The reason for lack of black writers emanates from the lack of “black content” in publishing houses. Most publishing houses if not all in South Africa are run and owned by white people.
Even those that pride themselves as being pro-African, like Kwela, Jacana and Umuzi, are still owned by whites. For this reason it becomes very difficult for a black writer to break into this long-standing culture of white content publication.
The market and the big purchasers of the books are white across all genres. Reason being the content published coincides with their lived experiences.
For a black writer to make it into the publishing world, say to get published, one has to prove one’s credibility and affirm that his book will break into the current market. In that sense a black writer needs to acquaint himself with white content as these are the biggest purchasers of the books in South Africa.
Given our socio-economic circumstances it is fair to say it is pretty difficult for blacks to be bigger purchasers of the books if they fail to afford mere bread for survival. Because of the lack of a black market, black African content writers find it impossible to break into the long-standing culture of white dominated content writing.
The dis-proportionally-white publishing industry matters because agents and editors stand between writers and readers. Anika Noni Rose put it perfectly in Vanity Fair: “There are so many writers of colour out there, and often what they get when they bring their books to their editors, they say, ‘We don’t relate to the character.’”
Well it’s not for you to relate to! And why can’t you expand yourself so you can relate to the humanity of a character as opposed to the colour of what they are?
For years, African literature has been at the periphery of the literature industry. If one goes to most, if not all, book stores in South Africa and visits the African section, one is likely to find more white writers of the white content than one is to find the rich and real African literature.
The issue here is not mediocrity of poor literature from the black writers, which is what is often portrayed as the source of lack of black writers. But the ossification of a publishing culture that is not willing to be flexible enough to absorb black African content writers.
It is only when black writers write about white content and have black characters that the white readership can identify with can the writing be accommodated in the white-dominated publishing industry.
D Hunter, author of ‘The Game of Life’, thinks that more blacks should enter the industry and start their own publishing companies.
“It is all about presentation and unity. Without that, we are lost to our own devices, complaining, when we should be applying ourselves to start our own and move forward,” he points out.
“We [should] not look at what others do, but what we can do. There are big names in urban literature, but it was the route they took, the decisions they made along the way, hard efforts, and their writing abilities that put them there.”
Most literary agents will only take on new writers if they were referred by a current client. Less publication of unsolicited manuscripts – this too can be a major obstacle for African-American writers.
Duncan says, “There is no American Idol, The Voice, or X Factor for writers.”
In a South African context I’ll say there is no So You Think You Can Write competition where opportunities are going to come flooding to black writers and until we realise we are, as we have always been, on our own, there won’t be any progress in the black literature scene.
This brings me to my second cause, the lack of black publishing companies in South Africa. Until black South Africans establish their own institutions, hoping that one day white institutions will absorb us and all of a sudden make our priorities theirs is nothing but a fallacy.
Most black writers in the periphery are as good if not better than most whites in the mainstream publishing. What they need is an opportunity to prove themselves and who is in a better position to give them that opportunity that black publishing houses?
There is indeed a market for black African content, given the hunger of most black people to read material that relates to them, also given the huge pool of black writers who are waiting in the periphery. It is only fair to say black publishing companies are in demand for us to curb the dissipating culture of black reading.
I recently attended the Abantu Book Festival, a book festival that is organised by black people for black people in a black people’s environment. Most refer to it as imagining ourselves into existence, I termed it the black world cup.
As much as the event was a success, we need to call each other as black people to order, especially if blackness seeks to use another’s blackness for his or her individualistic needs and aspiration. How can we then say we imagine ourselves outside our colonial masters whereas the curators of the very same event are contracted to white publishing houses? We all know one doesn’t bite the hand that feeds them.
It got me thinking, what game are we playing with our blackness? Half in – half out, lack of sacrifice whatsoever from the elites who’ve benefitted so much from whiteness they don’t want to completely dismantle the white value system.
It got me thinking, too, what game are we playing when the very same authors who pride themselves of regeneration of African literature attend white supremacist book events, the very same one’s that led to the establishment of Abantu Book Festival in the first place?
It’s about time we make necessary sacrifices as black writers and readers if we are to regenerate our literature. It’s about time we stop depending on our colonial masters. The time has finally arrived to reject crumbs that fall from our master’s table (royalties from huge publishing companies) and start our own.
It’s of no use, however, to claim our space in a sector of the industry while still supporting our colonial masters in some. Regeneration of African literature is not a matter of text that needs to reflect Africanism, it’s taking over the entire literary space.
It’s of no use to take charge of the retail sector of the industry while the publishing companies are still dominantly Eurocentric or the other way around. Regeneration of African literature is inclusive of establishing publishing companies that publish Afrocentric content. Having African agents whom are bestowed with scouting and grooming young African writers who’ve for centuries been in the fringes.
It includes also the establishment of black-owned bookstores in black neighborhoods that are capable of distributing books to Africans. It involves establishment of black literary clubs, books fairs and festivals in black neighborhoods. Abantu Book Festival has set a great example in this regard.
What has been rather obvious is the growing demand for African literature from both Africans in the continent and those in the diaspora. The question of a lack of market for such books then falls away.
I was quite honoured recently when my book was selected to form part of a distribution network that focuses on distributing African writer’s books throughout all the African-owned bookstores both in the continent and abroad. This of course emanated from an existing market that has been there for years; that of African content literature.
If the market then exists and there is evidence that African people have for centuries fallen in love with literature, then it falls on us to claim our space in the literature industry. It’s about time we redefine the literature space as black people.