ZIMBABWE’S literary scene has had its moments. But presently it appears to be dying, kicking weakly and perhaps breathing its last breath. I know literature lovers may disagree with me on this but the facts are there on the ground for everyone to see. It’s a public secret that the sector has been too quiet, with little exciting news and very few literary activities to sing about — nothing new and exciting has come out of publishers recently except textbooks.
Motivated by sales local publishers now focus mainly on textbooks for survival. Novel publication has become a side job, an extra-curricular activity.
The argument by publishers is that local people don’t buy novels and so publishing them would be a bad investment. Consequently, the few novels you find on the shelves of bookshops these days are either foreign novels or, if they are Zimbabwean, old novels published long back. In Bulawayo only Amabooks have been publishing novels and other works of fiction but they are just a small publisher struggling to publish a book per year. Most writers have resorted to self-publishing with little success.
Given the sad scenario one can easily be forgiven to think and even conclude that the Zimbabwean literary sector is comatose, and about to die. And when you are about to declare it dead something happens to give local writers and lovers of literature some big hope. Zimbabwean writers, under very difficult conditions, continue to make the country proud. How they do it I always wonder. It is more of a miracle.
Women writers in particular have been breaking ground, telling Zimbabwean stories to the world under very unsupportive conditions. Not so long ago we all couldn’t stop screaming about NoViolet Bulawayo and her debut novel We Need New Names. We jumped all over the place like otsheketsha who had just discovered gold.
NoViolet Bulawayo’s book got a few international awards and a lot of attention from the literary world and suddenly there was real hope for fiction writing in the country. Just last week she received another international award! Several other women writers have also been doing well and representing the country. Bryony Rheam has done well. Novuyo Rosa Tshuma, who has been on a residence in Europe, just dropped her second novel House of Stones. Valerie Tagwirei and Melissa Tandiwe Myambo have also exhibited serious writing talent. But our writer of the moment has to be none other than Petina Gappah, the lawyer and writer who with her forthcoming fourth novel seem to have finally made it real big!
‘‘I am delighted to say that Livingstone’s bones have found a wonderful new home in New York. After a truly terrific, and terrifying auction involving eight publishers, my novel, OUT OF DARKNESS, SHINING LIGHT will be published by Scribner.’’ She announced this past week on her facebook page to the delight of many of her friends and fans. In her excitement Petina told the world that her deal with Scribner publishers is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars! She talked six figures! And for the uninitiated Scribner is big. They are also Stephen King’s publishers. This alone should give you an idea on how big they are.
I remember some years Petina Gappah refusing to be called an ‘‘African writer’’ saying she was a writer and not interested in labels that will end up confining her. I think she knew her talent was much bigger than some of the labels we rush to give our writers.
In the past we have talked about the Dambudzo Marecheras, Chengerai Hoves and Shimmer Chinodya winning international awards and raising the Zimbabwean flag high. Never have any of our writers struck such a huge deal before. Petina Gappah’s book deal is historic and makes her one of Zimbabwe’s most successful writers, if not the most successful. This fit alone needs to be celebrated as it inspire many writers to continue dreaming big. For many writers who were about to give up on their dreams Petina’s fit tells us that there is still a big market out there for good writing and good stories. It says to many of us keep writing and keep dreaming. And I believe it’s high time our children started reading her books in classrooms. She has earned her stripes and proved beyond any reasonable doubt that she is one of the best, if not the best.
Let me end this piece with the words of Yvonne Vera, another giant writer in her time, she said:
“A woman writer must have an imagination that is plain stubborn, that can invent new gods and banish ineffectual one . . .’’
I think Yvonne Vera was talking about the likes of Petina Gappah.