The Intellectual Pleasure and Pressure of GAMBIT: Newer African Writing

By Joel Ntwatwa

After reading “Gambit: New African Writing Second Edition 2016”, you know you are one of two people; one that has read widely or one that has not (or one that eavesdrops a lot). I cannot begin to explain or relay the intellectual pleasure and eventual intellectual pressure it puts upon the reader.

I feel like it is written primarily for upcoming writers because it imbues you with not just passion, but method,  for telling your own story. Nonetheless, any book loving person will immensely enjoy it. Let me explain.

As Emmanuel Iduma sits down with 9 “emerging African writers”, you travel into the minds of writers whose experiences, writing diligence, exertion, knowledge proves to be a séance into a world of multilayered aspects like religion, metaphysics, relativity, anthropology, society so delicately laid out in conversation.

I never miss forewords and introductions when I start books and the speeches of Shaun Randol and Emmanuel get one’s reading appetite nicely whetted!

Shaun states

“Gambit aims to open up the conversation about what is (or is not) African writing, who or what African writers are and represent, and how this conversation can broaden the reader’s understanding of places and people so foreign to their own experiences.”

This seems to be a conversation that is a river that never stops, and when you read the interviews of the writers, you come to understand it should be had because there is no one definite answer to this African writing thing.

From Emmanuel Iduma’s perspective, he prods deeper to ask “what could be “newer” about African writing.”? Of course the conversation about Western Literary prizes and publishing power comes up and for the two editors, they seem to be trying to put together a collection of finer African works that may not be praised by the “West.”

After getting through with the editors’ deliberations, is when the fun starts. The minds of 10 writers, all African, seven male, three female from Botswana, Malawi, Nigeria, Somalia and Zimbabwe are open to you and Emmanuel Iduma who doubles as the interviewer.

You will listen to Somalian Abdul Adan whose endearment to his father and his father’s culture seeps through at the seams. He speaks so dearly of his father you’d wonder what was so different about him. You get to listen to his thoughts on what identity is. And this was most engaging because the question Emmanuel asked was something of philosophical poetry –

“Do we say that there is a hyphen between the words “home” and “identity”? And that writers such as yourself walk within that hyphen trying to understand what is home, how home shifts, how home never remains the same, perhaps how no place is home?”

See, this questions finds itself in different formats and words as all the ten writers share perspectives.

Adan’s “The Somalification of James Karangi” is somewhat an odd tale. It can be called funny, tragic and entertaining at the same time. However with the background of the writer in the interview, you ask questions about identity especially about Somali.

However, let’s not stop.

It’s actually odd that some of the writers in the collection are called emerging and perhaps that’s the conversation the book engages a lot in. Ayobami Adebayo is a fiction editor at Saraba Magazine, which is a literary magazine of note. The conversation rides on different topics that range from the genres she focuses on, the part of technology in this new writing era, the writer’s responsibility and more.

Her short story “Spent Lives” interests me quite a bit. The characters are not too far from people I have met and generally begets questions like what is living? What is having lived? So often we are thrown into the lives of characters in their youth, that the old are mere afterthoughts. I love what she does with this.

By the time we are done with all ten writers my friends, you will have wanted to order this book already. For now, refill your coffee and let me keep telling you about it.

There were two interviews that were particularly mentally outstanding to me. The first one was Dami Ajayi’s. I did see him at Writivism 2015 and could never have guessed he was that engaging. After the fact that he never has short answers for anything, you can immediately know he is not only involved in the literature of his home but also that of the world. I was not dismayed at the fact that I had to open my Dictionary app a number of times to look up a word he had used! It filters through in conversation, that the language of his work – Medicine- cuts through. I don’t mean he uses medical words, I mean the words he uses to explain some things are for those who know what they’re talking about. Like only the lab person can read what the doctor wants tested. My diction improved a bit 🙂 .
You will not be disappointed by his short story “Talk to Me”. In fact, it came close to home. It asks questions about social media, modern day relationships, about what being present, and living in the moment is.

The second interview that really fascinated me was Richard Ali’s. Another Nigerian, from the city of Jos, it reminded me of a scene in a series called Constantine I used to watch, where a Sudanese Shaman is interacting with Constantine, gives him some leaves to chew and then proceeds to remove his eye and give it to the hellblazer. Constantine’s world opens up and he sees things unseen before.

Richard Ali is well informed. The concepts he speaks of as he is asked about identity, style, genre, marriage etc seem to come from a smogasboard of one who has lived with philosophers and bookworms all his life. On a question about his love for Jos his home city, he proudly responds

“Let me say something about centrality—the most artistically sophisticated culture in Ancient Nigeria was the Nok Culture, which thrived in the Jos-Southern Kaduna area at about the same time Xerxes was building Persepolis and the Greeks started writing. It means we were there as well; we, Nigerians, contributed to the world story—significantly.”

And that is not all. Yet you get the feeling he is a little self-involved and that is not a problem because it adds to the spice of his stories.

Gambit’s interviews and short stories will awe you till the end. You will share Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s sorrow about the conflict between Northern and Southern Nigeria, and then cry when you’re done reading his short story about the fateful workings of life in “The Daughters of Bappa Avenue”.

You slightly wonder whether Malawian Dango Mkandawire is proud of his heritage as he shifts consciously on positions on what heritage, identity and culture are. No doubt he too is well read and his thoughts on people are well expressed in his short story “The Jonathan Gray Affair” in which characters’ harangues not only provide convincing wisdom but somehow act as self-help guides.

Donald Molosi fascinates with his conscious and nonconscious parts. I found it intriguing because the Motswana’s writing style and culture is somewhat of a phantom that is intangible. I haven’t understood what writing from an unconscious place is yet, maybe one day I will ask. His short story “Back to Love” explores ideas of love, homesickness, religion and the question of what is African.

I know, there’s so much to write about this book. Zimbabwean Novuyo Rosa Tshuma makes you wonder about patriotism, about what really is home? Her story is again relevant in the time of social media, and online dating. Suzanne Ushie feels very friendly and down to earth. Her thoughts on what makes writing tick, awards, genres remind you that writing is very much a human thing.

One word for this book? Brilliant conversations. Stimulating writing! Lovers of African writing should get this book as a must read!

This book review was originally published at, as part of the #Writivism2016 Festival Book Features. Joel Ntwatwa is one of the select official book bloggers. He will review a number of books that will be launched, featured and available for sale at the festival. Look out for the badge below on your favourite book blogs. And come to the festival to buy the books and get them signed.

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