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How governments can boost writing business in Africa – Prof. Okai

What do you think of the state of African writing at the moment? The state of our writing is buoyant. Many books are being published…

What do you think of the state of African writing at the moment?

The state of our writing is buoyant. Many books are being published because many people are writing, creating, and it is clear that our authors are continuing to exhibit a sensibility towards our wealth. They are being sensible and sensitive to the factors that are impinging on the chances our people have in our given society to live lives viable as those of human beings. At the same time, it can be said and should be said that not all the creations should be published, the reason being that the book industry is under great pressure. The cycle is becoming vicious where the publishers are concerned, where the readers are concerned, where the writers are concerned, where the book sellers are concerned. In Ghana for instance, because of a certain UNESCO understanding, books coming from outside come in at no tax but the material for publishing, which always come from outside, come in under heavy tax. In such a situation, the indigenous publishing industry has a problem because the produced volume ends up being a bit expensive when it is put against the imported books. Our people should be buying our books so they could get to access our indigenous thinking, they are forced to buy cheaper books and therefore, not only do they lose connection with that which our local producers are producing, they are feeding the industry of foreign countries. And then again, when the locally produced books are not buyable by our people, the indigenous publisher hasn’t got too much royalty to give the writer and so the writer feels frustrated, depressed financially and prefers to take his energy somewhere else and generate a livelihood.  There is a very interesting exercise in Norway. I visited Norway and was introduced to a very beautiful formula whereby every book published in Norway; the government buys a certain number for libraries so that the publisher is bound by all means to break even and therefore also to make some profit margin. This will enable him to invest in more books, the writers get their royalties and they continue creating, the society’s book culture grows, the nation has the potential of being enlightened to ensure a good future. These are the problems facing Africa today and this therefore is affecting the quality of our literary works.

Are you therefore suggesting the adoption of this formula by African governments?

I am suggesting and appealing for an adoption of this formula. I think in 2009 we attended the Pan African Cultural Festival in Algeria. I had attended the first 40 years ago. At the festival, at the international conference centre, I put up this idea. It’s not only here but at every given opportunity I put forth this idea, that our government should take it up and use it for the good of our people. You know that even when the cost of books is affordable, not everybody can buy books so the way out is library. But with libraries, the few that are there are not even well stocked. You know Lotto Kiosk; we have them sprinkled all over the place in Ghana. That’s the way we should have libraries all over the place, like lotto kiosks. That is the only way we can get to give our people the chance to go and evolve into fine citizens.

Earlier, (in a keynote address at the JP Clark Colloquium) you underlined the importance of publishing houses in the development of civilizations and the trend of waiting for books by African writers to be endorsed by the west before the indigenous publishers pick it up. What do you make of this?

It is a very sad and wrong situation. It is not only publishers waiting for outsiders to endorse but we ourselves  here prefer to acknowledge works published by outsiders and we thought  that with the growth of our indigenous publishing industry, there will be a positive change in this behaviour. So we are hoping that people will grow to appreciate books that are published here.

Elechi Amadi spoke of literary prizes being awarded by western foundations, saying they set the African agenda that suits them…

That is why I am worried about books that come in under tax which are more buyable by our people. Our people are subjected to ideas and concerns from outside. And of course, through these prizes, our people are told, look to this one, he is the one. Meanwhile, the ideas in the book may not be the one to serve our people. That is why it is necessary for our own countries to institute their prizes that will be respected by the people, which will honour our writers and put value on their works. I more than agree with him. This are the subtle games that are going on in the intellectual world, if you don’t know, you don’t know but they are all there, trying to massage our minds along a certain direction.

Are you satisfied by the representation of Africa in contemporary fictions by Africans?

Oh, the stories are good. Whatever we want them to be, the stories will be tomorrow morning. In the 1960s, when JP Clark, Soyinka, Achebe and others started writing, there was nothing like African literature and the world would not acknowledge them. Even departments of English in African Universities would not acknowledge them but you can see we’ve come a long  way and the whole world now recognise we have something called African literature. So, whatever it is, we are moving.

There is now a thriving industry of novellas coming out of Ghana telling fantastic stories of people turning into vultures and the likes. What do you make of these?

Well, they are just like some of the video films that are being made. It is not the best but here, Nigerian literature came from the Onitsha market literature. So, it is the same process. It’s the same process with the film industry. As we go along, they will grow into the right status.

If at this stage, we are producing things like that, don’t you think we are retrogressing?

Oh, no, we are not. It only shows that we have to be more serious about organising opportunities for people to develop their talents and be guided along the correct ways.

So what ways…

The ways are that our government should so support the national writers’ organizations so they can organize writers’ workshop. Those who are creating those things are showing they can create, they have stories to tell, they can put pen to paper. So the thing is to get them and nurture their talents along the correct direction, to select worthy themes. It is a national responsibility. There is something crying out within them.

What is PAWA doing to help nurture these talents?

We have meetings, we organize workshops. But then as I was saying, PAWA is as strong as the national writers’ association and our African countries need to support with government money. They give money to other sectors, then why not the literary sector?

There is a rebirth in the Nigerian literary sector. What is the situation in Ghana?

They are writing a lot. People are coming up but publishing is a challenge for them for the reasons I mentioned. There is a great future for African literature.

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