The Abuja Literary Festival: Harnessing Creative Power to Build Community

Festival Director Teniola Tayo tells us about the festival’s mission, the 2020 edition, and projections for the future.
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Abuja Literary Festival 2019. From alitfest.com

Abuja Literary Festival 2019. From alitfest.com

In the last three years, the Abuja Literary and Arts Festival (ALITFEST) has become one of the go-to events in literary Nigeria, well attended by poets, novelists, critics, readers, and non-literary creatives from other parts of the African continent.

We chat with Teniola Tayo, the Festival Director, about the mission of the festival, its journey so far at the 2020 edition, and projections for the future.

UZOMA IHEJIRIKA FOR OPEN COUNTRY:

Could you tell us about the founding of the festival?

TENIOLA TAYO:

ALitFest was created in response to our young and thriving community at the Abuja Literary Society. The Abuja Literary Society (ALS) is the home organisation of ALitFest and is a 22-year-old institution focused on providing literary entertainment and helping creatives grow in their art. At the present moment, the organisation has a very youthful face and we thought it was important that we held an annual event to allow our members to congregate with other creatives for wider community building.

UZOMA IHEJIRIKA FOR OPEN COUNTRY:

The 2020 event was held online. How did you and the team find the shift from a physical space to a virtual one?

TENIOLA TAYO:

The shift was not easy but it was necessary. We made a lot of mistakes but also recorded a lot of successes. The climax was the virtual poetry slam that was plagued with quite a number of issues, but we trudged on, and, eventually, it worked out. I love how people from all over were able to participate, including Africans from other parts of the continent and the diaspora, as well as African Americans. The richness of the participation was consolation for the absence of physical interaction.

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UZOMA IHEJIRIKA FOR OPEN COUNTRY:

What meaning do you think the Abuja Literary and Arts Festival holds for creatives?

TENIOLA TAYO:

I think festivals are quite an important space for creatives as they present opportunities to convene at one point and “fellowship” with their peers. Creatives are sometimes a bit “alternative,” and literary festivals are intended to provide a welcoming and non-judgmental space for free expression and open conversations.

At Abuja Literary Society, we welcome and continually strive for the increase in spaces like these. We’re also increasingly looking for ways to take our festival beyond conversations about issues to become a bit more policy-oriented and actually find solutions to problems.

Teniola Tayo, Director of the Abuja Literary and Arts Festival. From alitfest.com.
Teniola Tayo, Director of the Abuja Literary and Arts Festival. From alitfest.com.

UZOMA IHEJIRIKA FOR OPEN COUNTRY:

Abuja is not considered a major literary centre like Lagos, or even Nsukka which has no festival yet. What is ALITFEST’s significance for the city?

TENIOLA TAYO:

You’re right, it’s not, and this is one of the reasons we started the festival. The Abuja Literary Society has been in Abuja for over two decades, alongside other literary organisations, but Abuja was not properly placed on the literary map. We also feel that being located in Abuja puts us in proximity to the Federal Government and we would potentially use this closeness to push for change. I guess, in summary, you could say that we are contributing to the efforts of others to give Abuja its own soul.

UZOMA IHEJIRIKA FOR OPEN COUNTRY:

The theme of this year’s event was “The Art of Empathy.” Could you tell us more about empathy as an important tool for creatives?

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TENIOLA TAYO:

Empathy helps us see the world through the eyes of others. It is the bridge that connects all of our different identities and ideologies. In an increasingly polarised world, the artist has the burden of creating these bridges by starting conversations in ways that may be considered less threatening—stories.

Creatives tell stories in many different ways and through many different mediums—film, music, prose, poetry, painting. These stories are usually welcome guests in the minds of most people, and the creative has the power to determine what the “guest” will be bringing with them. I don’t know if I am making a lot of sense but the essence of it is that we all love stories, and creatives have the power to use what we love to tell us what we need to know, show us what we need to see, and to remind us of what we must not forget. Stories are the easiest way to put ourselves in the shoes of others and creatives are the master storytellers. Trying to fix the world with stories is a difficult but important burden. The poet Dike Chukwumerije is one Nigerian creative that has embraced this task.

UZOMA IHEJIRIKA FOR OPEN COUNTRY:

What have been the challenges in putting together a festival of such enormity?

TENIOLA TAYO:

Ha. A lot. We started to plan the festival when the lockdown was just getting comfortable, and the move online was a maze we navigated with a lot of challenges. Guests were not too happy that it was going to be online—one of the perks of literary festivals is getting flown out to new countries.

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We also had to change the Webinar platform at the last minute and this affected attendance. Our programming was too intense; we had sessions from morning till evening for the three days, and we underestimated how exhausting it could be to keep track. We even had parallel sessions; so there were times when I would be logged into one session on my phone and one on my computer just to monitor things. Bots also did their best to hijack meetings by typing racial slurs in chat boxes so we had to be very vigilant. The toughest activity was the poetry grand slam—everything that could go wrong went wrong but we eventually pushed through.

All in all, I am really grateful for the team that was behind this, especially the Festival Manager, Timi Odueso, and the Guests Manager, Dr. Augusta Imomon. The festival would not have been possible without every single member of the team. We learned a lot of hard lessons that we will be taking on to future ones.

UZOMA IHEJIRIKA FOR OPEN COUNTRY:

What are the plans for the Abuja Literary and Arts Festival?

TENIOLA TAYO:

We will try to retain a core virtual component for the festival as this removes a lot of the barriers to participation. We will also be looking to better leverage our position in Nigeria’s capital city by striving harder to move the needle on real policy changes—as the next step to conversations about challenges. Watch this space!

Visit the Abuja Literary and Arts Festival website.

Uzoma Ihejirika
Uzoma Ihejirika is a staff writer at Open Country Mag. He is a staff writer at Folio Nigeria. He is an editor for the AfroAnthology Series and a copy editor for Minority Africa. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming on Lolwe, Music in Africa, and Bakwa Magazine, and can also be found on Medium.

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