The London Literature Festival which now in its 12th edition, aims to mirror the English capital’s image as a multicultural hotspot and hodge-podge. So it is appropriate that the festival’s theme this year is Odyssey as it celebrates a new translation of Homer’s Odyssey into English by Emily Wilson, an English professor of Classics.
Held annually at the Southbank Centre, this year’s lead artist is Salman Rushdie, the Indian born novelist and author of Midnight’s Children and Satanic Verses, who discussed his latest and 13th book titled, The Golden House, which is billed as a “satirical and incisive anatomy of contemporary American politics.”
Other highlights were, Feminism In Trump’s America, by Soraya Chemaly (author of Rage Against Her) and Laura Bates (founder of Everyday Sexism Project); Migration and Magic by novelist Mohsin Hamid (author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Exit West) and actor-musician Riz Ahmed (whose film roles include the adaptation of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, HBO’s The Night Of, Four Lions and Nightcrawler).
The wide assortment of speakers and topics explored, said Debo Amon, a literature programmer at the Southbank Centre, was “a good breath and alchemical mix that people can’t really get elsewhere”. Nigerian novelist Chibundu Onuzo (The Spider King’s Daughter and Welcome To Lagos) unveiled her new play 1991, which is collection of personal essays she has adapted for the stage using a live band, a choir and a panel of readers that boasted of Ego Boyo (Checkmate) who is one of Nigeria’s most naturalist actors, a three-woman choir, two dancers and a live band that included a drummer, guitarist and two keyboardist.
Titled after her year of birth, 1991 recounts and reimagines Onuzo’s younger years growing up in Nigeria until she was 16 when she moved to the UK to attend boarding school, affording her a sharp contrast of cultures that serves up evergreen themes around identity and race, her Christian faith and religiosity, virginity vs celibacy and self-mastery all of which made for a rapturous crowd-pleaser that could not be easily pegged as play or musical.
Herself a devout Christian, Onuzo’s was born into a Christian family with three high-achieving siblings one of whom Dinachi, was a maths prodigy and is today an engineer and a gospel-soul artist who performed one of her own singles Ohio Boy with the band. Ms Onuzo is a novelist without a history of stage adaptations. Was it not a big risk to cede directorial control to her on a reputable platform like the London Literature Festival? “Every new artist, every new piece of work is a risk at some point,“ says Amon “and if we only play it safe, we wouldn’t be able to bring new exciting work to the forefront.”
A session chaired by broadcaster June Sarpong, Striking The Empire brought together two prominent public intellectuals in Akala (author of Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins Of Empire and winner of the Best Hip-Hop Act at MOBO awards 2016) and David Olusoga (author of Civilisations: First Contact / The Cult if Progress and corresponding BBC documentary of the same title) for a discourse on empire, contemporary British life and its underpinnings.
The provocative title foregrounded a rigorous examination of the long disregard for the immeasurable contributions to the United Kingdom by former colonial subjects from Asian and African countries in a list that includes racist immigration laws, barely credited but crucial contributions to the first and second world wars, the National Health Service (NHS), the telling fact that the British never built a single university in the Caribbean and the fallacy that the freedom from colonial rule was given by British rulers rather than a result of violent resistance in many cases which Olusoga, in his typically restrained fashion, described thus: “there are points when an omission starts to look like a lie”.
On the subject of reparations for the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade, Olusoga is firm in his belief that, if assented to, the unprecedented result would be “weaponised against black people all over the world”. Asked if both Olusoga and Onuzo signify a prominence of a Nigerian writers in contemporary British Literature, Amon says that it is “coincidental” that both writers are Nigerians but on the subject of the wider appreciation, today, of the cultural output of writers in the African diaspora, Amon is emphatic: “if you make work that appeals to the African diaspora and continent, they will consume it. If they don’t consume it is because they didn’t like what you were making.”