The building was an old red-brick industrial looking building in the heart of the seedy-but regenerating King’s Cross area of London. The large banner strung out in front proclaimed, ” Picador Africa Launch” and so I made my way in. I was in the right place. I found myself in a glass atrium, decorated with huge posters and picture displays of various authors, including our own Chris Abani, whose first novel, Graceland is garnering critical attention in the United States. At one end of the atrium was a trio of drums, which looked vaguely South African, but had what appeared like Bini swords stuck in them. On a leather sofa, a white haired English gentleman was being interviewed by a black journalist. At another end, a table laden with drinks stood, the ubiquitous red wine, white wine and orange juice of publisher’s cocktail parties. It appeared I was slightly early, and so I made my way round, reading the names of the Picador Africa authors – Moses Isegawa, the Ugandan author of the Abyssinian Chronicles, Lisa Fugard, daughter of the fabled Athol, Jonathan Kaplan, South African surgeon and author of The Dressing Station, Steve Biko, Eskia Mphahlehle, Alexandra Fuller, Zimbabwean author of Don’t Lets Go to the Dogs Tonight and David Cohen.
It was a summer evening and the atrium soon filled with men clad in the almost obligatory linen suits, tan, blue, grey and green and women in jewel-coloured light summery dresses. One of the men, looking vaguely familiar approached me and asked if I was one of the Picador authors. I demurred, introducing myself and he told me he was David Cohen, a writer with the London Evening Standard and one of the Picador authors. I then remembered that his picture often appeared above his column in the Evening Standard which accounted for his apparent familiarity. I asked politely about his book, People who have Stolen From Me and learnt that it is not yet available in the UK but is doing well in South Africa. Much later in the evening, I realized he had also written a book – Chasing the Red, White and Blue which I had enjoyed tremendously on my flight to Washington earlier in the year. The book, a travelogue retracing the footsteps of nineteenth century French intellectual Alexis De Tocqueville in his journeys across America, had painted a vivid picture of contemporary America and its democracy, and served as a welcome backdrop for my first visit to the United States.
I soon moved on to greet Kadija Sesay, publisher of Sable literary magazine and Secretary of African Writers Abroad PEN Centre who had arranged my invitation to this event. I clutched my glass of wine, as she introduced me to a number of people- writers, agents, publishers, journalists. She seemed to know everyone, hardly surprising as she has been vibrantly involved in the African literary scene in London for quite some time.
There was a lull in the conversation, allowing us briefly to hear the slow frenzy of the drums which had been drowned out by the buzz and then a gentleman casually dressed in a white shirt and dark trousers moved to the lectern to welcome us. It turned out he was Richard Charkin, CEO of Macmillan UK, and he informed us that we were standing in the middle of a converted brewery, the headquarters of Macmillan in the UK. He apologized that the food had not yet arrived “in true African time”. He then talked about looking at the list of top selling books that week and his pleasure that Macmillan was well-represented on it, by Wilbur Smith, who was present. He mused about the other books on the list- Being Jordan by Katie Price, a notorious publicity seeking ex model A Royal Duty by Paul Burrell, The late Princess of Wales’ butler- and opined that there must be other things to publishing than churning out celebrity memoirs. He outlined the ethos behind Macmillan, saying that they did not believe in following trends, in joining mad bidding wars and spending lots of money. Instead, he said Macmillan believed in publishing the best authors and letting them speak, not only to the readers out there, but also to schools and universities as well. He reiterated a belief in the freedom to publish, explaining that the decision to launch Picador Africa came from Africa, was made by Africans and received the support of the parent company. He then added a caveat “So long as they don’t go bust in the process” which elicited nervous laughter. He then introduced Dusanka Stojakovic, Managing Director of Pan Macmillan South Africa to speak about Picador Africa, the latest addition to the stable.
Dusanka, dressed in a light green sleeveless linen dress moved to the lectern, thanked Richard and explained that Picador Africa had been launched a few weeks earlier in Johannesburg at an impressive ceremony. She talked about her excitement at seeing this dream come to fruition, making reference to the long history of struggle literature in South Africa. She recalled the underground publication of Steve Biko’s I Write What I Like and Ellen Kuzwayo’s Call Me Woman in the seventies and marvelled that they were being reissued now by Picador Africa. She explained that there is a groundswell of interest in African writing and that Picador Africa intends to nurture this. She spoke of some of the notable successes of Picador, particularly New Zealander Keri Hulme, whose book, The Bone People, became a worldwide bestseller. She also spoke of how South Africa was still in the process of redefining itself, citing the example of the notorious Section Four of the Constitutional Court building where both Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi were held, which has been kept open as a reminder and testament. She said that as South Africa moved from protest and resistance to affirmation and inquiry, Picador Africa would support and document the process. In her words, Picador Africa would seek to publish the best of African writing, and to sell it to Africans and the world.
