AKE FESTIVAL is an annual festival for creatives in the literary and film industries across Africa. Now it its seventh edition, founder LOLA SHONEYIN discusses the influence Ake is having on storytelling, the shift from western gaze to more relatable content and the importance of a safe space for Africans to discuss issues that pertain to the continent– Nneoma Ekwegh

You have said that your reason for starting Ake Festival was that ‘you wanted a place where intellectuals and thinkers can come together and talk about African issues on African soil. What had you observed prior to Ake, that pushed you to take this step?

When my novel came out in 2010, I did quite a bit of traveLling around Europe and the US, to talk about my work. There were times I got questions where I would have to be critical of my culture [and] our attitudes in my answers. That in itself wasn’t a problem, however, I found it difficult to talk about some of our cultural practices without providing context. That’s when it struck me how important it was to have those conversations on African soil, in front of African audiences, who understand the issues instinctively.

Why is it significant for these issues to be discussed on ‘African soil’?

Because there aren’t many platforms where we can engage in high level discourse on issues pertaining to the African continent, in fora that are open to the public. What often happens is that creatives operate in silos within their countries and immediate communities. If we are going to make a real difference to the way people approach cultural issues, the Arts, and help people understand the value of creativity, we have to continue to develop these safe spaces where the general public can participate and ask questions.

Would you say that this festival has had any influence on the reach or impact of storytelling across Africa?

I would say it has gone further than that. It has led to the birthing of other festivals on the continent. People attend Ake Festival, and are inspired to replicate it. The fact that we stock books at affordable prices, do book grants and offer access from literary icons during workshops, has helped a lot of aspiring writers hone their craft. In 2014 award-winning poet, Gbenga Adesina, applied for a book grant and got it. In 2019, Gbenga will be attending Ake Festival as one of our guest writers.

How has storytelling evolved when you look back at the stories coming from the continent in the 50’s/ 60’s to early 90’s?

I think the Western gaze has become less significant. People are writing stories that they want to write, and look forward to their stories being enjoyed by Africans. I think our standards are evolving for the better. Africans are reading what [we] want to read and how we want to read it. There is an eagerness to explore new styles and new authors.

Does Ake Festival believe that there are myths/stereotypes concerning “Africans” and literature to debunk?

I think the biggest myth is that we are incapable of organising a world class event and I am very happy that the festival debunks that every year. When the hundred creatives come together, they really do create magic and there is a lot of intellectual rubbing of minds. We also like to say Ake Festival is a safe space. We pride ourselves in being able to tackle difficult topics. Dialogue brings about understanding and tolerance.

How political is Ake Festival in its assertions?

(Laughs) Writing is always political. Creativity is almost always responding to the political.

What has been the biggest challenge with hosting an event of this magnitude?

[Any]one who organises this sort of cultural event will echo this: The biggest challenge is fundraising. We are not quite at the point where the registration fee contributes significantly to our overall budget. Every event is massively subsidised by our partner and our sponsors. I think the biggest shift for us was when we secured a partnership with Sterling Bank. They’ve been phenomenal.

Ake Festival is in its seventh year; do you have any particular moment that stands out as a favourite?

Probably every opportunity I have had to listen to writers talking about their process, their work, their stories. I am always amazed at the openness with which they speak. I like the effect their openness has on the audience. A connection forms, and the basis of that connection, is truth.

How do you arrive at your line up for guests and speakers, what are the elements you look at to determine who will be a good fit, and does this change with each edition?

We have a different theme that we work with each year. For 2019, the theme is Black Bodies and Grey Matter so we are looking at the African body and mental wellbeing. Although we start with a huge wish-list, throughout the year, it is whittled down as we gather information on new books. We work quite closely with African publishers.  Our aim is to bring together the finest writers, poets from all over African continent. This is a fantastic way to develop, promote and celebrate creativity in Africa.

Ake Arts & Book Festival 24-27 Oct 2019.
Visit www.akefestival.org for more information

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