“UNBREAKABLE BONDS”: LITERARY ECOSYSTEMS IN AFRICA
The 2019 theme for the Writivism Literary Festival in Kampala, Uganda—“UnBreakable Bonds” —began with a question: what does it mean to be a prize competition, and by extension a publisher, only open to writers living on the African continent? Beneath this question are two underlying conditions of the African literary ecosystem: First, there are too few opportunities for writers on the continent, particularly for those are young and working on their first book-length project. Writivism targets these writers directly. Second, the networks of production and distribution of African-based publishers should include and prioritize readers living on the African continent, not just international audiences. Writivism’s distribution networks reflect this.
In African literary circles, the politics of publishing and publication are always part of the story. And they inevitably evoke larger conversations about the stakes of knowledge and cultural production: Who gets to document African realities, and what realities are these? To what audiences are African writers addressing themselves? Who are the “gate-keepers” of African publishing traditions?
Colonialism linked African writers and readers with global literary marketplaces through the supply of school textbooks and other educational materials. Book publishing on the continent began in the 1970s and early 1980s when parastate and independent houses took over textbook production. But material costs were high. International book donation schemes flooded markets with cheap or free books. Weak government support and restricted access to funding due to structural adjustment policies weakened publishing houses and public libraries.
In 1985, private foundations and nongovernmental organizations stepped in. The African Books Collective (ABC) brought together 17 publishers active in sub-Saharan Africa with funding from the Ford Foundation and two Scandinavian development agencies. When the constraints of foreign exchange, shipping costs, and expensive marketing made it almost impossible for ABC publishers to sell titles internationally, ABC moved their operations to the UK, where they marketed and distributed English-language titles around the world. The economic structure of African literary publishing became outward facing—what Eileen Julien calls “extroverted”—at the expense of local African literary readerships.
Who gets to document African realities, and what realities are these? To what audiences are African writers addressing themselves?
Cynics observe a similar neocolonial setup in the 21st century. Donor-funded models create networks of writers who are more dependent on international prizes, publishing houses, editors, and foreign markets than they are on the existence of local firms, distribution networks, and readerships. For example, the Caine Prize for African Writing, based in the UK, has become known for identifying some of the African writers most popular among global audiences, including Leila Aboulela, Helon Habila, the late Binyavanga Wainaina, Yvonne Owuor, NoViolet Bulawayo, and Namwali Serpell. (The Caine Prize is also notorious for its under-representation of African judges and its funding source, the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust, funded by Ernest Oppenheimer’s illicit gold and diamond mining empire in Southern Africa).
Concerning the prize, Wainaina wrote in 2014: “I give the Caine Prize its due credit, but it just isn’t our institution. All these young people [the prize winners] who are ending up in that place were built up by many people’s work [and] institutions [that] are vastly unfunded and vastly ungrown, and they are the ones who create the ground that is building these new writers.” Prior to their “discovery” by the Caine Prize, young writers were the investment of African literary organizations. But the increased visibility that comes with winning the prize can re-route writers away from their audiences on the continent into international publishing houses, fellowships in US and UK, creative writing and English departments, and representation by US and UK-based literary agencies.
This coterie of cosmopolitan writers also receives pushback, from critics in Africa and Euro-America alike, that their narratives present the continent in overly romanticized, diasporic, and Western-centric registers attractive to global audiences. Most prominent of these critiques is Habila’s designation of Bulawayo’s We Need New Names as “poverty porn.” Similarly, in her well-circulated New York Times piece “African Books for Western Eyes,” Adaobi Nwaubani dresses down the African book industry’s beholdenness to global audiences.
Where does Writivism fit in? Writivism’s model is invested in rooting and routing writers early in their careers and projects to the continent and toward African audiences. Contrary to the Caine Prize, it accepts only “hitherto unpublished” work, and its mentorship and publication structure are based in and targeted to Africa. Longlisted writers are paired with established authors and creatives and their work published in a yearly anthology. The prize’s winner, announced at the upcoming August festival, receives a month-long writing residency at Stellenbosch University and a publishing contract with Black Letter Media, both in South Africa.
This coterie of cosmopolitan writers also receives pushback ... that their narratives present the continent in overly romanticized, diasporic, and Western-centric registers attractive to global audiences.
