Cameroon’s new literary generation is asserting itself globally

Yaoundé, Cameroon – Five years ago, Howard Meh-Buh Maximus was studying a doctorate in microbiology at the University of Buea, the capital of the southwestern region of Cameroon. While he always liked writing stories, he only shared them with friends and never really saw himself becoming a writer.

“We are in Cameroon; you don’t see young people [studying to] become writers, you only see them [aspiring to] become doctors, ”said the 31-year-old.

But when Maximus learned at the time of a writing contest in the Cameroonian capital Yaoundé, he decided to apply by submitting a 300-word story. The piece earned him a ticket to the show and became the reason he met Dzekashu MacViban, the founder of Bakwa, who convinced Maximus to start curating short stories and essays at the English literary publishing house.

With the outbreak of the Anglophone crisis in Cameroon in 2016, Maximus began work on a collection of short pieces on how the situation is affecting the lives of young people in the English-speaking Northwest and Southwest regions.

Through the mentorship of Bakwa Books, he wrote essays for the American magazine Catapult, The Africa Report and in 2018 was one of the 10 writers of Limbe to Lagos: Non-fiction from Cameroon and Nigeria, a collection of short stories by Cameroonian writers and Nigerians.

Last year, Maximus applied for the Miles Morland Grant, a charity that funds writing projects by African creatives annually, and won a grant of nearly $ 25,000 to produce manuscripts for a book he had proposed.

Bakwa has held writing workshops and contests to identify potential writers. [Courtesy Bakwa Magazine]

“[The book] It is about four friends in an acapella group: they are of different origins and have different struggles: they meet at school, they start singing, and all of a sudden they get caught up in the Anglophone crisis. Instead of focusing on succeeding in their dream, they are now struggling to survive, ”said Maximus, who is currently writing the book, and also in the United States with another scholarship to study a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in the state of Texas. University.

Makes a long list of young Bakwa regulars whose works are gaining international recognition. They include Nkiacha Atemnkeng, another Master of Fine Arts student in Texas who also earned a writing residency from the Sylt Foundation in 2018; Clementine Ewokolo Burnley, winner of the Bristol Short Story Prize and Amsterdam Open Book Prize; and Nana Nkweti, a 2019 Caine Award finalist who has written for various US magazines and magazines including Brittle Paper, New Orleans Review, and The Baffler.

“A very important part of what we have done in Bakwa is building a community for writers,” said MacViban, who is currently in Germany with a writing residency. “Beyond having a place where they can publish their work, they need a community.”

MacViban founded Bakwa in 2011 in response to the closure of Pala Pala, the only Anglophone literary and artistic issue that had closed earlier that year.

Dzekashu MacViban, Founder of Bakwa Magazine [Courtesy Bakwa Magazine]

Three years later, MacViban began holding writing workshops and contests to identify potential writers.

“There are many writers with raw talents, but it takes a lot of work to transform these talents into refined brands,” he said.

MacViban also began bringing together young French-speaking writers and has embarked on translating the authors’ pieces into the two official languages ​​of Cameroon. One example is Hemley Boum’s award-winning Les Jours Viennent et Passent, which won the Prix Ahmadou-Kourouma in 2020 in France.

“We are trying to build bridges because when you look at Cameroon, there is a lot of division and dissatisfaction. We see our role as mediators, ”said MacViban.

The Anglophone conflict began in 2016 when the government used deadly force to suppress peaceful demonstrations by lawyers and teachers protesting the perceived marginalization by the country’s majority Francophone government. In response, dozens of armed separatist groups formed to fight for an independent nation they called Ambazonia. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimated that more than 700,000 people have been displaced by the violence and at least 4,000 civilian victims have been recorded.

In recent years, authors such as John Nkemgngong Nkengasong and Bole Butake have used their work to shed light on the Anglophone crisis. An example is Nkengasong’s Across the Mongolo, published in 2004, which details the life of an English-speaking student struggling to adjust to a French-speaking area.

Cameroon’s literary talent didn’t gain much attention globally until 2014 when Imbolo Mbue, a US-based Cameroonian, received a $ 1 million advance for manuscripts for her debut book, Behold the Dreamers. The volume published in 2016 and selected by Oprah Winfrey in her book club the following year tells the story of two families in New York City during the 2008 financial crisis: one, an immigrant from Cameroon, and another a wealthy American family who employ the first. Things got complicated when both breadwinners lost their sources of income due to the crisis.

Dibussi Tande, political scientist and editor of Bearing Witness: Poems from a Land in Turmoil, a poetic piece that records the horrors of the Anglophone crisis, believes that “the growing recognition of Cameroon’s emerging talent since the publication of Behold the Dreamers in 2016 seems indicate that publishers and agents are seriously considering the hitherto ignored Cameroonian literary talents.

“The success of Imbolo Mbue has undoubtedly made Cameroonian literature stand out worldwide, not only because Imbolo is originally from Cameroon, but because his books are partially set in Cameroon or describe very Cameroonian realities,” Tande said.

The predecessors of this new generation of writers, prominent authors such as Bate Besong, Ferdinand Oyono, Mungo Beti, Linus T Asong and Mbella Sone Dipoko, have created exemplary works that are being studied in Cameroonian schools and other institutions in the country. However, technological restrictions and Cameroon’s long language gap meant that they lacked access to publishing platforms and international recognition.

“The new generation is / will be more successful than first and second generation Cameroonian writers, not necessarily because they are more talented, but because this generation has more opportunities and exposure thanks to the Internet and social media,” Tande said.

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