The final weekend of Wimbledon Bookfest 2019 brought some rather iconic figures to Wimbledon Common to close off this year’s edition of the 10-day literary festival. On the Saturday, I was fortunate enough to attend an event which saw Margaret Busby, a literary icon, discuss the makings of her latest anthology New Daughters of Africa which showcases the writings of over 200 women of African descent.
New Daughters of Africa was released earlier this year as a follow-up to the original Daughters of Africa anthology which was released just over a quarter century before. Both bodies of work were skilfully edited by Margaret, despite naysayers who claimed that a project of its kind simply couldn’t be replicated. Just a brief look at the achievements of Margaret Busby would soon make you realise what a resilient woman she is, so I suspect that it was always merely a question of when and not if.
In the Robert Graves Gallery, the afternoon’s conversation was beautifully led by Afua Hirsch, author of Brit(ish) and one of the new anthology’s contributing writers. As Afua introduced herself and two of her fellow contributors, Irenosen Okojie and Leone Ross, she hailed Margaret as one of her inspirations before handing the microphone over to the Editor herself.
Standing as Britain’s youngest and first black publisher, we were in perfectly good hands with Margaret as she introduced us to the latest anthology by reading a passage from Andrea Levy’s Small Island. She advised that Andrea Levy was one of two contributors who died before the book was published and wasn’t well enough to write something new at the time of the book’s creation so had agreed to contribute a piece from her prize-winning novel Small Island. This extract served as a reminder of Andrea Levy’s great work, but also a reminder of how her work will continue to live on with this new anthology as it gets passed on from one generation to another.
Irenosen Okojie then took to the mic to share her featured piece from the anthology which brought a vibrancy of colour, joy and sheer delight. Having spent the first seven years of her life in Nigeria, her fiction piece was inspired by the buzz of the traditional dressmaking experience whereby women visited a tailor to have new outfits made, and were consequently transformed into even more beautiful versions of themselves as they became new again in their outfits. Although this is a widely relatable scenario for African women, Irenosen chose to set her piece in a completely different setting and revealed that she takes pleasure in using her art to frame blackness and manipulate the context to make it atypical.
Beyond her ability to recreate her experiences in new ways, I was most inspired by the fact that Irenosen did not always publish or share her work, but instead wrote for herself for some years before unveiling her gift. As a writer, you can sometimes feel pressured to publish your work and put it into the public domain prematurely, but perhaps Irenosen is a living example that there is also an art to acting on things in a timely manner.
As we progressed to the next contributor, we listened to an extract entitled Why You Shouldn’t Take Yourself So Seriously. This piece dealt with the topic of modern-day dating and certainly made us giggle whilst loosening things up. Its author Leone Ross proved to be another great storyteller as she humorously walked us through the many thoughts and eventualities that may go through a woman’s mind as she goes for a toilet break in the middle of a date with a somewhat mysterious man that she has met online. The flesh and bone woman who is on a date with a lyrical man she met online is sitting in a yellow toilet cubicle in a mid-priced noodle bar wondering whether she should make a run for it or whether she should go out and see him again…if she finds a way to exit the toilet then slip out and run down the road he will have to pay the bill by default and don’t they say that’s what makes women bitches. Even if we hadn’t personally been in a similar position, we all knew someone who had, and it was this anecdotal feel that made this piece so amusing yet relatable. By the time Leone had finished reading her piece in this great anthology, we had really begun to get a feel of the variety of writings featured in New Daughters of Africa and how Margaret had managed to weave together all of these different voices, feelings and lifestyles to create something quite magical.
Speaking of the many different narratives within the book, next up was Afua Hirsch who read her contribution to the anthology, the first non-fiction piece of the afternoon – What Does It Mean To Be African? With this, she explored her personal quest into identity including her travels to Africa and referenced Ghanaian politician and revolutionary Kwame Nkrumah in saying “I am African because Africa was born in me.” This seemed the perfect way to wrap up the very different readings of the afternoon as the quote was an extremely wonderful way to connect all of the writers featured in the book and celebrate their works. Essentially, Margaret wanted all of the contributors to showcase themselves and be free, and that is exactly what she has accomplished. When asked whether she would create yet another edition of the anthology, she simply stated “There are so many writers who deserve to be showcased…it’s not to say I won’t do another one…There are others who too deserve that spotlight.”
The discussions that concluded the afternoon celebrated the fact that more women of African descent are being published, but that the make-up of the industry hasn’t changed enough. It was stated that the gatekeepers need to change, and that a more diverse industry in terms of workforce is still required if we are to see more progress.
The New Daughters of Africa anthology is yet another testament to the creativity and often overlooked greatness of women of African descent, and this afternoon at Wimbledon Bookfest was a great reminder of that. Quite similarly to Irenosen, I often write, but I keep my writing to myself as some sort of superpower that I’m not quite willing to share in its entirety just yet. Admittedly, I was quite gutted that I missed the chance to be featured in a project as beautiful and monumental as The New Daughters of Africa, but in the instance that Margaret Busby decides to make Daughters of Africa a trilogy, I do hope to be one of her chosen contributors.
New Daughters of Africa: An international anthology of writing by women of African descent, edited by Margaret Busby, published by Myriad, RRP £30. Click here to visit the publisher and add this must-have to your book collection.