Weaver Press is one of Zimbabwe’s mainstay publishers, and along with amaBooks, possibly now one of only two publishers still publishing fiction on a regular basis. Her Zimbabwe sat down to talk to Irene Staunton, who is editor and publisher at Weaver Press.
Vimbai Nyakabau (VN): What is the current operational status of Weaver Press?
Irene Staunton (IS): The economy is not in good shape at the moment. We would normally publish about eight books a year, but last year, we published no more than five titles. We published two fiction titles in 2014; one a novel, ‘They are Coming’ by Chris Mlalazi and a second edition of ‘Writing Lives’, featuring 13 short story writers.
Weaver Press also has a strong non-fiction list broadly covering history, sociology, law, gender studies and politics.
VN: Are people still sending in manuscripts?
IS: I’ve worked in publishing for approximately two decades and during this period, the average number of manuscripts one receives a week is four. But last year, we received many fewer.
We look for material, fiction and non-fiction, that we think will last the test of time: books that the next generation will want to read because they have retained their meaning; fiction that will travel, novels or short stories that one will be able to pick up anywhere in the world and feel their humanity.
What people sometimes overlook is that every publishing house has an identity. No publisher can be all things to all writers. We’re not printers, whose job it is to print, and get paid for, whatever work is brought in to them. As publishers, we each have our own criteria. Young writers sometimes think of publishers as printers; that all that is necessary is to send in a manuscript, which will immediately be published at the publisher’s expense, and then the writer will become rich and famous.
Sadly, the process is tougher than that. In addition, publishers depend entirely on readers buying books. If people do not buy books, publishers cannot publish. Book purchase is their primary source of income. This, of course, has been undermined by photocopying. And if there is no publishing industry to speak of in Zimbabwe in the future, one of the reasons for this will be the gay abandon with which texts are photocopied, thus depriving both author and publisher of an essential income.
Zimbabwe, as a relatively new country, has done very well in terms of its writers achieving international recognition. But people also forget that in any society, very talented fiction writers probably never represent more than a few percent of the population. To be able to write a good essay or good article, does not necessarily make one a good novelist.
VN: What makes a good manuscript? And a good writer?
IS: A good manuscript must be well-written and my idea of well-written might not be someone else’s. If someone is looking for a good fast-paced melodrama with lots of action – where the good guys are all good and the bad guys are all bad – they probably wont think much of the books which I believe to be good.
Moreover, writers themselves have to be well read. If we think of our best writers, they read extensively. If you look at Petina Gappah’s (now defunct) blog, it was full of critiques of the books she reads. And rarely have I met someone as well read as Charles Mungoshi. He is a writer of such integrity that he will sit for hours over a few sentences, just to make sure that he gets them right; that they reflect a thought, an idea, an emotion with the precision with which he conceives it.
Writing is an art, it is not just putting words on a page. You have to have something fresh to say. Books have been published for over 3 000 years. What can someone say that is new? The competition is fierce, so if you want to say something, you must say it providing some freshness of perspective, insight or understanding. You need a depth of understanding if you want to write well.
When you write good fiction, you need a good eye to pick out the fine detail. A good ear so that you can identify an idiolect; your characters language should reflect their personality. And you must have great empathy and understanding to think yourself into someone else’s shoes. Finally, you need to be ruthlessly honest with yourself.
VN: So what happens to the manuscripts you reject?
IS: We always try to assess the manuscripts and send the authors feedback about the good points, bad points and some tips. We oftentimes advise people these days to self-publish because self-published authors often do better, or just as well, as published authors because they have the passion and enthusiasm for their own work.
VN: What do you think is the impact of the internet and new media on reading culture?
IS: These are still formative days in Zimbabwe, and we have a weak economy. Books have generally always been considered a luxury; people may read but they have never got into the habit of buying books. We now have the internet, e-readers, tablets, stories on cellphones and so on, and it seems to me that more people want to write blogs and tell their stories, as well as engage actively with their Twitter and Facebook accounts to share their opinions, rather than to read the work of other people.
