Africa’s literary industry has been re-vamped with modern titles, new authors and also fresh interest in what Africans have to say in print. Tracy Nnanwubar profiles the publishers making waves and some of the factors that set them apart with African writing.
Half a century ago, writing from Africa was unheard of in the wider world. Though the history of the African Writers Series is commendable in encapsulating the history of Africa’s struggle to rid itself of colonial domination and post-colonial oppression, contemporary Africa still needed a voice to tell its own post-modern stories. By presenting to the world stories written by Africans in which Africans were themselves subjects of their own histories, contemporary African publishers are positioning themselves as visionaries in the movement to represent an African identity in the modern world.
According to Charles Larson, those who say that nothing good has come out of Africa have not read the continent’s writers. African writers inhabit a world devoid of privilege or advantage, lacking many of the things that their Western counterparts take for granted such as—informed and understanding critics, and enlightened political leaders willing to acknowledge the importance of their art. Yet, contemporary African writers have left an indelible mark on the continent’s psyche as well as the international literary scene. In Africa, very few writers can live on their royalties hence they often have day time jobs and maintain writing as a passion not necessarily a money-earning career.
Successful African writers have therefore tended to be published by the metropolitan publishing houses that have the financial resources and established marketing networks to promote their work to a world audience. This could be economically rewarding but culturally, there are some writers who feel pre-disposed to write stories tailored to Western sensibilities and pre-conceived stereotypes – this being a yard stick for huge book sales. And indeed, whoever has the funds and plays the piper, definitely dictates the tune in developing African literature.
African publishers often find and nurture black writers only to lose out to the bigger mainstream Western publishers because of their inability to secure the financial backing that would guarantee African writers reasonable income. If African writing is to retain its originality and universal values, then African governments and the business community must do more to support writers and the publishing industry. This important task of writing our own histories has tended to be left to generous Western donors who often come with their own agenda for publishing those stories.
If recent achievements by African writers on the world literary scene are a barometer for future events then, African writers do have a lot to celebrate because African literary production is now fully acknowledged as part of world literature. Chinua Achebe’s winning of the Man Booker International Prize; an accolade given every two years for an exceptional lifetime’s contribution to world knowledge and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s winning of the Orange Prize with her novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, is a clear indication that African writing has become relevant. African writers, readers and publishers should be creating their own institutions not just by writing but also publishing in becoming film-makers, theatre directors and getting actively involved in the ownership aspect of the literary arts. This is something that Muhtar Bakare of Kachifo Publishing is already doing with the soon-to-be-released movie on Chimamanda’s novel Half Of A Yellow Sun.
Kwani? (yes, with the question mark) is arguably Africa’s most exciting and varied literary initiative of recent years. Describing itself as a magazine of ideas seeking to entertain, provoke and create, Kwani? commissions and publishes stories, poetry, art and photography from all around the African continent and the diaspora. Kwani?’s literary material “reflects Kenyans growing out of [the] ashes [who] have learnt to need nobody; be competitive and stay creative.” Kwani? asides publishing literature in English language often publishes in Sheng, a Swahili-based patois spoken in East Africa.
Kwani? represents a wail of new voices in literary concert such as Billy Kahora, Mukoma wa Ngugi and Shalini Gidoomal with the not so new: Binyavanga Wainaina, Muthoni Garland, and Doreen Baingana. Kwani? delves “deep into those spaces where the Kenyan story lives: the street corners, the neighbourhood pubs, the in-between semi-rural places where the clash of cultures – the traditional versus the modern- continues to redefine the social roles of the individual, dismantle patriarchal constructs and still retain the pithy wit and the devices of ancient orature that time and the ritual of the communal fireside have honed.” Still, as though in ridicule of such notions of Africa being the continent on the lee side of the Digital Divide, Kwani?’s publishing projects reach into the burgeoning realms of the Kenyan blogosphere to bring such politically brave, borderline intellectual and rebellious voices in a fresh look at the old themes of politics, slices of life and religion. In its literature, Kwani? places these themes alongside such taboo subjects as sex beyond the hetero-normative idea, thus establishing for itself in Africa a space for cutting-edge new fiction, mind provoking non-fiction, witty photo-essays and classic graphic narratives.
