New African literature is disrupting what Western presses prize



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Novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie after a reading of her book ‘Americanah’ in Lagos in 2013.
Akintunde Akinleye /Reuters

Jeanne-Marie Jackson, Johns Hopkins University

African literature is the object of immense international interest across both academic and popular registers. Far from the field’s earlier, post-colonial association with marginality, a handful of star “Afropolitan” names are at the forefront of global trade publishing.

Books like Chimamanda Adichie’s “Americanah” and “Half of a Yellow Sun”, Teju Cole’s “Open City”, Taiye Selasi’s “Ghana Must Go” and Yaa Gyasi’s “Homegoing” have confounded neat divisions between Western and African literary traditions. The Cameroonian novelist Imbolo Mbue captured a million-dollar contract for her first book, “Behold the Dreamers”. That’s even before it joined the Oprah’s Book Club pantheon this year.

Such commercial prominence, though, has attracted considerable and unsurprising push back from Western and Africa-based critics alike. Far from advancing narratives with deep roots in local African realities, such critics fear, many of Africa’s most “successful” writers hawk a superficial, overly diasporic, or even Western-focused vision of the continent.

Noviolet Bulawayo was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2013 for her book
Olivia Harris/Reuters

The most visible of these critiques has been directed at the Zimbabwean writer NoViolet Bulawayo’s “We Need New Names” (2013). The Nigerian novelist Helon Habila worried in a review in the London Guardian that it was “poverty-porn”. The popular Nigerian critic Ikhide Ikheloa (“Pa Ikhide”) frequently makes a similar point. Fellow Nigerian writer Adaobi Nwaubani critiqued the West’s hold on Africa’s book industry in a much-circulated New York Times piece called “African Books for Western Eyes”.

Such debates about African writing could, and likely will, go on forever. Questions about Africa’s place in the current global literary marketplace broaden some of the most urgent queries of the postcolonial era. Who gets to document African realities? Who are the “gatekeepers” of African publishing traditions?

It goes on: To what sort of audience does African writing cater? What is the role – and what should it be, if any – of Western institutions in brokering cultural prestige?

All these issues merit concern.

Between the default poles

Too often, though, African writing ends up volleyed between two default poles of “corporate global” and “activist local”. Some onlookers, as in a recent essay by the Canadian scholar Sarah Brouillette, go as far as to name the biases of even Africa-based print outlets. Kenya’s Kwani Trust is exposed as “Western-facing” due to a web of donor relations. “West” here is code for neoliberal. “Western-facing” is for complicity with a market that skews toward British and American interests.

Faced with a “world system” argument like Brouillette’s, African literature would seem trapped between a rock and a hard place.

But, in fact, this tells only a small part of the story of how African writing now makes its way through the world. It is incomplete to the point of being outdated, given the boom over the past five years in new, globally conscious small US literary presses collaborating with African writers.

A “West subsuming Africa” brand of critique works fine for scholars with no real skin in the game of literary publishing. It also denies real agency to a lot of African writers and other literary professionals. On the ground the literary field is far more forward-thinking and diverse.

There is an entire new body of African writing that escapes this closed circuit of damning truisms. A wave of new or recently galvanised independent literary presses in the US and the UK are working in tandem with some of Africa’s most generative outlets. Together they are publishing and promoting work by young and adventurous African writers.

Labours of love

Books published originally by presses like Umuzi (South Africa), amaBooks (Zimbabwe) and Kwani (Kenya) find second lives with international publishers working to defy the constraints of profitability. They’re mostly labours of love with skeleton staffs that speak to a transcontinental commitment to innovative African writing.

Here are a few key examples of African texts published by independent American outlets – “independent” here refers to presses beyond the “Big Five” US trade publishers (Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House and Simon and Schuster.

These include Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s Ugandan epic “Kintu” which was originally launched by Kwani. It was the first Anglophone novel put out by the brand-new Transit Books based in Oakland, California. The press seeks maximum visibility for translated fiction alongside texts originally written in English. They advocate for more ethical legal and financial dealings with translators, as well as international writers.

Congolese author Fiston Mwanza Mujila.
Marc de Gouvenain

A number of similarly tiny, ambitious ventures have published some of the most acclaimed recent African writing in translation. Deep Vellum Publishing was behind the English translation of Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s Etisalat Prize-winning “Tram 83”.

