Literary Crossroads - A Retrospection
At the Crossroads of African Literature

Literary Crossroads - Amara Nicole Okolo
© Goethe-Institut / Jeremiah Ikongio

Literary Crossroads, a project led by Goethe-Institut in Sub-Saharan Africa, was initiated in South Africa where it was curated by the German literary translator, editor and writer Indra Wussow. The series of talks on trends, themes, and topics in African literature took place in Kenya, Ghana, Namibia and Nigeria.

In Nigeria, the Goethe-Institut in Lagos hosted events from 2016 to 2018 and invited writers from seven countries, including Kenya, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Germany, Liberia, South Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Their discussions opened a rarely traveled path for African literature: the liberty to travel and break sociocultural boundaries within the African continent.

Safurat Balogun, then Head of Information and Library at the Goethe-Institut Nigeria, said in a recent Skype interview that the project helped to beef up the culture scene because not much by way of literary discourse was going on “outside of the usual annual festivals in the country".

Accordingly, the inaugural edition in Lagos featured three writers. As moderator, Nigerian author Molara Wood spoke with her compatriot Ifeoma Akabogu-Chinwuba and Kenya’s Khainga O'okwemba. The latter, who rose to fame as the anchor of a radio show in Kenya, read from his collection Smiles in Pathos and Other Poems (2011) and spoke about the challenges of keeping a literary radio show alive in his country.
For her part, Akabogu-Chinwuba, a one-time Nigerian Ambassador to Cote d'Ivoire, spoke about her novels Fearless (2004), Merchant of Flesh (2003), Waiting for Maria (2007) and African Romance (2013). Although Fearless and Waiting for Maria are books bathed in 1950s nostalgia, Merchant of Flesh is more contemporary, based as it is on Akabogu-Chiwuba's work as Charge D'Affair in Rome, Italy, where she met young women thrust into sex slavery in Europe. "Some of those disheartening experiences kept me awake at night," she said. "And I had to put pen on paper."

In the same year, Diekara Oloruntoba-Oju, an undergraduate from the University of Ife, Nigeria, was hosted by the series in an event moderated by Dami Ajayi. Speaking about what inspired When Lemons Grow on Orange Trees (2016), Oloruntoba-Oju said she was upset by news headlines and wanted to put a face to the death and misfortune suffered by Nigerians.

Other writers featured at the series of events include Jumoke Verissimo, Toni Kan, Lakpele Nyamalon, Amara Nicole, Yewande Omotoso and Ayobami Adebayo.

The revered Kunle Ajibade and Niyi Osundare were some of the writers from an older generation to appear at the event. The pair graced the December 2017 edition and discussed Osundare’s life and work.
On the night, Osundare read from his work and regaled the audience with tales of his years as a youth. He recalled being among a group of “rebellious” schoolboys who told Mr. Adeniran, his school’s principal, that they had learned British history but now “wanted to learn African history and literature".
The rebels had to make do with studying both fields on their own.

Literary Crossroads December 2017 Selection of Images, Literary Crossroads 2016-2018 © Goethe-Institut / Jeremiah Ikongio
On the only occasion to feature a non-African, Literary Crossroads invited its creator and first curator to Lagos. As sole guest at the January 2017 edition, Wussow spoke about her work as literary translator and director of the Sylt Foundation. She also spoke about the reception of African literature in German-speaking countries, saying that it is possible to understand a people through their literature. And to put that idea into practice, Wussow and her team started a project to translate African writings to German with the Wunderhorn series in 2008. Since then, she has sought ways of advancing African literature outside and within the continent.

Among the writers to be hosted by the series were Nigeria's Okey Ndibe and DRC's JJ Bola. Based in the US and the UK respectively, Ndibe and Bola discussed their books Never Look an American in the Eye (2016) and No Place to Call Home (2018) at the July 2017 edition. Both books discuss racism, identity, nostalgia and migration. While Bola's book is fictional, Ndibe’s is a memoir based on his memories of migrating to the US.
"In writing this book I wanted to focus on the human experience and the richness of the narratives through the characters' experiences rather than the stereotypic and politicised narrative of migrants and refugees," Bola said.
Ndibe shared a story of his longing and culture shock when he arrived in the US decades ago.
At the end of the session, the audience gathered at the event hall of the Goethe Institut wanted a definition of home from these men who had left their fatherland for a life elsewhere. Bola took the question.
"Home," he began, "is not really a place but a feeling. Whatever makes you connect with that feeling is where you find a home."

Bola could have been speaking about the series he was attending, because across the many months between its opening and concluding events, Literary Crossroads provided African literary discourse a home in Lagos, Nigeria.

December 2018: Toni Kan (Nigeria)
December 2017: Niyi Osundare (Nigeria) & Kunle Ajibade (Nigeria)
July 2017: Okey Ndibe (Nigeria) & JJ Bola (Democratic Republic of Congo)
May 2017: Ayobami Adebayo (Nigeria) & Yewande Omotoso (South Africa, Nigeria)
March 2017: Amara Nicole Okolo (Nigeria)
January 2017: Indra Wussow (South Africa & Germany)
October 2016: Lekpele Nyamalon (Liberia), Dami Ajayi (Nigeria) & Jumoke Verissimo (Nigeria)
July 2016: Diekara Oloruntoba-Oju (Nigeria) & Dami Ajayi (Nigeria)
May 2016: Khainga O’okwemba (Kenya), Ifeoma Akabogu-Chinwunba (Ivory Coast, Nigeria) & Molara Wood (Nigeria)