‘In Europe, there is a horrible misconception of the African world’
The first Literary Crossroads in 2017 featured Indra Wussow, who is the editor of aE AfrikAWunderhornaE and a series of African fictions published in German publishing house, Wunderhornae. She is the founder of Sylt Foundation based in Johannesburg, South Africa and also a literary translator and journalist. She spoke about the reception of African literature in the German-speaking world – Germany, Switzerland and Austria. She was a guest of German Cultural Centre, Goethe Institut, Lagos, which had Dare Dan moderating
This is the fourth edition of the Literary Crossroad, and we are dwelling on the topic: Reception of African literature in the German-speaking world – Germany, Switzerland and Austria – we are very much pleased to have you, Indra. We have a writer who just came from your Sylt Foundation, Oris Airigbokhaevbol
Oris was actually in Sylt for three months. Funny enough actually because it was October, November, and December. It’s cold; it’s not a nice place in those months and I was like ‘are you sure you want to stay three months there?’ He said ‘yes, yes, yes!’ And I have never met him because I live in Johannesburg. So, I wasn’t there but apparently he had a fabulous time and he wrote a lot and, of course, German winter could be nice, too.
How many years have you been in contact with African literature, particularly when you look at the array of activities, projects, places and people that you’ve met, and made contact with in the long years of your engagement?
I think 15 years already, which is quite a lot, and, of course, it’s a journey of learning and growing because we started actually with South African literature and we had all our residencies observed in Germany. Out of this came a lot of other activities. In 2008, we started the series of African writing. We published three books, which makes us unique in the literary landscape. There are a lot of translations and a lot of African books published in Switzerland, and Austria but it’s with different publishers but we are the only one that has a series of fiction that depicts Africa as ‘a continent, not a country.’
How did it start for you? Was it accidental or have you always had it planned from the very beginning that you were going to take this role?
Actually, I started with comparative literature and, of course, I was always interested in discussing the different literary ideas and traditions in different countries, in negotiating the different literary cultures and traditions in different countries, at different times, to understand how we perceive our world through literature. The other thing comes out of actually being politically interesting. I met all these people that fought against Apartheid when I was very young. When I was 12, one of my heroines was Winnie Mandela; she sat there while her husband was in prison and she was in exile in her own house and country. People try, writers try to overcome conditions they live in and out of this came more and more knowledge and more engagement.
When you publish books in Europe, I assume that you buy the rights from, maybe publishers. Is that the case?
You know, there are literary agents, who are African publishers as well. We choose books; try to get the rights. That is an interesting point as well because African literature is quite inflectional. You don’t get all the rights that you want, which was different in 2009. For example, Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s book, Tram 83, was actually one of my writers and residents on Sylt and he loved to be published with us but then there came a big publisher who offered him such a wonderful big sum of money and, of course, he felt bad, and I said, ‘no Fiston, it’s fine you have to do this because it’s a big chance for you because we are still a small publisher.’
I am just interested in how much you engage publishers that are based on the continent and how interested you are in publishing books that are being published by African publishers as opposed to books that are published in the west but authored by Africans?
I mean, that’s a very difficult point, and very important because obviously, usually those writers, who are published by international publishers are more on the radar than others. And because I do live in South Africa, and I have some access to local publishers, it is easier for me to find others, but yet these others don’t sell. Lola Shoneyin (author of The Secret Lives of baba Segi’s Wives and organiser of Abeokuta-based Ake Art and Book Festival) is a wonderful example. She is an amazing editor and had a lot of success, not only because it was an interesting book, but because there was also good marketing that could have been involved. Who she is, what she does is very important, too, and also for a writer, who is thinking, ‘oh well, I am published in Germany and then you don’t sell;’ you know, it’s sad, too.
Having a book out there doesn’t mean money success. For example, in our Wunderhornae series, our most sold book is actually Helon Habila’s Oil on Water, and it actually happened, but Helon was furious because it was perceived as a crime story and because people thought ‘oh wow, it’s a crime story, a white woman being kidnapped; how cool this is! This is how we think Africa is.’ So, it is actually playing on wrong perception. Then Helon tried so hard to explain that it is much more. It is the coming of age of a young journalist in a very difficult country. But you know, it always came up to ‘a white woman being kidnapped.’
Also, when you sell or if you edit something abroad, you would have to do it, of course, with the perception of the ‘other’ and try to negotiate the space and put in a little bit more to get them engaged in the continent in a more diverse way. I mean, we did Shimmer Chinodya’s Strife; it was an incredibly important novel as he talks about how African cosmology is dealt with in Robert Mugabe’s dictatorship in Zimbabwe and what it means in this changing times. I can tell you openly (that) we sold over 400 books of those because this is something a German reader would want to know. We tried really hard, and it’s always good to engage in something new and still get people to buy things that are hard to get.
In these 15 years, what has been the most interesting project you have embarked on and why is it interesting for you?
I mean, all we do is: we go in to start somewhere, learn and start new things that we couldn’t have done at the beginning. For example, as a curator and as a Sylt founder, we started to do very interesting projects in seven different countries, where we deal with transformation and identity, trauma and reconciliation and we try to figure out how different countries respond to social changes and how they negotiate their space and their work. These Countries are Cambodia, Myanmar, South Africa, Chile, Cuba and Haiti. These are countries most people don’t know about and the writers also need a lot of support and they have so many important stories to tell. It would be wonderful for Nigeria to be part of this too.
You said the African story is in vogue right now. The impression we have here on the continent is that if we told our own stories they would have a better reception in the West, but you just mentioned that Helon Habila’s story, although it is not a crime-based story, it was received as a crime novel.
How has the reception been for African literature in the west? Is it really the time for Africa? Is Africa writing really the future?
I mean, there is sort of a boom. Almost every publisher has an African writer in his or her programme, but you can already see that it is shifting back to something else because we have the refugee crisis. People are trying to explain what is happening in the Middle East. So, all these Middle East writers are in focus and you wonder, or does it make another turn in telling refugees stories again? And I don’t hope so; I mean, it is part of it, but it is not the African story that many people believe. When you now visit Europe, there is a horrible misconception of the African world and whenever I say I live in South Africa, then they say the people live in the third world and all the people would like to go to Europe.
Everyone wants to save money to go to Libya and then sail to Europe. We try so hard to change this but the readers that are interested in the change of perception are hard to find. You mustn’t forget also, in a place like Germany, we have lots and lots of bookshops. For big publisher, the books are on a table; our books are in the shelves. So obviously, you would have to look for these books; you would have to find other ways with e-books, the Internet, to use. And this is also something one has to explore to just find writers and offer them a book. It isn’t a blessing if you don’t sell; it is a very sad thing, and so the idea to be out there in Europe with a book doesn’t mean that it will be successful. I have five colleagues that started first with editions and they no longer publish them because they don’t sell. So, it’s a difficult thing. I mean, we all work together. You need journalists; you need a society that is interested in these topics, lots of people working together to make it work.
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