This is the age when the seeds of Cameroonian literature are being sown. Question: are we conscious of the fact? If we are to listen to the most virulent of our literary critics, Cameroonian literature is currently wallowing in the middle of nowhere. Thus, it is pointless to attempt naming regularly published Cameroonian writers since 1990 (be it in Cameroon or overseas), the likes of Anne Cillon Perri, or Nyamnjoh, Ebodé, Bonono, d’Almeida, Effa, Miano, just to name a few; listing publications; or mentioning awards here and there, or even the tons of literary criticism ranging from doctoral theses through reviews to loose leafs such as Njanke’s Bookinons which are piling up; or places such as Poet J-C Awono’s Francis Bebey Cultural Centre that are springing up in the city. This is all pointless, because our critics are adamant.
Rather, they will choose to go on about inadequate infrastructure, lack of Literary Awards, setbacks in co-edition, decrepit vetting bodies, fiddling with the canons of education, a teleguided Minister of Culture, the perpetual despoiling of writers, and many other trifles that ceaselessly gnaw the fingers of the writer in the long “dogmatic slumber” of our literature. This brings us to the following: How does one become a Cameroonian writer? What with a list of such desolation? This is more than any Literary observer needs to conclude that in terms of literature, our disastrous country is not worth a single franc. Yet, gregarious Paris-based Publishers such as l’Harmattan have chosen to set up shop through an outlet in Yaounde.
Had our critics directed their efforts towards conducting a simple historical assessment rather than bashing our literature, they would have realised that in effect, never have Cameroonian writers done as well as they are doing at moment. For a full grasp of the scope of its current intellectual comfort, let us first set things in perspective. Our Literature today has overcome two hurdles which were stumbling blocks to the age of literature before it. The first hurdle was political, and for years it suppressed Mongo Beti. Anyone who reads about the adventures involved in the publication of the essay “Main Basse sur le Cameroun” will surely wonder: “What if the Internet had existed”. Hiding from the police to author a few lines, while relying on the good will of stowaway messengers, the Post Office being in the iron grip of the Dictator or ofFrancafrique, [French neo colonial interest in former French African colonies], one tends to wonder how our forebears even succeeded in publishing one single dot. The second obstacle, ideological in nature, with proponents such as Sembene Ousmane and which subsequently found fertile ground in the mind of Bassek ba Kobhio, was as follows: because of our peoples’ illiteracy, our literature has hit a dead end and film is our only way out of the impasse. Today, stating how elitist this approach was, is belabouring the point, as the transformation in the interim, of our movie theatres into warehouses is the deadliest blow against this precocious stabbing death of the written word.
The smoldering early 90s redefined our country’s literary existence, but more significantly, those years benefited from the vibrancy of the written word. The blank sheet was transposed to the computer monitor. Now it connects with the rest of the world thanks to the Internet, and with a mere mouse click, a typed manuscript can then be sent at the same time to many publishers worldwide. This development embarrassingly reminds me about a testimony by Severin Cecile Abega. At a time when he was ill, he nevertheless was compelled to drag himself from Biyem-Assi all the way to his Publisher’s office, surreal indeed, to hand-deliver a manuscript. Fortunately enough, one could have thought, such a waste of energy was behind us, for is there a single young Cameroonian writer today who cannot use an email account?
What is hard to take about late Abega’s case is that it happened recently, and that it had nothing to do with lack of means, as I recall that this elder of mine had owned a PC as far back as the 1990s. His self sacrifice therefore beckons to another question of more significance: do our writers today use the means at their disposal? Are they aware that since Njoya’s Saa’ngam written in 1908, the Cameroonian writer has never commanded as much power as he does today?
Our generation is lucky to have ready answers to questions that were a nuisance to our elders. In fact it is less a matter of paucity, that Cameroonian writing suffers from today than it is one of a waste of resources. To be candid, what is it that we don’t waste anyway? First, our heritage. In truth, from the 50s to date, the literary heritage of our country has been squandered against promises by “major French publishing houses,” which actually arm-twisted authors into worthless contracts akin to scams. As evident as it is that our elders berated France while conceding Paris-based publishers all rights on their works, it equally is clear that these days the writer’s logical partner has to be the Literary Agent in the same manner as a modern Citizen’s partner is the Lawyer. Although in this area, Francophone African writers are lagging behind their Anglophone counterparts such as Chris Abani or Helon Habila of Nigéria and Arac de Meyo of Sudan, more and more Cameroonians force the services of literary agents down the throats of French Publishers. They seem to have understood that their rights would be better defended from the onset, within the framework of a publishing contract, than in the courtyard of the Ministry of Culture. A right worth defending indeed, as France is one of the few European countries that is exacting over author’s rights.
