Pamela Ohene-Nyako is the founder of Afrolitt, a bilingual literary platform. Its mission is to use Black literature as a tool for critical knowledge, sharing and societal or personal change. The majority of the suggested novels are written by authors of African descent, most of whom are women, who question social constructs and issues. Additionally, one of Afrolitt’s goals is to participate in sustaining a pan-African dialogue between Anglophones and/or Francophones from or living in sub-Saharan Africa and people of the Black diaspora.
What was your motivation for beginning Afrolitt? Was it the lack of access to African literature?
It wasn’t really a matter of access since I am in Switzerland. I wouldn’t put it that way. I had access to the internet and I could always order books with Amazon. It was more… knowing who the authors are, knowing which authors to read.
It was pure ‘hazard’ [luck] actually that I came upon a French author called Léonora Miano. Her book was on the shelf of the main Swiss bookstore.
But it happened at a time where I was undergoing a type of therapy. I had gone through what being a black Swiss woman meant in a harsh way. I had a mental breakdown and I was admitted to a psychiatric care service. So finding this Black Francophone female author, it was as if she was speaking directly to me. At that precise time. I needed to come to terms with what it meant to be a Black woman in Switzerland, and literature helped me, as well as music. That’s when Black literature started being a sort of therapy for me.
What is the power of Literature for an individual but also for a society?
The reason I always talk about my life is not that I love talking about myself, but so people understand Afrolitt’s genesis better. So in my opinion, having that individual experience and reading books is definitely important: using them as tools to either heal or comfort yourself.
Then comes the collective side of the experience. Actually, at the beginning, Afrolitt was not supposed to be a platform. At the beginning, I just wanted to meet with people informally, in a group. So we started with the meetups in French-speaking Switzerland. And then what I started understanding was that the way we started talking and using this literature was quite different from literary analysis in university, college or some TV programs.
Also, I felt that a lot of non-Black people tend to use Black literature as if it is kind of a means for projection into “far exotic places”. I was kind of against that, I mean that is not what literature is supposed to be. It is more than that. It should speak to society. It should speak to individuals. So that is when I really made it clear that I did not want to use books to exotify, but as tools where we do the work and take the books seriously to comment on ourselves and our surroundings and our society.
I wonder if, given how personal the beginning of this journey was, looking at then and now, can there be a lesson from this?
The tricky thing is that some unthoughtful people could say, ‘Well it’s not such a bad thing that you ended up in a psychiatric care service since Afrolitt came out of it.’ And I would say no. I hope that Black people can be creative without it always being out of resistance. You know what I mean? People always rejoice with Black music and Black art that were actually born out of struggle and pain. But what would our art be if it was not always out of resistance? I sometimes think that we don’t have that space of doing art just for art. Or building platforms. Or creating just for the sake of it. So it is hard to answer. I could say that I am proud that I found the right tools at the right moment when I could have ended up in a more desperate place.
Is there a lesson to learn?
Maybe there is. Maybe the lesson to learn in this kind of project is that it might start with you. You come up with an idea. You might be the one who carries it. But then let the magic happen with other people. Work with external partners, they are bringing something that you could not.
So that is the lesson. Letting go. Letting go in a creative and positive and enriching way by making it an interactive space, where people can add to it. And also still being aware of your vision and where it should be.
*This interview has been edited and condensed.