In April this year, a list of the top 39 writers from the African continent under the age of 40 was released at the London Book Fair. There too, the baton was handed over from Bangkok to Port Harcourt as the UNESCO 2014 World Book Capital. The Africa39 writers would attend Port Harcourt Book Festival in October to celebrate this double achievement for the African continent. It seemed like a match made in book heaven.
In my mind (as one of the 39), I started having ideas of my time in Port Harcourt with the other 38. I would eat native soup while asking Taiye Selasi where I could buy a jacket like hers; practice my very rusty French by asking Richard Ali Mutu to top up my champagne glass; possibly photograph Lola Shoneyin, Hawa Golakai, Okwiri Oduor, Nana Brew-Hammond and Shafinaaz Hassim in one of those girl-power poses with fireworks in the background. All this of course happening at the opening night cocktail event at the Governor’s mansion who I had read was a lover of literature and studied it in university. My grandmother used to accuse me of always having my head in the clouds. She was right. Twenty three of the 39 writers turned up in Port Harcourt so obviously the festival was never going to live up to my imagination. It appeared the festival organizers did not try to either (in their defence, they had no idea of my lofty expectations).
I tend to like planning ahead so the first thing I did on arrival after check-in at the hotel on Sunday night was to ask for the programme. I was informed I would receive one in 15 minutes. By Monday breakfast, I still hadn’t received it so was unsure what was happening. I went to some of the young organizers and again I was informed I would get it within 15 minutes. It didn’t happen then.
Small tale of cocktails
Having finally found out that we had a free day which I spent gisting with Hawa Golakai, Ukamaka Olisakwe and Chibundu Onuzo. We parted around four so we could shower and dress up for the welcoming cocktail party by the pool. Ja. Ok. So it wasn’t at the Governor’s mansion but that wasn’t going to deter any of us from wearing the special dresses for this do. Hawa and I even wore heels. Me. In heels. And when we came downstairs – fashionably late 30 minutes from when the cocktail party was to begin – the cocktail party hadn’t started. We spotted Abubakar Ibrahim wearing a t-shirt and told him to return to his room and change into something better. We weren’t going to allow him, however brilliant and good looking he is, to be an Africa39 Brand Eroder (thanks Bibi Bakare for this lovely phrase). We shouldn’t have bothered Abu. The organizing staff who attended the event were mostly in their festival t-shirts.
There were no fireworks at the cocktail party.
No cocktails or mocktails either.
And a goodie bag. With the programme (yay, finally); two hard covers entitled Port Harcourt By the Book and NIGERIAN LITERATURE: A coat of many colours , the festival t-shirt, a festival-branded flask, a pen, a notebook (all of which I was very grateful for). I also received a self-help book from Joel Olsteen which, I suppose, was the World Book part of the World Book Capital. I gave it to the woman in Housekeeping the next morning. She gave me extra water bottles for the rest of the week.
There were seven events that the Africa39 writers were expected to take part in. This may sound like an intense schedule for a six day festival but it wasn’t really. After the opening ceremony with Bishop Matthew Kukah as the Keynote Speaker (this continent needs more conscientious clergy and humans like him) on Tuesday, our next event was at the University of Port Harcourt on Wednesday. Bless editor of Africa39 Ellah Wakatama Allfrey. She somehow managed to facilitate a discussion with all 22 of us (Igoni hadn’t arrived yet) while holding the attention of the audience of students and literature academics. There were two more Meet the Author occasions with all of us on Thursday and Friday at Ken Saro-Wiwa Centre and at Alliance Francaise respectively. There were also two Meet the Author panels at the main venue where writers were split into groups of 11 per panel. As these panels were never more than two hours, none of the writers ever had occasion to talk for longer than ten minutes. Tragicomic this because writers couldn’t share their wisdom. To be fair though, anyone who isn’t a writer but has attended more than one literary festival, should be able to regurgitate writerly wisdom to FAQs.
Audience Member: How do I become a writer?
Important Writer (takes microphone. Clears throat. Pregnant pause so perhaps profound answer?): Read. Read a lot. And write.
AM: You story talks about a prostitution/homosexuality. Don’t you feel that your harlot/gayism writings go against our African culture?
IW (thinking she/he is Jesus and can answer a question with a question): Which and whose African culture?
The only panel which seemed to have substance because of time permitted was the one on the Caine Prize. On panel were three past winners: Rotimi Babatunde (2012), Tope Folarin (2013) and Okwiri Oduor (2014). Ellah Allfrey led the discussion. Questions that have been making rounds on social media on the validity and the Africanness of the Caine Prize were ably dealt with by the panelists.
It was fun to hang around with writers I had known and admired from afar and meet new ones during the Port Harcourt Book Festival. For this I shall always be grateful to the organizers for inviting me. Some members of the organizing committee also took time out of their schedules to show us around Port Harcourt after hours.
Communication between the organisers and the writers could have been better. Some authors came with their books but were never told where to have them for sale. Too often too, we were told to wait in the lobby to go somewhere at a certain time only to find ourselves there for a pretty long time. I also couldn’t help thinking when I checked out that, with a hotel bill of about 175 thousand Naira for each writer who attended, perhaps we could have been better utilized. Panels should have been smaller. Some writers could have done schools outreach. We would have interacted more with people from the UNESCO World Book Capital better beyond Hotel Presidential.
As it was, what I took away from the Port Harcourt Book Festival was a warm welcome from Nigerian writers including those who were not part of Africa39; the lingering taste of suya brought from outside the hotel gate; the hospitality of Sarah and Favour in the main restaurant; and from the organizers to my fellow 39ers and me, a sarcastic ‘una well done o. bye bye.’