Webmasters, bloggers and editors of literary websites are usually behind the scenes operators, quietly refreshing web pages, writing and keeping the Internet going with new content. AfricanWriter.com is conducting a series of occasional conversations with these cyber adventurers, literary bloggers, avid book reviewers, e-critics, website founders and funders. Ainehi Edoro of BrittlePaper.com is one of them.
Ainehi Edoro is a doctoral student at Duke University where she studies African Literature. Scholar, blogger, founder and web editor of BrittlePaper.com, an addictive online destination for writers and lovers of good stories, Edoro is passionate about extending the reach of African writing in fun and inventive ways.
Sola Osofisan: You sometimes sound almost giddy with excitement when you write about writers and writing. It’s infectious. I understand conveying fun may be a part of your process to “reinvent African fiction and literary culture” as you say in your web profile, but I can’t help thinking this excitement is much more than that. Is this a deliberate style of writing or the way you actually feel talking about books and authors?
Ainehi Edoro: I publish Brittle Paper so I can tell anyone who cares to listen what I find remarkable about African writing. The excitement you read in my style is a genuine expression of a reader’s love. African literature is beautiful stuff. As a blogger, I enjoy thinking up innovative ways of getting my readers to put aside all the assumptions and expectations they might have of African writing and simply encounter it from a place of love.
Sola Osofisan: How did you get into blogging? And when you started, did you envisage it would become a full blown project?
Ainehi Edoro: I did not imagine it would become what it is today. I simply needed an outlet for my postgrad work. My first year as a doctoral student was one of the most intense, frustrating, but also the most beautiful moments in my life. A whole new world of philosophical and literary texts were opened up to me. The more I immersed myself and delved deeper into these texts, I realized that I could not keep this utterly captivating universe of ideas to myself. It wasn’t enough to talk about these things in class with colleagues and Profs. I wanted more. I wanted to share what I was learning with a broader audience. That’s why when Brittle Paper first started, it was a general interest literary and philosophical blog. It was not centered on African literature.
Sola Osofisan: What does it require to keep BP rolling weekly, aside of time and a web space? Do you have to have a nose for what your readership will find interesting? Does it help that you travel a lot attending conferences and events?
Ainehi Edoro: Readers want to be excited about African literature, especially after decades of being told that African literature is little more than a political and cultural manual for African life. Contemporary readers want to fall in love with African writing. They want to enjoy it the way they enjoy African pop music and Nollywood. They want to be inspired by their favorite authors and gain access to their lives so that they can become fans. That’s precisely what we offer at Brittle Paper—the chance to consume African literature differently.
Sola Osofisan: Are you content with the current back and forth between contributions and consumers on BP? Or do you wish your readers would offer more feedback, perhaps by commenting on entries, sending emails or becoming active on your social media outlets?
Ainehi Edoro: Social media and on-site interaction with readers can never be too much. It’s something that one has to keep building. But I’m happy with how much Brittle Paper has garnered a following, how more and more readers – both on the continent and abroad – are looking to it as a hub for clever and authoritative commentaries on African literature.
Sola Osofisan: A recent tweet of yours revealed you’re also battling with that beautiful monster that comes with running a popular website: submissions. It is beautiful because it offers you a diversity of content, but it is a monster because of the work it entails to wade through all you receive and still leave time to have a life. How do you do it? Do you have help, or are you planning to anytime soon?
Ainehi Edoro: I love receiving submissions. It’s an honor really for someone to write something and decide to share it with our readers. That’s why I read every single submission that comes to my inbox and reply every single one of them. I keep my rejection letters gracious and appreciative. When I accept a submission, I try to say a word or two about what I find compelling about the work. So I take submissions seriously. But they can be overwhelming, and I do fall behind. And no, I don’t have extra help when it comes to reviewing submissions. I’ve thought about it, but as an editor, it is hard to let someone else decide what writing is a good or bad fit for Brittle Paper. Let’s just say it’s a role I want to hold on to until I have to give it up.
Sola Osofisan: Reading your blog, aside of using the platform to promote African literature…One can’t help but encounter the literary activist in you emerging, with the support and promotion of projects like Writivism, asking your readers to do more than hope Ngugi would finally receive a Nobel by instituting structures that will outlive the great man, etc.… What’s pulling you in this direction? Is activism something we must all be drawn to due to the African condition?
