Friday, July 13, 2007 (source: http://www.wow.gm/africa/gambia/article/2007/7/13/lets-talk-literature)
In this interview, she speaks with the authority and self-assurance of somebody who knows Gambian literature inside out. This is hardly surprising because she is a Fulbright scholar who has done extensive research on Gambian literature. She stands out as one of the leading voices on Gambian literary criticism and is one of the forces behind the SABLE LitFest that will start on Friday, 13 July 2007.
What’s Gambian literature?
Gambian literature is the literature that’s produced by Gambians and some of it could also be literature that’s produced by people who live in the Gambia but may not be from here. What most people don’t know is that Gambian literature is actually hundreds of years old. It began with Philis Wheatley who was a woman born in the Senegambian region, taken to the United States as a slave and became the first African-American published poet in the US. A lot of people in the US know her history but a lot of people in the Gambia don’t know her history. She’s one of the first Gambian writers. And then of course we have the contemporary writers: Lenrie Peters, Nana Grey-Johnson, Sally Singhateh, etc. We have a number of living authors who are part of our cultural heritage now.
Can we say then that Alex Haley’s Roots is Gambian literature?
I’ll say that Roots is a book that people who are interested in the Gambia should read but I won’t include it as Gambian literature because its focus is not Gambian – that’s, it’s not written by a Gambian, and its focus is not Gambian. Part of it, in the beginning, talks about the Gambia but its focus was really to write an epic novel that focuses more on the African-American experience in the US. I think for people who are interested in that time period, it would be very useful to read Nana Grey-Johnson’s novel I of Ebony, which tells some of the same story but tells the story of people who actually didn’t leave the continent.
Why haven’t Gambians made their mark in the literary world yet? In Kenya, there is Ngugi Wa Thiong’O, there are Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka from Nigeria, and there are Sembene Ousmane and Mariama Ba from Senegal. What do you think is responsible for this?
I think there are a few reasons. One, we don’t have the arts integrated into the school system in the way, for instance, Senegal has. Senegal has a school for the arts. Unfortunately, we don’t have that here. I think if we have more teaching of the arts in the schools, more encouraging of writing in the schools as well as places where people can go to focus on developing their own craft that will help. The other thing, of course, that’s a problem for us is that we don’t have a publisher here in the Gambia. Macmillan focuses on educational literature, children’s literature. But in terms of literature for adults – novels, poetry – we don’t have any publisher. As a result, people often have to pay for their own publishing. And then of course that makes it very difficult if people have to pay to get published. One of the things that the SABLE Literary Festival coming here will help do is that people will be able to have contact with other writers from other countries. And there’s actually a session where people can discuss with them the logistics of being a writer – how do you become published? How do you approach a publisher? Because we may not get a literary publisher here in the Gambia but that doesn’t mean that we can’t send our manuscripts to publishers outside.
What do think should be done to encourage Gambian publishers like Fodeh Baldeh of Fulladu Publishing to put Gambian literature in the limelight?
Fodeh Baldeh is publishing Gambian writers. I believe he has come out with two books since he’s been back in the country. His publishing house is still subsidised by the writer. So, the writer funds the publisher. It’s still similar to self-publishing; it still requires some income from the part of the author. But I think the encouragement comes from a number of different levels. We need people who want to read literature, so we need to encourage more young people to read literature; we need to have more Gambian literature in the schools; we need to have literary events, festivals, contacts. And we need to have the support of all of the different sectors of society to promote not just literature but reading, because reading is really the root of writing. Every writer that I have spoken to and asked, “Why do you write?” They say, “Oh I was inspired when I was young: I read this, I read that. I was very encouraged by Achebe. I wanted to tell the Gambian story. We want to encourage those people to get their works out as much as they can.
Who’s the greatest Gambian writer?
You’re asking me a difficult question. I won’t single out one person and I’ll tell you why. All of these writers are telling different stories. And we need all of these stories. There is no one person who can tell the one Gambian story. The Gambia is a small country, but we have many, many stories. We have different kinds of people who live here; people have different kinds of experiences. Even individual artists tell different stories. Nana Grey-Johnson’s I Of Ebony tells a story from the 19th century Gambia, but the Magic Calabash is telling a story of contemporary Gambia. Sally Singhateh’s The Sun Will Soon Shine tells a story of contemporary Gambia. All of these voices are important because they are all telling different stories. What I would love is that more than one person can represent Gambian literature and the Gambia. The African Writers Series was a wonderful idea but unfortunately it’s now out of print. What happened was that you had one person from each country who got published and who was put forward. But now we can say, ‘You know what, we have more than more.’ We have Lenrie Peters and we love Lenrie Peters, but we have these other ones as well.
What should be the focus of Gambian literature at this point in time?
I think Gambian writers must look inside themselves as well as around themselves to write the stories they feel need to be told. I think many stories need to be told. And the fact is that we cannot mandate a story to be told. If anyone says that we must write about F,W,Z, yeah, a writer can do that but if they are not attached to the story, the story won’t be interesting, the story won’t be told well. And we won’t want to read the story. The stories that are best told are the ones really close to the heart of the writer. I interviewed over a dozen of the Gambian writers, and they all told me that they were writing for their community. But it also has to be a story they want to tell. So it’s a combination of the desire to tell your story and to tell the story that reflects your community. And then you have the issue of gender that comes up. You have Sally Singhateh and Ramatoulie Othman who writes about the issue of bumsters, a very contemporary issue. Something that people talk about all the time; and this is the first time we are seeing it in the literature. I think there are a number of issues that are both reflected in society and in the literature, because the Gambian writers belong to the society and they are responding to what is going on around them.