By Susan Linnee
That African writing is alive and well—both on the continent and in the diaspora—was not in doubt at the 2nd edition of the Uganda International Writers Conference in Kampala in March. But what does concern the several dozen participants, particularly organizer Goretti Kyomuhendo, is how to get it edited, published, distributed—and sold.
Kyomuhendo, an Ugandan who has several novels published and is the author of The Essential Handbook for African Creative Writers, founded the African Writers Trust in 2009 in part to address the problems of editing and publishing. More than a decade earlier as a founding member of FEMWRITE, the Uganda Women Writers Association and publishing house, she coordinated their training programs for writers. Now, in addition to writers, she is concentrating on editors and publishers—but there are not many.
In 2010 AWT organized two workshops in Uganda, the first for writers and the second for book editors and publishers, but no editors applied. Two years later she tried again, seeking participants from Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya and Tanzania.
“Most of the editors were from Kenya because they have a fairly well-developed publishing industry—but for text books, not creative writing,” Kyomuhendo said. “In Uganda, former writers work as editors in the few publishing houses. The future of our training is to have editors and creative writers work together.”
AWT has been able to place an Ugandan intern at Modjaji Publishers in Cape Town for six weeks of in-house training, but outside South Africa, African publishers who handle creative writing are few and far between. And those few that do like Kenya’s Kwani? generally rely on donor support.
Susan Nalugwa Kiguli, a poet and lecturer in the Department of Literature at Kampala’s Makerere University—where the seminal Conference of African Writers of English Expression was held in 1962—wondered whether it would be possible to revive or emulate in Africa Britain’s Heinemann Educational Books’ African Writers Series begun in 1962 to make African literature available to students. Although the series ran until 2003, she said the books began to disappear from African schools in the mid-1980s, around the time the structural adjustment programs of the International Monetary Fund began to affect the funding of African universities and research institutions.
Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire, a young Ugandan writer who studied human rights law, decided what he calls “writivism” is the way to go and has set up the Centre for African Cultural Excellence that is becoming AOB Publishing, a “self-publisher” of vanity biographies and self-help books to underwrite Boda Books to publish novels, short stories and poetry. Two short-story anthologies are already out. The seed money comes from a two-year “youth grant” from the Soros Open Society Initiative. He says the profit will come from charging the “self-published” $5,000 for printing 1,000 edited copies or $2,500 for 500 copies. AOB will take 25 percent of those amounts for its “services”.
The conference participants agreed that the growing number of awards for African literature like the Caine Prize — and now the 15,000-pound ($22,050) Etisalat Prize for African Literature — are important for launching writers. Chinelo Okparanta, a Nigerian writer living in the United States who was among the three finalists for the prize, calls them “community builders.” Etisalat will buy 1,000 copies of her Happiness, Like Water from Granta Publishers to distribute to schools and libraries in Africa.
Like many African writers who are using technology to spread their words and those of fellow writers, Dilman Dila, an Ugandan writer and filmmaker, decided to embark on online publishing of African creative writing with Lawino, a literary quarterly last August. The third issue has just come out.
Susan Linnee was with the Associated Press for more than 20 years, where she served as West Africa correspondent, bureau chief for Spain and Portugal and East Africa bureau chief. She lives in Nairobi where she works as a media consultant and editor.