Ainehi Edoro: Activism is probably too strong a word to use for it. But, I do have a politics regarding African writing in the sense that while I love British and Indian literature deeply, I also understand that African literature is the only literature I can really lay claims to or call my own. At the end of the day, Africans are the only ones who can really champion African literature. It is not enough to complain that the world misunderstands us and our work. We have to take the lead in showing the world what is awesome about African literature and how it should be read.
Sola Osofisan: So, I’ve been combing the web for wherever you have a presence. No subject seems to be taboo to you. Writers’ spats, homosexuality, pubic hair salons, sex scenes in African novels, you take on all topics. Is there something you would not write about or publish? I guess what I’m asking is your position on self-censorship and managing a website. Have you ever found yourself in trouble as a result of something you published or wrote?
Ainehi Edoro: Not yet. Lol. But I don’t let the fear of getting into trouble decide what I write or don’t write. As a blogger, you learn to deal with criticisms and insults. A blog is not a newspaper. If you want bare, unsullied facts, go read a newspaper. Blogging is all about the slant. How can you take a set of facts, rearrange them, and serve them up to readers in a way that’d make them think or react? Besides, I learned pretty quickly that you can’t please everyone.
Sola Osofisan: I don’t see adverts on BP. The website is not paying for its existence, is it? Is it rewarding in some other ways?
Ainehi Edoro: That has since changed. It is part of our strategic plan for 2015 to make the website self-sustaining. These past years, I’ve run Brittle Paper out of pocket. But Brittle Paper is growing so fast, and it’s become more than clear to me that I need money, not only to run it in its present form, but also to take it to the next level. The adverts just went up a few weeks ago, so we aren’t making a killing or anything…lol…but it does feel good to have something in place that could potentially grow and make the project self-sustaining.
Sola Osofisan: I think it would be hard for anyone to invest the amount of time and energy you’re investing in BP just because… You must be a closet writer. Is that what this is? This can’t all be academic for you. Are you a writer too?
Ainehi Edoro: If, by writer, you mean novelist or poet, no. I am not. Brittle Paper is hard work. It takes its toll—given that I am also in the thick of writing a dissertation. But I love blogging. It’s as simple as that.
Sola Osofisan: What was technically the most challenging part of developing the Brittle Paper website?
Ainehi Edoro: Producing great content! As every blogger knows, the bread and butter of good sites is great content. If you write things that people love, they will come to the blog. But my training in writing has been mostly academic. Blogging is a totally different beast. When I realized that my training on writing research and conference papers did not really translate into blogging, I had to learn writing all over again. That was challenging!
Sola Osofisan: Whatever happened to the Brittle Paper TV idea?
Ainehi Edoro: We are working on it. By the end of the year, we’ll introduce more video component to our content, including podcasts and other multimedia elements.
Sola Osofisan: This question is clear in my head, but I can’t seem to find the words to get it out there… Didacticism is a commonality of African literature, as you know, from oral to its written form. There is a lot of disillusionment on the Continent stemming from the truncated hopes of independence to the current aimlessness fogging the post-colonial road. It makes it slow-going for the literary culture to shrug off its preachy, educational skin to slip on the toga of Nollywood-popular fiction. Helon Habila, in his response to a question you posed to him on the absence of a mass audience literary genre across Africa, brought up the Pacesetter series at its peak. You obviously co-sign the Ikhide Ikheloa position when you wondered in a Facebook post, “If only we read just their tweets! African writer(s) wouldn’t seem so stern, serious, and stodgy.” You know tweets have been known to be stodgy and nebulous too! Are you hoping for the emergence of a more easily accessible fiction from a diversity of genres across Africa, despite the fact that serious attention from the critics will be the price to pay? I mean look at our poetry and the derision spoken word receives in some circles today… Until your poetry is Okigboesque, you’re just a wannabe? Are you proposing a marriage of the digestible and the quickly forgotten?
