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The African writers glass ceiling: Ignored at home unless celebrated abroad, writers will only get respect when the industry--publishers, booksellers and readers--emancipates itself from the mental slavery so prevalent on the local book scene.

I was born in Zambia to a Zimbabwean father and a South African mother. Although I did my tertiary education in the United States, my literary career started in South Africa ten years ago. Having decided that being a writer was my chosen career, I decided after my first novel came out, to work at it full-time.

Although my first novel met with some success in South Africa, including getting shortlisted for a South African literary award, and received its first review in the biggest paper in Zambia, to the continent and the rest of the world, my work was still largely unknown. In 2010, now already with two novels and a third imminent, l decided to work on getting my work read beyond Southern Africa. I applied to take part in the FEMRITE writing workshop because I thought it would help me connect with other emerging writers from the rest of the continent and perhaps also lend me some publicity.

I was not selected to get in.

I moved to Kenya from South Africa in December 2011.

The year after I left, now with three novels (one of them shortlisted for the Commonwealth Best Book, Africa Region) and staying in Nairobi, I was invited to co-facilitate the FEMRITE workshop with Ugandan writer, Doreen Baingana. It would take a satirical nonfiction work, a children's book and a fourth novel before I could begin to pick and choose writing assignments, and the literary events I attend.

Of writers resident in sub-Saharan Africa, I am one of the lucky ones. Generally speaking, one is only deemed successful if they have been given the Western stamp of approval. And this is something that the sub-Saharan African literati, be it booksellers, publishers, media, writers themselves and readers seem to believe.


Booksellers and publishers

Apart from a few that specialise, most bookshops, an informal survey among my reading friends in different African countries revealed, tend to stock almost exclusively books from the US and the UK. Want the latest John Grisham, J.K. Rowling or Danielle Steele? There it is, in the storefront. Your nearest African bookstore will apologise if they do not have it in stock.

And even if they do stock African books, on a shelf 2m x 1.5m called 'Africana', the majority of those books will be from foreign presses--Cambridge University Press, Michigan University Press, or some similar specialist concern.


Any enquiries usually result in being told that "African titles do not sell." If they ever stocked a title a reader inquires about, one will invariably be told that it is sold out.

A further enquiry into how many copies were ordered usually yields some sad statistics: five books sold, ten. That the booksellers do not realise that the book selling out may in fact be proof of demand and that they may need to order it again is entirely lost on them.

But the booksellers are not the only ones to blame for this state of affairs in African bookshops. The publishers also shoulder a share of the blame. Most do not bother trying to get books by their authors outside the city they are based in, if that. I know writers whose publishers are in Nairobi and their books cannot be found in bookstores in Eldoret, 300 kilometres away, or publishers in Lagos whose books cannot be found in Kano. If the books cannot be found across one country, what hope is there that they can be found in other African countries?

How can it be that it is easier and cheaper for a bookstore in Kenya to order a book published in the UK than it is to get one published in Uganda?

Media and writers

It is tragically comic when our papers applaud and respect their writers because they have won literary prizes outside the continent, while saying nothing of those who win prizes in Africa. The inverse of that is how writers are treated with more respect if they mention they have written for certain Western publications. Or how we will refuse to do interviews with credible local media but give any random intern from the West our time of day.

It is saddening too when writers fail to respect our African readership and give them the same sort of attention we give those in the West who will use us when they need to, and discard us when they decide another one of us is more fashionable. It is disheartening when writers publicly dismiss reviewers from the continent, not based on the quality of the reviews but based on geographical location. 'If the New York Times says a book is brilliant, should we really care what Daily Trust says?' seems to be the thought.

But perhaps there is a reason for this.

When literary workshops, literary festivals and indeed the publishing industry are reliant on funding from Western institutions, it probably becomes difficult to promote African literature in a way that best suits an African audience. Indeed, it is some of these Western institutions that arrange and finance well-meaning but neo-colonialist discussions on what African literature is and who can be let in through the gate.

In so many ways, the literary scene mirrors many African governments. Dependent on Western (or Eastern) funding, they often have to compromise the lives of their citizens (or writers in the case of the literary industry) to ensure they survive in the present. Like our governments, our literary industry will need to start thinking--and thinking carefully--about where and how to source funding locally so we can determine what works and does not work for us. Failure to do so means we will miss out on many good works and good writers that have not yet been "discovered" by the West.

But if we say no to Western funding, how will we survive?

One way is to actively convince African corporates to fund literature in particular and the arts in general. Hollywood thrived on American capital and our arts fields can thrive that way too.

We owe it to ourselves to ensure that any person on the African continent who loves books will have as much access to African literature as they do to African music.

Until we actively change many of these issues, we shall forever be complaining about the same things. And many potential writers on the continent shall fall through the cracks because unlike me, they may not have the stubbornness to keep at it when they have financial commitments.
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Author:Wanner, Zukiswa
Publication:New African
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:60AFR
Date:Oct 1, 2016
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