Situation is Critical! Bringing African writing back home – By Jeremy Weate

African writing has become a commodity produced primarily for Western markets. Its creators should fight against this impulse.

I’ve just received my review copy of Uwem Akpan’s Say You’re One of Them. I’m not sure I can stomach it all the way through, still less write about it. The tome lies on my table, a lead weight too heavy to consider. There has surely been too much war and violence in the stories African men have chosen to write of late. I think back to last year’s Measuring Time, by Helon Habila, and of course, to Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone.

I hardly have the energy to sigh. Where is the hope? Where are the dreams? Where is the demotic counterpoint? Instead of reading the good priest’s book and bashing out my piece, it’s prompted me to reflect on where we are with African writing. But rather than stay at the level of the text, I think we need to consider the context in which African writing takes place. That’s to say, we need to think about how Africa gets published.

The first thing to say is that almost all African creative writing that gains any level of worldly significance, no matter how ephemeral, is published by a Western publishing company. Even when a writer is first published on the continent, their success is ultimately measured in terms of how effectively their work gets a foot in the Occidental door. This should not be surprising to anyone on a moment’s reflection. The West has been the centre of capital accumulation for the past 400 years or so. Fiction writing is simply another form of capital whose value is formed and transacted in London or New York (for the English-speaking world), like copper and coffee. Everything else is marginalia and mere froth on the daydream.

African publishers are not even minnows swimming in the shark tank in comparison. They leave little or no imprint in the minds of readers and writers. African writers often view African publishers as printers to make their books available in their home country. Demands that would not be made of Western publishers are insisted upon. Typical requests are: “This is the title I am using” (never mind its meaninglessness in the local context); “I am not happy with the choice of paper used to print my book”; “Why is my book not available in other African markets which you have rights to?” (As if the Western publisher with world rights would also care about those markets).

Africa’s marginal status in terms of the history of capitalism is, of course, a convenient fiction. Africans were the first wave of “˜commodities’ to support modernisation and industrialisation in the West via the Middle Passage and the plantation. And as the economic model of transatlantic slavery waned in the late 19th century (thanks as much to the spinning jenny as to the abolitionists), the export of palm oil, cocoa and groundnuts from West Africa in industrial quantities began.

Palm oil lubricated the train wheels of western modernity. Africa, and West Africa in particular, was always the other side of globalisation and industrialisation – the shadow cast by the factory. It seems redundant to say it, but the West wouldn’t have become what it became (a triumphant surplus) without expropriation of commodities from West Africa on a massive scale.

The theft continues apace today. Africa has one-third of the world’s mineral resources. Nigeria alone supplies the US with a quarter of its gasoline, none of which is refined and value-added on the continent. The multinationals take tax avoidance to its limits through transfer-pricing and other accountancy/tax haven tricks. What can be taken is taken, as quickly and as cheaply and as quietly as possible.

It’s the same with African writers. Their stories are exported raw, with value-addition the work of a network of agents and editors over the ocean. It is only when the finished products are imported back onto the continent that they can be valued and bought. Until then, the African writer is a raw commodity, bought wholesale, sold retail only later. African readers are complicit in the trade – what I call a “˜tokunbo logic’ is in play: only if the goods come from abroad can they have value. University lecturers ask if the book has won international awards, not awards granted on the continent. Local awards confer no value. Even when a book is published in both the West and in Africa, the media will often stick slavishly to Western publication dates, rather than local launch schedules.

It’s the same as it ever was. Since the Great Exhibitions of the 19th century, the West has been the epicentre of the production of global images. Back then, Polynesians and Africans were made to stand under cathedrals of glass, at the birth of anthropology. Then came Hollywood, and the image factory went into overdrive. Black people have been the minstrels, the baddies, or died young ever since. The equivalent of the Hollywood Studios in publishing today are the multinational publishing corporations, such as Hachette, Harper Collins, Bertelsmann (which owns Random House) and Pearson (which owns Penguin). In the UK, these four companies combined capture more than 50 per cent of the total market share of the publishing industry. Pretty much the same goes in the US.