Even more significantly is the fact that present-day Cameroonian writers are fortunate enough not to depend solely on publishers to emerge. Although the major windfall of the smoldering 90’s was the boom of newspapers, periodicals and subsequently dailies, the convergence between Journalism and literature was the high watermark of our literature. It is a known fact that Newspaper reporters and writers are natural allies as they share the same work tools: the blank sheet of paper and words. Granted, our newspapers still focus too much on reviews only, whereas they have the power to create a form of literature. Would Balzac and even Zola have been such famous authors had it not been for the prior serialisation of their works in Newspapers? It is worth noting that Le Messager’s Takala et Muyenga paved the way in an area which is still to be broadened. Yet the convergence of reporter and writer is not a new phenomenon in our country, after all, Ndachi Tagne and Patrice Etoundi Mballa are both pressmen fundamentally, although according to them and to Mongo Beti who stated that he had become a writer for want of becoming a journalist, newspapers are primarily an extension of an essay. By sacrificing fiction and especially poetry, is our press not wasting its ability to mould our literature? After all, an unused muscle atrophies.
All manner of things have already been said about the Internet, yet a lot still has to be said with respect to its role in recasting citizen journalism and hence of militant writing. Through blogs especially, writers have complete power to write, edit and publish their words, and with Twitter, they have been restored the fragment, the fleeting thought. Although more and more Cameroonians have cell phones which allow them to post videos on Youtube, or own a Facebook or Myspace page, very few of them are yet to use them for literary expression. Cameroonian Anglophone writers have a well deserved head start in the blogging world, the earliest literary bloggers being Bate Besong (whose death was untimely), and most of all Dibussi Tande, whose posts constitute some of Cameroon literature’s most stellar specimens. The bottom line is that the best blogs on Cameroonian Literature are in English, presently showcased by Palapala Magazine which is available solely via the Internet. So what more is there to add about French speaking Cameroonian authors, who at best are confined to one web page, except to say that here as well, they have relinquished one of the most potent tools of our times: the power to be masters of their own literature?
Even if in using blogs writers were to regain control of their stories, if the press in our country were to provide the writer with a divergent and politically daring public dais, and if literary agents were to ultimately succeed in securing rights for them, Literature will continue to rely on the publisher’s intuition. Collaboration between Publishing experts in our country such as Joseph Fumtim, a graduate of the University of Yaounde, majoring in Publishing to be more precise, and writers has become so tremendously easier thanks to the Internet. No more reason to complain about snail mail and its vicissitudes. Yvonne Vera has published all her books in her country Zimbabwe, yet she has earned international recognition, her books having been published in the US by Random House. The same applies for Mariama Ba with her work Une si longue lettre. So, considering the visibility provided by the Internet, African authors have a chance of asserting themselves as world class players. Indeed, gone are those days when literary capitals were located in Western countries. Further never has the voice of the so-called periphery been as useful as it is nowadays.
Clearly the crucial preconditions for professionalizing Cameroonian writers have been established. If none can accuse our authors of creative dearth, can the same be said of financial dearth? Currently, in the francophone world, two authors one of them being Calixthe Beyala, make a living out of selling their books. That would not have meant anything extraordinary in the Anglophone world. Indeed, in the US, writers such as Mabanckou and others have been recruited as University Professors solely on the strength of their novels. Therefore, since the University of Yaounde is already offering a major in Publishing, a unique feature in Africa as it is, it is about time that in line with the Anglosaxon-styled tradition that also underpins our educational system and mostly to complement the majors in theatre arts and film, that a Masters in Creative Writing be introduced in our Universities. Are we claiming that all our students can write? Who is best placed to teach them how to write if not writers? That is the lifeline of the new generation of African writers: Kenya’s Biyawanga and Nigeria’s Adichie and Iweala, the current crop of the so much talked-about African writers in English, are also direct products of creative writing programs. How much longer are we going to abandon the training of professional writers in our country to the odd seminar in the neighbourhood or organised in cultural centres by a handful of writers who happen to be visiting?
Our most vitriolic critics, such as Marcelin Vounda Etoa argue in an article inMutations that writing is above all a matter of talent, meaning of course that it cannot be taught. The time has come for us to consider it as a technique that can be taught; a profession. The history of Cameroonian football may for once provide us a useful key: although being highly talented, we all know that Mbappe Leppe crumbled under the weighty obstacles of his time, subsequently dying in misery. As for Roger Milla, like many of our talented writers of today, he was able to salvage his talent by ultimately leaving the country; who will blame Song and Eto’o for leaving nothing to chance, indeed, for having attended a soccer academy in the same country for that matter. Does that make them any less talented? Cameroonian literature is in its sowing season; its age of Roger Milla writers. The emergence of formidable talent both within and outside the country is making it one of the most vibrant in francophone Africa if not the entire African Continent in terms of creativity and criticism. Yet it doubtlessly needs its very own Michel Kaham, a creative critic to ease its transition from the present squandering of its powers to an economically sound investment of its potential. The promise of such an effort is self evident. The future of writing in these parts is bright but we still need to harness it.
Patrice Nganang (Translated from French by Emmanuel Ndeh Avwontom)
Patrice Nganang is one of the most promising African writers today. Dog Days, the second in a trilogy of novels on urban Cameroon, was recognized with both the Marguerite Yourcenar prize and the Grand Prix de la Littérature de l’Afrique Noire.
Emmanuel Ndeh Avwontom is a writer and Conference Interpreter/Translator living in Arusha, Tanzania.
See online: Becoming a Cameroonian Writer