HO, Ghana – I’ve just received my review copy of Uwem Akpan’s Say You’re One of Them. I’m not sure I can stomach it all the way through, still less write about it. The tome lies on my table, a lead weight too heavy to consider. There has surely been too much war and violence in the stories African men have chosen to write of late. I think back to last year’s Measuring Time, by Helon Habila, and of course, to Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone.
I hardly have the energy to sigh. Where is the hope? Where are the dreams? Where is the demotic counterpoint? Instead of reading the good priest’s book and bashing out my piece, it’s prompted me to reflect on where we are with African writing. But rather than stay at the level of the text, I think we need to consider the context in which African writing takes place. That’s to say, we need to think about how Africa gets published.
The first thing to say is that almost all African creative writing that gains any level of worldly significance, no matter how ephemeral, is published by a Western publishing company. Even when a writer is first published on the continent, their success is ultimately measured in terms of how effectively their work gets a foot in the Occidental door.
This should not be surprising to anyone on a moment’s reflection. The West has been the centre of capital accumulation for the past 400 years or so. Fiction writing is simply another form of capital whose value is formed and transacted in London or New York (for the English-speaking world), like copper and coffee. Everything else is marginalia and mere froth on the daydream.
African publishers are not even minnows swimming in the shark tank in comparison. They leave little or no imprint in the minds of readers and writers. African writers often view African publishers as printers to make their books available in their home country. Demands that would not be made of Western publishers are insisted upon. Typical requests are: “This is the title I am using” (never mind its meaninglessness in the local context); “I am not happy with the choice of paper used to print my book”; “Why is my book not available in other African markets which you have rights to?” (As if the Western publisher with world rights would also care about those markets).
Africa’s marginal status in terms of the history of capitalism is, of course, a convenient fiction. Africans were the first wave of ‘commodities’ to support modernisation and industrialisation in the West via the Middle Passage and the plantation. And as the economic model of transatlantic slavery waned in the late 19th century (thanks as much to the spinning jenny as to the abolitionists), the export of palm oil, cocoa and groundnuts from West Africa in industrial quantities began.
Palm oil lubricated the train wheels of western modernity. Africa, and West Africa in particular, was always the other side of globalisation and industrialisation – the shadow cast by the factory. It seems redundant to say it, but the West wouldn’t have become what it became (a triumphant surplus) without expropriation of commodities from West Africa on a massive scale.
The theft continues apace today. Africa has one-third of the world’s mineral resources. Nigeria alone supplies the US with a quarter of its gasoline, none of which is refined and value-added on the continent. The multinationals take tax avoidance to its limits through transfer-pricing and other accountancy/tax haven tricks. What can be taken is taken, as quickly and as cheaply and as quietly as possible.
It’s the same with African writers. Their stories are exported raw, with value-addition the work of a network of agents and editors over the ocean. It is only when the finished products are imported back onto the continent that they can be valued and bought. Until then, the African writer is a raw commodity, bought wholesale, sold retail only later.
African readers are complicit in the trade – what I call a ‘tokunbo logic’ is in play: only if the goods come from abroad can they have value. University lecturers ask if the book has won international awards, not awards granted on the continent. Local awards confer no value. Even when a book is published in both the West and in Africa, the media will often stick slavishly to Western publication dates, rather than local launch schedules.
It’s the same as it ever was. Since the Great Exhibitions of the 19th century, the West has been the epicentre of the production of global images. Back then, Polynesians and Africans were made to stand under cathedrals of glass, at the birth of anthropology. Then came Hollywood, and the image factory went into overdrive.
Black people have been the minstrels, the baddies, or died young ever since. The equivalent of the Hollywood Studios in publishing today are the multinational publishing corporations, such as Hachette, Harper Collins, Bertelsmann (which owns Random House) and Pearson (which owns Penguin). In the UK, these four companies combined capture more than 50 per cent of the total market share of the publishing industry. Pretty much the same goes in the US.
It is little wonder then that, since the middle of the 20th century, the successful African writer’s career trajectory has been defined by the migration from ‘margin’ to centre. The writer says goodbye to Lagos or Nairobi and takes the metaphorical steamer to London, Paris or New York. Success could hardly have been defined in any other terms. Even if only 1,000 copies of the book are sold and the remainder is quietly pulped, it doesn’t matter: a corporate publisher has published, and perhaps a Hollywood studio has acquired the rights to a film that will almost certainly never be made.
From the African writer’s perspective, it is tricky to see what the issue is. He (until recently, it has most often been a he) wants to be read and discussed as widely as possible, and wants to be as well paid as possible for his efforts. Ideally, he will sell sufficient books to be able to live off his ink. He expects a generous advance and a book launch downtown.