It is little wonder then that, since the middle of the 20th century, the successful African writer’s career trajectory has been defined by the migration from “˜margin’ to centre. The writer says goodbye to Lagos or Nairobi and takes the metaphorical steamer to London, Paris or New York. Success could hardly have been defined in any other terms. Even if only 1,000 copies of the book are sold and the remainder is quietly pulped, it doesn’t matter: a corporate publisher has published, and perhaps a Hollywood studio has acquired the rights to a film that will almost certainly never be made.

From the African writer’s perspective, it is tricky to see what the issue is. He (until recently, it has most often been a he) wants to be read and discussed as widely as possible, and wants to be as well paid as possible for his efforts. Ideally, he will sell sufficient books to be able to live off his ink. He expects a generous advance and a book launch downtown. The more he is paid, the more he can write. The more he can write, the more the world will benefit. Moreover, he doesn’t believe writing by African writers should be deposited in a black writing ghetto in the bookshop. Good writing is good writing, wherever it came from.

At the very worst, after having been invited over, someone, somewhere really should invite him to teach at a university or teach an MFA programme. Even if only a few hundred take his book to the till, he will expect to be granted rooms in the shade of a leafy plane tree, somewhere not far from a clock tower. His days will be filled with teaching eager students, almost all of whom will be earnest, white Americans who have already dog-eared their Achebes. Some of them will grow dreadlocks for the duration and ask difficult, yet earnest questions.

The writer will live for a year or two on borrowed time; words rented from experiences fast receding. A novel, or perhaps two, will emerge. Each will detail times from an Africa that is sinking beneath the horizon. The work will be feted, but less so each time. The African writer will be little irked by how much publicity his Western publisher asks him to do: set up a Facebook account, regularly ping twitter followers with updates, visit out of the way places on cold days for an audience of 10. The third book, if he gets that far, will likely be pure anachronism. The African writer will sense that times have changed back home, but will by now be helpless to address the contemporary.

Meanwhile, his western readership, looking for the next African star, will be wondering what happened. Even being thousands of kilometres away from the action, he will sense something no longer of the present. In rooms with cityscapes for views, or across the tables of chichi restaurants, executives will be leafing through someone else’s manuscript. A new tale of African horror (or sometimes, African “˜lushness’ and “˜vibrancy’) will be required in time for the run up to Christmas.

Our African writer will look in the mirror, and notice grey hairs for the first time. There will be only one thing for it: to return home and find some more stories. And with this return, the African writer may finally realise what has been gained and lost through migration. He might then begin to see history at work.

The African writer who links migration to success (and to expectations of material well-being) is part of an ageing post-colonial condition – not a “sign of the African academics’ confident universalism”, as Paul Tiyambe Zeleza comments, “but of their insecure provincialism… [their] desperate search for legitimation from … systems and … traditions that have historically dismissed and infantalised them”.

This is the CNN worldview that Africans complain about. Of course, violence and instability have been a core aspect of many realities across the continent. However, and it’s tiring that this needs stating, so too are the delights of everyday life: love, ceremony, celebration, creation and redemption. Barring certain catastrophic exceptions (the DRC in the past two decades for instance), violence is just as much part of any society, at any time, as it is anywhere in Africa.

What is to be done? How does one ensure one’s dutifully collected shelf of African books is not ever more replete with child soldiers, AK47s and rapists? There are, I think, two parts to the answer: First, African writers should realise that there is a price to pay for a suburban existence in a sedated part of the world. Situation is critical. To engage with the world in writing, it is seldom enough to read of a world from afar. Even the most meticulous research will miss out on the subterranean processes that are continuously at work in a society; the gaps and tensions in speech and behaviour that point to unmet desires and a world in transition. It is the work of the writer to bring these silences to voice; it is an almost impossible task when the only source of information is internet news sites, visitors from home and the occasional trip back to the motherland.

