I was reading an interesting article by Nigerian writer and journalist Tolu Ogunlesi called Who Controls African Literature?. In it, he talks a bit about new continent-wide contests and projects that are trying to get us all in the boat so that 'the people in charge' can begin to get a handle on what African literature is all about. He seems hopeful that the situation in which outsiders define African literature might be changing. I'm sadly not so hopeful.
It's funny how Ogunlesi talks about how African literature is seen as this strange sort of 'let's look at the monkey in the cage' sort of literature. In the past, politics, war, and race issues needed to be at the forefront for the writing to be considered as serious African literature. The publishing folk who establish what's what were outside and that outside perspective tainted what they published and covered with praise and awards. Colonialism played its role on the population here, and now Africans knew their own great literature because people outside Africa told them what it was.
Well that is, thankfully, changing- incrementally. African publishers are stepping up, albeit under very harsh conditions, and are trying to publish African writers with African stories defined by Africans. Of course the problem comes when the bookshops are full of Harry Potter and friends and the shelf space, even in African bookshops, for books BY Africans FOR African readers can be found in the corner at the back, under the ladder, behind the Oprah Book Club sign - and -please-mind the cobwebs. How can African publishers help African writers if they can't sell their books? Such a drag to find the same sorry answer to every problem- money.
African publishers need a serious break. They should also get some awards for the selfless work that they do. What is even more sad about the situation for African publishers is that when a writer might be up there with a book that could actually earn some bucks- the writer forgets the African publishers and rushes overseas.
I'm a writer, I know the writer's point of view- they need exposure and the smaller African houses can't do it for them. They can't do it for them because they don't have the big names that earn them the big bucks to give them a budget that would allow them to develop and market emerging writers. It's a hopeless catch-your-own-tail kind of dilemma and for things to change something has got to give and I have a feeling the answer is not going to be found in new continent-wide writing contests (though, please, don't stop those) but again in the money. How to manipulate the money in publishing so that it favours African publishers. I'm not an economist. I started writing a list just now about some ways to do that, sort of affirmative action for African publishers, but immediately saw the loopholes and thought I'd leave it to those more knowledgeable.
Until African publishing houses can get a firm financial footing, African literature will be sifted, packaged, and fed back to us from outside the continent- that is just the fact of the matter. So Mr. Ogunlesi, who controls African literature? For the most part, it's still the same old gang.