Woes of the Country’s Young Fiction Writers

When Gerald Malinga contacted one publishing company to have his novel manuscript published, the company’s manager told him it would take him more than twelve months to get a response – and even chances of it being rejected could not be ruled out.

“[The publisher] told me that the company had so many manuscripts,” he recollects.

He then approached a printing firm to print his manuscript into book form, before he started selling the book through supermarkets. Here he gives a negotiable commission for each copy sold. He says big bookshops in Kampala have refused to take his novel to their shelves, “because no one knows me so, the book may stay on the shelves for long with no one touching it”.

Bookshops gave him one option – to go and market himself and return.

“If Uganda knows you, we shall have no problem [with taking your novel],” said one bookshop manager. This, he says, is one of the hurdles standing in the way of young writers’ quest to get published.

But renowned Ugandan fiction writer Prof Timothy Wangusa aises young fiction writers like Malinga to serialise their work as a way of marketing it in the media.

“If it is good work, it will have its way,” says Wangusa, the author of Upon This Mountain and several other works.

Prof Wangusa’s aice is supplemented by Barbra Apolot, a librarian at the National Library of Uganda (NLU). She says that social media such as blogs can be helpful in marketing writers before they even put their works in book form.

“The other way is for these writers to attend as many book exhibitions as they can, and showcase their work,” Apolot adds.

And this is partly why Malinga travelled from Katakwi in eastern Uganda to attend the national book week activities, which concluded at the National Library of Uganda (NLU) last week. He was also on the list of six writers tipped for the public author reading for fiction works at NLU on April 22, taking a reading from his first novel The Dead Man Roars.

Whereas non-fiction writers, such as textbook authors, may have an easy ride – since some of these are funded and since their books will be read by students – fiction writers still have to grapple with Uganda’s poor reading culture. This culture explains why only 20 books are published in Uganda annually, text-books excluded.

Malinga’s situation is testament to what has happened to writing and marketing books in Uganda.

“It is only a few elites who have understood the cause of fiction writing and supported me. Others have not taken me seriously,” he says sadly. He blames it on the poor reading culture and lack of knowledge of literature – such as in preserving culture and condemning social ills.

For example, his novel explores the interaction between witchcraft and human sacrifice while his upcoming play is about the Teso culture.

According to Sr Dr Frances Nakiwala, a lecturer of Literature at Kyambogo University, the poor reading culture is rooted in excuses by many people, who say they are too busy to read big fictional works. Dr Nakiwala, also a playwright, aises writers to package their works in small volumes.

She also recommends that all university academic programmes should last four years, with one year committed to reading, among others.

“Literature should be taught right from form one,” the author of Burying The Hatchet and They Are All Children adds, reasoning that this will help students grow up to like reading – and writing sometimes, irrespective of their professions.

For instance, Malinga, a medical laboratory practitioner, says his inspiration for writing was drawn from Nigerian authors Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe, whose works he read as a literature student at Teso College Aloet in Soroti.

But some students are able to juggle their passion for writing while they pursue science combinations. One such student is 18-year-old Andrew Dembe.

Although he left his literature class to offer Physics, Chemistry and Mathematic at A-level, Dembe has maintained his passion for writing at Uganda Martyrs SS Namugongo. Dembe is the author of The Monster In Me, a novel he wrote in 2011, at the age of 11.

GOOD WORK?

Following Dr Nakiwala’s aice, several young people are writing books. For instance, the author reading award at last week’s reading week was won by Bonita Treasure Murungi, a pupil at Aga Khan PS, yet the shortlist included established authors. This year’s reading contest attracted fictional entries while the next contests will call for entries from other genres.

But Dembe has his worries. Old people do not believe that young people can publish books.

“When I had this book done, people were like ‘is it you?'” he says, before appealing: “I request them [adults] to support us the young people to write I think we are there but we need a hand.”

Nakiwala and Wangusa believe that the best way to help young fiction writers is by grooming them. Wangusa recommends writing workshops where peer reviewing of their works can be read among themselves. He also aises that young writers interact with reputable writers for guidance. Dr Nakiwala urges young writers to form reading clubs where they can easily carry out the peer reviewing recommended by Prof Wangusa.

But young writers can also learn from the example of Bonita and Dembe. While the latter had his book funded by his classmates, the former received support from his parents.

PUBLISHING WOES

Young writers like Malinga are shunning publishing with companies in favour of self-publishing but experts warn of risks with the latter.

According to Apolot, publishing with companies protects writers against unscrupulous abusers of the copyright law, such as reproduction without authorisation since publishers employ lawyers to detect such and take culprits to court.

“So, they fear to reproduce such they run for those which have been produced by individuals,” she says.

On the challenges faced with having publishing companies accept manuscripts from young writers should keep trying their luck with established companies after all success will not come easily. She notes that the benefits associated with publishing with a company, such as marketing both the book and the writer, are worth the persistence.

But for now, young writers will need to realise, like Dembe did, that, “Writers are not dead Englishmen but we are the writers”.

Source : The Observer

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