‘Boring Immigration Literature’ and our Publishing Conundrum

Before my self-imposed exile from Twitter this week (inspired by threats of physical harm against my family and a story for another day), one of the last stories I read was an opinion piece written by Siyanda Mohutsiwa entitled I’m Done with African Immigrant Literature. Here she describes her frustration and angst about having toread one more story that ends with the African protagonist being whisked away to America”. Her article has sent the African literary community into a tizzy, with lines sharply drawn either in support of her view or in fierce opposition to it. I think it bears repeating that this is Siyanda’s view.

I read the article thrice in hopes of extracting for myself what was making so many people angry, and how they’d managed to conclude from it that she was:

  1. Unaware of other pieces of African literature set on the continent
  2. Attempting to drive a wedge between the continent and the diaspora
  3. Attacking the authors whose work she singled out as examples for the boredom she feels with treatment of main characters in those tomes – or rather the settings in which those specific authors place them. Which is this case, Any City in the West.

Expressing a sense of boredom does not translate into an assertion that a topic/item is unimportant. No one in his or her right mind could ever claim that either Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie or Teju Cole occupy a space of irrelevance in literature… nevertheless we must acknowledge that it IS down to the reader to form a reaction about the work presented. Writers rely upon it, and Ms. Mohustsiwa’s boredom is merely that: a reaction. And a valid one too. I (partially) read ‘We Need New Names’ and was bored stiff. But as tedious as I felt the work was, that in no way negated the kudos and recognition NoViolet Bulawayo deserved, and still deserves. It’s no mean feat to pen a book of that length while dealing with the heavy subject matter therein. We still have to acknowledge that it is the reaction of the reader that gives any literary work relevance. You really want to hurt an author’s feelings? Tell them that you had no opinion about their book, whatsoever. It will crush them! To experience revulsion or disdain for a work is at least something. It means the writing struck a chord, even if it was negatively. But for you to experience and express neutrality for the 50,000+ words and the 3 months – 3 years spent crafting those words? Gosh. It would be less agonizing if you were to rip out the writer’s guts and demanded they use the blood of their exposed entrails for a re-write, perhaps with a femur for a quill.

Though many have made it their personal quest to find fault with Siyanda’s unfavorable response to what she calls African literature of the “Afropolitan” variety, I find that I am grateful for her honesty. She has pointed out a very real problem in the African literary world: Specifically, what kinds of books get lauded for (international) recognition. Overwhelmingly, those books do tend to feature a person of African descent struggling to navigate the rigors of immigrant life in the Western world. They do tend to have been written by people who either don’t live on, or only live on the continent part time.

Perhaps this phenomenon is a function of writers choosing to zero in on our migration patterns as they exist in this point in history because it’s familiar and emigration is the proverbial African dream to exploit; or Western publishers’ paternalistic, voyeuristic curiosity about our African lives; or both… But there is no denying that there is a certain type of “marketable” African author – and the stories they tell- that captures not only the imagination of the global reading audience, but the lion’s share of the pecuniary rewards that audience offers as well. For me, that is the bigger problem.

In combating Siyanda for her declaration never to read immigrant lit again, several people have pointed out that there does exist wonderful literature that uses the continent as the setting written by authors who have never left the continent. I don’t see where she denied that there was.

Chigozie Obioma’s “The Fishermen” and Petina Gappah’s “The Book of Memory” were just some of the titles shouted at her…both of which, the crier informed, could be found at OR Tambo or Exclusive. They are also available on Amazon (I checked) and ebook format. But are they available at local bookshops in Accra or Ouagadougou or Monrovia? How accessible is African literature for the African on the continent? And what percentage of Africans have access to e-readers? We all know the answer to that: Not very many. And that’s a problem!

Publishing on the continent is a dismal affair. I know this struggle firsthand, because its something I’ve grappled with since I debuted my first book, Daughters of Swallows. What one discovers is that authors have very little in the way of options when it comes to getting their work in the hands of their intended (African) audience, and the consequence is many good works languish – and eventually die – in near obscurity. (Unless they can get their books in the hands of some white people!)

In my search for a printer in Ghana, I was astounded by the quotes I received. Printing presses typically require a 1,000 minimum run before they will even consider your request. Anything lower will be deemed “unserious”. If you’re lucky, you can find a press that will run a minimum 200 copies of your book, but then the price per unit increases incrementally (and astronomically) with the lower quantity demanded. This is a trend that repeats itself all over the continent, not just in Ghana.

And then there’s the issue of quality.

I was warned that if I did decided to print and distribute in Ghana, I must inspect each book individually to make sure it met my standards. I did not heed this advice. The result was an entire run of one of my books printed with the spine running across the top. Yes, you heard me. One of my books looks like a calendar. Why would a printer do? Why would he not clarify if this  was the intent? Of course I had to pay for the work, and I’ve chalked it up to “mistakes and new styles” if anyone asks.

Next, if you are successful in financing the production of your book, then there becomes the question of distribution. Bookstores in Ghana are not very friendly to emerging local writers (actually, they are downright hostile), and will favor John Grisham, any book where religion is the subject matter and text books for space on their shelves before they do the uncelebrated African author. Of course, all this anxiety and exclusion can be circumvented with connections. Having privilege and connections is the only way to get things done in Ghana.

(Note: I’ve attempted to work with only one African publisher in the past and got horribly burned for the effort, so I can’t speak extensively on the inner workings of that endeavor. I would love to hear from anyone who has had success with an African based publisher and how they did it.)

Finally, self-publishing in Ghana – and I suspect the majority of Africa – takes tenacity, but it also requires wealth, or at least access to it. I find myself fretting over the thousands of stories from slum kids, fishmongers, and vocational school graduates that are lost every year because they can’t afford the $3-5,000 it requires to get their book in print, or the class structures that exclude them from making connections with people who have the power and influence to bring those stories to market, continent-wide.

At the end of the day, if we want to see more diversity in what types of African stories make it to the tops of best sellers lists, it’s going to be up to the African reader to make that possible. We can’t wait for the nominating board of the Caine Prize to tell us what’s worth reading and/or celebrating. We have to do that for ourselves by promoting ourselves among ourselves. Until we do that, our literary appetites will continued to be dictated for us by the West, and African writers will continue to churn out more tried and true immigrant tales. Shoot. I’m thinking of writing one myself. I want to be on the cover of Forbes, too!

Africa Map with books

source: fredua.wordpress












In all seriousness, that’s why I appreciate individual initiatives and efforts of Under the Neem Tree and Kinna Likimani, just to name a few. They have made it their mission to promote literature in Africa. If we could get corporate Africa to buy into literary culture the way it has invested in telecommunications or entertainment, we would certainly be able to give a bigger, better and higher platform for more diverse types of African writing. When that day comes, no one can rightfully claim to be plagued by boredom.