Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Next Frontier for African Literature is African Publishing

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Fixing a printing press in Liberia. Photograph by Ken Harper.

Living in the age of the amorphous Internet as a young writer comes with its obligations, delusions and accusations. These arise from trying to interact in a world in which the anonymous ‘everyone’ can know the infinite ‘everything’ about the world and consequently expect too much.

The young writer based in Africa, or of African descent, or whose stories are set in an African country, has to deal with these dynamics. This, obviously, was not the case in the 1960s heydays of the African Writers Series – supposing the Series is a convenient historical marker – when print was the only medium, and fame was remote and seemed to be left, almost entirely, to serendipity.

Today, the idea that an audience is always within reach – online readers, agents, reviewers, prize judges – is the precondition of the African writer’s creative process. Meanwhile, if one is to follow Henry James’ advice to “Be one of those on whom nothing is lost,” the Internet, in making everything within reach, has made the writer’s ambition infinite.

The international superstructure

As a young African writer today, especially if based in Africa, there seems to be an established route to self-validation – or, more accurately, a clear set of forces one must reach out to in the hope they will validate you. This is often called “hard work” (hardly any other phrase suffices) and it comes in the form of entering international competitions, applying for creative writing programmes abroad, and sending short stories to global literary journals.

There also appears to be an international superstructure African writers aim to fit into. I know that most African writers – admittedly, myself included – would probably prefer to sign a book deal with an American publisher rather than an African one. This may have long been the case, but more recently the speed and reach of the internet has also helped spectacularise the ‘internationally-acclaimed African writer’ to the extent that global success has become the high-hanging ripened fruit for which young African writers now reach. More so than ever, new writers are led to believe the Nigerian aphorism, “Your miracle is on the way.”

This new outlook may also colour the reception and perhaps the very meaning of African writing. As much as a writer would like to think their story belongs wholly to them, their audience of critics, readers and publishers claim ownership of it as well. In this globalised, outwards looking age, African writers’ works may be more easily pigeonholed as ‘poverty porn’ or as simply ‘celebrating Africa’s rise’.

The next frontier

These trends may help African literature reach more people around the world and provide a more visible platform for works from the continent, but they elevate just a few specific kinds of writers. Meanwhile there are countless others with rich stories to tell struggling to be heard.

I believe that indigenous publishing needs to be the next frontier for African literature. It is only in this way that the powerful and endless diversities of the African narrative can hope to be represented. After all, it will be African publishers that will be interested in stories that are Tunisian before they are Arab, Upper-Guinean before they are West African, Kiberan before they are Kenyan.

Indeed, this is the inspiration and motivation behind Gambit: Newer African Writing, a book of interviews and short stories by nine young African writers, of whom most are based in their home countries and only one had published a book at the time of the interviews. Gambit is primarily a gesture before anything else, and a way to make the claim that the voices and perspectives of emerging writers need to be heard.

The innovative new book will be published by an independent press because few publishers want to gamble on new African writers, and will be crowd-funded. It will provide an all too rare chance to envisage African literature from a beginner’s point of view and is, we believe, the sound of things to come.

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I aspire to be a writer and I believe the conditions are a lot more favourable for me to get my work out there compared to the earlier times of when it was a bit more difficult. Now, the internet has changed a lot of things and I encourage everyone who writes to use this opportunity. After reading an article on some of the most respected African writers, I think it is time to pick up my pen again and get down to business.

Here are some ways to sound intelligent even though you do not read =p