Ainehi Edoro: I totally get what you’re saying. African literature has not always been reader-driven. For Achebe to write with a straight face that a novelist is a teacher, you know we are dealing with a literary culture where the reader doesn’t really count for much. The reader is there to be schooled and herded about and put in their place. It’s taken me years to realize how absurd and borderline disturbing Achebe’s statement is. It points to the power differential that has always defined the writer-reader relationship in African literary culture. Really, it’s all about power. These African writers seeing themselves as messiahs, as anti-colonial action heroes, thinking that their writing could save Africans from colonial mentality and oppression…and stuff like that. The reason African literature is sometimes preachy and heavy-handed is precisely because it has never really been inspired by the taste and desires of the African reader—by what the reader really wants. It’s been driven, instead, by the African writer and critic’s lust for literary significance. So I say forget the African critic and the self-important writer. Give us the “digestible and quickly forgotten” stuff. I want more African writing with mass appeal. I want a Nollywood invasion of African literature. I want African writers to not take themselves too seriously for once and just write novels that Africans would find endlessly delightful and delicious. I want African writers to sell millions of copies, make good money, and live off their work. This is how publishing industries are nurtured—when they are able to tap into the pulse of mass culture. I want African writers to find inspiration in what Africans want to read not what they should read or what will save them or educate them or edify them. The Teju Coles and Adichies and Vladislavicses will continue to write the so-called serious novels for critics and scholars like us. But aside from these “serious” writings, we need a new kind of literary production propelled entirely by the African reader and not the critic.
Sola Osofisan: You interact with several writers and you study their works closely. Do you think writers are born – or is it something to be taught? I mean some people just know the right story to tell and in which direction to go with its flow while some write without a clue what’s going to be in the next chapter!
Ainehi Edoro: It’s both. Yeah, writing, like any creative ability, can be a gift. But it can also be cultivated. It might require more work, more backbreaking labor, but it certainly can be learned.
Sola Osofisan: Still on that thought; as a keen observer of the African literary scene and a dedicated promoter of books and writers, why do you think some writers are successful and others not so much?
Ainehi Edoro: If by success, you mean book sales, popularity, and celebrity status, there’s nothing complicated about that. It’s a matter of writing a good story, in addition, of course, to strong marketing, good publicity, and the backing of a powerful publishing enterprise. All these, of course, cost money. Look, whether it’s a blog or a novel, if you have good content, people will read it. A bestselling novel is like any good product. If it’s good quality, and it’s backed by good marketing, it’s a sure-banker success. But if by success, you mean longevity, literary significance, and the possibility of the work becoming a classic—that’s the more mysterious part. It’s an alchemical combination of historical, market, and institutional forces that take decades, sometimes even centuries to take effect. Most times, it is completely out of the author’s control and beyond his or her lifetime. Literary critics might claim that they know why Shakespeare became Shakespeare, but the truth is they don’t. If you asked me how a book becomes a classic, I’d say it’s a matter for the gods.
Sola Osofisan: Paper books or electronic books? Why?
Ainehi Edoro: It’s whatever really. I often tell readers who ask that they should read in whatever medium makes reading pleasurable.
Sola Osofisan: In so many words, convince whoever is reading this exchange that they need to start visiting brittlepaper.com.
Ainehi Edoro: Brittle Paper is the place where you can enjoy African literary stuff without anyone breathing down your neck, preaching to you, policing how and what and why you read. When you visit your favorite fashion or music blog, you expect to be entertained. It’s the same at Brittle Paper. We just want you to have a good time with African writing.
Sola Osofisan: Parting shot on a lighter note; do you still drink your coffee unsweetened? Isn’t that just nasty? Why don’t you drink African medicinal herbs instead? It will probably give you the same high and do your body good too!
Ainehi Edoro: I still drink coffee like a maniac, but with sugar and sometimes with milk—not cream! And I now love it. It’s no more simply a stimulant. It’s a beverage I truly enjoy. Here in Chicago, I have access to really good coffee and it makes all the difference in my life. It’s a daily ritual—the smell, the taste, the steamy comfort. You know, I’ve heard things about those African herbs. Alas! Chicago is thousands of miles away from the nearest source of supply. But I do remember those nights in Benin City when I’d eat kola to stay up late and study for JAMB.