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  • Eddie Hewitt

Brittle Paper / lasting impressions

Brittle Paper, the leading online African Literature platform, is ten years old. Connected Cultures is delighted to pay tribute and to join in the celebrations by taking a virtual stroll down memory lane. #TheDecadeProject

Seven years ago I was searching for all the recordings of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie events I could find online. One of my favourite sessions was a video of a session at Duke University, in which Chimamanda was being interviewed by Ainehi Edoro, then a PhD candidate in African Literature. I’ll always remember Ainehi describing Half of a Yellow Sun as “a very lovely book”. This struck me as a rather strange description of what I regarded at the time as a rather troubling book. I have long since come to appreciate the beauty in the story as well as the trauma.

I quickly discovered that Ainehi was the founding editor of Brittle Paper, an exciting online African literature platform. Next, I was seeing her unquenchable, fifteen-tweet threads exploring fascinating and sometimes quite niche aspects of this area of study. Some were beyond me at the time but I was drawn in. In one especially memorable Twitter conversation, Chika Unigwe confessed to having been a giraffe in her former life. I was evidently witnessing my first example of magical realism.

Founding Editor: Ainehi Edoro

(photo: Yale University website)

The following year I started Connected Cultures, my own creative contribution to The Arts and Society. One of my early articles was a rebuttal of Ben Okri’s opinion piece on mental slavery. I have long since come to realise that Ben was right, and I was wrong, and I was fast getting out of my depth. Ainehi helped me along the way when I told her I liked reading African novels because they taught me about African history and society. She politely but firmly advised me to read history books for that purpose, and that creative fiction offers so much more.

I then read The Palm Wine Drinkard and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, both by Amos Tutuola, one of Ainehi’s all-time favourite authors. Suspending my perception of reality, I relished the tales of ghosts, monstrous creatures and mysticism. Alas, I then set myself the challenge of reading Ben Okri’s Booker prize-winning novel The Famished Road. Some years on, I’ve had three goes so far, and I’m still only half-way through. I find it baffling! And yet, in contrast, I now feel so inspired and better informed by every opinion piece and speech that Ben presents. So, I recognise that my responses as a reader are not consistent, but I’m forever up for a challenge.

Since those early days, I have enjoyed some stellar moments made possible by Brittle Paper. In 2016, I made it onto the shortlist for the I Love African Literature flash fiction competition. Amazingly I made the top 5 selected by the Brittle Paper judges, from a field of 172 entries! This was one of one of the few times I have dared to write a story. Just 350 words, but they were some of my finest and I was simply thrilled with the response and to be in such great company.

Happy to be a super-fan! (photo: BP Twitter feed)

Shifting continents momentarily, Ainehi told me about The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, another Booker Prize winner. I had already seen her tweeted picture of the book next to a coffee mug, complete with red lipstick, in a café. I happily replied that I had reviewed the book the previous year. To this Ainehi replied “Why am I finding out only now that you write reviews?” Gently chided, I took heart in that my virtual professor was keen to read what I wrote too!

Be careful what you wish for. In early 2018, I sent Ainehi a link to my review of Black Panther, seeking her appraisal, following her own exploration of Wakanda. Ainehi enjoyed the sprawling text and referred to it as an ‘extensive commentary’. I gladly took this as equivalent to a B+ grade.

Later that year, I secured a Brittle Paper commission to report on the 60th Anniversary Reading of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart at London’s Southbank Centre. Knowing that this was a widely cherished, seminal work, I knew I had to make my review exceptionally good. Thankfully, my write-up was well received. There’s another link with Ben Okri here, too. Ben hosted and led the performance, with his typical poise, eloquence and authority. I met him briefly during the interval, slightly delayed his return to the stage and told him proudly that I was covering the event for Brittle Paper. I think he was impressed!

At the Southbank Centre with Ben Okri

I must just mention the berets. Ben is known for wearing a black beret. Chinua Achebe wore one too. Ainehi tends to prefer an olive green beret. Eish! I had to trawl deep, but have uncovered evidence of an outing in yellow (2015) and another time in red (2019). Impressive as ever, also a stylish, academic variation in black (2016). I don’t think I’ll ever come close to deserving the right to wear a literary beret, so I’ll stick to my humble Panama, and occasionally my Ascot top hat. But I feel connected, and this is all down to the warmth and inclusivity of not just Ainehi and Brittle Paper, and Ben Okri, but the wider African Literature community too.

Chinua Achebe

A fine selection of headwear (Ainehi Edoro, with Chigozi Obioma top right)

(photos: BP Twitter and Instagram)

In recent times, pre-COVID-19, I’ve found myself in the theatre a lot, working extensively on a Shakespeare project. I really must read more books of all kinds, though I’ve been loving writing about stage dramas. But, I have always been happy to enter the online literary arena at every opportunity and I continue to look to Brittle Paper for recommendations and tasters. I’m eagerly anticipating the release of Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi. Before that, I’ll be looking out for The Perfect Nine: The Epic of Gikuyu and Mumbi by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o. Who knows, that might just be the prelude to a Nobel prize, finally. That would give us all another great reason to celebrate.

In 2020, literary discourse, along with engagement in all the creative arts, has been largely restricted to virtual environments, and Brittle Paper has risen to the challenge admirably. Two series of ‘We Turn to Books’ have been presented, with a range of academics and creatives telling us what interests them most about African literature, how they write, what they read and much more; all highly entertaining and informative. Bringing us back to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, there have been some stunning hairstyles on display from the presenter! But really, it’s been all about the reading and the writing. Though maybe Chimamanda might like to take part in the next series, Ainehi? I’m excited to discover that series three is just around the corner.

We turn to books, 2nd series, with Ayesha Harruna Attah

We turn to hair!

(photos: BP Twitter)

Leading the celebrations for Brittle Paper’s ten-year anniversary, Ben Okri has written a wonderful introductory essay. I am delighted to join in his appreciation of what he has called a ‘virtual festival of African Literature’. This seems to me to apply to the whole ten years, not just the anniversary, and long may this vibrancy continue.

Design of a Decade on: the new-look Brittle Paper homepage (screen capture)

Brittle Paper conveys such passion for African literature and culture, brings so much depth and commitment, knowledge and brilliance in the analysis of texts and events, creates opportunities, supports writers and readers, and encourages all involved. This has greatly enriched my own reading experience as well as my wider cultural appreciation of the African continent and the diaspora. To Ainehi and Brittle Paper, I offer you my thanks, my hearty congratulations for everything you have achieved to date, and my good wishes for everything yet to come.

© Eddie Hewitt 2020


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