As a recipient of the Arts Connects Us Grant I travelled to Ghana and Sierra Leone to meet with writers and publishing professionals working in the field of books for young readers to foster creative and collaborative exchanges between those contacts and publishing professionals and readers in the UK. This blog post is by necessity a focus on very specific meetings and conversations and is only a fraction of the encounters and connections I made.
I planned my visit to Ghana to coincide with the PaGya! Festival which is organised by Writers Project Ghana and the Goethe Institute. Over the course of three days writers and publishers gathered to talk about everything from poetry to narrative non-fiction, memoir to books for younger readers. There was a packed programme from morning until night with simultaneous events happening making the festival a positive and vibrant event. Speakers came from all over the world and their backgrounds, interests and perspectives ensured a well rounded and broad look at the world of writing with roots in West Africa.
Prior to the festival I had arranged several days of meetings with people involved in the world of children’s literature to talk about their work as writers and publishers and also to get to grips with the market in Ghana. It soon became very clear that not only is there a thriving publishing scene in Ghana it is one that is self-sufficient both in terms of talent and audience. I was told often that what readers in Ghana need is books that reflect their own reality - not imports or ‘charity’ deliveries which perpetuate the idea that book characters are white children for whom it snows in winter. Further more I was told that aid undermines the local publishing industry by flooding the market with books at prices that are unachievable to publishers locally who have not only the expense of creating the content for their books but also printing their books abroad and shipping them back to Ghana due to the lack of local printing facilities.
The publisher Delali Avemega started this company Fish & Plankton when he had children of his own and he wanted them to see themselves in the books he shared with them. His stories are firmly rooted in the local environment and represent everyday Ghanaian life as the background to each of the narratives. He is creatively dealing with the complex issue of distribution by working with a supermarket chain who are hosting standing units of his books in their outlets ensuring that his books get in front of family audiences everyday as they do their food shopping.
There is also the wonderful Golden Baobab prize which is managed by Deborah Ahenkorah based in Accra and is open to any African writer. It offers both a cash prize as well as the opportunity for publication and it was clear from the writers that I spoke to that the regard with which the prize is held ensures the highest caliber of submissions and great credibility for any author who wins the award. The prize is well known and respected on the continent and is a hothouse for nurturing and building talent.
My meetings with authors allowed me to understand the efforts being made to address the lack of home grown stories and the way in which authors are tackling the issue. The writer Ruby Goka, who writes for a young adult audience, is looking at important social themes in her books and writing about young people who may not often be portrayed in literature for young people. She writes about domestic workers, the rural poor and the disenfranchised and in so doing considerably broadens the range of stories available to readers.
I left Ghana feeling sure that there would be many possibilities for writers and publishers to collaborate with publishers in the UK and for readers in the UK to hear stories that broaden their idea of the literature from Ghana as well as broaden their idea of the lives of people in the country. My work now will be to ensure that I share what I found out with people here in the UK and to build opportunities for those voices to be enjoyed by readers. Already Elizabeth-Irene Beattie has written a story for SCOOP magazine which will be appearing in the February issue of the magazine and I am working with a number of authors that I met during my visit to help develop their writing with a view to submission to UK publishing houses.
Sierra Leone’s publishing environment is different to Ghana’s and more complex in terms of the conditions in which people are making and reading books. After a long civil war and the ebola crisis the country is struggling to find its feet and the local publishing scene is working hard to make locally produced books available to readers. PEN Sierra Leone is doing amazing work in publishing books both written and illustrated by local authors and artists and so far the publishing programme has focused on books for primary school aged children. In the central library the Chief Librarian Sallieu Turay celebrated the work being done by Pen and recognised that their efforts are at the forefront of the publishing industry in Sierra Leone. The next initiative from the organisation is to publish books for young adults with themes decided upon after consultation with young people asking them about issues that concern them. The themes are profoundly political: child marriage, FGM and the lack of access to education. It is clear in Sierra Leone that young people want the books that they read to reflect their demands for change. I look forward to seeing the books when they are ready in a few months time.
As everywhere writers in Freetown continue to work to sharpen their skills and raise their voices and I was lucky to be able to spend a wonderful afternoon at the Think Institute in Freetown talking to three writers whose work ranges from poetry and short stories to non-fiction about their writing and their ambitions to find audiences both in Sierra Leone and further afield. I am sharing their work with contacts in the UK to see if there is a way in which their voices can be shared with UK readers. Their energy and determination as well as their collaborative approach to their work lead me to believe it wont be long before their collective is known around the world.