The report, that the South African writer, Henrietta Rose-Innes has won this year’s £10,000 Caine prize, for the best short story in English by an African writer, in the society pages of The New Times, a daily news-paper, was indeed good news.
Why? Because the of supposed lack of a reading culture that seems to be the norm in Rwanda and many other African countries, partly a result of the reluctance by local publishing houses, to publish genres of literary fiction.
In the most vibrant societies, fiction is in the same league with music, performing arts and film. A good debut will rise into the bestseller list making the writer rich in the same way that a good music album will sell like hot cakes. But fiction, especially literary fiction for all the vital approval in other societies, is largely a forgotten genre in Africa.
Right now, the hottest news in the literary world is Salman Rushdie’s Best of the Booker’s title for his Midnight’s Childrent. The cream of African writers, has gained resounding acclaim especially in the West.
Talk about prophets not being appreciated in their own homes. We know more about Harry Potter than Half a Yellow Sun and have we heard about its author a young rising star, Nigerian Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Her fiction has earned her, a fitting comparison to Nigeria’s king of words, Chinua Achebe, whose 1958 novel, Things Fall Apart, has sold more than eight million copies and translated into fifty languages.
Books are churned out continuously in thousands, by the day, but in Africa, publishers dread fiction, preferring to stick to the safety of recommended school text books. No wonder that Africa is short of good writers.
According to a 2005 BBC article, titled Are Africans Reading Less, “access to books in Africa is often difficult and expensive and only a few countries, like Kenya, South Africa and Nigeria, have a significant book trade.”
It goes on to state that “Often the government is the biggest purchaser of books, particularly textbooks for schools. But children do not always respond well to textbooks and they may not be good at reading them.”
In Kigali, I was once pleasantly surprised when I walked into Ikirezi Library, in search of a good reading place, only to land in a well-stocked bookshop.
I was disappointed that some of my best authors were like Zadie Smith were stocked, but in French (forgive my lingual ignorance) though it was a pleasure to land on a copy of A House for Mr. Biswas, by my favorite author, V.S. Naipaul, a Trinidadian-born British writer.
Even some of the rising African stars like Nigeria’s Segun Afolabi and Kenya’s Dayo Foster were featured.
In Rwanda’s case, for the culture of reading to take root, a concerted effort has got to be made, especially by the government, to formulate favorable policies that promote local creative talent.
In each of us, there is always a story, but we have to be encouraged to tell it. In African traditional oral folklore was prevalent, grandparents told their grandchildren stories around the fire, in a rich narrative manner, which some of Achebe’s and many other successful African writers have borrowed successfully.
Many African, determined writers have been sunk to frustration after their work did not see light of day.
Nigeria and South Africa have produced a wave of a new generation of authors who have single-handedly redefined African literature, producing literary magazines like Farafina.
Closer to home, in Kenya, the old generation of thriving post-independence writers, like Ngugi Wa’Thiongo, share space in the literary world with the likes of Binyavanga Wainaina. Who after winning the Caine Prize, Africa’s most prestigious literary award, went ahead to launch a literary magazine titled Kwani, which features Kenyan and East Africa writers.
According to its website, Kwani is dedicated to nurturing and developing Kenya’s and Africa’s intellectual and creative resources through strategic literary interventions.
One way to promote reading and writing is to provide avenues by setting up Rwandan literary magazines, short story competitions with good monetary rewards, publishing contracts, or by organizing book fairs where local talent can be exposed.
Currently for a determined Rwandan fiction writer, the options are, limited.
The Commonwealth Short Story Prize receives submissions of less than 600 words by email without a submission fee, but considering that competition is very stiff, African writers have had little success here.
A few international magazines receive free online submissions, but most charge a submission fee, which complicates any poor Africans dream of success in fiction writing.
One of this generations literary wonders, Zadie Smith sold the first 100 pages of her debut novel “White Teeth”, at twenty four, for a startling amount of UK£250,000 to Penguin publisher.
Chances of an African, Smith story, are rare because in the West literary agents have their addresses listed in the phone book, which is far from the reality here in Rwanda.
Bruce Cook, a publisher of the popular online literary journal, AUTHOR-ME, said in an interview, “I love to read stories from almost any African country, and I feel the typical author is highly talented and fully capable of competition with the best of world writers.” Mr. Cook has worked successfully with African authors like Uganda’s Monica Arac de Nyeko the winner of last year’s Caine Prize’s bounty of UK£ 10,000.
The 2006 Caine Prize winner, Mary Watson said in a BBC Interview, “at a more practical level, it is probably helpful in terms of my career as a writer. My ambition is to one day focus on writing fulltime and hopefully this is a step in that direction,”