Afro Young Adult Fiction Project– Water Birds on the Lakeshore

By Johanna McCalmont

“This anthology is the first of its kind in recent memory on a continent where the majority of the population are Young Adults and yet are too often ignored.” Editor Zukiswa Wanner

Contributors: Asiedu Benneh, Chinelo J. Enemuo, Fatma Shafii, Howard Meh-Buh Maximus, Justin Clement/Haku Jackson, Kêlvin Nonvignon Adantchede, Kofi Berko, Lukorito Wafula Jones, Laurence Gnaro, Merdi Mukore, Precious Colette Kemigisha, Priscillar Matara, Raoul Djimeli, Sabah Carrim, Shamin Chibba, Tamanda Kanjaye and Yamikani Mlangiza.

Born in 1976 in Zambia, author, journalist and publisher Zukiswa Wanner has championed writing from across the African continent since 2006. Recently awarded the Goethe Medal 2020, the jury noted “her conception of herself as an African writer [which] leads her to range far beyond national frontiers in her writing, whilst at the same time bringing the diversity of African culture into her artistic work […] she is also a role model for an entire generation of African writers.”

The Afro Young Adult project, coordinated on behalf of the Goethe Institut Sub-Sahara Africa, is just one brilliant example of Zukiswa Wanner’s dedication in recent years. The collection was born in September 2018 with an open call for submissions from young writers across Africa. 435 writers from 28 countries participated, and 52 writers were selected for 8 workshops across the continent in February 2019. With help from 8 pairs of Generation Z Young Adults, 17 stories were ultimately selected and published in the first anthology of its kind. The contributors’ profiles ranged from those who had already published novels to others whose work had appeared online, in magazines, or in other anthologies such as the Kalahari Review, Short Story Day Africa, Al Jazeera Magazine, Writivism Short Story Prize, Bakwa, Clijec Magazine, Adabraka and Tampered Press. The collection was launched in October 2019 at the Ake Festival in Lagos, Nigeria, where the contributors were invited to read their work.

I’ve always enjoyed reading short stories, especially at times when I struggle to focus on a longer novel, so when I saw Water Birds on the Lakeshore appear on my Twitter feed, I knew I had to get my hands on a copy ASAP. Reading the stories one by one in the order they appear in the book, I could immediately feel that the anthology had been carefully curated to gradually carry the reader from one story and theme to the next. Each short story immerses the reader in its own vivid world, and I was impressed by the range and variety of styles, genres, countries, themes and languages included. Whilst each story is independent, and each writer stands out from the others, I felt a strong sense of emotion, passion and keen observation of the world and others around them that nonetheless united the voices of the teenage narrators, male and female.

Water birds on the Lakeshore opens with stories that primarily explore relationships: within families (parents and children, siblings, grandparents), between friends, with employers and, of course, young love, sometimes painful, sometimes sweet. The tensions in these relationships are palpable, like in Beninese Kêlvin Nonvignon Adantchede’s story Elxa, where the narrator declares “I didn’t want to be like my parents. I didn’t want to struggle. I wanted to be a doctor and cure my sister, whereas my mother felt I only went to school because it was free.”

The pain of the relationships in the opening stories then transitions into the harsh, brutal reality of conflicts and wars that bring a halt to what had been normal routines. In Oubliette, for example, Anglophone Cameroonian Howard Meh-Buh Maximus, writes about two boys who love to play pranks on a teacher at their boarding school but suddenly face the horror of gruesome attacks on their teacher’s family and his murder in their village: “The terror was worse than any you had ever seen, worse than all the school handovers put together.”  The anthology feels like it reaches a turning point in the middle with The Year of Failure by South African Shamin Chibba, the first story narrated by an older character looking back on twenty years of lost friendship with a girl he had worshipped but fallen out with.

The final stories move into magical and mysterious realms, into dreams and parallel worlds where the characters have special powers and fight battles between good and evil, worlds with anaesie and ujeru, worlds that occasionally overlap with the real world. These stories left me wondering what exactly had happened, and where the line between the real world and what is unseen had blurred. Yamikani Mlangiza’s narrator in Forever hers captures this surreal sensation perfectly in the closing words of both the short story and the collection: “The other students were puzzled. They gathered around her, wondering who she was talking to, wondering if she was going mad. And maybe, just maybe she was.”

As mentioned above, it’s also exciting to see that the collection went beyond boundaries not only in terms of country and genre, but also language. The anthology has been published in three languages: English, French and kiSwahili. Submissions were received and workshops run in all three languages. Edwige Dro and Elias Mutani receive praise from the editor in the acknowledgements for their tireless work reading, selecting and translating texts from French to English and from kiSwahili to English and vice versa. Whilst talking about Writing in African languages at the 2020 Abuja Literary and Arts Festival, Edwige Dro explained that the creative writing workshops in French and English also helped inspire her translations of the short stories: “All the voices came from the workshops. I had to think about which French I was translating into, so it didn’t lose its flavour.”

This is a collection of stories that I know I’ll return to again and again – and it most definitely includes writers worth watching.

Read several extracts from the anthology published by the Johannesburg Review here.

Ouida Books was set up in Lagos, Nigeria, in 2016. It includes the children’s imprint Tanja and the non-fiction imprint Cognix.

Read more about the Goethe Institut project workshops and other shortlisted submissions here.

Available in bookstores across Africa. Available in Europe from Interkontinental (Berlin).

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