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The trials and triumphs of American literature.


When most knowledgeable black American readers think of African literature, they usually conjure up the Golden Age of the Motherland's writers with their vivid depictions of village life, their powerful tales of protest and resistance, and their strong condemnation of the colonialists' perverted use of Christianity as a tool to destroy the traditional morals and values that had sustained Africans through years of determination and struggle. During the heralded period of the late 1950s, '60s and early '70s, African writers such as Chinua Achebe, Ayi Kwei Armah, Wole Soyinka and Ngugi Wa Thiong'o saw their work published in solid numbers at home and abroad. European publishers offered the world a constant supply books from this turbulent region that was mired in a difficult yet determined fight for independence. It was a satisfying publishing venture then, for there was a hearty international market for literature that offered clues about the mysterious cultures and societies previously ignored.

That publishing boom, so potent for several years, has recently sputtered and fallen on extremely hard times, according to many people familiar with the industry in the sub-Sahara regions of the continent. "The state of publishing in Africa has hit a frightening low in the past 15 years," says Dayo Ogumyemi, a transplanted Nigerian lawyer who frequently works with writers there from his New York office. "Recently, I had a conversation with the owner of a renowned bookstore chain, Odutola Books, and talk turned to how all of the major publishers concerns in much of West Africa converted their operations into presses in the '80s and '90s. It was much more profitable for them to work with the military in these places and put out government leaflets than books."

When the last two decades of the 20th century brought another surge of economic mayhem and further military upheaval to Africa, the worlds of literature and publishing unraveled in the resulting firestorm of neglect, despair and death. But now there is movement to reverse their declining fortunes. Writers and publishers, both in exile and on the continent, are rallying their energies to establish new publishing houses and supporting organizations to forge new, stronger opportunities for writers and their works throughout the sub-Sahara region.

Nowhere in the world is it extremely easy to be either a writer or publisher, but imagine the obstacles and challenges one has to face in many of the conflict-riddled nations in West and Central Africa, where the abrupt change of a regime could mean prison or death. Still, political concerns are not the only cause for the ongoing publishing meltdown.

"Writing is difficult in any society, but in Africa, it's almost impossible" Ogumemi adds with a note of sadness. "The popularity of bootleg videos and video games has replaced the desire for learning and books. In a way, it's all a self-fulfilling prophecy, because the major publishers decided there wasn't a market for books, so they shifted their emphasis and their speculations became reality."

While some people point to the popularity of post-Achebe African writers like Ben Okri (The Famished Road, Doubleday, June 1992, ISBN 0-385-42476-0), Helon Habila (Waiting for an Angel, W.W. Norton, January 2003, ISBN 0-393-05193-5), Nega Mezlekia (Notes From the Hyena's Belly, Picador USA, January 2002, ISBN 0-312-28701-1) and Yvonne Vera (The Stone Virgins, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, February 2003, ISBN 0-374-27008-2) as proof that African literature remains quite vibrant, others much closer to the crisis lament the loss of a once-thriving enterprise, a victim of unstable economics, Old School thuggery and a brutal military. Not only has the dearth of an effective publishing network crippled the efforts of young writers to establish a career, but it also hampered veteran writers from widening their audience.

Manthia Diawara, chair of Africana Studies at New York University and author of We Won't Budge (see review in NONFICTION), offers his thoughts on the current state of publishing in Africa. "There are no serious publishing industries in Africa that serve more than the national interest of one country. In the 1960s, Heinemann, a British publishing house, used to publish the major African writers in English, and Presence Africaine published writers from Cameroon, Senegal, Guinea-Conakry, Cote d'Ivoire, Mali and the French Caribbean. Recently, the output from these companies has decreased, leaving African writers to look for publishers in North America and France. As a result, African writing is less and less international, more 'niche-oriented' and parochial."

"In recent years, the more prominent writers such as Achebe and Soyinka have seen their audience erode and their impact lessen to the point where the sales of their books have dropped dramatically," says Charles R. Larson, chairman of the English department at American University and author of The Ordeal of the African Writer (Zed Books, October 2001, ISBN 1-856-49930-8). "They're virtually unknown in many parts of African society, and not just in the traditional villages. Quality books are published outside of the various African countries. Only the schlock, the bad commercial stuff find their way to the marketplace. Even Okri is almost unknown in his own country. Achebe, the most famous African writer (Things Fall Apart, of Anchor Books, 1959, 1994, ISBN 0-385-47454-7; Anthills of the Savannah, Anchor Books, 1987, 1988, ISBN 0-385-26045-8), is largely unknown in the villages. The sad thing is that this decline in publishing is another victim of the economic problems of the region."

Larson notes that literacy has always been a huge problem for writers and publishers. "Literacy is nearly 50 percent throughout Africa and that severely limits the size of your audience. The West doesn't want to deal with the literacy crisis. Literacy has become a non-issue, largely because health concerns have taken century stage due to AIDS. What these countries need most are libraries, but that may not happen for some time." With the political climate of many of the countries in turmoil, substantial gains in literacy previously made are in danger of being lost.

Diawara adds, "Africa needs a public sphere from which to represent itself in the world. We need a serious publishing house in Africa. We need a serious newspaper and a serious television, station to speak to the world. Without these media outlets, we are reduced to seeing ourselves through the eyes of Western media."

The odds seem stacked against African readers, writers and publishers in such a dismal environment that doesn't allow for the economic stability for the production of books, the promotion and marketing of writers work in viable bookstores, or their distribution locally and internationally. African writers and publishers, therefore, understand this grave situation and are seeking ways to remedy it.

Milton Allimadi, the Ugandan author of Hearts of Darkness: How White Writers Created Racist Images of Africa (Blackstar Books, February 2003, ISBN 0-974-00390-5) and publisher of Black Star News in New York City, says, "The economy rules. Most African writers, finding no market, go abroad and write there. That is so unfortunate for the African readers who are so starved for something worthwhile to read. The continent offers the richest material for writers with its abundance of themes and issues. Unfortunately, the publishing industry hasn't caught up because there are enough readers to sustain a good author and the pass-along rate would be much higher than they expect."

Historically, the bond between African literature and African American literature has been vital, inspiring writers on both sides of the Atlantic with its political courage, cultural insights and artistic boldness. It is no surprise that many of the more prominent African writers were deeply influenced by the voices of the Harlem Renaissance and later the black scribes of post-World War II and their call for equality and an end to political and cultural apartheid. In a 1974 interview in the now defunct Black World magazine, noted African writer Ezekiel Mphahele wrote: "... We had in the late forties and fifties read Richard Wright, Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, Du Bois, Garvey, Baldwin and so on. We saw our position as Africans the immediate terms in which we felt the muscle of white power. And always the echoes of the Civil Rights Movement in this country assured us that we were not alone."

Diawara, who coedited Black Genius: African American Solutions to African American Problems (W.W. Norton, February 2000, ISBN 0-393-31978-4), commented on his fondness for African American literature. "I like African American literature. I also love the nonfiction writing of James Baldwin. I see my own writing as directly descended from African American literature. I cannot compare African American literature to that of Mali. I know we share some oral traditions and folktales, but the similarities end there. They are very different thematically and even stylistically."

But the linkage between the various writers and literatures is one that has long stirred debate among African American authors who were sometimes put off by the strong European influence of their African brothers and sisters. "African writers did not have a major influence on me because of their European colonization," says John Williams, author of The Man Who Cried I Am (1967) and Clifford's Blues (1999). "I never saw a connection because our political and cultural circumstances were too different. I found their writers cool and reserved. We didn't connect like the brothers would here. Also, I think their writers were not a real part of their society, especially if they were educated. Their colonial educations separated them from the very people they were writing about."

Other black American writers, such as Amiri Baraka, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes and Haki Madhubuti, welcomed the overtures of the African Diaspora, feeling there was profound meaning and wisdom in the words of their African brothers and sisters.

Speaking in an August 1975 interview in Black World, Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka, a Nigerian writer who spent three years in prison during his country's civil war, addressed this new role in a literature of conscience: "Of course, the artist, whether he likes it or not, is a member of the community. His concerns, his preoccupations, even his calling, his profession--depend very much on the security of society ... I can count, for instance, on a couple of broads, separate and not a part, of the totality ... In our society, we've had artists who've died, who've sacrificed themselves on the altar of war; we've had those, unsung, who have been tortured silently in prisons." Soyinka viewed the writer's role as that of monitor, agitator and warrior even in the face of censorship, state oppression and harassment.