The next speaker was Vicky Unwin, publisher of Heinemann African Writers Series from the eighties to the early nineties. She began by saying that Picador Africa was taking over the baton from a long and proud history of publishing African writing.She recounted the long history citing examples from Achebe to most recently Chimamnda Adichie. She lamented the decision to close the African Writers Series as appalling, a statement that drew a sympathetic murmur from the audience. Speaking from experience, she repainted the changes in the African book marketplace in the eighties and nineties which were partly driven by the global recession, and which saw a decline from an output of 15 to 20 books a year in the sixties to a massive drop in sales which led to threats of closure. She described how she tackled the problem, fighting to keep the series going, changing the format from the old orange back editions to more colourful editions to reach not just the educational market but to compete with trade paperbacks and improve accessibility. She spoke of her delight in adding new authors such as Biyi Bandele who are now acknowledged voices on the contemporary scene, and of lobbying successfully for the inclusion of African and Caribbean writing on the school curriculum in the UK.
In the final part of her speech, she highlighted the lessons learned from her experience calling Picador Africa a unique opportunity to publish African writers in Africa but also with the advantages of global distribution. As literacy increased in Africa, she said, Picador would need to build on this foundation, adding a strong plea for affordable prices to ensure wide availability and access. She recalled the legacy of the African Writers series in the breadth of its coverage across Francophone and Lusophone Africa and urged that Picador explore translations as well. She made a special plea for poetry, even as she agreed that it was difficult to make profitable, but insisted that it was important to support its development. Her final special plea was that Picador remember politics, recalling the blue backed editions of the African Writers Series which published Mandela and Kaunda in the sixties. Wishing Picador Africa, every success, following in honoured excellent footsteps, she concluded her speech.
As I circulated in the audience, I met Nii Ayi Kwei Parkes, a young Ghanaian poet based in London whose work I had earlier read and admired in Wasafiri, the African literary journal. He was chatting to Stella Ahmadou, a Nigerian writer who spoke of the challenges of writing amidst numerous family and other commitments. By this time, the food had arrived and as I tucked into the beans, plantains and moi-moi served, I chatted to other guests.
Of particular interest was Charlotte Rolfe, of the Aldridge Press, one of the moving forces behind the Macmillan Prize for African Children’s Literature. She informed me that Osita Okoroafor, a friend and law school contemporary of my younger brother was one of three winners of this year’s prize with his book, Begotten of The Gods. As we chatted about African literature, it turned out that she had worked for Longman’s in Nigeria briefly in the early seventies and knew Az Echebiri, a close family friend and current Deputy Managing Director of Longmans Nigeria then.
Also present was Tayo, a young Nigerian journalist and writer who writes for New Age and whom I asked to carry back my greetings to his editor, Nduka Otiono on his return to Lagos later in the week.
I also had the opportunity to talk to Dusanka in more detail and she revealed that it was their intention to publish twenty-five books from all over Africa each year. To achieve this, she said they were soliciting for good quality manuscripts, a statement that surprised many, especially when she insisted that there was no slush pile where unsolicited manuscripts would be dumped. To prove her point, she gave me permission to publish her address in my piece adding that they would be delighted to receive manuscripts from African writers. She explained that Picador was going to publish Moses Isegawa’s second book as well as Alexandra Fuller’s second book and Chris Abani’s Graceland in South Africa.
I asked Vicky Unwin what she did now and she revealed that she is in the process (with others) of setting up a new serious English newspaper to be called The World. According to her, it will contain absolutely no celebrity news, just the serious stuff. I wished her well in her new endeavour and promised to stay in touch. Before I left the venue, David Cohen introduced me to his wife, Pam who spoke of how much she missed South Africa even though they had lived in London for over ten years. At the train station, I ran into Nii again, who told me about his future plans as we marvelled at a situation where even agents who ought to be scrambling for new talent now refuse to accept unsolicited manuscripts. As I made my way home, I marvelled at the paradox, and wondered if Picador Africa would live up to its promise. Even though it may be too early to tell, it certainly is a fresh opportunity to showcase African writing.
Manuscripts (clearly marked Picador Africa) can be sent to Pan Macmillan South Africa, PO Box 411717, Craighall, Johannesburg 2024, South Africa.
Anya, a Nigerian medical doctor and writer is currently at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.