A high school literature teacher told me not so long ago, that the students in his class complained: ‘Oh Sir, do you expect us to read a whole book?!’ His theory was that many young people now have difficulty in reading more than 140 characters. Such is the influence of Twitter.
That said, it is still only the urban population, and then not everyone by any means, that has access to the internet.It will be interesting to see if the public at larger begins to read on their cellphones which is now possible with Mazwi.
In the west, the impact of the internet has evened out a bit. There was a time where book sales dipped as e-readers became popular. But now, people seem to be buying both soft and hard copy.
VN: African literature is sometimes seen as writing in reaction, particularly against socio-political injustices, and is thus seen by some as conforming to a perceived stereotype of African suffering. What is your opinion?
IS: Some of the very best literature today is coming out of Africa and Asia. We have many more vital issues to confront and there is so much happening on our doorsteps. Nonetheless, If you write with a message, with didactic intent, then you won’t succeed in writing well, at least not in my view.
I would not want to generalise, but if you look at each decade of writing, Zimbabwean novelists who were published in the 1980s and early 90s – with the possible exception of Tsitsi Dangarembga and Charles Mungoshi – focused very much on the liberation war. Now, if you read all those novels, that corpus of work, you will gain a much more complex and subtle understanding of our liberation or civil war as a whole.
From the mid-1990s, younger writers emerged who had not had that direct experience of war, and they began focusing on social issues, their own lives, and to reflect on what was happening around them. Some writers used critical humour to poke fun at society’s problems, while others explored the pain behind some of the events that have taken place such as HIV and AIDS, Gukurahundi, Muramabatsvina or simply, unemployment and poverty. Of course, as we know, such approaches are not mutually exclusive; some of the best writing weaves humour and pain together.
The narrative has changed with every generation, but reflects what is happening in society and the way in which people speak truth to power, or the way they involve themselves in certain issues. I do not think that good writers write for an audience; they write for themselves and they write from their perception, with integrity. I do not think writers sit down and think, “I’m going to write about the suffering in Africa.” It is what the writer feels and thinks that matters, his or her depth of understanding. I am not sure that you can be an honest writer if you write with a specific audience in mind.
VN: Prizes like the Caine Prize are seen as the torch-bearers of African literature by some and regarded by others as accolades that promote a stereotypical picture of Africa. Which of the two opinions do you agree with?
IS: I do not know very much about the Caine Prize but it has put African short story writing on the map. In any panel of judges, there will always be some difference in opinion. I am sure that the Caine Prize has several African writers and academics on its Board and selects African writers and critics to be judges.
You are always going to get people who will have very different views about who should win/have won because, fortunately, people think differently and that is what discussion is about. For example, NoViolet Bulawayo won the first Etisalat Prize for African Literature, which is an African Prize, but some say her book is dystopian and presents a negative view of Zimbabwe. So are such critics saying essentially that Etisalat, an African prize with African judges, deliberately chose a book that presents a dystopian view of Africa?
‘We Need New Names‘ is a powerful novel. It reflects the life of a child at two very different times of her life. One can argue that Darling’s early life presents a totally dystopian picture of life in a high-density suburb, or one can argue that this child, Darling, was one incredibly feisty, outspoken, tenacious and resilient girl – full of mischief and laughter – who came from a poor but strong and resilient community. You can choose to see the negative, but can also also choose to find the positive.
We can all disagree on our top 20 books, but what we want is to have as many vibrant voices and as many prizes as possible. There is room for all sorts of opinion. We may disagree but we do not need to undermine each other. We can respect each other as individuals, have discussions, and not assume that because our own experience has made us who we are that this invalidates another person’s alternate experience of the world. Laughter, pain, compassion and kindness are shared human emotions.
Irene Staunton is pictured with Jesese Mungoshi in the main photograph. Photographs are the property of Fungai Machirori.