Monday, July 20, 2009

wordsetc article

The article below appeared in the First Quarter 2009 edition of the South African Literary Journal words etc.

Publishing in a Zimbabwe under strain


’amaBooks couldn’t have chosen a worse time to start a publishing house. It was 2000 and the Zimbabwean economy had just started its steady decline to today’s ludicrous situation where a teacher’s salary for a month might just buy a loaf of bread. So buying a book, although many would like to, is seen as a real luxury and, understandably, the purchase of a loaf of bread wins every time.

’amaBooks didn’t start as the result of many months of planning but as a result of a fluke. In an effort to raise money for the Bulawayo branch of the charity Childline, the Bulawayo based writer John Eppel, winner of the Ingrid Jonker Award for his first volume of poetry Spoils of War and the MNet prize for his first novel D.G.G. Berry’s The Great North Road donated a collection of his poems to be published to raise money. The task of publishing the book fell to the novices Brian Jones and Jane Morris, the former a professor of mathematics and the latter a clinical social worker, albeit with a university background in the study of literature.

We were fortunate in being guided in the process of publishing this first book by a patient printer who explained, in simple terms, such foreign concepts as page layout, filmwork and ISBNs to us. The collection, John Eppel: Selected Poems 1965 – 1995, sold out in a short space of time. We were heartened and, having enjoyed the process, and with the offer of two of John Eppel’s novels, decided to start a company to publish works in the English language, concentrating on creative writing, but not so hardline that we wouldn’t consider anything else interesting that came along. It didn’t take us long to come up with a name – we were to be an English language publisher in an Ndebele area, so a corruption of ‘books’ in Ndebele seemed a good idea. And so ’amaBooks was born.

‘amaBooks, a small independent publisher, is based twenty-five kilometres outside the city of Bulawayo, in Matabeleland in the South-West of Zimbabwe. Bulawayo, a city with the feel of a small town, used to be the industrial centre of Zimbabwe, but many of its industries have now closed and, like the rest of Zimbabwe, the majority of its people are unemployed. Matabeleland, five hours drive from the capital Harare and the seat of power, has long experienced lack of development and marginalization.

Our office is a room in our home. The staff of ’amaBooks are just the two of us, so we do whatever needs doing to keep ’amaBooks going - selection, proofreading, editing, origination, page design, advertising, PR, distribution, accounting…

The area around our home is beautiful, with stunning views to the distant Matopo Hills, but is far enough away from the city for service delivery to be erratic. The telephone has always been a problem – often off for weeks at a time during rainy seasons – but has worsened as fuel became difficult to obtain and foreign currency became too rare to import spare parts. So we’ve had no phone at all for the last four months.

Then there is the electricity supply. In January 2008 we were working on the computer on a quiet sunny afternoon when there was a ‘clunk’ – a sudden power surge and the power supply and motherboard on the computer were gone.  Anxious days before finding that the files could be recovered, and anxious weeks before we could raise the funds to get the machine repaired, and to get a laptop for backup. ‘Load-shedding’ has also meant hours without electricity for many days each week for most in Zimbabwe, and the frequent breakdowns over the distance to us from the city has often meant no power for a week at a time.

The postal service in Zimbabwe also has problems – we just don’t know if books we’ve posted will arrive, and those that do get there, many don’t, can take months – even to Harare. Even a trip to the post office can turn in to an adventure. How much will it cost to send a book today? A hundred times last week’s cost? In what currency must we pay? We recently turned up at our local post office to find it was no longer there, it had closed as had many of the local offices, they could no longer afford to pay the rent.

Nature often doesn’t help – we were hit by a ferocious storm in January 2009, with a lightning strike on the house blowing every light bulb, surge protectors (sensibly purchased following the previous disaster), the computer and the printer. The office equipment still awaits replacement.

So how does a publisher work with rare electricity, no phone and an unreliable postal service? We have batteries that we charge up whenever there is electricity so that we can at least use a laptop in the long dark periods. The Culture Trust Fund of Zimbabwe have donated a generator to ’amaBooks. And we have friends in the city, to whom we travel a couple of times a week to send and receive emails to try to keep in communication with writers, reviewers, booksellers etc. And we have friends who travel outside the country and post books for us. But everything takes so much longer to sort out when you can’t pick up the phone, turn on the computer to send an email or check something on the internet, or just post a letter.

Life in Zimbabwe has become progressively more difficult over the last year, and so has publishing. There are few bookshops left in Zimbabwe and those there are often concentrate on stocking set schoolbooks. The number of books that are sold in Zimbabwe has obviously gone down with the economy. When inflation grew to millions of percent, by the time money from sales in shops reached us, it was not enough to cover the cost of going into the bank to get it. Then came price controls, forcing shops to halve their prices despite rampant inflation. So the shops stopped taking books, and the shelves got emptier and emptier, and many shops closed down. Now ‘dollarisation’ is with us, and goods, including books, may be sold in foreign currency. But very few people have any significant foreign currency, or sufficient quadrillions of Zimbabwe dollars to exchange for foreign currency.

So why do we carry on publishing? We enjoy it, we feel it important to encourage creative writing during these difficult times, to record what is happening now. And there have been some real highs. The book launches have often been celebrations, with enthusiastic crowds attending to hear the writers, even if few can afford to buy a book. Seeing people sitting around reading one of our books remains stimulating, as does passing strangers in the streets of Bulawayo who nod towards you, smile and call out: ‘amaBooks’. Other highs: reading reviews of the books in the press or on the web (on the rare occasions we have electricity, phone and internet connectivity at the same time); working with new writers; winning prizes at the Zimbabwe Book Publishers Association awards and at the Zimbabwe National Arts Merit Awards.