Writers who complain of the difficulties of returning home (a common moan) do so on the basis of bourgeois assumptions. They expect to live in the manner to which they have been accustomed, as if material comfort were an index of, or prerequisite for a writer’s success. They also assume that moving home to write should be a full- time occupation. Yet, how many successful writers in history have had that luxury? Many writers have had a non-academic day job. Kafka was an insurance clerk, lest we forget. On the continent, we might consider Alaa Al Aswany in Cairo: collecting stories as a dentist by day, transmuting his work into stories by night.

However, African publishers also need to become more than what they are now. We need to collaborate, across our differences. We need to rave about our authors, and introduce them directly into each other’s markets, without recourse to a European detour. We need to help build a publishing infrastructure, which innovates and adapts to the opportunities the continent provides. African publishers also need to spell out the reality of working on the continent and what is at stake.

But African publishers can only do this with support of and respect from writers. For as long as writers view African-based publishers as dogsbody printers whose editorial opinion they consider as secondary to their Euro-American publisher, or people they can commandeer to consider their manuscript two months before it is due out in the Western market, publishers would rather work more actively with writers who understand the ideological imperative and the struggle for symbolic legitimacy at stake in the ownership of the means of production. We need to define what we cannot do alone and lobby government for support.

Most of all, we need to realise that we have currently lost control of the African story generation. We can hardly remain friends with those who try to take the stories away. We publishers should realise that there is semiotic warfare at work and that she who owns the story, owns the story.

Jeremy Weate has a PhD in philosophy from The University of Warwick. He is also author of the best-selling children’s book A Young Person’s Guide to Philosophy (published by Dorling Kindersley), translated into 8 languages. He is a co-founder of Cassava Republic Press, one of Africa’s leading publishing companies. You can follow him here @jeremyweate.


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One thought on “Situation is Critical! Bringing African writing back home – By Jeremy Weate

  1. I have encountered a quite different spirit of writing on this continent. I am not in the publishing business, nor yet a published writer, but I was privileged to be a participant at the December 2006 Kwani writers’ conference in Kenya. Having lived in Nairobi in the 1990s, I was overwhelmed by the explosion of writing I encountered a decade later. Yes, Chimamanda Adichie was there, Binyavanga Wayanaina, Billy Kahora and Doreen Baingana, but so too were many others for whom the opportunity to express themselves freely, to tell their stories, was visibly a joyful experience.
    I have just returned from Ghana, where I met with Deborah Ahenkorah, Echoing Green Fellow and founder of the Golden Baobab Awards, established in 2007 to encourage the writing of African literature for children and young adults. As an educator, this is a project I love – not only to encourage African writers to write African stories for children, but to run workshops for illustrators, to establish distribution channels for books across the continent and to ensure that these books reach children in their schools and, ultimately, homes. Then we can start getting Golden Baobab and Caine Prize winning stories into British schools, and schools in the US, where there are millions of children of African heritage who never read stories that connect them with their own identities either.
    As an educator I am also acutely aware that students I work with on and from the continent are almost always unaware of the history of their country and of their people. What they do know they tend to know in spite of, not because of, utterly dreary textbooks. Rather than retell the old history, why not support the writing of a new one, a People’s History of the African continent. Made of Stories.
    I’m surprised that Dr Weate has only just received a review copy of Say You Are No One of Them, as this has been available in the UK for nearly 4 years. It is, in my view, superbly written, containing writing that is illuminating and transporting and harrowing. Given the regularity with which UK publishers continue to churn out stories set in the First and Second World Wars – although few if any seeing our ‘savage continent’ of Europe from an African perspective – it should hardly surprise that collectively-experienced trauma should form the background of the stories writers want to tell. The trick is to balance these voices with others, telling different stories, by building a market. So let’s get these writers into schools, visiting, inspiring, encouraging, being role models. Let’s leapfrog broken systems and harness technology – as iSchool Zambia is doing. The students I work with in Botswana, Orphans and Vulnerable Children in particular, speak about reading with shining eyes. Equal Education, one of the bravest and most influential civil society organisations on the continent – is fighting for Bookeries and Libraries for every school. Let’s look to the future, and fill it with voices and stories from every corner of the African continent.

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