Help! Malawian literature is drowning and needs to be rescued!


Help! Malawian literature is drowning and needs to be rescued!

Since the fall of the autocratic president and book lover Hastings Kamuzu Banda, the book industry and literary production in the south-east African country has virtually come to a standstill
Stanley Onjezani Kenani
Stanley Onjezani Kenani

Suppose you’ve just landed in Lilongwe for the very first time and would like to sample Malawian literature, what would the recommendation be? In Nigeria it’s simple, they would point you to Chinua Achebe or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. In fact, you would be spoilt for choice as there are scores of other brilliant works, by Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, for instance, or Teju Cole, who is of Nigerian descent but is also claimed by the United States of America. In Kenya they have Ngugi wa Thiong’o, but younger voices, such as Yvonne Adhiambo Ouwor and Okwiri Oduor, have also produced works of astonishing brilliance that continue to place Kenya firmly on the map of world literature. Once, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi were a federation, created by the tiny population of European settlers who wanted their own version of South Africa (where a relatively small population of European origin ruled the vast country). It is inevitable, therefore, to compare Malawi with Zambia and Zimbabwe. Zambia’s Namwali Serpell has produced two novels that have won multiple awards. The Old Drift won the Windham-Campbell Award for Fiction, among a plethora of awards, while The Furrows, published in 2022, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in the United States, where she lives. Other writers like Mubanga Kalimamukwento and Ellen Banda-Aaku (whose novel, Patchwork, won the 2010 Penguin Prize for African Writing) are contributing immensely to the Zambian canon. Zimbabwe’s NoViolet Bulawayo has had both We need new names, her first novel, and Glory, her second, shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Tsitsi Dangarembga’s This Mournable Body was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. A younger voice, Novuyo Rosa Tshuma, is making remarkable progress, with the publication of her well-received novel, House of Stone. What about Malawian literature?

Born in 1976, Stanley Onjezani Kenani is a Malawian writer currently living in France. He was shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2008 and 2012. In 2014, he was named among 39 most promising African writers under the age of 40. He is currently working on his first novel.

There’s very little to point at, and it wouldn’t be wrong to conclude that Malawian literature is dead.

But that was not always the case. Malawi started off its first thirty years of existence with a vibrant writing and reading culture. After obtaining independence from Britain in 1964, Hastings Kamuzu Banda ruled Malawi with an iron fist. The Censorship and Control of Entertainment Act of 1968 established a Censorship Board which prohibited works on various grounds, including “the interests of public safety or public order.” In its first year of existence alone, the Censorship Board banned 849 books (including George Orwel’s Animal Farm), 1,000 periodicals and 16 films. Music was not spared. Cecilia, a song released in April 1970 by Simon & Garfunkel, was banned, because the President’s official hostess at the time was also called Cecilia. And yet it was during those dark hours that what represents Malawian literature today was written. For all his ruthlessness, Banda loved books. He set up Dzuka, a publishing company, in 1975. His government also established the Malawi Book Shop, a government-owned entity that operated book shops across the country. In addition, he created the National Library Service to ensure that far-flung areas had access to books. I myself became a member of the National Library Service at the age of 13, in my hometown of Kasungu. The Roman Catholic Church also contributed a lot to the publishing scene through Montfort Press and its subsidiary, Popular Publications, which, for a decade, ran the hugely popular Malawi Writers Series. And in the 70s and the 80s, the University of Malawi’s Chancellor College campus hosted the Writers’ Workshop, which led to a burst of creativity. Most names that have made their mark on the writing scene, such as eminent poets Jack Mapanje and Frank Chipasula, played a pivotal role in the workshop. Anthony Nazombe edited The haunting wind, an anthology of brilliant poetry whose contributors were, mostly, participants in the workshop.

Banda was dethroned in 1994. The Malawi Book Shop died within the first twelve months of Banda’s departure. While the National Library Service survived, it lost much of its funding, and it’s a miracle that it still exists to this day. All publishers either folded or recreated themselves to survive only through the publishing of textbooks. In the last 30 years, only self-published books hit the market. As is usual with self-published books, they go out of print quickly, quite often within six months. There are still about five outfits that call themselves publishers, but all they do is to simply wait for the tender to publish textbooks.

With the publishing network dead, the art of writing fiction and poetry began to die. Only weekend newspapers reserve space for flash fiction and poetry, but there are no literary journals, either online or in hard copy format, to launch new voices or to anchor works of established writers. I, myself, was lucky when, in 2007, my short story, For honour, came out third in a southern African competition judged by Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee. When the story was subsequently shortlisted for the Caine Prize in 2008, the ensuing visit to London and the interaction with the book world there opened my eyes to many possibilities.

For the writer toiling locally, however, they do not have the network to make them thrive. How, then, can there be works of note available to parade to the world with pride?

It does not help that over the years, the public in Malawi has generally lost interest in reading. The excuse is that television and the internet provide better information and entertainment alternatives. On social media these days, if you write a status update of a hundred words or more, you’ll hear groans that “it’s too long.” Perhaps there is merit in bringing literature to social media, condensing it to 280 characters, like a tweet. For more than a decade Ikhide Ikheloa, a Nigerian writer and literary critic, has been consistent in his advocacy for the recognition of the internet and social media as platforms that house authentic African narratives in the twenty-first century. What I find surprising is that in the West, where I live, the book industry is thriving. Bookshops, which I visit on most weekends, are always full of people buying books. I know friends who are willing to stand in long queues each time Stephen King releases a new novel. In 2022, 669 million physical books were sold in the United Kingdom alone, while the French bought 364 million. Why is it that this social media craze hasn’t weaned them off books?

As a writer, I realize I have myself to blame for not doing enough to inculcate a reading culture in the younger generation. My efforts, and the efforts of many fellow Malawian writers who toil every day to get noticed by the international book world, are falling short. I have a stillborn novel somewhere in the archives, and now I’m back at my desk to try again, hoping that one day an agent in the big markets in Europe will accept my work. Because that’s the only way to get attention back home. If they saw that your work is well-received abroad, they would be persuaded to have a look. And maybe they, too, will like it, who knows?

Prizes like the Caine Prize for African Writing and the Commonwealth Prize for Short Story Writing are doing their best to get new writing noticed across the continent. Two of my short stories that were shortlisted for the Caine Prize, For honour and Love on trial, remain the most widely read to date. But the prizes aren’t many – at least the lucrative ones that attract much attention. For Africa, it’s mostly the Caine Prize, which pays £10,000 to the winner.

Perhaps major global publishers need to help us by creating prizes for Africa, with the aim of hand-holding budding writers from across the continent. There is enormous talent waiting to be tapped. What they lack are avenues through which their works can reach the sunshine of the world.