It was a role that appealed to many young black writers and poets in America during the '50s and through the '70s. For a time, the black American literature of rebellion and revolution mirrored the bloody, violent struggle of Africans against colonialists, but both literatures reached a peak of popularity, and then suffered a reversal of fortunes as blacks ha both places gained a pseudofreedom.

"Literature gave the world a much needed window on Africa, helped it to understand its traditions, arts and people," says Ogumyemi, who is now working on a project to bring back the popular Heinemann African Writer Series that published most of the writers in the literature's golden era.

Ogumyemi noted that several profitable southern African publishing concerns are exploring to establish publishing houses and bookstores in northern markets in West and Central Africa, lobbying local governments to make literacy and books a cultural priority. At the forefront in this new push are Capetown's David Philip Publishers, Ravan Press, Jonathan Ball Publishers and Queillere Publishers.

Probably the biggest development in the quest to revitalize African publishing and kick start its literature came with the active African Publishers Network, established in 1992, in Zimbabwe seeking to join national publishers and writer communities throughout the continent. "Publishing is of strategic importance as it transcends all facets of a people: education, development and culture," said Network officials in a recent statement. "Basically, publishing molds a nation since it determines the caliber of a people and their leadership."

More and more, the preservation of African literature, in its myriad forms, has become a critical issue. "Saving African literature is so important to all of us around the world," Allimadi concludes. "Unless we find a way to nurture it beyond one or two of the larger names, it will be lost and think of all of the creative voices that will be gone forever, We can't let that happen. It would be very tragic."



Hopes and Impediments (1988) Anchor Books, September 1990 ISBN 0-385-41479-X

Home and Exile (2000) Anchor Books, September 2001 ISBN 0-385-72133-1


The Breast of the Earth: A Survey of the History, Culture and Literature of Africa South of the Sahara (1975) Anchor Press, ASIN 0-385-07053-5


I Write What I Like: Selected Writings (1979), University of Chicago Press September 2002, ISBN 0-226-04897-7


The Wretched of the Earth (1965) Grove Press, April 1986, ISBN 0-802-15083-7


No Easy Walk to Freedom (1973) Heinemann, July 1991 ISBN 0-435-90782-4


Kaffir Boy: The True Story of a Black Youths Coming of Age in Apartheid South Africa (1986) Touchstone Books October 1998, ISBN 0-684-84828-7


The African Image (1962) Faber & Faber, January 1972 ASIN 0-571-04824-2


Ake: The Years of Childhood (1981) Vintage Books, October 1989 ISBN 0-679-72540-7


AMA ATA AIDOO Changes: A Love Story The Feminist Press at CUNY November 1993, ISBN 1-558-61065-0


The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1968) Heinemann, March 1983, ASIN 0-435-90043-9; Fragments (1970) Heinemann, November 1995 ASIN 0-435-90154-0


So Long a Letter (1964) Heinemann, August 1991 ISBN 0-435-90555-4

T. OBINKARANI ECHEWA I Saw the Sky Catch Fire (1992) Plume February 1993, ISBN 0452-26949-0

BUCHI EMECHETA Second Class Citizen (1974) George Braziller, January 2002, ISBN 0-807-61066-6; The Joys of Motherhood (1979) Heinemann, March 1994 ISBN 0-435-90684-4

BESSIE HEAD A Question of Power, Heinemann December 1974 ISBN 0-435-90720-4

DAMBUDZO MARECHERA House of Hunger: A Novella and Short Stories (1977), Random House, January 1979, ASIN 0-394-50832-7

ZAKES MDA The Heart of Redness, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, August 2002, ISBN 0-374-52834-9

NGUGI WA THIONG' O Weep Not, Child (1964) Heinemann December 1988, ISBN 0-435-90830-8

--Robert Fleming's second erotic anthology, Intimacy, is scheduled for release in 2004.
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Author:Fleming, Robert
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2003
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