2018 Caine Prize Shortlist (excluding Nonyelum Ekwempu). From L-R: Wole Talabi, Olufunke Ogundimu, Makena Onjerika and Stacy Hardy.
The publishing industry was placed under heavy scrutiny at a Q&A panel with the shortlisted Caine Prize writers. This panel was part of the 2018 Africa Writes literature festival, and consisted of Stacy Hardy (South Africa), Olufunke Ogundimu (Nigeria), Makena Onjerika (Kenya), Wole Talabi (Nigeria), and the chair, Doreen Baingana (Uganda). Throughout the session, both the panelists and various audience members commented on the difficulty getting published, as well as the overwhelming bias within publishing industries. So often was the topic raised that Baingana joked, ‘We should get publishers on this panel!’
The Caine Prize is a charity dedicated to promoting African literature. Winners of the Prize receive £10,000, and the organisation hosts writers’ workshops in a different African country every year. Despite their efforts, the charity often attracts criticism from those who believe that there is an inherent bias within the Western-funded organisation. At a Q&A panel at SOAS last year, the charity was accused of snubbing continental African writers, and criticised for including non-Africans judges. One audience member asked: ‘Can you imagine a day when the Caine Prize for African literature is truly African?’ The provocative question offended the panelists, who objected to the insinuation that people from the diaspora are not ‘real Africans’. Lizzy Attree, the Caine Prize director at the time, also rebutted, stating that the Caine Prize cannot be responsible for the economic difficulties that prevent writers from flourishing on the continent. Further, Attree noted that despite their efforts, the majority of the submissions come from writers from the diaspora. What Attree made clear is that this is an institutional problem within Africa, rather than a fault within the charity itself.
The broader issue here seems to be a problem within the publishing industry. It is difficult to quantify the amount of books published in Africa. As analysed by Hans M. Zell, data on the African publishing industry remains nonexistent or unreliable. What is apparent, however, is that in comparison to the population of Africa and the amount of people speaking African languages, the number of books published on the continent in indigenous tongues is disproportionately low.
This year’s Q&A panel offered some answers to this murky investigation into African publishing. Firstly, Olufunke Ogundimu echoed Attree’s sentiments the year prior. When asked about the role of the diaspora in African writing, Ogundimu’s response implied that African writers rely on endorsement from the diaspora because of the lack of financial support on the continent itself. Ogundimu stated: “Unfortunately, on the continent we don’t have that many spaces that would support writing long term, where you don’t have to think about how to support yourself, but can actually learn.” The economic barriers which prevent Africans from writing are primarily responsible for the reason continental African writers are not being published.
The writers also revealed a serious shortcoming of many publishers: their apparent bias. The stories which do make it to print are often based on the same themes: poverty and violence. Such topics have almost become taboo for African writers because they feed into media stereotypes of a depraved third world continent. The panelists were hence asked to comment on their choice to write on these subjects.
Malena Ondjerika’s offered a response to this inquiry. Her story, ‘Fanta Blackcurrant’, revolves around a community of women living on the streets of Kenya.
“My story has been accused of being ‘poverty porn’. I am one writer. This is one story of many stories. I don’t think there should be any topic that Africans should not be able to write about. Any story that you want to write, write it. […] So many people [in London] are sleeping in the streets. I would be amazed if a British writer did not write about the poverty that is here. Why are there specific restrictions for African writers?”
Ogundimu’s piece, ‘The Armed Letter Writers’, describes the panic of the townspeople of Abati Close when they receive a letter from robbers threatening to loot the city. Ogundimu defended her choice to write on a story which includes violence:
“I don’t think there should be any limitations on what can or should be written about. For me, place is a very important theme in what I write. Most of my short stories are set in Lagos. This is as real as it gets. The violence is always there under the surface. It’s what we deal with. Why should I not write about that? If it is about my community, about the life that I live? It’s also a celebration about how people deal with that kind of thing, about how they cope. Using humour.”
Essentially what we can glean from these two writers is that, like in any country, poverty is a fact of life, and is thus worthy of literary attention.
Panelist Wole Talabi then scrutinised this question, suggesting it is a problem within the publishing industry rather than a problem within the African writing community:
“Africans write everything. […] Yet somehow, the stuff that bubbles to the surface tends to be these kinds of stories – it’s a publishing problem, not a writing problem.”
Two questions thus emerge: how to get African writers published, and how to ensure that a diverse range of themes are being published. The panelists’ response was unanimous: do it yourself.
For Stacy Hardy, this has involved forming her own community of writers:
“I work with a pan African journal called Chimurenga. […] They have published some of the best writers from across the continent and always publish voices that are offering a different and fresh perspective. […] I think there’s enormous talent who aren’t getting published in a very conservative, white – and I say this as a white person – South African publishing scene, so I’ve also started a tiny publishing business called Black Ghost Books. We are publishing young writers who are doing exciting things.”
Ogundimu also chimed in, describing how she has helped ensure that works by African writers are published in English and their original language.
“[I work with] Asymptote – a journal that celebrates world literature and its translations. I’m doing my bit in trying to show that Nigerian writers should try to write in indigenous languages and also try to find new work that can be translated into English.”
If one lacks the funds or connections to start their own literary journal or publishing company, Talabi offers another form of self-publishing: blogging. Talabi says that African blogs such as The Naked Convos are thriving literary spaces. Indeed, being an engineer, Talabi admits that prior to his Caine Prize recognition, his entire literary career had existed solely online. For Talabi, there are many advantages to using the web as one’s main literary platform. He believes that the content restrictions which come to writers struggling to be published by conventional means do not exist for bloggers; they are free to cover a diverse range of topics from politics, to romance, to crime, to horror. As he states, these online creators “are writing whatever they want – everything is there”. If one has access to the internet, this may be a way of gaining public recognition while circumventing the issues that can arise with formal publishing companies.
What we can learn from this panel is that there are many problems within the African publishing industry: African writers face both a lack of financial support and biases which restrict their content. However, we can also learn how to address these issues: writers should strive to self-publish by forming connections with other creators and utilising digital sources.