Friday, May 09, 2014

Discussion: African Writers and Migration

I used to bring up topics for discussions and even though participation is sometimes low, I enjoy the few comments that do come in. We need to do a lot to promote African literature.

There is a trend among African writers which if not corrected could prevent some wonderful writers from being seen. The majority of Contemporary African writers live outside the continent. (And before anyone takes me on on what I mean by 'African writers', I refer to those writers whose names, when they should come up for awards, would be linked to a country on the continent. Some Africans have chosen to be Africans when it suits them.) It seems that if you are a writer on this continent and you have not won any major prize - especially the Caine Prize, you will remain anonymous forever even if you have been lucky enough to have been published by a publisher outside of the continent. Consequently, most writers either dream of winning some major award or of migrating to live partially or permanently in the United States or the United Kingdom so they could realise their dreams. Usually, this has nothing to do with talent. At least in Ghana, where I live and can back this statement with examples, a large majority of published authors live outside the continent. Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond, Ayesha Harruna-Atta, Nii Ayikwei Parkes, Kwei Quartey, Taiye Selasi (if we claim her from the Nigerians) are a few of the Ghanaian authors living outside the continent. It is as if writing from the continent does not make one an author. I read somewhere that Teju Cole had a publication in Nigerian before his US publication of Open City, yet when this book came out it was described as a debut novel.

What is the cause of this? Is it the dearth of publishing houses? At least in Ghana, I know this is likely to be the case. Or is it that being published by big publishing houses expands the path to fame? Or is it the much touted excuse that 'we don't read'? What exactly makes writing from this continent add another layer of difficulty to an already difficult job of writing? What can be done to rectify this?

7 comments:

  1. I'd say it's because if you're one of the best at something, some countries e.g. America have systems set in place that give you a paid life - whether highly paid or less so.
    This guarantee appeals to people who may feel frustrated (especially financially) or undervalued (what kind of job is "writer", get a real job) in their own home.
    I don't think it's the cold weather or the racism that folks are after :) it's primarily for financial reasons that ppl prefer these places. Then too, the networks, e.g. there is a chic named Ellah Allfrey or something, supposedly a hub of power in African literature. I don't think she lives in Africa. The power seems to be in foreign universities and with foreign publishers, and that may be attractive to some writers too.

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    Replies
    1. It's like you need a certain level of sustenance in order to do the things you love that do not pay as much. So the US and UK and such other countries, provide this level of sustenance to allow the writers to write. I agree. How can I concentrate on writing if I am not doing any other job.

      Besides, as you rightly said, access to foreign universities and publishers help.

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  2. Nana it is multifaceted. When Millicent Ojiambo got published by oxford press, she was and is still in Kenya. All the media appearances she did after the publication were in Kenya. Yes, getting published by a big publishing house is a very very good thing and getting published by a relatively unknown publisher never hurt a good writer. Look at Chuma's works for instance, they are published in Nigeria and we both know he is a good writer and his books have been doing quite well in the market. Look at Mawuli Adzei's "Taboo" for instance, we are told students inn Norway are using it in their studies. The problem I think is, we have left the west to determine which African writer should become successful and a household name. Yes, we don't read, so most people don't even know a number of these contemporary writers. You can bet beyond Chinua Achebe and a few greying ones, most people can't mention any other African writer. We need a mechanism that recognizes and markets contemporary African Writers to Africa and the rest of the world.

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    Replies
    1. These mechanisms are not available or even if they are they do not know their purpose. There are huge bookshops, but that's all they do - selling books. I believe that if Mawuli Adzei and Chuma were published outside, they would be more famous than they are now. Chuma might not be known in Kenya, Zimbabwe, South Africa etc. In Ghana, he might be popular with a few of us. As to Mawuli, he might be known in the academic circles. Our book-sellers do not think beyond their Legon and Achimota branches. They don't even promote books to other parts of the country.

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  3. This is a good observation Nana. I was thinking about the same thing following my recent observation of those who are shortlisted for the African Poetry Prize. Most of them (if not all), are immigrant Africans. I guess publishing is one of the main problems that breeds this. Our publishers are more into materials that can bring them quick returns and they don't see literature as profitable. The argument that we don't read is not a case, given very recent experiences in Ghana. However, I think our literary materials are expensive (except the African Writers Series (though ideological as I consider it to be)) when their prices are compare to western literature. Writers' books are not bought, because of the prices of books, making writing a fruitless job in monetary terms. I guess our publishers need to be more pragmatic with marketing and this can partially solve the problem.

























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    1. True. As I've alluded to, they (the publishers) are only interested in publishing text books for schools. they think literary stuff - not assigned as texts in schools - are not profitable. But people create their own markets, don't they?

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  4. I don't have much to add, but I couldn't help notice that many of the Portuguese-language African writers seem to live (partially at least) in either Portugal or Brazil: Pepetela, Ana Paula Tavares, Ondjaki, José Eduardo Agualusa. The Angolan writer Óscar Ribas died in Cascais, Portugal. Also, many of these writers have their books first published in Portugal than in their countries, primarily in two major publishers: Caminho and Dom Quixote.

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