Umutoni on promoting African literature and knowledge production

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Louise Umutoni started Huza Press to promote a reading culture. (Courtesy photo)

Louise Umutoni, is the founder and director of Huza Press a Rwanda-based publishing and distribution business committed to creating and disseminating knowledge. Through competitions, she has worked with established African writers to promote reading and writing. The Rwandan writer and former journalist talked to Women Today’s Sharon Kantengwa about her dream to develop Rwandan writers.

What is the inspiration behind Huza Press?

I strongly believe in the importance of knowledge creation especially from the African continent. Africa has produced only a fraction of global episteme and it’s important that we take an active role in discussing the issues that affect us. We cannot wait for Western writers and academics to describe our situation or conceptualise solutions to our problems. I set up a publishing house called Huza press to foster knowledge creation and dissemination in Rwanda. We wanted to encourage people to read more and to add to Rwanda’s literary canon. We run Rwanda’s first prize for fiction with a prize of $1000 as well as mentorship from established African writers. The shortlisted 10 writers worked with some of Africa’s best writers including Taiye Selasi, author of the widely acclaimed Ghana Must Go and Commonwealth Prize winner Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi. We brought in a community of writers from other African countries to engage with Rwanda writers because we wanted to show our writers that there were other Africans telling stories and telling them beautifully.

What are some of the challenges that you experienced in trying to set up a publishing business in Rwanda?

There are quite a number of challenges although most of them are not particular to Rwanda. Of course Rwanda has its own context that determines how these issues are manifested. For example Rwanda’s reading culture is still underdeveloped in comparison that in Kenya or Uganda and that’s largely due Rwanda’s peculiar history. In Rwanda you can tell a lot about the reading culture by observing newspaper stands where the issues sold are as old as 3 months. In Kenya or Uganda you see a lot more people reading even on the street. However, beyond the reading culture, Africa’s publishing industry has not done well. Some say that you can trace this back to its very conceptualisation during the colonial period where its primary purpose was to publish religious material and later on education material. To this day most publishers in Africa still produce for the same school book market and are in an increasingly precarious position having to compete with established western publishers such Heinemann This leaves very little room to publish other types of books or to solicit content from individuals because we are all purporting to the same client. This has forced many of Africa’s best writers to get their work published by Western publishers depriving the African publishing industry of the much needed resources and publicity.

How are you giving the writers value for their work?

We are doing this in a number of ways. The first is through our prize for fiction where we recognize the work of writers. The other is by publishing this work and showing writers that their work is good enough to publish. The third and really important means is ensuring people buy the work of these writers. In a capitalist world value is calculated in monetary terms and it would be pretentious to assume that writers do not want to make a living off their work.

Why do you think it’s important for Africans to own their literature?

As an African I have always struggled with the fact that I had to learn about African experiences from Western texts. Our narratives have been told by others for years and as I mentioned before, Africans have contributed very little to the existing knowledge on our experiences. I remember on my Masters program being handed a reading list on Rwanda without a single Rwandan on the list. I was so bothered by this that I put together a list of work by Rwandan academics and sent it to my classmates. The problem with having others describe your own experiences is that it is impossible for them to get it right. It will always be lacking. I did not see myself in a lot of the content I read about Africans and yet these are the definitive texts that are used in academia and to inform perspectives about Africa. Today it sounds rather cliché to say that Africans should own their narratives, but it still rings true and is still as relevant as it was when this conversation started. As Foucault says knowledge is power and if we are not producing any knowledge someone else is and they wield that power. As Africans or as Rwandans we should actively engage in trying to understand our current situation and problems, and find solutions based on our realities.

How do you relate writing and reading in Rwanda now with the past?

I think there is a lot more interest in story telling in Rwanda today. The government has put in place a number of initiatives to encourage reading and writing such as setting up public libraries to make content accessible. Also, initiatives like Spoken Word Rwanda, the Art House, Ishyo YouLi and Transpoesis are proving a platform for writers, poets and artists to tell stories. The sheer volume of people participating in these initiatives is enough evidence of a new breed of story tellers in Rwanda. Our work is to continue encouraging such artistic expression and provide avenues to make their work accessible to others. 

What future plans do you have?

We are running the second round of the Huza Press Prize for Fiction. We are receiving submissions until November 30th 2016. Submissions can be in English or French and we plan to add Kinyarwanda next year. Similar to last year, the winning story will be awarded USD 1000 and all shortlisted writers USD 500. We will also have a mentorship component and a few workshops to ensure the writers get sufficient support. All shortlisted stories will be published in an anthology.