Friday, August 14, 2015

Writing in Malawi: Dismantling Authors’ Collective Cross

There are books that give a couple of hours’ pleasure, like fellow-travellers on a journey or fellow-guests at a party, then pass out of our lives forgotten; there are books that satisfy mere curiosity— and die with it; and there are books that influence all our years. We may never reopen them; we may even forget them; but something in them has left its mark somewhere in our brains.”
When author F.L. Lucas introduced his book, ‘Greek Poetry for Every Man’, with the words above, he possibly had no idea that one Malawian would attempt to dilute the meaning of the expression that some books “pass out of our lives [and] are forgotten” by waging a war that would ensure that the books remain etched in our memories.
But this is what Mike Sambalikagwa Mvona, renowned writer, with 11 books to his credit, and Malawi Writers Union president, has set out to do. And he wants to do this not just locally; the world over.
Mvona argues that it is possible to create a world where booklovers no longer treat books as fellow travellers, valuing them for a short while before letting them slip out of memory, and life, forever.
“What we need to do is to value the contribution of authors in society by offering them better incentives than is the case. This will motivate the authors who will, therefore, create memorable works. As things stand, authors are given a raw deal,” says Mvona.
Mvona says, instead of courting happiness, authors live in a world of dissatisfaction.
“It is publishers, as opposed to authors, who are reaping the fruits in Malawi. The creator of the work, the author, is often left frustrated,” says Mvona.
The situation sharply contradicts the picture he had as a youth. As Mvona grew up, he liked Magwegwe Kondowe’s short stories, and thought that being an author in Malawi was as rewarding as being a bank manager.
Among other works, Magwegwe was famous for his short story, ‘The Pot Cracks’.
Had he known, Mvona would have appreciated the fact that the ‘high’ regard accorded to Magwegwe was ‘lower’ to that of the international writer Mvona also liked, Louis L'AmourL'Amourgained instant fame and success after publishing his first novel, ‘Hondo’, in 1953.
L'Amour was an American author of French ancestry and his books consisted of Western novels, historical fiction, science fiction, nonfiction, as well as poetry and short-story collections. ‘The Walking Drum’, ‘The Collected Short Stories of Louis L'Amour’, ‘Last of the Breed’ are some of his works.
“I just admired the writings of these authors and that was all,” recollects Mvona.
Maybe he took for granted the politics of an art he would later dearly embrace.

Global wings
Just when Mvona’s mind was getting used to the idea that his struggle for improved contract conditions for authors would be limited to the geographical setting of Malawi, the horizons opened up to him.
Roughly one-year-and-five-months ago, Mvona became the Vice Chairperson for the International Authors Forum (IAF), a global organisation which provides a platform where authors’ organisations share information and take action on issues affecting them worldwide.
According to IAF’s website,, “There is currently no other independent, global organisation representing authors’ interests in copyright and contracts, and in many countries authors are not formally represented at all. By creating a strong worldwide network of authors’ organisations, IAF can strengthen the presence of authors, and the effective representation of their rights on a global scale.”
Its work is premised on Article 27 (2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948. Reads the Article: “Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.”
So powerful is the IAF that, on March 24 this year, it supported U.S. arts associations that complained about one of the US College Art Association’s latest policies.
The organisations, which included the Graphic Artists Guild, National Press Photographers Association, American Photographic Artists, American Society of Media Photographers, Digital Media Licensing Association, and Professional Photographers of America, published a letter raising concerns with the US College Art Association’s ‘Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for the Visual Arts’.
Specifically, the letter questioned findings of a recent study that concluded that “copyright acts primarily as a barrier, encouraging self-censorship; and that artists are in an adversarial relationship with the marketplace”.
The organisations faulted the study findings by observing that the study failed to address commercial applications of fair use made by museums and non-profit organisations in the creation of objects for sale.
They then warned that, “Without participation from all of the stakeholders in the visual arts community there can be no consensus, let alone a set of “Best Practices in Fair Use for the Visual Arts”.
 Mvona says he treats his election into the global body as an opportunity to advance the interests of writers in developing countries.
Mvona says he is taking advantage of the fact that IAF is a member of the World Intellectual Property Organisation as well as the International Reprographic Rights Organisation to advance his agenda. 
“I was elected as Vice Chairperson for two reasons: To focus on the African continent and developing countries; and to try to bring into the basket a lot of developed and least developed countries.
“So far, I have been ensuring that authors’ rights are adhered to in contracts. My recently-published book, ‘A Guide to Writers and Artists’ Contracts’ is part of the efforts to ensure that the field is leveled. We want an end to the situation where publishers have more say than authors. Publishers are generating funds on our shoulders,” says Mvona.

Mvona’s plea to the world
While a one-year-and-five-months-old baby may be deemed too young to muster international languages, ‘international baby’ Mvona seems to be an exception.

According to the IAF websitehttp://internationalauthors.orgMvona highlighted the challenges facing African authors to an international audience in Seoul, South Korea, on October 29, 2014 in a presentation titled ‘Challenges Affecting Authors in Africa’.

Reads part of the presentation: “Publishers’ twist from Creative works to Textbooks. Their focus and eyes have turned to text-book publishing as they regard this field as an already available profit-making market that can off-set their printing cost easily as well as making huge profits once drafted into a school curriculum. With the already few publishing houses, very few novels are published and most young writers fail to clinch a publishing contract.  Hence many self-published books are on the market, many of which lack credibility.

“Due to a lack in [sic] publishers for fiction in Africa, most African novels are being published in either Europe or the United States of America. Most of these books are sold in those countries and to make them available in their own countries, the authors are asked to purchase or order them but due to financial challenges they usually fail to do so.

 “There is need to harmonise relations between publishers and writers in order to bridge the gap between these two parties. Publishers need to respect the role of an author as the engine or the owner of the intellectual property by, among other things, honouring the annual disbursement of royalties, adhering to the written contract and promotion of the author’s work.”

However, Mvona admits that being the IAF Vice Chairperson has not instantly turned a frustrating situation into a hopeful one.
“Of course, authors would expect that I should influence positive change and reverse the negative situation we are in immediately, but these things take some time. I, therefore, know that local authors are yet to feel the positive impact of my work.
“But I am doing something. I want to see an end to a scenario where authors do not see the contracts they are supposed to be party to. How does one sign a contract without seeing it? These things (success stories) will not be registered overnight, though,” says Mvona.
Will Mvona fall into the pit of religious prophets: Revered outside, forsaken at home? His tenure of office is the judge!

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