Kenya’s Peter Kimani: When African Publishers ‘Lack Imagination’

In News by Porter Anderson

A ‘lack of imagination on the part of publishers is hampering the development of a reading culture in Kenya,’ says the internationally published Kenyan author Peter Kimani ahead of this week’s IPA ‘Africa Rising’ seminar.

Peter Kimani. Image: Yusuf Wachira

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘Creative Works Are Seldom Published’
On Friday afternoon (June 14) at the  International Publishers Association‘s (IPA) “Africa Rising” seminar in Nairobi, one of the most carefully watched discussions is expected to be one called “Developing Africa’s Next Generation of Publishers, Writers, and Artists”—not least because that topic is so close to the overall bold intention of the Geneva-based IPA in its series of Africa Seminars: “transforming the future of African publishing.”

In the programming of the seminar, which is hosted by the  Kenya Publishers Association, the session is devised to “draw on the experience of younger publishers, writers, and artists to understand the current state of Africa’s publishing ecosystem, as well as answer two pivotal questions:

  • “How can the publishing industry be improved?
  • “And how can the ecosystem evolve to develop Africa’s next generation of publishers?”

Click here to download a free copy of our “Africa Rising” edition for the Nairobi seminar.

The African publishing markets are hardly alone in trying to determine how to develop their newer, younger talent to the benefit of the business. After all, one of the most common criticisms of the comparatively huge English-language markets’ publishers during the digital disruption has been that they were behind the times, out of touch, prone to protecting tradition rather than accepting a changing competitive entertainment market.

In the run-up to this week’s program in Nairobi, we’ve been in touch with one of the speakers on Friday’s program, Peter Kimani, a Kenyan journalist and author whose experience includes publishing the widely praised novel Dance of the Jakaranda (Akashic Books, 2017).

Previously, Kimani has served as senior writer with The Daily Nation and as editor with The Standard in regional news media, and he has taught at Amherst College and at the University of Houston in the States. He’s a faculty member at Aga Khan University’s graduate school for media and communications and chairs the 2019 jurors for the Caine Prize for African Writing.

On Friday’s panel, Kimani will be joined by:

  • Alma-Nalisha Cele and Letlhogonolo Mokgoroane, co-founders of Cheeky Natives (South Africa)
  • Abdulrahman “Abu Amirah” Ndegwa, an author and founder of Kenya’s Hekaya Initiative
  • Moderator Maimouna Jallow, a writer, journalist, media trainer, and editor with the Re-Imagined Storytelling Festival (Kenya)

We begin our exchange with Kimani ahead of his appearance at the seminar by asking if it’s possible to point to defining characteristics of the Kenyan publishing market that he finds are key points for understanding it. And in a surprising way, what we’re hearing from him is that there’s such a thing as too much emphasis on education, at least when it overpowers a national publishing industry.

‘Interesting Questions’

The US cover of Peter Kimani’s ‘Dance of the Jakaranda’

Peter Kimani: The key characteristics of the Kenyan publishing scene is that it’s very much geared toward school curricula. The bulk of the books published in Kenya are school texts.

Creative works are seldom published unless publishers see a potential to have them adopted as books for high-school study.

Such a mentality is very limiting because children at various levels require a variety of reading materials to acquire a holistic education.

Moreover, creative writing, the backbone of liberal arts education, isn’t introduced to generations of Kenyan children. And this also impedes the creative economy from developing.

Publishing Perspectives: How have you found your reception as an author in Kenya and in other countries? Have foreign rights for your books been sold successfully into other territories? If anything, is it possible that your work is more readily appreciated by readers outside the country?

The UK cover of ‘Dance of the Jakaranda’

PK: My third and latest novel, Dance of the Jakaranda, was published in New York in 2017, and in London in 2018 (Telegram/Saki Books). My two other works were published in Kenya.

Of course getting published in London or New York means the last book received more critical attention in those locales. But what’s striking is that I landed publishers in London and New York before I could find one in Nairobi. Ordinarily, it would have been easier to start with a Nairobi edition before securing other editions.

Moreover, I recently sold rights for the Arabic translation of The Jakaranda. Negotiations for the French translation are in progress.

This, in itself, raises interesting questions. The conventional route is for books to travel from English to other European languages. My work appears to be fostering South-South dialogue, which is both exciting and intriguing.

Regarding about my work being appreciated abroad more than at home, I should clarify that fiction is only one aspect of my body of work: I long ago made a name as a leading journalist in Kenya. Thanks to that, Kenya remains a big market for my American and British editions of The Jakaranda. And in any case, my two other books were published in Nairobi.

PP: In terms of the panel you’ll be on at the seminar, what would you say are the greatest barriers to a younger generation of such people in terms of getting into publishing today?

PK: Lack of imagination on the part of publishers is hampering the development of a reading culture in Kenya and frustrating many young writers from pursuing careers in writing.

PP: And what are the key points you’ll be bringing to the discussion? If there are one or two things you want to be sure the audience and your fellow panelists get from your input, what might those talking points be?

PK:  Since the death of Heinemann’s African Writers Series in 2002, there have been severe difficulties in the way African fiction travels within the continent and in diaspora.

I think there is merit in pushing for a distributive network within the continent. Even with the development of digital publishing, it will be a while before the continent and its people abandon the good old printed book.

More from Publishing Perspectives on the International Publishers Association is here, more from us on its ‘Africa Rising’ Nairobi seminar is here, and more on African publishing markets and issues is here

Our special magazine for the International Publishers Association’s (IPA) “Rising Africa” 2019 seminar has been printed by Modern Lithographic Kenya and is being provided in print to delegates as the conference convenes on June 14 and 15 in Nairobi.

We hope you’ll download a free copy here in PDF and join us in welcoming the second annual IPA Africa Seminars event, an important new series in world publishing. You’ll find commentary from the IPA leadership, from key stakeholders in the 2018 seminar at Lagos produced with the Nigerian Publishers Association, and from our hosts at this year’s event produced in cooperation with the Kenya Publishers Association. There also are insights from speakers in this week’s program and background coverage on publishing in Africa from Publishing Perspectives.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.