Bellagio Publishing Network  

 BPN Newsletter Issue No 28, November 2001 


'Colonial and Post-Colonial Cultures of the Book'
Conference held at Rhodes University, 6-8 August 2001

Jane Katjavivi
Jane Katjavivi is Managing Director of Onganda Y'omambo Bookshop, Windhoek, Namibia. email:

The Conference on Colonial and Post-Colonial Cultures of the Book, held in early August this year at Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa, was both fascinating and frustrating, an example of what brings us together and of how we still operate in separately secluded professional worlds. As a book practitioner former publisher, - current bookseller, and an active participant in book development within Namibia and the region - it was an interesting opportunity to discuss books with academics, who made up 99.9 per cent of the participants at this conference.

Issues of book and readership development, the emergence of different groups/types of authors, and the business side of books, or even the sociology of publishers - who publishes what books by whom? - were peripheral to the main discussions, which were still very much text-based. Rather, representations of colonial subjects, whether in New Zealand, Ireland, India or Africa - images of the native, of cannibalism, of traditional cultures - were examined. So were the struggles of form and voice of particular individual authors at particular points in the history of their countries.

It was the historians who delighted me most. Participants and presenters came from three main academic subject areas _ Literature, History and Information Studies. There was one geographer, who was interested in the mobility of books, and is pursuing research on the changing nature of Heinemann's African Writers' Series. There was Elisabeth Anderson from South Africa's Centre for the Book - the only other non-academic apart from me.

Both the opening and closing keynote addresses were given by Robert Darnton, Princeton University, USA. The former was on `Books and the British Raj' in India and the latter was on an e-book project on the Renaissance in which he is engaged. In his presentation, he explored how the e-book project on the Renaissance is addressing the needs of young academics, who are finding it harder to get published due to drastic cuts in library budgets at American universities. The significance of dwindling US library resources concern all those in the book sector, given that publishers the world over have relied on prospects of US library sales to fund and develop viable local academic titles.

Ian Willison, of the British Museum, also gave a valuable presentation on `Centre and Periphery in the Histories of the Book in the English-Speaking World'. Its focus was primarily on countries of the old Commonwealth, and identified an important link between the development of local newspaper publishing for and from the settlers, and the development of local book publishing capacity. I would have liked to see more examination of African countries without significant white settler communities, but few people at the conference had much knowledge about publishing on the continent outside of South Africa.

The academic links represented at the conference were clearly strongest between Oxford, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and North America. I was told that the interest in book history is apparently a new one emerging from Renaissance literature scholars and being taken up by others who are moving on from traditional literary theory to new grounds. Indeed, one of the most useful aspects of the conference was the discovery that academics are beginning to talk about book histories, and book history projects in different countries. Ian Willison is a key figure in the book history project in the UK, and is engaged with others undertaking the same task in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. But unfortunately those writing the book histories do not seem to include publishers, and I think they should.

Censorship was an issue that ran through many of the discussions and was directly addressed in the South African context by a former member of the South African Censor Board in the 1970s. But this could have been explored in more depth, and taken into account self-censorship as well as the more obvious state censorship.

There were simplistic comments about some publishers not publishing books that have turned out to be classics, such as Olive Schreiner's Story of an African Farm, without attempts to look at how publishers are located within their own societies and are representative of them, while at the same time being strategically placed to break cultural and literary barriers. Some publishers take huge business risks to promote new or avant-garde authors. Others publish what will sell safely and quickly. There was no discussion of the variations in the continuum between these extremes; thus leaving me with a feeling that some of the speakers are unaware of the reality of the publishing process.

Furthermore, although 36 papers presented at the conference covered a wide variety of themes and topics, the time allotted was too short to hear or discuss the issues properly. Those who could not make it to the conference had their papers read in full, whereas many of the presenters who had paid to get there were frustrated by being cut short after 20 minutes. Secondly, after attending meetings where I have always encountered a wealth of interesting presentations and discussions by academics, politicians, publishers and authors, I was surprised to sense that participants at the Rhodes conference were not really very interested in what others were saying.

Which brings me to another frustration about the conference: the conference was timed to clash with the Zimbabwe International Book Fair, a major forum in the calendar of the publishing industry in and on Africa. Most people in the book sector in the region were in Harare, not at Rhodes. I had opted for Rhodes because it was a new forum for me and I was interested in exploring the topic of the conference. But there was little concern there about the clash, or the lack of participation therefore from publishers, who could have contributed to the deliberation at Rhodes.

Conferences usually end with a brief attempt at working at a way forward; the Rhodes gathering focused on the idea of developing a network between people in different countries working on book histories. I hope the proposed network will include more than just the white South and that African publishers will also be involved in such projects. The idea of a more formal intellectual exchange between publishers and our own academics about book development on the continent is an endeavour we should all engage in. [end]  [BPN, no 28, 2001, pp 8-9.]

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