Originally published in the Sunday Nation on 14th June 2015
Most of us spend a lot of our time on the internet, all thanks to the advent of affordable smart phones, power banks and cheap data bundles charges. We’re constantly surfing the web, poring through our social media pages. If it is not updating people with a plethora of photos about what, where and with whom we are having lunch, we are engaged in online activism or (for people like me) following links to stories and articles.
Social media has also revolutionized the world of literature in many ways. Whether or not it is in a good way is a matter of discussion. There is simply no denying the influence that the interwebs has on literature – be via Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google Plus or Instagram.
Today it is not enough to simply be the author of a book. You also need to have an online presence. Let us take the Kenyan scene for instance. There are not so many lit festivals and public book readings that take place outside the annual Storymoja Festival , Kwani? Sunday Salon, and the cozy gatherings at Goethe Institut. Thus there are not enough opportunities for authors to interact with their readers and vice versa. Note that these lit events just happen in Nairobi. Well, in Storymoja’s defense, they held a festival in Nakuru.
The remedy to this is social media.
Speaking to Zukiswa Wanner, the South African author currently resident in Kenya, about the influence of social media in literature today, she said, “I suspect I became known out of SADC (Southern African Development Community) because of social media. Now travelling to different countries for lit fests, I made friends in those countries who would later quote, blog or review my works on social media.”
She is not alone. When Oduor Jagero released his thriller True Citizen, word spread around via the simple act of people making his book cover as their profile picture and cover photos on Facebook and Twitter. Kinyanjuui Kombani told me the other day that he managed to sell 3,000 copies of Den of Inequities by himself. 3,000 is bestseller figures for a book in Kenya. How did he do it? Courtesy of Twitter and Facebook.
There are also the online lit journals that keep coming up. They provide content for free; in most cases an anthology of short stories and poems. The most notable one is Jalada Africa. Oduor Jagero recently established another digital platform called KUT – a lit star studded anthology. Brittle Paper is a ‘literary project designed by Ainehi Edoro from Nigeria to adapt African literary culture to this new reality.’ It also releases several anthologies for example The Valentine’s Day Anthology (in collaboration with Ankara Press) and Adunni. All these online publications are powered by social media.
Jalada Managing Editor, Moses Kilolo admits that “social media is how we announce that there is a coming Jalada project, or when we publish. I bet that close to 99% of the readers we get on the website have been refereed to us via social media. It is also one of the ways we get feedback, and answer questions.”
I do not know about other countries, but in Kenya many people have taken to writing on personal blogs. However to carry the tag blogger is to carry a heavy, stinking baggage of being perceived as either the enemy of the state or a pervert of the state, who bombards virtual people with poorly written socio-political propaganda and images of the new girl in town carrying the biggest silicone enhanced buttocks.
Forget those kind of bloggers.
Let’s concentrate on creative writing bloggers. Traditional publishing houses cannot possibly contain the number of writers out there. Thus, frustrated by rejection from mainstream publishers, many writers have taken to putting their work on their own private online spaces. WordPress and Blogger are free to use and if you take time off to study the growing number of blogs on our online streets, you might discover that these sites are dripping with rich potential; Ras Mengesha on Ras Mengesha, Aleya Kassam who writes Chanyado, and Jackson Biko of bikozulu fame.
Before you dismiss blogging, be reminded that the 2014 Caine Prize Winner, Okwiri Oduor used to write on her prolific blog, Soul Fool. The 2014 Miles Morland laureate Ndinda Kioko also ran an exquisitely worded blog called Inkdrops, but she shut it down so that she could concentrate her creative juices on her fiction and upcoming book. Abigail Arunga, who still blogs to date at Akello, recently published her collection of poetry, Akello. And have you read Clifton Gachagua’s Drums of Shostakovich?
In the same breath, I must admit that blogging may not have necessarily propelled these two laureates to greatness. But I want to believe that it provided a platform for exercise, experiments, growth and exposure.
Running a blog is tricky though. It comes at a risk. When a young writer uses blogs and Facebook notes/posts to publish his stories, he skips an important stage of writing; editing. A poorly edited story is a tragedy.
