The wide, open territory of general books is becoming narrower by the day.
And, according to Malawi Writers Union president, Sambalikagwa Mvona, the threat to authors of books on general, other than academic, issues is not being posed by outside forces: “It’s textbook writers and publishers who threaten the survival of other writers, especially those whose focus is not on helping students pass examinations.”
Mvona, one of Malawi’s established writers, is not speaking from a position of ignorance.
He remembers that, not long ago, before commercial interests started dominating the world of publications, a golden glow suffused the bookshelves.
Not that it is wrong to publish textbooks books and stock them on the bookshelves, he enthuses, acknowledging that academic books play the role of an engine that liberates users from ignorance.
He, however, observes that textbooks can quickly turn into an instrument of repression for creativity, especially when publishers prioritise them, at the expense of other books.
“Authors who specialise in general issues are failing to get the opportunity to sell their books simply because publishers have developed a preference for textbooks. All of a sudden, the bookshelves are dominated by textbooks.
“Books authored by those who cater for the general public are being ignored. This means writers are being denied the right to eke out a living, and readers are being deprived of the chance to read general books. General books are being stocked at the back of book shelves in book stores,” says Mvona.
Mvona says, consequently, Malawian youths have developed the culture of “reading in order to pass examinations; instead of reading and studying books in a bid to widen their knowledge horizon. This is a disaster in the making”.
The veteran writer says, when students have achieved their purpose of passing examinations, they forget about books altogether, thereby fermenting that shameful culture of book phobia in the country. He says Malawian readers and policymakers should realise that general stories, told either through fiction or non-fiction books, help people live fruitful lives.
It is, in a way, like what author Joan Didion observes in the opening line of his work, ‘White Album, when he says: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”
Mvona observes that too much focus on textbooks has a way of negatively affecting a nation because “all work without pleasure fails to satisfy the imagination”.
He says what distinguished fiction books from academic ones is their ecstatic embrace of impossible, sometimes amusing, impossibilities.However, this sentiment is not new. The author of ‘Stress for Success’, Peter G. Hanson, once observed that, “If you don’t close the door to your work, it spills over into other areas of your life, making it hard to give anything your full attention- particularly leisure.”
“The end result,” says Mvona, “Are bored people. We need to serve the interests of textbook authors and general authors for the nation to develop,” he says.
As things stand, Mvona observes, it is as if textbooks are a fatal seduction, distracting us from the entertaining light things in life and the fertility of the imagination. The current trend pins our future to reading to pass examinations and nothing else.
While the saturation of textbooks on the shelves makes the situation appear as if it has become easy to get one’s work incorporated in school curricula, the situation on the ground is different.
Historian and renowned author, Dr. Desmond Dudwa Phiri, who has 20 books to his credit, says curriculum developers seem to have a disdain for Malawian books.
“I have authored both textbook and general books but curriculum developers do not appreciate our efforts. I have authored books on the country’s history- History of Malawi Volume 1 and History of Malawi Volume 11, but they, still, are not included in our school curricula. Yet these are the only books in Malawi that cover our history from the earliest period, the Amwandionerapati, to the 2009,” says Phiri, adding:
Yet Phiri is no ordinary man. In 2009, he was elected by the Pan-African Press Association to the executive club of 23 great African writers after assessing three samples of history and play writing. The only other elected writer came from Zimbabwe, meaning that only two authors from Central Africa made it into the exclusive club.
Some of his books, including ‘The Chief’s Bride’, were in the school curriculum in Botswana for five years. Just recently, he signed a contract with a Kenyan publisher and bookseller to reprint one of his works.
“We are not getting the support we need. In my case, my books sell more outside the country than Malawi. This should not be the case. We work very hard, in the service of the nation, but we have very little to show for it, and this is because of failure to appreciate the great minds we have in this country,” says Phiri.
Business versus charity
On their part, booksellers say they cannot shoulder the blame of fronting textbooks at the expense of other equally-important books because they are in business first.
But Book Sellers Association of Malawi interim president, Maureen Masamba, describes assertions that book sellers prioritise textbooks for the sake of wads of cash attached to them as “a difficult opinion”.
“To begin with, we just provide the platform for authors to sell their books. We are not the owners of the books; we just sell them. The process starts with publishers, who decide what books to publish and, on our part, we generate money through commission,” says Masamba.
Masamba, however, acknowledges that textbooks sell more copies than other books.
“From our perspective, as outlets, if we place a book of fiction next to a textbook, we are likely to sell the textbook quicker than the other book. Again, this goes back to our reading habits. People are reading books with the aim of passing examinations nowadays. As people who are in business, we capitalise on this demand,” observes Masamba, adding:
“If writers have a complaint, it should be directed at the lack of a reading culture in the country. Due to this culture (of not reading), other books even gather dust on the shelves while textbooks exchange hands very quickly.
Thus, stocking books for the sake of it is no longer a viable option for the vast majority of book buyers, and booksellers are just dancing to the rhythm of massive appeal.
Book Publishers Association of Malawi president, Alfred Msadala, says publishers appreciate the value of books, but consider issues of their own survival when it comes to making decisions on which books to publish and, in effect, make available on the market.
“The publisher is a business person who has to generate working capital from his business. Without that (working capital), we close shop,” says Msadala.
Msadala has working examples. He cites the case of MacMillan Malawi.
“Do you know why MacMillan Malawi is no longer operating on the (local) market? They were barred (from stocking textbooks) by the World Bank and are serving suspension for six years. Because they were barred, they realised that they could not generate enough working capital by publishing the other types of books that cover issues such as myths, legends because of low financial returns,” says Msadala.
In other words, enthuses Msadala, publishers have to know why they are there. Of course- and authors of general books may not like this- the publishers are in business.
No wonder then that, increasingly, the musings of authors are inflected with a scent for money. The textbooks have simply become the fountainhead of this money-revolution!