Elizabeth Johnson on the literary scene in Ghana, who’s building it, and the value of publishing on the continent.
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Across Africa, the literary space is seeing an increase in the number of magazines, journals and organisations putting out outstanding work from across the continent. For many of these new spaces – often set up by writers and poets themselves – the priority remains the writer on the continent. The sudden rise in interest in African Literature (a term which, in itself, continues to raise several debates) has revealed the need for more writers on the continent to have platforms for their work, and the opportunity to develop their literary journeys and careers. True, more publishing and media houses are now looking at African Literature – not just to publish, but for their book clubs, film projects and general engagement. But the kind of African literature getting more interaction is predominantly written by Africans who aren’t on the continent, and who are not published by African – or, more specifically, African-based – publishing houses.
In Ghana, the story is no different. Often referred to as the Literary Community (perhaps in the fear that the space is still too small to be referred to as an industry), events, platforms, opportunities, journals and prizes are cropping up and giving more spotlight to writers in Ghana. In recent times, platforms like Tampered Press, Church of Poetry, Contemporary Ghananaian Writers Series and Nadeli Creative Company are working hard towards these objectives. There are also several non-profit organisations such as the Writers Project of Ghana, with its weekly radio show and annual literary festival, and Pa Gya! A Literary Festival in Accra whose most recent journal publishes works by Ghanaian writers. And there’s The Library of Africa and the African Diaspora and its residencies, Readers Truss, Poetry Association of Ghana, and Ehalakasa. They’re all using their platforms to create space and visibility. So if all this seems to be happening, and if Ghana is witnessing its most vibrant and fast-growing literary scene to date, what seems to be the problem?
As an individual, I find my relationship with the literary space a complex one. As a writer and literary producer (and, by extension, a cultural producer), I am often on both sides of the coin, looking for opportunities for my writing – be it fiction, poetry or non-fiction – while also working with organisations to create space and opportunities for writers to showcase their work. With my work as a producer continuously expanding, I have to admit that my writing has seen a decline. But the position does put me in a sweet spot, able to see things at a much larger scale, often weighing stuff as creator (writer), creator (literary producer), and consumer (avid reader).
So, what seems to be the problem? There’s the universal problem of funding, of course. But while funding in the creative space is a challenge all over the world, Ghana faces a unique problem in not having a system where organisations, individuals and events are funded locally – of a local sector and government institutions with little interest in supporting the space.
The scene relies heavily on external funding. Organisations and individuals look to foreign cultural bodies to support their work, events and programmes, and this also goes beyond the monetary. Events are held at these foreign agencies, and while this is vital in supporting the local scene, and by all means should be appreciated, I do often wonder what it would mean to have more local investors interested in supporting the scene – what that would mean to the writer based in Ghana, on the continent.
Earlier in this piece, I raised the delicate issue of Ghana possibly not having a local literary “industry”. Due to the limited resources and opportunities available, focus is often placed on the writer or, in general, the individual who is creating work for consumption, to build the platforms and open up the opportunities – organising the festivals, readings, performance events, and the likes. These, again, are all well and good, but the question is, how much can these really do? At literary events, conversations on ‘next steps’, ‘possibilities’, ‘the way forward’ always find a way of coming up. If the industry does not live to move things beyond discussions, won’t we find ourselves in the same dilemma ten or twenty years from now, where talent keeps on increasing, but an industry to support them barely exists?
What we are unable to build – or, better put, struggling to build – is an industry that enables the chain of departments needed to grow the space and help expand its reach. Ghana lacks a healthy number of literary agents, editors, translators and publishers who are interested in literary work rather than just textbooks for schools. The scarcity of agents and editors means that the number of writers emerging and trying to develop a career isn’t being met with literary professionals who are able to refine their work and sell it to a publishing house. In turn, the scarcity of publishing houses means that access to books stays low – not just in the country, but on the continent more broadly. Writers and consumers in neighbouring countries – Ghana and Togo, for example – are unable to engage with each other properly, not only due to language barriers and a paucity of literary translators, but also because of book distribution complexities. Dare I forget to mention that the little publishing happening locally also can’t be met by the capacity of local printers, who often having to outsource internationally, meaning books are shipped back into the country, increasing prices and decreasing accessibility even more.
The complexity of the challenges cannot be overlooked. But there is a need to see how local institutional and governmental interest can go a long way in supporting the promising scene. It would also help the spread of literature within Ghana; the majority of platforms, organisations and events are based in Accra, alienating literary enthusiasts and activists outside the capital.
I often wonder about the potential of a Ghanaian writer being published in Ghana and selling a million books (or, if that’s still a reach, a couple of hundred thousand copies) – not impossible in a country with a population of over 30m. What are the possibilities if this same writer is then being marketed across the continent, to a population of over a billion? Would writers, agents and editors need to look outside the continent to be able to be successful? Of course, achieving global acclaim cannot be compared to success within country or even a continent. But starting from a home-grown audience and winning your success from them always means better. I am looking forward to the day that a writer from, and living in, Ghana gains worldwide acknowledgement because their work gained local success first. I’m also looking forward to a time when publishing firms in Africa sell writing to international houses, rather than buying rights to African’s stories for African readers from rightsholders outside the continent. Growth in local investment does go a long way in ensuring that opportunities aren’t seasonal, or dependent on foreign interest. It also means that more people can have careers in the literary industry – as editors, producers, agents, publishers, translators. It means that we can have more writers dedicating their time to being writers, and not having to moonlight as editors and publishers. To cut a long story short: intentional growth of a proper industry, no matter how small, will go a long way for the individual and community of the literary space.
This year, I was selected as a participant for the 2022 AKO Caine Prize Writing Workshops, an opportunity which, in turn, created the opportunity for this essay. The two-week workshop helped produce a good short story, ‘A Mind to Silence’, and enabled the enlightening experience of working closely with editors from the continent. I witnessed what it means when the local industry is supported. I was camped with equally amazing writers from Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and other parts of Africa, many of whom I hadn’t heard about until the workshop. Because the programme took place outside Accra, it also created the opportunity to engage with young writers in schools outside the capital. The workshop also created several local engagements on radio, TV and podcasts, and ended with a number of literary events. This year, the AKO Caine Prize Anthology, A Mind to Silence and Other Stories, has been published by Cassava Republic Press. The book being published by a press on the continent is an important step. It will be exciting to see what it means for the accessibility of the books and the visibility of the writers, across national borders.
The AKO Caine Prize for African Writing is a registered charity whose aim is to bring African writing to a wider audience using our annual literary award. In addition to administering the Prize, we work to connect readers with African writers through a series of public events, as well as helping emerging writers in Africa to enter the world of mainstream publishing through the annual Caine Prize writers’ workshop which takes place in a different African country each year.
Elizabeth Johnson is a writer, researcher and cultural producer. She works with the Writers Project of Ghana (WPG) as a media and programs coordinator as well as the Manager for the annual literary festival, Pa Gya! A Literary Festival in Accra. She has also produced the LOATAD Symposium and WOMENFEST, a woman focused festival for the The Library of Africa and the African Diaspora (LOATAD). She is the co-founder of Arts and Thoughts Conversation and a regular moderator of cultural and literary events.
As a writer, her stories, poetry and articles have featured in a number of publications and platforms. Elizabeth is currently a resident with Oroko Radio where she produces and hosts the MnR Show, a show dedicated to Highlife Music and Creatives. She is a 2022 participant of the AKO Caine Prize writing workshops. She is also a 2021 alumni of Critlab. Her full time job is as a Teaching Assistant at Ashesi University.