Also dedicated exclusively to works in translation, LA-based Phoneme Media in 2016 published the first ever Burundian novel in English, Roland Rugero’s deeply contemplative “Baho!”. Phoneme’s tagline, fittingly, is “curious books for curious people”.

In a similar vein, Brooklyn’s Restless Books was founded to combat “parochial, inward-looking, and homogenised trends in American publishing”. Among their forthcoming titles, translated from the French is Naivo’s “Beyond the Rice Fields”. It’s the first novel from Madagascar to see its way to English.

Veteran nonprofit press Archipelago Books is also in Brooklyn. In 2015, it published the translation from the Portuguese of Angolan writer Jose Eduardo Agualusa’s “A General Theory of Oblivion”.

Every one of these throws a wrench in a clear, cynical sense of what kind of novel Western presses prize. That is not to mention the many African writers, publishers, and editors working in concert to promote these same texts.

Small, focused channels

It applies to the Anglosphere too. Books that offer a decidedly more locally textured experience than those of the “Afropolitan” rock stars have made their way abroad through small, focused channels.

These works might include Tendai Huchu’s “The Maestro, the Magistrate, and the Mathematician” (published originally by amaBooks, and in the US by Ohio University Press); Imraan Coovadia’s “Tales of the Metric System” (from Umuzi, and again by Ohio University Press); and Masande Ntshanga’s “The Reactive” (also Umuzi; in the US by family-run Two Dollar Radio.

Clearly, this collection just scratches the surface. But what these works have in common is an investment in stylistic and structural experimentation that confounds rather than caters to an international taste for “digestible” fiction, or to mostly Western points of cultural and institutional reference.

This counter-current of transnational African literary life complicates the equation of culture, geopolitics and economics in more useful ways than stale materialist critiques.

As such titles and presses continue to gain acclaim and recognition by an international readership that is aware of and hostile to shallow representations of Africa – and who crave engagement with challenging fiction, regardless of its origin – critics will need to rethink some of their orthodoxies.

The ConversationThere is more to both African literature and Western publishing than meets an eye too practised in its suspicion. If literature is doomed only to echo the failings of globalisation, then why bother? On the contrary, a new generation of writers and publishers deserve our awareness of the “global literary marketplace” as a meaningfully multidimensional space.

Jeanne-Marie Jackson, Assistant Professor of World Anglophone Literature, Johns Hopkins University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Love of bookshops in a time of Amazon and populism



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Saturday is Love Your Bookshop Day –
but bookshops face many challenges.
Shutterstock

Nathan Hollier, Monash University

There was genuine positivity at this year’s Australian Booksellers’ Association Conference in Melbourne in June. The mood was one of camaraderie and optimism at the sharing of good news. And it only brightened with the news that our National Bookshop Day was to be rebranded this year as Love Your Bookshop Day. Why not?

Saturday is that day. Expect to see your local bookshop buntinged, postered, streamered and perhaps offering special bargains. Assuming, of course, you have a local bookshop.

Store numbers have steadied in recent years and, as was reported at the conference, both independent and chain or franchise booksellers are expanding. Children’s book sales in particular are performing well. (“The bookshop is dead. Long live the bookshop,” reads a plaque at Embiggen Books in Melbourne’s CBD.)

But over the past couple of decades the sector has wrestled with the challenges of superstores, GST, the GFC, one-sided international post deals, ebooks and online-only undercutters.

Now the greatest of these online stores, certainly in terms of market share, will soon be competing with Australian bookstores from a new base here. Amazon has secured a massive distribution centre site near Dandenong in outer-eastern Melbourne. Dire predictions for parts of the Australian retail sector have already been made.

Local booksellers too will need to adjust to this new environment, in which Amazon will likely reduce its delivery time and charges significantly. This will place downward pressure on book prices, and thus booksellers’ margins and capacity to survive.

Amazon has itself experimented with physical bookstores in recent times, to underwhelming reviews, but its primary focus has, of course, been on being able to offer “everything” at the “everyday low prices” of its American precursors (and sometime role models), Walmart and Costco.

Today’s booksellers must choose what to put on their shelves from around 7,000 new releases each month. As all of these will be on the “shelves” of Amazon, local booksellers will need to maintain an intimate knowledge of what will appeal to their customer base.