Writivism’s publication model highlights a commitment to local and regional audiences. Black Letter Media currently ships only within South Africa and until recently the anthologies were available solely at the festival and a few select African booksellers (they were recently stocked in small quantities on Amazon). Writivism focuses less on producing Western-facing African literature and more on creating an environment in which a multiplicity of voices, modes, and narratives are supported and nurtured, even if this model is subject to the difficulties of international marketing and distribution. This year’s judges have navigated these dynamics firsthand: Nonfiction Chair Ayesha Harruna Attah, whose first and second novels were published by US and Dutch presses, released her third book, A Hundred Wells of Salaga from Nigerian Cassava Republic Press. Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, whose debut novel Kintu was an overnight success in Kenya but was rejected by mainstream US publishers, chairs the Short Story panel. Deemed “too African for a Western audience,” Kintu was eventually picked up by Transit Books, an independent Bay Area press.
If Writivism’s commitment is, in the words of 2018 judge and novelist Akwaeke Emezi, “[a]n African writing prize judged by Africans,” then its 2019 theme “UnBreakable Bonds” actively and publicly questions the place-based politics of what it means to be an Africa-based prize and publishing house. By “UnBreakable Bonds,” the organizers explain, they mean “not only … the unbreakable bonds of our shared and varied Blacknesses across continents but also, the unbreakable bonds between fiction and nonfiction … across generations of African thinkers … between art forms: literature, photography … the rural and the urban … and what holds us all together: the will, the urge, the yearning to create and imagine worlds.” The language suggests what Writivism calls its “pan African” approach that maintains the particularity of genres, regions, nations, and eras, and attempts to build dynamic and durable connections between them. The goal is to engage many African literatures for many African audiences without collapsing the continent’s 54 countries, hundreds of language groups, and thousands of ethnicities.
Writivism is not alone in this work. amaBooks (Zimbabwe), Umuzi (South Africa), Cassava Republic Press (Nigeria) and Farafina Books (Nigeria) are African-based presses publishing in a range of genres. Their books are often picked up by larger houses with global distribution networks, though not without some casualties (the traditionally dressed women on Cassava’s cover of Lola Shoneyin’s The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives was replaced by an ambiguously racialized woman and romanticized African landscape on HarperCollins’ version; the title was also changed). Partnerships are arguably most successful between African publishing houses and independent literary presses like Transit Books, who believe American audiences can adapt to African literature, not vice versa.
Partnerships extend to translation as well. Independent UK publisher Dedalus Books is responsible for the reprinting and translation of Abdulai Sila’s A Última Tragédia (The Ultimate Tragedy in English), the first ever novel from Guinea-Bissau translated from Portuguese. Darf Publishers (UK) translated Aby Bakr Khaal’s African Titantics from Arabic and Phoneme Media (US) Roland Rugero’s Baho!, the first Burundian novel in English. In terms of African language publishing on the continent, RadioBook Rwanda’s pocketbook journals features both English and Kinyarwanda, and Market FiftyFour publishes ebooks written in African languages.
And then there’s Tsehai Publishers, a Los Angeles-based house publishing alternatives and correctives to colonial histories of Africa, and those of African descent in the Americas. Speaking to the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Summer Publishing Workshop, Tsehai’s founder Elias Wondimu described the African literary ecosystem: “In the last 100 years, there have been 150 books published by all the US-based university presses. Given that, what are the chances of Botswana, Mozambique getting their stories out there and told? […] The power of books, how small and how big it is, is to change the narrative about Africa written in English.”
Tsehai flips the circulation model, showing that it’s possible to produce and publish uncompromising African voices in the US and distribute them widely, including back on the continent. Their newest venture is a Tsehai branch in Addis Ababa that, similar to Writivism, may provide African writers with routes to African editors, a global distribution network, and myriad audiences—the “UnBreakable Bonds” that underpin an Africa-centric literary ecosystem.
The power of books ... is to change the narrative about Africa written in English.
Kelsey McFaul is a doctoral student in the Department of Literature at UC Santa Cruz. She also holds a masters in African Studies from Stanford University. Kelsey’s research engages the intersection of comparative postcolonial, diasporic, and maritime literatures; relationships between East Africa and the Indian Ocean; and histories of publication, circulation, and literary publics. Her collaborative work on digital humanities and the Indian Ocean is funded by a 2019-2020 UCHRI Research Cluster Grant and The Humanities Institute at UC Santa Cruz. She will be attending the Writivism Festival in Kampala, Uganda, in August 2019.