Before I started my first year at the University of Bristol, I was scrolling through the Student Union website to find societies which I would like to join. I stumbled across AfroLit and instantly felt seen and excited – I had recently set myself the challenge of reading exclusively literature by people of African descent outside of academia. When I saw the writing prompt about women in Bristol forming their own societies, I decided to interview no other than Elsie Aluko, the kind-hearted president of AfroLit.
Q: Introduce yourself.
My name is Elsie Aluko and I am a second-year physicist. I’m originally from north west London, which is where I grew up. I am the president and founder of The AfroLit society! I am also currently one of the Universities newly appointed BME Success Advocates, which is a really exciting role working with the University to close the BME attainment gap.
AfroLit at freshers fair
Q: What led to the formation of the AfroLit society?
I’ve always loved reading from a very young age, but I read ‘Half of A Yellow Sun’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie 2 years ago now and it honestly felt like something had awakened in me when I finished it. As a Nigerian I was appalled at the fact that I had no prior knowledge of the Biafran war, one of the bloodiest and most poignant periods in Nigerian history and for the first time in my life I had a real urge to learn more about my history and my heritage. However, on a brighter note, it was so refreshing to read a book where in the dialogue between characters I could hear the voices of my mother, my aunts, uncles and cousins. It felt like reading a piece of myself, and I’d never had that reading a book before.
I think literature, and especially fiction, is such a meaningful way to learn about things and I wondered if there was a society that had a focus on literature written by black authors, people of African descent, and there wasn’t! So the initial idea for the society came 2 years ago but I was too chicken to start it because I was worried it wouldn’t work and no one would be interested, but earlier this year, in February, I just thought what the heck, I might as well try it! I found 2 of my friends, Ore and Khadijah, that were keen to get involved and that’s how it started! It wasn’t easy, and at times it was very stressful, as its just the three of us and we all have demanding degrees. At points it felt like it might not be worth it, but through it we’ve already had so many amazing experiences and I’ve come into contact with so many interesting and supportive people that I’m so glad we went for it.
AfroLit with poet Lanaire Aderemi
Q: Do you think there are enough spaces in UoB* for black people? In terms of a variety of activities – obviously there is the ACS, BME Network, Somali Society and East African Society etc.
I don’t know how I feel about this question, because in an ideal world I don’t think there should HAVE to be ‘spaces’ for black people. The whole university should feel like a space for black people! So there better be enough space for us, we’re here!! However, I know, especially from my own experience it doesn’t always feel like that, and so it is reassuring and even life saving being able to find your tribe in whatever shape or form that comes in. I think the societies and networks that exist catering to different aspects of the black experience do a great job of pulling likeminded people together, and sort of putting their flag down to say “We’re here! We exist! And we’re proud!”. I think that’s really important. However, there is so much diversity and difference and variety in what it means to be ‘black’ and you’d need 1000 different societies to even start to capture that!
Q: What do you hope to achieve with AfroLit?
My hope is that it provides an outlet to discover, learn about and appreciate literature produced by writers of African descent. Its to bring people together! I mean Nigerian literature isn’t only for Nigerians, in the same way Jane Austen novels aren’t solely appreciated by vivacious white English women with a pining for the end of the 18th century. Literature is able to transcend so many things, because I think it speaks to something fundamentally human in all of us. So, with AfroLit, I hope to create an environment for students with a vested cultural interest and those that are looking to enrich their literary palate. The other sort of arm of it is also to bridge the gap between the student experience at the University and the city, hopefully creating lasting links to the arts and cultural communities within Bristol. So many amazing things happen in this city right under our noses all the time, and I’m hoping to catch some of them in the radar of AfroLit before they go whizzing by!
Q: What type of events do you do or plan to do?
So, we’ll be having fortnightly book club meetings, where we will consider books, plays, and poetry. This month we’re looking at Chinua Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart’. We’ll also be hosting panel and spoken word events, workshops, recitals and performances. Its all early days so things are slightly nebulous, but we’ve already had a number of events! We watched the documentary on Maya Angelou, ‘And Still I Rise’, we had an amazing poet, Lanaire Aderemi, come in and read her work and talk about her inspirations, and we went to an Afrika Eye event as a group on the 7th November: ’Voices of Africa’ which was also incredible.
Q: Where can we find AfroLit/sign up?
I’m so glad you asked that! We can be found on both Instagram and Facebook @afrolitsoc. We have an email address which you can email for any queries, and if you want to be added to our mailing list, firstname.lastname@example.org. Our membership is £3 and is open to ALL, even nonstudents! It can be bought at the following link:
Elsie, president of AfroLit
AfroLit is the first step towards spreading not only awareness about African literature, but an appreciation as well. As Elsie said in the first AfroLit meeting, you can’t write yourself into Pride and Prejudice as a young black person. As I have come to realise, we cannot rely on old institutions to educate us on things that make us ‘ourselves’ (ie our history, both pre and post colonial). The antiquated Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre will still remain on the British curriculum despite increasingly diverse classrooms. Instead, it is important to travel back ‘home’ to our countries through novels, and gain a deeper understanding of our culture as well as our own biases interpreting these novels from a Western point of view.
*UoB refers to the University of Bristol
All photos are courtesy of AfroLit.