Binyavanga Wainaina is the founding editor of Kwani?. A Kenyan author, journalist, winner of the 2002 Caine Prize and former food and travel writer in Cape Town South Africa, he is currently the Director of the Chinua Achebe Center for African Writers and Artists at Bard College. Much of the eccentricities that he displays in person are also displayed in the kind of stories that he writes and publishes. His milestones with Kwani? include discovering and publishing over thirty fresh African voices, some of whom have won the Caine Prize for African writing and have been awarded MFA Literary fellowships.
To encourage more African writing, Kwani? hosts the monthly Sunday Salon Nairobi and Kwani? Poetry Open Mic; places where authors and publishers can talk-shop, share ideas, and encourage one another. These sessions are very popular with promising writers and audiences who are interested in African literature.
Also a big star in African publishing is Muhtar Bakare, Founding chairman at Kachifo Limited who re-invented Nigerian literature after twelve years of working in the banking sector. His first and most successful author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has become an icon for new African writing, and is increasingly becoming the new brand for Nigerian literature. Kachifo Limited was set up in 2004 as an independent Nigerian publishing house “tell[ing] our own stories”, with a non-profit trust – Farafina Trust, whose board mission is to promote literature and literary skills in Africa. Kachifo does this through various initiatives such as the Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Creative Writing Workshop held every year to provide a mentorship platform for budding young writers in Nigeria, and recently including participants from the rest of Africa.
Of late, Kachifo’s publishing projects are also delving into multimedia content, digital/e-books, including CD-ROMs, audio books, e-based learning platforms and film adaptations of the some of the novels they have published since inception. Already, a movie adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s book Half Of A Yellow Sun has commenced and the production team – Slate Films, a British film production company – works closely with Kachifo on a film set in Lagos, Nigeria.
In this way, Kachifo is proving that publishing can be a viable business and though Nigeria’s leading independent publisher, it is still struggling with some of the challenges facing most publishers in Africa – piracy, illiteracy, other media forms like web and TV, and the economic unaffordability of e-books. Because of Muhtar Bakare’s vision to unearth new African writing and tell fresh stories from a pan-African perspective, undiscovered writers are energised and the Nigerian audience is beginning to see literature and books as good value for their time and money.
The back-bone of Storymoja Publishing, Muthoni Garland, is an author with the ability to word-paint Kenya in such vivid colours such that everyone who is Kenyan will recognise a little bit of everything she describes. She explains her inspiration as a “struggle to live with dignity in the face of appalling poverty, and political and religious hypocrisy. [Her] writing attempts to capture moments in which ordinary Kenyans are faced with moral dilemmas and are forced to confront issues. Our life is not easy but Kenyan resilience is frankly amazing.”
With regards to the future of reading and writing in Kenya and East Africa, Storymoja believes that it can only be “bright, brighter, [and] brightest.” There is also a growing realization that reading is a critical part of the process to achieving global understanding. In this way, Africans can and will embrace tribal differences as a source of national strength. To accelerate development in Africa, developing the reading sector is key. Part of the struggle for African publishers lie in nurturing a reading culture that goes beyond academics and politics. Even though this is done through Book Shares, Book Clubs, Book Readings, Literary Conferences, Writing Workshops, Writers-in-residence programs etc., more needs to be done to help Africans understand that a book is much more valuable than a materialistic pursuit of flashy acquisitions.
Storymoja is a venture recently formed by a collective of five writers who are committed to publishing contemporary East African writing of world-class standard; and whose books are marketed to a wide Kenyan audience for entertainment rather than as textbook material. This is Storymoja’s unique selling proposition. Because it is imperative for African publishers to challenge the perception that Kenyans do not read (except required educational text), Storymoja is providing African audiences with contemporary stories they can connect to.
One would agree that even with good media exposure, price is a significant factor affecting the purchasing power of many Africans because most Africans are simply focused on surviving and ensuring their basic needs are met, first, before purchasing a book. Storymoja claims that by simply focusing on volumes as opposed to high margins, a long-term strategy that is unlikely to be financially profitable to them in the short-term, will hopefully fulfill their deeply-felt motto of getting ‘A book in every hand’ eventually. In essence, Storymoja “dreams of the day when the ordinary Kenyan is as excited by reading as he is by Kenyan music, Nigerian DVDs and the mobile phone!”
Image via NAI