Then there is the hype. When people share these stories, their ten or so friends on Facebook tell them ‘it is an amazing work of art’ in the comments section. And then there are the lies that come with this; the likes and shares and retweets. These are sacrosanct to whoever is promoting a given page. They validate a writer’s vanity, making the author to imagine that he is good when sometimes he is actually very, very bad. It is like spraying perfume on a casket. I know because that was me a couple of years ago, before Mehul Gohil gave me a wakeup call.
The likes, retweets and shares are good for motivation, but it is bad idea to get caught up in the hype. At the end of the day, the quality of stories is what matters. A writer is only as good as his last story.
With blogging, self-publishing and online book promotions being made easy, it means that almost anyone can write a book and be a writer these days.
Social media is not making us better writers. It is making more people think that they are writers.
Alexander Ikawah, the two-time Kenyan shortlist for the Commonwealth Prize, offers a different perspective. He says that the social media influence might be our bane. According to him it is a distraction; “time that could be spent writing is spent on social media talking about writing and ‘researching’, but never actually writing.”
He is right to a large extent. We are more fixated on arguments about “Who is an African writer?” “What is the role of an African writer?” “What should Africans write about?” than we are on writing itself.
This is a term that was coined by Penguin, a publishing company in the United States when then they came up with an interesting twist to the whole interaction between social media and literature. Have you ever heard of the #TwitterFiction? Well, it is basically a group of writers in the States who are bringing fiction to life using Twitter. Every year since 2012 there is a #TwitterFiction Festival. They invite authors from across the industry to create original fiction, using the Twitter platform. Anyone at anytime can jump in and join the fun by telling stories on Twitter using the #TwitterFiction hashtag.
This year’s festival is aimed at “assembling an anthology of humorous reworkings of literary classics for the twenty-first century intellect, in digestible portions of 20 tweets or fewer”.
Hafiz by Teju Cole
Using Twitter to tell stories is nothing new to us, here in Africa. Teju Cole, Nigerian author of Open City did some amazing work last year with his Twitter account. What started out as an experiment ended up with the Nigerian author orchestrating his followers into writing a collective short story titled Hafiz by simply retweeting a number of tweets by his followers.
When asked about it, Teju said “..I think I have a natural inclination to try new things when it comes to storytelling…I don’t think that print media has to be the be-all and end-all. A lot of the people I want to be read by, a lot of the people I want to speak to, are not people who have subscriptions to The New Yorker or The New York Times, so it’s important for me to speak to them in this way also.”
To quote Justin Alvarez, “Ultimately, while social media’s focus is seen as marketing and publicity, for everyone involved it can also be a potent reminder of what the original goal of the publication was and still is: to get people to read.”
This therefore begs the question; “Could the next great title be simply a collection of tweets and Facebook updates?” For most traditional readers, the idea seems like the tell-tale signs of a literary apocalypse.
But who knows? History has proved time and time again there is nothing as nebulous and uncertain as the future of literature.
Images Credit: Wessex Scene
Did you miss Hafiz by Teju Cole and his tweeps? You are one year late, but you can read it below;
. . . to the subway, I saw a man on the ground. He sat on the sidewalk, under trees, with his feet out to the quiet street.
— rünty reader (@runtyreader) January 8, 2014
Four others were there: a young man busy with a phone, a young woman, a baby in a pram, a girl who was with the woman.
— George Szirtes (@george_szirtes) January 8, 2014
The seated man was closer to sixty than to fifty, dressed in an ordinary way, a button-down long-sleeved shirt, trousers.
— Chioma Ogwuegbu (@AfricanCeleb) January 8, 2014
His right hand was inside his shirt. He clutched at his heart and winced.
— ST (@seyitaylor) January 8, 2014
The young man with the phone said, "He's having chest pains. Earlier he said he was having chest pains."
— Ayesha A. Siddiqi (@pushinghoops) January 8, 2014
"Is it a heart attack?" "I don't know." "Did you call 911?"
— culdivsac (@culdivsac) January 8, 2014
He hesitated. Then he said no, and that maybe I should. The man on the ground grimaced and did not look up.
