Yesterday evening I left work early, hurried along to Blackwell’s, and sat myself down for a panel event exploring the world of publishing as it is in Africa.
Hosted by Dr Ola Uduku, the conversation delved into telling African stories, publishing those stories, and translating them. The challenges of sharing African voices was explored in depth, with the speakers highlighting issues I might never have considered living here in the United Kingdom.
Abdulai Silá was one of the guests. He has written three novels, but the tale up for discussion was A Última Tragédia (The Ultimate Tragedy). He told us of the battle Guinea-Bissau had fought for their independence. He told us of the different kinds of battles that followed. A Última Tragédia is also about these stories, experiences told from different perspectives. It is a work of fiction, but he spoke of it being akin to a memoir. The words that stuck with me the most as he spoke were ‘I did not want it to have a happy ending, because colonialism isn’t a happy thing’.
I had come to the event because I am interested in publishing, but I had also come because for every African experience I read about, or hear, there are ten white people trying to re-tell that story. I want to learn more about the culture and history of countries all over Africa, told to me not by the colonizer, but by the colonized, and those living after colonization. The statement really drove home to me that Abdulai Silá was one of the few of those voices I had heard.
The discussion shifted to Jethro Soutar, the translator of A Última Tragédia. One of the reasons we do not hear stories from those outside of our bubble is because of the time and money that has to be dedicated to producing a translation. Soutar highlighted both poetic and practical challenges of getting the book to an English speaking audience. The very first sentence was an almighty challenge in itself. Across languages there is different meaning, and power, in certain phrases. When a writer chooses their words, they choose them carefully. Soutar shared the struggle he faced to not lose the story Silá wanted to tell, and to not impose a translation on it if it didn’t fit. He then turned to other challenges – for this story he received a grant, but for many translated texts it’s hard to get the investment in the work when the publisher themselves can not even read the original material.
The third speaker, Louise Umutoni, had more to say about the practical difficulties of publishing and sharing stories. Umutoni is the founder of Huza Press, based in Rwanda. She has had an extensive career in journalism and communications, and I immediately felt I was very lucky to hear her speak. One of the areas she spoke of was the challenges of publishing within Africa. She highlighted how when Huza began they had to look at improving the foundation of writing in Rwanda. They began hosting workshops, and they encouraged writers further when they were able to set up a prize. At this point Silá chimed in again. In Guinea-Bissau they had had to break down existing presumptions about writing, and books, in order to make the whole idea feel accessible for the community.
As someone who grew up in a family with books lining the shelves of every room, and as someone who regularly tuns to them for comfort, it was important for me to hear how different communities and different cultures had experiences that meant they haven’t been a position to see writing and literature the way I grew up seeing it. I mean it was a total ‘well duh’ moment in some ways, but it was interesting and educational to hear about the practical and cultural elements that prevent African literature from being established. And it was exciting to hear how these driven people are working to face these challenges.
I learned an incredible amount at this panel, and I am inspired to go out and learn more about this industry and it’s place in Africa. I did not get a chance to read A Última Tragédia prior to the event, so I am excited to start there.
A Última Tragédia (The Ultimate Tragedy) – Abdulai Silá
The event was a pop up event by Africa Writes who run an annual festival celebrating African literature. You can find out more about it HERE
During the event these organisations were also discussed: