Monday, July 27, 2009

African Publishers Key to Developing African Literature

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.


Jude Dibia said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jude Dibia said...

This is quite interesting, Lauri! I am yet to read Tolu's piece, but will do so shortly.

I think the first step will be to make Africans the primary consumers of their literature. By developing the market within, the need and longing for our own literature, there will be hope for the publishers and writers.

We Africans demand quality above all so we need to get the goverments involved in giving grants for the improvement of the Arts. The infrastucture needs to be in place to ensure a smooth distribution of books from point A to Q to the remotest part of the woods. Once we begin to value our stories, things will change definitely.

Osondu Nnamdi Awaraka said...

I really enjoyed this.

Elizabeth Bradley said...

Years and years ago, (oops, giving away my age), back when I was going to school in Canada, they felt much the same way. American EVERYTHING was selling like hot cakes and not-so-much the home grown stuff. I think they have done a good job of promoting Canadian content up there. And now, well, there are so many wonderful Canadian writers, artists and musicians. #1 in my book, Alice Munro, and Margaret Atwood.

Lauri said...

I don't know how things are in Nigeria, Jude, but in Botswana the big problem is the cost of books. People like saying it is the fact that Batswana don't read. That I don't agree with. Batswana read newspapers and magazines. Books go at about P100 for one and minimum wage is P700.

I believe here we need cheap books and we need alternative marketing. There is no way local books can compete in the book shop with the big names. I say it's time to move out of the book shops. From there build a book buying public then move back to book shops with a bit of muscle.

Osondu- thanks for stopping by and glad you enjoyed the post.

Jude Dibia said...

It is much the same in Nigeria; books are relatively expensive but worse still is the fact that there are not enough bookshops or libraries. There are no bookshop chains in Nigeria presently.

If the materials for producing books were less expensive, then more (quality) books could be produced at cheaper rates. I will also support a movement to impose huge taxes on imported books; this way, the local scene will have no excuse but to develop its market.

Lauri said...

I am shocked about the siutation of bookstores in Nigeria. Your population is huge. With our measly 1.6 million we have CNA and Exclusive.

Although I am cautious about the Kindle and other such readers, I wonder if ebooks are the answer? I can't quite accept them myself but maybe I'm a bit of a dinosaur, I like books too much to let them go.

I often think what we need is almost like comic book quality. Good stories on very cheap paper to build up readers and book buying.

Maxine said...

There are some interesting parallels with Aboriginal writers here in Australia Lauri, and even with non-indigenous Australian writers. In fact, the general state of publishing in Australia leaves a lot to be I find this topic extremely interesting. Thankyou for having the passion to post on this.

Lauri said...

Maxine, I wonder if it is just as simple as smaller markets not being given a chance. Maybe we need old fashioned protectionism to give us a chance to get a foothold.