— Mister Simian (@MisterSimian) January 8, 2014
He gave no indication of being aware of our presence. He was tranquil, wordless. The tears were falling from his eyes.
— Matt Pearce (@mattdpearce) January 8, 2014
Christopher Logue, "All Day Permanent Red": "Or are they only asleep? They are too tired to sleep. The tears are falling from their eyes."
— Ebs (@Disruptia) January 8, 2014
"And as the dust converges over them The ridge is as it is when darkness falls."
— Saudamini (@saudaminid) January 8, 2014
I called 911. The dispatcher put me through to the EMTs. I told them where we were and what I had seen.
— Kima Jones (@kima_jones) January 8, 2014
When I finished and had hung up the phone, I tried to talk to my man on the ground but his sound lacked all sound.
— BRITTLE PAPER (@brittlepaper) January 8, 2014
Why tears? Because light is beautiful. Because we do not wish to leave something and stray away into nothing.
— rob delaney (@robdelaney) January 8, 2014
Because we have some dim awareness that being alive is better than being dead, which might be nothing, which might be nothingness.
— Ayanna Gillian Lloyd (@AyaRoots) January 8, 2014
The man leaned back, further back, lay his head and shoulders on the concrete, softly, and closed his eyes.
— neo maditla (@_maditla) January 8, 2014
He was very still. Dead, possibly.
— Elif Batuman (@BananaKarenina) January 8, 2014
Coming close to take his pulse, I smelled alcohol. His tear-stained cheek shone. I placed a thumb on his wrist. His hand was cold.
— Elisa Gabbert (@egabbert) January 8, 2014
After a few moments, I remembered that the thumb has a pulse of its own, so I placed, instead, two fingers on his wrist.
— Oluchi (@LuchiesO) January 8, 2014
Distracted by the young man with the phone, the young woman with the pram, the girl, and by my own presence, I was unable to concentrate.
— Liebestoddler (@rejecter) January 8, 2014
I tried again and finally faintly felt through my fingers the blood softly throb.
— J. Robert Lennon (@jrobertlennon) January 8, 2014
And only then did I also notice his chest subtly rise and fall.
— tolu ogunlesi (@toluogunlesi) January 8, 2014
The ambulance arrived sirenlessly about five minutes later. Two EMTs came out of the vehicle, a man and a woman, both young and slender.
— Ashish (@ashishgajera) January 8, 2014
The male EMT had a beautiful name which right away I began to forget: Ahmed, or Hamid, or Aziz, or Hafiz.
— ndinda (@ndinda_) January 8, 2014
I told the EMTs what I had seen. They were calm and uninterested, concerned only to have their own questions answered.
— hystericalblackness (@hystericalblkns) January 8, 2014
"How did he get into that position?" "He lay down there." "Lay how? Did he bang his head?" "He lay down there like someone going to sleep."
— Mark O'Connell (@mrkocnnll) January 8, 2014
"He didn't hit his head on the ground?" "No."
— Theodora! (@Robirobi1) January 8, 2014
They worked with Homeric clarity. In each unwasted gesture was the message: it's always someone's turn, always someone's bad day.
— Rachel Rosenfelt (@rachelrosenfelt) January 8, 2014
The female EMT knelt down and checked his pulse with two fingers at the throat. Ahmed, Hafiz, shook him by the shoulders and spoke to him.
— Emily Raboteau (@emilyraboteau) January 8, 2014
No response. With my help and the help of the young man, he is lifted onto the stretcher.
— Josh Begley (@joshbegley) January 8, 2014
He dips into present tense: his eyes slit open for a moment, and close again. A white froth appears around his mouth. His eyelids glisten.
— Lee Brackstone (@leebrackstone) January 8, 2014
"I know him," the young man said. "I've seen him around. Drinks a lot."
— Patrick Nathan (@patricknathan) January 8, 2014
Without a word to us, the EMTs lifted the stretcher into the back of the ambulance, and without a word to us…
— Elizabeth Angell (@kitabet) January 8, 2014
— Christopher Hayes (@chrislhayes) January 8, 2014