The African Writers' Handbook
ISBN 0952126966 432pp 1999 The African Books Collective Ltd, 27 Park
End Street, Oxford, OX1 1HU, England in association with the Dag Hammarskjöld
Foundation, Ovre Slottsgatan 2, S-753 10 Uppsala, Sweden. $41.95, £24.95
Review by Véronique Tadjo
Véronique Tadjo is an author and illustrator; +44 20 7 792 9495
The African Writers' Handbook is much more than
a handbook. It is a good read and an entry into the world of African
literature today. A world full of hopes and disappointments, successes
and failures, but a world which is on the move and where there is no
The publishers, the African Books Collective Ltd.
and the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation, believe in the necessity of
an autonomous publishing industry in Africa if the continent is to achieve
true development. In this sense, the role of literature must be enhanced
and autonomous African publishing strengthened. For the editors, James
Gibbs and Jack Mapanje, the volume itself is a successor to A Handbook
for African Writers published by Hans Zell Publishers in 1986. But it
is a much enlarged and wider-ranging version than the previous one.
And this is what makes its strength. The great variety of the contributors
allows us to look at literature and publishing in Africa from different
In the first part of the handbook, Paul Tiyambe
Zeleza's brilliant essay sets the tone by stating from the outset that
'books are not a luxury in so far as the development process is underpinned
by human thought, visions, planning and organisation, all of which require
material and intellectual resources'. It may sound obvious to you but
it is a message which has to be repeated over and over until everybody,
our leaders included, understands that it is vital for Africa to enter
'the political economy of knowledge production, dissemination, and consumption.'
Indeed, too often, African governments have chosen to make economic
and social development their priority. The aim is to feed the body.
But what about the mind? One could argue that the appalling state many
African nations find themselves in reflects this choice.
Niyi Osundare and Femi Osofisan remind us how
difficult being an African writer can be. They do not paint a rosy picture
of the situation and we must thank them for their honesty. The aim of
the handbook is to strike a 'new deal' between author and publisher.
This is a laudable enterprise as the relationship between the two is
often tarred by conflicting expectations, misunderstandings and a good
amount of frustration. Something needs to be done urgently if the brain
drain is to stop. Foreign publishing is an almost impossible option
to resist for it means international recognition and regular royalty
statements. But Femi Osofisan asks: 'How would a local readership develop
unless there was an indigenous publishing industry to nurture and encourage
it?' Not only are the books produced abroad not easily accessible in
Africa but when they finally find their way to the bookshops they are
far too expensive for the majority of the people.
Yvonne Vera's commitment to writing inside the
continent and being published in Zimbabwe first, brings an optimistic
approach to the issue. The good relationship that she shares with her
publisher, Baobab Books, demonstrates that a satisfactory balance can
be reached. Her creativity has no doubt been encouraged by the knowledge
that she is dealing with a publisher she can trust on an intellectual
as well as material level.
African women writers are gaining strength as
more and more of their voices are being heard. Like Yvonne Vera, many
want to integrate their experiences into the mainstream of literature
and to produce a kind of writing 'that suggests transformation and a
challenge to taboo, that invents a language to banish women's silences'.
On the publishers' side Walter Bgoya, from Tanzania,
gives us a very informative analysis of publishing on the continent,
including the francophone region. But the handbook would have benefited
from more coverage of francophone Africa, even though efforts have clearly
been made to include information about what is happening there.
Henry Chakava's piece on publishing Ngugi is very
moving in the sense that it is another example of real collaboration
between a publisher and an author. It also raises the language issue
and the challenge of writing and publishing books in African languages
with the subsequent translations it requires.
The late Ken Saro-Wiwa's testimony on what self-publishing
involves is an important contribution. He talks of the difficulties
and rewards of such an enterprise and points out how he used his books
in his struggles for the rights of the oppressed minorities in Nigeria.
This theme is taken on later by Regina Jere-Malanda's article on censorship,
and in an interview with Niyi Osundare on writing against oppression.
We are thus rightly reminded of how dangerous writing can be in countries
without a good record on human rights.
Part two of the handbook puts the emphasis on
the practical aspects of writing and publishing.
It starts with the statement, A new deal between
African writers and publishers, issued by the participants at the African
Writers Publishers seminar, known as Arusha III, which took place in
Tanzania in 1998. The statement is an attempt to define the respective
roles of the writer and the publisher and what they can reasonably expect
of each other. It gives practical advice and makes propositions towards
better collaboration. The Arusha report chapter which follows is of
particular interest and could even be extracted and circulated as widely
as possible. It tells you everything you always wanted to know as a
writer: how to choose the right publisher for your work, how to approach
such a person, how to negotiate a contract and what the costs of producing
a typical paperback can be. This is very valuable information and I
am sure it will do a lot to improve understanding between writers and
publishers. With the report and the statement, a 'new deal' could indeed
be possible. But will publishers stick to these resolutions? Will young
writers start on the right foot? Will there be good will on both sides?
This handbook is a wealth of information on prizes,
awards and contests. It provides directories of writers' organisations,
publishers and agents. It also gives you advice on co-publishing and
self-publishing and tells you what to do should you encounter the law.
A list of book fairs in Africa and those abroad which deal with African
books is included, together with the names of magazines to which you
can send your work. And there is much more, with topics on internet
resources available for African writers, demonstrating that Africa also
wants to be part of the electronic revolution.
This handbook is the result of a fruitful collaboration.
The contributors have put their heads together to produce a work that
is honest in its approach and helpful in its desire to reach a 'new
deal' between writers and publishers for the good of African literature.
The question of distribution immediately comes
to mind. How can this book reach as many people as possible in the writing
and publishing trade in Africa? Will it get translated into French?
Will African writers and especially the young ones be able to afford
it? The fact that it is in the hands of the African Books Collective
allows us to imagine that everything will be done to find the appropriate
answers and to make this publishing venture a success. [BPN no 2627, 2000, p. 33.]
to table of contents for BPN Newsletter 26-27, 2000>>