Funding problems and shifting global tastes are prompting the continent’s writers to forge African collaborations again
Sir Mohinder Dhillon worked for more than 30 years bringing the world into British households. He can speak for hours about his work on the frontlines as a cameraman for ITN and the BBC, eight years spent on and off at Emperor Haile Selassie’s court with Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski or his many encounters with Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. So when Dhillon finished his memoirs, provisionally entitled Through the Viewfinder, their natural destination was the UK. He got his old friend TV news anchor Jon Snow to write the foreword and sent the book off to a leading literary agent in London.
He was in for a shock.
“The agent said the book was good, which among the English, I have been told, is to say it’s excellent,” he quips from his perch at the dining table in his Nairobi home. He adds more seriously: “They said they liked it but they were not keen on taking on new business. I was devastated.”
Dhillon’s disappointment may well be premature. Rejection slips are, after all, the currency of a literary career, but he is in his early 80s and does not have the luxury of time. And if the expectation of immediate success was somewhat unrealistic, it is because over the past decade African writers have been very successful in US and European literary marketplaces.
Since the introduction of the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2000– dubbed ’the African Booker’ – African writing has experienced something of a renaissance. Winners and nominees on the Caine list have gone on to establish thriving literary careers. From inaugural winner, Sudanese writer Leila Aboulela, to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Helon Habila, Binyavanga Wainaina, Brian Chikwava and EC Osondu, the prize created a buzz around a new African literature emerging after decades of literary doldrums.
But the publishing scene is changing. Prolonged economic stagnation means publishers are increasingly risk averse. “Five years ago, I could have got £20,000 ($31,000) for a good first novel. Today, I’d be lucky to get half that,” says David Godwin, the literary agent who brought Indian author Arundati Roy to global attention – and got her a $1m advance in the process. “I think publishing is going through a rough patch. There’s a loss of confidence. People are much more cautious,” he says.
These sentiments are echoed by Alexander Moore, African publishing manager at Pearson Publishing, which recently revived the African Writers Series (AWS). “There is simply not as much money in people’s wallets. More important might be the question of fashionability – it seems to me that sub-Saharan Africa is perhaps no longer the favourite new destination of literary agents. In line with news coverage, the Middle East and North Africa seem to be of more interest at the moment,” explains Moore.
The change in publishing tastes comes at a time when African writers are breaking new frontiers. Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, deputy editor at the literary magazine Granta, says, “Over the past decade we have seen the emergence of African writers who refuse labels. Ten years ago you could not talk of the range of genres we have now. But it’s still 80-85 percent fiction.”
It would be inaccurate to suggest that all this has been driven by dreams of literary success in London and Paris. The post-independence literary scene was thriving long before the Caine Prize. In its heyday, in the 1960s through to the 1980s, the AWS from Heinemann’s Educational Books was producing more than 20 books a year, bringing African writers to hundreds of thousands of households across the continent and establishing the likes of Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Ayi Kwei Armah as major voices of the African post-independence condition. Their writings still form the list of required reading in secondary schools and universities across the continent.
What distinguishes the new writers from their predecessors is their relative anonymity athome until they achieve success elsewhere. Part of the problem is the collapse of the local publishing infrastructure.
The decline of the AWS sounded the death knell to the idea of continental publishing.
As mainstream publishers in Africa turned away from literary fiction, scared off by authoritarian regimes in the 1980s and recognising easy profits from text books, writers also migrated to more conducive environments abroad.
For those invested in Africa-based literary production, the terrain has become more difficult to negotiate. “There are two kinds of publishing here – donor-economy publishing and text book publishing,” says Billy
Kahora, editor of Kwani?, the Nairobi-based literary journal. “We’re part of the donor-economy publishing industry.
We try and publish texts that would ordinarily not find a place anywhere. But funding has reduced over the years, or, at least, the leeway we once had is nowrestricted.
Publishing for its own sake – for non-commercial ventures – is not possible any more,” Kahora explains. If interest around African writing in New York and Brussels is fading, economic decline is also forcing some writers in the diaspora to raise the old questions about the place and function of the African writer.
“It’s true that it’s not your address that makes you produce good literature,” says Zimbabwe’s Brian Chikwava, who lives in London. “But your work is still coming from the margins of empire.
I have been very sympathetic to the post-modern ideas of a dislocated world where exile became an illusion and you were able to re-imagine yourself.
But I wonder whether those ideas can survive the economic downturn. Were those ideas part of the consumerist boomor will 3 BOOK PICKS OF 2011 they hold out?”
One of the unexpected outcomes of the economic downturn may be a renewed focus on repairing the broken literary associations and markets that once existed across Africa.
“Part of the legitimacy of the African writer is now linked to their legitimacy abroad,” says Ntone Edjabe, founding editor of the Cape Townbased literary journal Chimurenga.
“The first thing anyone in the chain of distribution wants to know is if the writer has won any awards. They are not asking whether the writer has won the Wole Soyinka Prize in Lagos.
They are asking whether they have won the Caine Prize or the Orange Prize or whether they have been shortlisted for the Booker,” he says.
About a year ago, Chimurenga embarked on a novel project. Focusing on the xenophobic violence that swept across townships in South Africa in May 2008, the journal commissioned stories for a one-off ’newspaper’, The Chronic, set in the week of 18-24 May.
The result has been a fascinating simulacrum of the violence with perspectives from writers across the continent. It also gave Chimurenga an opportunity to collaborate with small literary publishing houses in other African capitals, such as Kwani? in Nairobi and Nigerian publisher Cassava Republic Press.
“We need to create a context in which we can begin once again to circulate ideas around the continent without Western mediation,” says Edjabe.
“But it cannot be done alone. You need to link up with other people doing similar things and institutionalise these collaborations.”
If there is much to celebrate in African writing over the past decade, there is also much to be done. Books like Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun have done much to revive an interest in African writing – and writers – on their own continent.
The Caine Prize itself has made the idea of a literary career possible again, leaving in its wake a cottage industry of homegrown book clubs, reading events and literary festivals.
Collaborations such as the Chimurenga venture could be the mustard seed that grows into a full-blown pan-African literary revival.
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