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Building Literary Communities

Small Presses, Creative Writing Workshops & Literary Prizes in Africa

Lucky Grace Isingizwe

Building a career as a writer in East Africa is no easy endeavour. No colleges or universities in the region offer creative writing as a major. In primary and secondary schools, it's simply dismissed. For emerging African writers, small presses are more than a way to publish your work; they become a lifeline for learning writing craft and building networks that nurture connections and opportunities.

I’ve been working for Huza Press across editorial, marketing and sales for the last three years but I first encountered this Kigali-based publisher as a writer. The course of my life took an unprecedented direction when I was shortlisted for the 2016 Huza Press Prize for Fiction for my story ‘Beyond Repair’. All the shortlisted writers participated in a workshop with two of the judges – Zukiswa Wanner and Paula Akugizibwe – and for the very first time, I received commentary on my writing.

Through this and more workshops that followed, I began a conversation with Louise Umutoni about working for Huza Press while I pursued my BA in Mass Media and Communications at Mount Kenya University Rwanda. Part of what was attractive to me about this offer was that Huza Press were suggesting this was a way in which they could champion and support my work as a writer, with an emphasis on the role of providing opportunities for me to build both my writing skills and networks.

Working with Huza Press has brought a million opportunities to my door, including the opportunity to see my work published in print. Very often small presses based in Africa play a role in connecting local communities of writers to larger literary initiatives or institutions based elsewhere on the continent or in the global North.  So in 2018 when the Caine Prize for African Writing decided to host their annual workshop in Rwanda, Huza Press partnered with them not only on logistics and a public event but to recommend writers from the region to take part. This is how I, and other local writers including Darla Umutoni and Daniel Rafiki, came to be part of the Caine Prize anthologies (2017 and 2018). Similarly this year we are excited about working on events in Kigali with Commonwealth Writers.

Very often small publishers in Africa are connected to or embedded within literary institutions that do more than publish books. Ouida Books in Lagos for example is the brainchild of Aké Arts and Books Festival’s Director, Lola Shoneyin.  Nairobi’s Kwani Trust was known for a flagship journal alongside a biennial literary festival and creative writing workshops. In East Africa the Kampala-based Centre for African Cultural Excellence (CACE) has played a particularly key role in nurturing early career Africa-based writers through curating the Writivism festival and literary prizes. Over the last two years, CACE have begun producing their own anthologies – first Odokonyeroand in 2019 Unbreakable Bonds. Having initially submitted work to one of Writivism’s literary prizes, I was beside myself with joy when Writivism approached me about having work published as part of Unbreakable Bonds– a project that connected East African writers and photographers on the continent and in the UK.

Over the next ten years, I want to have at least two well-bound books under my name. But who are the Africa-based small presses who might publish my full-length novel or creative non-fiction? While Huza Press in the long-term wants to become commercially sustainable through its publishing, for now the book-buying and distribution networks in Rwanda and East Africa make this very tough. As such the books we publish are dependent on us securing external funding for individual projects, rather than being books acquired through our general submissions process. While there are exciting small presses beyond Rwanda that I might look towards – from Paivapo Publishers (Kenya), Sooo Many Stories (Uganda), Parresia Books (Nigeria), Ouida Books (Nigeria), Farafina Books (Nigeria), Weaver Press (Zimbabwe), Modjaji (South Africa), Indigo Press (which is based in the UK but publishes African writers) – each year they are able to take on perhaps 1 or 2 new books by individual writers.

Knowing the opportunities for publication are small can be disconcerting for writers and means there is a significant volume of self-publishing in the region. But for me this makes it even more important to recognise the work small presses can do in building literary communities beyond the production of physical books. Small presses in Africa from Huza Press to Bakwa to Storymoja become our schools for creative writing. Huza Press has been mine. When small presses are founded, they very often explicitly take on a responsibility to nurture and bring together communities of writers through workshops, through creating online discussion spaces and through literary prizes. Small presses on the continent are also very good at working together rather than as competitors, and sharing writers and books. So if I learn long enough to write a very good book and publishers who like my work aren’t able to take me on, I hope they might recommend me to a publisher who can.

This dialogue and exchange between small presses is how things have worked so far. Books are released here and there and most readers only can’t wait to get their hands on new books. But before that, publishers in small presses vouch for writers and other publishers in small presses take the time to read the work of those writers and ultimately, a book happens. They don’t vouch for them because they are friends. Rather, because they know how committed the writer has been. Because they know how much time they spent learning to grow their craft, and most importantly, because the writer’s work is worth publishing, and their story needs to be read.

It’s a very long journey to start from a short story, and end at a full book. And this is what I hope to achieve.

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