With four novels published on the continent, there is no better person to speak to about the production and consumption of African Literature on the continent than Zukiswa Wanner. TIAs Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire was in conversation with her about books, publishing and reading in Africa.
With four novels, London Cape Town Johannesburg, Men of the South, Behind Every Successful Man and The Madams, all published on the continent, there is no better person to speak to about the production and consumption of African Literature on the continent than you. Is it a deliberate political choice to have your books published on the continent?
Ideally like every writer, I would want to be all over the world. The reality however, if a Western publisher I once spoke to is to be believed, “while I write prose that is fast paced and witty, my work is just not ‘African enough’” to resonate with many non African readers. Having had readers from African countries as diverse as Algeria, Cameroon, Mozambique and Tanzania tell me they enjoy my work, I realized third book in, that perhaps this is my audience. So if my works are translated into French or Portuguese, I am more excited if they can be read in Congo Brazzaville and Cape Verde than I am for them to be read in Belgium or Portugal.
Considering that your books are published in South Africa, how has distribution outside South Africa, for example in Kenya been? Would you advise a writer whose books are published in one country and wants them availed in other countries to find new publishers based in those countries or is there an effective distribution network through which books published in one corner of the continent are available in other corners?
Distribution on the continent is still very problematic. It’s easier to get a book published in Europe or the US in African book-stores than it is to get a book published on the continent. I have suggested ad nauseum to publishers on the continent to share catalogues amongst each other so that they can each pick titles from other publishers on the continent that they feel would sell on their market, to this day I haven’t seen it happen much. I am unsure what the reasons are. Would I advise a writer published in one country to find another publisher in another African country? It depends on how much work they are willing to put in. If they have the rights for the rest of the continent and don’t know the other country too well, I say go for it. Personally I tend to do the distribution myself beyond the SADC region where I am published.
That the South African publishing industry is one of the more active on the continent is a fact. Writers in other countries are told and advised therefore to relocate there, how is the state of reading and book-buying there?
I wouldn’t advise writers to relocate there but certainly to communicate with publishers there because one thing SA publishers are, is their willingness to risk publishing new writers. Many of the publishing houses also generally have pretty good production teams which results in well-edited, proofed and printed materials that are competitive on the international market. Where South Africa fails is in the retailing sector. The independent bookshops are generally good at having South African (and the rest of the continent’s) titles in their shops but the chain bookstores don’t seem to have caught on. They seem to have such a low opinion of local works that they stock more European and American writers – which is absurd as this isn’t something one would see in a European or American bookstore. And in this way, I think they fail a South African audience that would like to access more African works.
Every South African writer will tell you their own horror story of Facebook messages, Twitter dm’s or phone calls when someone says, “I’ve been at this and this branch of this and this chain bookstore and they don’t have your book. They say you sold out three months ago.” Err, if a writer sells out of the ten copies you ordered when the books were published, perhaps you should restock? But then, common sense is a rare commodity in the book trade industry. So while book buying in South Africa isn’t nearly were it should be, I think major reason is that locals aren’t seeing nearly enough local literature in some of the shops and if they did, they would buy more.
In 2012, you, with Rohini Chowdury co-edited an Afro-Asian anthology of short stories that featured writers from Africa and Asia. Should we expect more collaborations of this nature in the future?
Anthologies, for an editor, are very labour intensive and need time and I sadly don’t have much of it right now, but don’t rule the possibility out. May be in a few years time.
You are listed along 38 other writers, among the top 39 African writers that will be prominent on the African Literature scene, what does it mean to be one of the 39?
I think more than anything else, it’s really a marketing platform to get one’s works known to a wider audience.
What is your take on the various initiatives on the continent meant to promote African Literature? I am asking in light of Binyavanga Wainaina’s assertion that the Caine Prize is not as legitimate as the other initiatives.
I am all for a thousand literary initiatives taking place. The more the platforms we have, the better. In regards to my brother the Binj’s comments on the Caine Prize, I have never entered my works for the Caine myself so he knows better what goes on behind the scenes as a former winner. But as an outsider looking in, while I agree with some of his sentiments, I feel that if we feel so strongly about what the Caine is (not) doing perhaps instead of bashing it, we should actively work on fund-raising to have some literary prizes for us, by us, the way we would like them to be. You and I have talked about this before.
What else is there for an emerging writer to do, besides writing novels and short stories?
There is writing for radio – radio plays are pretty popular in SA but I am unsure where they have them in other countries on the rest of the continent. There are also magazines and newspapers to write for.
How did you happen to be the youngest biographer of the late Nelson Mandela and how was the experience?
I worked for and was friends with the late Alf Kumalo. When he decided he wanted to do a coffee table book, because I already had two books to my credit and a third on its way and he knew my work ethic, I seemed to be his natural choice to partner up with. I have mixed feelings about the experience. The reality that this national hero was just an ordinary man and had some failings was a bit of a let-down. But, that’s the problem with hero-worshipping. On the other hand, it was also very enlightening. One of the things that I learnt while doing that book was that Winnie Mandela doesn’t get nearly enough credit for holding it together while Nelson was in prison. And I must also credit Zindzi, the Mandela’s last born, who was absolutely amazing and quick to respond to emails when I needed clarity on certain issues.