish the characters, but it was also a poignant detail because the kids had no other shirts. These logos were something that they always wore, like tattoos, and they became part of the children’s bodies, their identities. Like Habila, Osondu’s primary objective seemed to be to tell a story rather than to express a specific concern about life in Nigeria. But that funny, poignant story also managed to portray a sense of longing and anticipation for the future.
Susi Wyss read several short excerpts from her short story collection The Civilized World to give a sense of the characters she brings to life. The stories in her collection are set in locations throughout Africa, depicting the lives of women from around the world. From the excerpts she read, it seemed that she was conveying a holistic view of the negative and positive aspects of life in Africa. She chose a smart way to do this, by showing the everyday lives of a variety of women, giving the reader a view of daily life across Africa without portraying anything as particularly negative or positive overall.
Something that all three writers highlighted is the fact that telling a story is enough in itself. The writers on the panel said they didn’t worry too much about audience and agenda. It was a breath of fresh air to hear these readings, which enforced the idea that the point of fiction writing is to tell a story. That simple fact often gets lost amid the frantic search for the next brilliant conceit or layered agenda. We don’t need other, deeper political, religious, and ideological motives. The passing on of human experience will make us relate those things anyway, because they are an intrinsic part of our desire to relate, to understand, and most importantly, to tell stories.
Will Fawley is an MFA candidate studying Fiction at George Mason University, where he also serves as the Assistant Fiction Editor at Phoebe.