This curatorial role, which has always been part of what good booksellers do, takes on extra importance in the digital age. Curating, one might say, is the opposite approach to that of Amazon, which instead expertly removes barriers to purchasing, encouraging impulse buying. The extra services local booksellers provide, in addition to low prices and the range of stock, will likely need beefing up also. Community building will be the order of the day.

The current shrinkage of review pages of broadsheet newspapers will also hurt many bookshops, as they depend on a degree of consensus as to what is important and valuable to read.

Price instability may well grow in Australia with the arrival of Amazon. Publishers have argued over the decades that this instability also discourages consumer confidence.

The Productivity Commission doesn’t accept arguments in favour of maintaining price levels for some products in order to keep the costs of others down. But regulatory bodies have special challenges when confronted with large, diverse conglomerates, such as Amazon. It has the capacity to drop prices for products in one category (such as books) to maximise competitiveness, while the overall bottom line is propped up by more profitable parts of the business (such as Amazon Web Services).

In the face of aggressive price cutting from firms like … well, Amazon … regulatory bodies concerned with fair prices for consumers are yet to find an effective means of properly accounting for the fact that its success has been partly based on exploiting publicly developed (and funded) technology and infrastructure, determined strategies of tax minimisation, aggressive use of IP and patent law, and sustained intransigence towards its workforce’s self-organisation and unionisation.

Andy Griffiths: a bookshop favourite.
Carol Cho/AAP

On Tuesday morning this past week, a crowd of parents and kids waited in the cold out the front of our local suburban bookshop till, at 9 o’clock, they could rush in and buy the latest Treehouse book, by Andy Griffiths. The bookseller handed out free copies of a quality cookbook to parents. Community spirit, human connectedness and customer loyalty all bloomed nicely.

As the legendary Collins bookseller, Michael Zifcack, recalled in his memoirs,
“I realised early on that customer service was the secret of successful bookselling.”

I’ll be heading to that local shop on Saturday, but can also, of course, appreciate the access to more or less every available product that online shopping provides. No doubt there is room for both retail models within our society.

What remains most important, when thinking about the health of the book industry here, is that no matter how cheap we make these products, there won’t be effective demand for them unless people have the time and desire to read.

The ConversationThis desire, in turn, rests most powerfully on the belief that what one knows and says matters; that democracy, its public sphere, and reason, evidence and logic are the driving forces of one’s society. For all of us, that challenge is ongoing and, broadly speaking, we will get the books and bookshops we deserve.

Nathan Hollier, Director, Monash University Publishing, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

All hail the bookshop: survivor against the odds


Nick Earls, The University of Queensland

This National Bookshop Day, Australia’s one-time Minister for Small Business, Nick Sherry, will be remembered for his words, not his deeds. A reader, bookbuyer and enthusiastic patron of terrestrial bookshops, in June 2011 Sherry told a conference on online business that,

In five years, other than a few speciality bookshops in capital cities, you will not see a bookstore. They will cease to exist.

Booksellers were livid, and I don’t just mean standing behind their counters muttering impolite thoughts about the minister down into their cardigans. They got pretty shouty. And determined to prove him wrong.

Nick Sherry in 2011.
Alan Porritt/AAP

Australia’s inaugural National Bookshop Day was held two months later. The sixth, on August 13, will be the first to fall beyond the minister’s five-year time period. And bricks-and-mortar booksellers have outlasted VCR manufacturers, Kodachrome and Nokia’s dominance of the phone industry to still be alive and kicking.

As it turned out, the minister was wrong – he extrapolated too far – but there were reasons at the time to have reservations about the industry’s prospects. The REDGroup – parent company of Borders and Angus & Robertson – had just gone into receivership and there were concerns that much of its 20% share of the Australian book trade might simply be lost, with those dollars drifting away from books, or at least from Australian retailers.

Amazon had been on the rise since the 90s, and almost no one could price like it. It paid no high-street rents, it paid no counter staff, it had scale and much of the time it wasn’t even focused on profit, cutting prices even leaner to build its customer database and achieve market dominance.

