“Apart from some one or two sporadic symposia and the functional publications, all executed in the restricted confines of the academia; there has been a serious decline in the erstwhile dynamic quotidian and popular animation of our literary culture through the active use of the mass media and cyber opportunities that presently exist for such noble purposes toward our arts. The great past seems to have fallen into ruins that now merely creep up but as faint silhouettes of nostalgic phantoms.”
Wirndzerem G. Barfee
About two years ago in Palapala Magazine, Wirndzerem G. Barfee decried the dearth and death of critical attention towards books in Anglophone Cameroon. I, unfortunately, will beat that same drum herein. The book industry is dying at the heart of its renaissance. Do I contradict myself? The book industry is experiencing a renaissance because there are innumerable publishing opportunities, as opposed to the past when a writer would mail a manuscript to a publisher and wait for nine months only to get a rejection letter. The advent of self publishing, Print on Demand, as well as the internet and EBooks have changed the status quo— a simple glance at the books published by Langaa and MiraClaire will validate this point. These two publishing houses are quite modern, compared to the other publishing houses in Cameroon with obsolete technology. Back to my point; a book dies on its birthday when it is not read! Yes, despite the huge amount of books by Cameroonians on the international market, they are not read, and worse of all, when they are read; there is little or no critical feedback. A book is alive only when it is read because a reader creates meaning out of it, thereby causing it to exist. If we don’t consume and comment on our literary production, how do we expect outsiders to react towards it?
Many people share the blame in this matter— the publisher, the author, the critic, and the reader.
The publisher is very important in the book business, but, unfortunately, Cameroonian publishers don’t play their part to the end. First of all, there are the obsolete publishers whose books are not available online (Amazon/Barnes and Noble/African Books Collective, etc), or in bookshops in the country for sale. They exist only on catalogue and in the publishing company’s bookshelves. You cannot even see them being hawked on the street.
How many Cameroonian publishers have attended international book fairs or festivals? How many send at least five copies out to magazines and tabloids so that they can be reviewed (though they are usually ignored)? How many publishers (in collaboration with authors) organize book tours, book readings etc? Unfortunately, when book readings take place, the project dies quickly. The two major book reading events in the country take place only in the French Cultural Centre and in the monthly poetry café, under the auspices of KIF and MiaClaire.
Authors always complain and do little to promote their books. How many authors discuss in detail their publisher’s publicity plan, as well as the target audience for the book? How many authors do book launches? How many personally promote their books? Authors should do something for their books before they complain.
Now the critics. There are book critics who in 2011 have not read books published after 2009, yet they walk about with pride because they consider their intellect to be infallible, while they have no idea of the most recent books. It seems as if books are being reviewed based on alliances nowadays. According to Oscar Labang, “There is a tradition of copious gangsterism in our literary landscape. When A writes a book, s/he sends it to B or C for a Blurb or Review because they belong to the same professional or scholarly gang. They assume X, Y and Z cannot do it because they are far moved from the first three.”
There are critics, who when given a book to review claim they are still reading it eight months later! Where are the deconstructionists who spark debates over books? Where are the critics who criticize books so bitterly that they become locked in a life long feud with the authors? Where are the literary feuds that used to fuel our journals? Not so long ago, in Scribbles from the Den, Patrice Nganang published a piece titled “Literature Apartheid in Cameroon”, which sparked an animating debate to which Kangsen Feka Wakai replied with a piece titled “Biting Dogs Don’t Bark” on that same blog, and Dibussi Tande reposted with “ Soaring with ’Clipped Wings’ : Anglophone Cameroon Literature on the Move” on Le jour newspaper as well as Palapala Magazine, and Ngnang replied on Le Jour newspaper.
Things get worst when Cameroonian literature today is discussed in terms of Mongo Beti, Ferdinand Oyono, and Kenjo Jumbam instead of being discussed with reference to Bate Besong, Calixthe Beyala, Alobwed’Epie, Leonora Miano, Francis Nyamjoh, Gaston Kelman, Linus T. Asong etc
At this point, let me at least duff my hat to those who are doing a good job reviewing books and giving books a raison d’être. Some of them include Shadrach A. Ambanasom, Pierre Fandio, the late Bate Besong, Dibussi Tande, Azore Opio, John Nkemngong Nkengasong, Joyce Ashuntangtang, Oscar Labang and Peter Vakunta.
Last but not the least to reproach for the birth-death of books is the reader. The average Cameroonian doesn’t buy books (even when they are cheap), he/she would prefer to borrow, and would end up neither reading the book nor returning it. The book would lie dog-eared in a dusty corner, gradually decaying. Many people prefer to read gossip magazines instead of savoring canonical publications like Kwani?, Chimurenga, Wasafiri, Palapala, Sentinel, etc
It is this apathy which accounts for the fact that we have never tried to organize a book festival, that we have no writer residency programs in our country, and that little is known about our literature.
See online: A Book Dies on its Birthday