By Olivia Snaije | @OliviaSnaije
Telling Stories About Africa From AfricaAt the International Alliance of Independent Publishers’ conference held in Pamplona-Iruñea (November 23 to 26), a number of publishers from the African continent were physically present, while others joined digitally. It was an opportunity to hear about their extremely diverse, and occasionally similar challenges, with a fairly clear dividing line between Francophone and Anglophone publishers, even though a majority of Africans are multilingual.
Although South African Colleen Higgs of Modjaji Books was the only Anglophone publisher present, Sulaiman Adebowale of the Senegal-based press Amalion publishes in both French and English, and is originally from Nigeria. Other participants were from Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Guinea, Madagascar, Mauritius, Morocco, Togo, and Tunisia. There were also two Arabic-language publishers from Egypt on hand.
Higgs arrived with the fifth edition of her 2021 African Small Publishers’ Catalogue, written in collaboration with Aimee-Claire Smith, which is a listing of 21 independent publishers on the continent and includes short articles on subjects such as the development of e-books, the Q&A series called Words on the Times, started during the pandemic by Africa in Words, or on the African Publishing Innovation Fund from the International Publishers Association and Dubai Cares.
One vital change that all publishers agreed was needed, is the necessity to produce locally, to increase co-editions between countries, and to tell stories about Africa from Africa.
Bamako-based publisher Ibrahima Aya of Éditions Tombouctou and founder of the book festival La Rentrée Littéraire du Mali, said that African books and narratives remain centered in a neo-colonial triangle. Stories leave Africa for Europe, then return from the West. Using as an example this year’s Prix Goncourt—which went to Senegalese author Mohamed Mbougar Sarr—he commented that, although cause for celebration, the prize strengthens the French book value chain, but not the African one. “You want the raw material to be published in Africa,” he said.
Modjaji’s Higgs said, “We’re all still tied to our colonial past. Our trade routes are to Europe or America, and we don’t have trade routes that connect us to each other.
“It’s more expensive for me to send a book to Kenya,” she said. “So in Kenya you’ll get a South African book that comes via the UK. As Africans, how can we decolonize trade routes? It’s about a mind-shift. We should be important consumers of each other’s work. Why do we have to wait for books to come from outside the continent?”
But Elisabeth Daldoul of Éditions Elyzad in Tunisia said she was hopeful that the situation was changing. Elyzad publishes French-language authors from everywhere, she said, and she has gained confidence that authors will come to her publishing company, “We’re not always on the margins.”
Amalion’s Adebowale, who publishes in both French and English, is in a good position to talk about the amount of help small publishers may get according to the language in which they publish. For Francophone countries, he said, “The French government contributes a considerable amount of resources to the book trade, which really helps the publishing sector and strengthens the book culture as well.” But this, he said, is not the case for English-language publishers.
‘To Work Together, You Need To Build Trust’
In Francophone Africa there’s a growing awareness on the part of African authors who are published in France that they need to keep their rights for the African continent so that their books can be co-published and made financially accessible for Africans.
Djaïli Amadou Amal, an author from Cameroon who’s published in France by Éditions Emmanuelle Collas, is also published by Éditions Proximité in Cameroon. “Even if I sign with European publishers,” Amal said, “I keep my rights for sub-Saharan publishers so my books can be available to all and aren’t a luxury.”
Having left a marriage forced on her when she was 17, Amal first sought a local publisher: “I wanted to write about all these women who don’t have voices and can’t talk about what they’re living,” she said. “A local publisher makes it possible for my books to be available to the average African. The Cameroonian edition of my [latest] book costs €4 (US$4.52), whereas in France it costs €17 (US$19.20).”
Higgs, too, whose publishing house “had a feminist intention from the start,” had great success locally with a book of stories, Riding the Samoosa Express, about marriage in the Muslim community in South Africa. She has also started to publish texts that reflect the multilingual nature of South Africa, which has 11 official languages.
“The main language will be in English,” she says, “but it can have Xhosa in the dialogue. Even if you don’t understand that language, you can understand the dialogue.”
Discovering local talent is a real strength among independent publishers, but getting authors to keep their rights for an African publisher has not yet entered the wider mind-set in South Africa, Higgs said. And in terms of African authors outside of South Africa, Higgs said she’d love to do more co-editions. This sentiment was echoed by other African publishers.
For Johary Ravaloson and Sophie Bazin—children’s publishers at Madagascar’s Dodo Vole, focused on content “from the Indian Ocean”—being able to meet in Pamplona was precious.
“In order to work together,” Bazin said, “you need to build trust.”
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