When Sherry spoke, the GFC was still a recent memory, and books had started to look like discretionary purchases. Around the same time, the promise of e-reading was finally realised with the arrival of devices that people were actually happy to use, such as the Kindle and the iPad. US ebook sales had risen 1,260% between 2008 and 2010. The line on that graph goes to a crazy place pretty quickly, if you let it.

Factor in the time-sucking vortex of the internet – Facebook, YouTube, news, gossip, downloadable games, streaming video services, op-ed pieces like, um, this one – and its potential impact on book reading, and the environment looks extra tough. Charles Darwin, survival-of-the-fittest tough.

So in 2011, it was possible, if you stared wide-eyed and fearfully at nothing but recent statistics and an upended entertainment landscape, to envisage a contracted book industry comprising only ebooks and a single enormous warehouse that had paper books zipping along conveyor belts and packaged and mailed by robots in response to a customer’s click on the other side of the world.

In the short term, Sherry seemed dangerously close to the mark. In the year he made his prediction, Australian book sales ended up crashing 18% by value. That is, a billion-dollar industry saw sales slump by almost a fifth in a single year. The following year, the industry relied on Fifty Shades of Grey to mask another disastrous fall. Remove that trilogy from the stats and sales dropped a further 12.5% in 2012.

But it’s now 2016 and the scheduled apocalypse didn’t arrive. So, what happened?

Ebooks are here to stay, but paper books aren’t going away and, despite Amazon, neither is the astute neighbourhood bookseller – who realises that ebooks are not an enemy vanquished and that the landscape is not what it once was, but that the local bookshop has a place in it anyway. Recently, bookshop numbers have been rising rather than falling.
According to Joel Becker, CEO of the Australian Booksellers Association, “we’ve seen an increase over the past couple of years of about 5%.”

South Brisbane’s Title bookstore.
Rae Allen/flickr

The ebook market will continue to evolve, and what ebooks are will continue to evolve too, but, in the absence of major drivers of new growth, sales are unlikely to grow at the rate they managed at the time of the Sherry prediction. The audiobook market will probably continue to expand.

While all panicked eyes were on ebooks, audio sales – now mostly digital downloads – were happily off to one side growing at double-digit speed year after year.

Meanwhile, back in the world of paper books, Amazon will not go away.

In fact, Amazon is opening bookshops of its own. Because maybe even it knows that “people who bought this also bought that” isn’t the same as browsing the shelves of a neighbourhood bookshop. It rates as an experience, and flicking through stamp-sized book cover images online really doesn’t.

Browsing in a bookshop feels like time well spent, while searching for a book online feel like squandered time – only the purchase counts.

A local bookshop is part of a community, working with schools and families and all nearby readers to link them with books they might come to love, connecting with its customers and bringing a human kind of expertise whenever it’s asked for. It is a hub for bookclubs and author events and the chance encounters that lead to the discovery of an unfamiliar writer who becomes a lifelong favourite. It remains far better than an algorithm when suggesting what book your eight-year-old niece or granddaughter might like for her birthday.

And, happy as I am to read ebooks or listen to audiobooks, the local bookshop’s product, paper books, rates as entertainment. The paper book is a value proposition. Twenty or thirty dollars buys you hours of deep, screen-free, distraction-free reading. Nothing pings, nothing beeps and your paper book doesn’t let you know about some random person’s Facebook update or a newly arrived spam email. In a world of multi-tasking and deliriously excessive inputs, reading a paper book is mono-tasking at its finest.

Paper books and the people in our neighbourhoods who sell them to us have not faded into the past and will not be going away any time soon. I’m sure Nick Sherry would be happy to be wrong about that, and will be as glad as any of us that we still have bookshops to celebrate at National Bookshop Day in 2016.

The Conversation

Nick Earls, PhD Candidate in Creative Writing, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Australia: New Book Laws?


The link below is to an article that takes a look at possible new book importation laws in Australia.

For more visit:
http://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/may/10/flooding-australia-with-imported-books-would-be-an-assault-on-our-literary-culture

Australia: Readings – Best Bookshop in the World


The link below is to an article that takes a look at Victoria’s ‘Readings’ bookshop, which recently won ‘Bookstore of the Year’ at the London Book Fair.

For more visit:
http://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/may/02/interview-with-a-bookstore-melbournes-readings-the-best-bookshop-in-the-world