We can smile now at some incidents that have occurred: having insufficient lighting during a packed launch of a poetry collection so that poets struggled to read their work with torches; an attentive row of people in dark suits and dark glasses during a launch in Harare; the breakdown of the binding machine at the printers that was fixed just in time for the books to be ready for the launch.

Working with new writers has been a significant part of our work as publishers. At the outset we decided that we wanted to provide an opportunity for new writers to get published, as when we started most Zimbabwean publishers were tending to concentrate on the better-known writers. We thought a good way to give the new writers a platform was in the Short Writings series, using their pieces alongside those from the more established authors. To date we have published 86 writers, among them those who have gone on to have books of their own published by us. Christopher Mlalazi’s Dancing with Life: Tales from the Township recently won a Zimbabwean National Arts Merit Award for Outstanding First Creative Published Book, as did another writer whom we first published, Deon Marcus, with his poetry collection, Sonatas.

We also wanted to publish writers from different backgrounds, races, experiences and ages; and we have been successful in attracting contributions to the Short Writings series from all of the communities of Bulawayo, from across Zimbabwe, from those in the diaspora, and from those who have simply visited Zimbabwe – all tell stories and all deserve to have their voices heard.

Despite the difficulties of publishing in Zimbabwe, it is a fertile environment for writers, in a country where truth is often stranger than fiction. Arguably the most vibrant writing form and the most suited to the Zimbabwe situation is the short story form, as exemplified in the Short Writings series - Short Writings from Bulawayo I, II and III, and the most recent in the series, Long Time Coming: Short Writings from Zimbabwe.  The collections of short stories and poems offer snapshots of life in a deteriorating world. Writers are reflecting what they see around them on a daily basis – they vividly portray the human face of the everyday struggles of Zimbabweans. This writing documenting everyday lives is often more accessible than history, and is able to capture the human story. The story of family and friendship, of dreams and aspirations, of leaving home, of adapting to a changing environment, of loneliness, of fear and death, of growing old and of love; but in these books the story is set in a collapsing country, where basic services have crumbled, where shops have no food, taps no water, banks no money, hospitals no drugs, bars no beer. The writers also look at issues often hitherto avoided: the abuse of power, violence and oppression, the destruction of dreams. But there are lighter moments in the collections and moments of hope: in some of life’s simple pleasures, in the coming of the rains, in the wink and the smile of a stranger, in the times when the resilience of the people shines through.

Writers have generally been very forthright in their criticisms of the situation in Zimbabwe and of the leadership, though there has been, sensibly, some self-censorship. Any disparaging comment about the top leadership can lead to a lengthy prison sentence. We, as publishers, also wish to avoid this fate but to date have had no problems reaching agreement with the writers without compromising artistic freedom.

John Eppel, the third director of ’amaBooks, has made a significant contribution, particularly through his writing, from the lyricism of his poetry, even when expressing outrage at the present situation, to the biting satire of his prose. The ’amaBooks collections of his work, The Caruso of Colleen Bawn and Other Short Writings and White Man Crawling, continue our tradition of combining poetry and prose in the same volumes. His satirical novels The Curse of the Ripe Tomato, The Holy Innocents and Hatchings, that target black and white alike, have added a different dimension to ’amaBooks’ output.

As well as the poems in the various short writings collections and in Deon Marcus’ Sonatas, we recently published Intwasa Poetry. This was a culmination of our work with the literary arts sector of the Intwasa Arts Festival koBulawayo, featuring fifteen poets, from within and outside Zimbabwe, who have read from their work at the festival. The diversity of the poetry in the book can be seen by looking at a few examples, the overtly socially committed poems of Véronique Tadjo and Ignatius Mabasa; the introspective deeply personal poems of Deon Marcus; the ironic playfulness of Julius Chingono; the lyrical beauty of Owen Sheers.

Literary arts have generally been the biggest sector in the Intwasa Festival over the past few years, with packed enthusiastic audiences for many of the events. The literary component of the festival takes place, as do the majority of ’amaBooks launches, at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe in Bulawayo, an elegant restored colonial building in the centre of the city. Launches attract audiences of several hundred people, drawn to the party atmosphere generated by readings from the book, by the opening of an art exhibition that often accompanies a launch, and by local music. Events tend to finish as darkness falls; transport back to the outer suburbs becomes erratic and expensive after dark.

Our other interest, outside of creative writing, is that of the culture of the area, and we have published Pathisa Nyathi’s Zimbabwe’s Cultural Heritage, Elspeth Parry’s The Rock Art of the Matopo Hills, Zimbabwe, and Marieke Clarke’s Mambo Hills: Historical and Religious Significance.

Without support from donors, ’amaBooks would have shut up shop. Our website ( was sponsored by the Alliance Française de Bulawayo as part of a wider scheme of promoting the arts in Bulawayo. Other sponsors  (including HIVOS, The Culture Fund of Zimbabwe Trust, SABDET, British Embassy) have helped by sourcing equipment, sponsoring launches and helping with printing costs.

The future? In Zimbabwe it is always very difficult to know what tomorrow might bring. On the drawing board at the moment are a first novel, This September Sun, by Bryony Rheam, another writer who has progressed from the Short Writings series, and Silent Cry: Echoes of Young Voices, the second collection of short stories and poems by young people, a British Council initiative as part of their Identity and Diversity project.

Some of our publications have now become available outside of Zimbabwe through the African Books Collective and some bookshops in South Africa stock our books. There has been interest from publishers in Europe in co-publishing books of Zimbabwe writing. A number of the writers that we first published have now left the country in search of a better future for themselves and their families. But many of the young writers that we have come across show promise, and, perhaps, others will return to record the recovery of Zimbabwe.

As we write, electricity is so unreliable that the surge protectors do not allow us to use many of our appliances – thank goodness for the laptop. If nothing else, ’amaBooks has taught us to dance with life.

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