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I’ve had a wonderful birthday weekend. On Saturday the 11th, when I turned 21 again, I hung out at the African Festival in Trafalgar Square – food, fashion and funky music. Then yesterday evening at the Southbank Centre came an unbeatably gratifying present: the launch of the anthology Africa39: New Writing from Africa South of the Sahara, celebrating a generation of writers on “a fully confident ascent towards the peak of imaginative powers” – to quote the words of Wole Soyinka in his Introduction. As a judge alongside Osonye Tess Onwueme and Elechi Amadi, I am privileged to have played a part the selection process that has resulted in this covetable book.
Its cover art vibrant with yellow and green and red and blue, the anthology looks gorgeous, even before you open it to savour 350-plus pages of creativity by the talented 39, represented at the launch by Clifton Gachagua (Kenya), Stanley Onjezani Kenani (Malawi) and Nadifa Mohamed (Somalia). They read from their contributions – poignant and playful, thought-provoking and unexpected, and buzzing – and responded with insight to über interlocutor Ellah Allfrey’s questions. Fascinating to hear Stanley Kenani talk of how his writing recently converged with his “day job” as a chartered accountant when he faced the improbable challenge of writing a poem on accountancy.
As a bonus, joining the line-up on stage was the indefatigable Binyavanga Wainaina, who was responsible for researching and sourcing the longlist of 100 from which we judges made our pick. He spoke of putting the call out, encouraging and searching for those writing in African languages, in whatever form, whether science fiction, blogs, love stories, thrillers, or any other genre, local stories and diaspora stories. So, Africa39 is unique in being a beautiful snapshot of a significant age-group of literary Africa, part of an inspirational community of writers that reaches far beyond those named within this volume. These are just 39 of the best. With the “borderlessness” and connectedness of social media, and all the digital possibilities now on offer, it will be interesting to see how a similar longlist ten years from now will look.
Mingling with an enthusiastic audience of some 100, were those who had made it all happen: the Hay Festival crew who are behind the Africa39 project as part of their initiatives linked to each UNESCO World Book Capital city (currently Port Harcourt in Nigeria), and Bill Swainson (definitely one of the good guys, who worked with me at Allison & Busby yonks ago) from publisher Bloomsbury. And of course my lovely friends at Commonwealth Writers.
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