Bellagio Publishing Network  

 BPN Newsletter Issue No 26-27, November 2000 



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 (fax),

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 turning back.

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 angles.

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 26–27, 2000, p. 33.]

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