Sunday, February 17, 2008

African, German Writers Discuss Common Challenges

By Edmund Mingle

Saturday, 16 February 2008

The challenges facing writers in the literature industry, especially in Africa, were the focus of discussion at a two-day historic meeting between the Pan-African Writers Association (PAWA) and the German Writers Union (GWU) in Accra that began last Sunday.
The problems confronting the writers include difficulties in securing publishers for the works, poor marketing and distributions structures and distortions in translations and low patronage.

However the challenges discussed did not take away the beauty of the historic meeting and its purpose of creating a platform for intercultural dialogue and collaboration between the two groups towards promoting the literary industry as well as improving the welfare of writers in Africa and Germany.

The meeting which set a good foundation for an effective cooperation between African and German writers had the theme: "Writers meeting in Accra: looking ahead."

Organised in collaboration with the Ghana Association of Writers and with support from the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, the meeting was also attended by leaders of the two bodies, renowned writers, critics and poets from Ghana, South Africa and Germany.

And the meeting did look ahead judging from discussions which sought identify shortfalls in the literature industry and develop ways to address them for the industry to effectively play its role in socio-economic development on nations.

Some of the topics were the "Relevance of literature in modern African society," "The rights of writers," "The role of Writers’ Associations" and "Intercultural dialogue."

Manu Herbstein, a distinguished novelist from South Africa, in his presentation on the rights of writers, illustrated the frustrations writers go through to secure publishers for their works.

For instance, he said it took him many years of failed promises from publishers before he got his award-winning book, "AMA, The story of the Atlantic Slave Trade"published.

Professor Atukwei Okai, Secretary-General of PAWA, described Mr. Herbstein’s frustrations with AMA, as the tip of the iceberg.

"There are many problems facing writers in Africa," he said, adding that in Ghana for instance, "publishers are bent on concentrating their resources in a hunt for government guaranteed textbooks at the expense of the development of general literature."

Imre Torok, President of GWU, who led the German team to the meeting, suggested that the PAWA should find ways of engaging publishers for enhanced collaboration for the publishers to understand the need to support writers.

He said in Germany, there was a high level of collaboration between the two parties, thereby providing a framework ensuring that publishers were enjoined to publish for writers work.

For his part, Setheli Ashong-Katai, a poet, said it was time for writers to institute measures to establish their own publishing house to avoid such frustrations.

"If we pull our resources together, we will realise that publishing is not all that expensive rather than continuously mourning over frustrations," he told his colleagues.

On the issue of publishing in local language, the participants were of the view that there was a need for African governments to make deliberate efforts to increase the use of local languages which reflect the identity of Africans, otherwise the languages will become extinct.

Dr. Mohammed Ben-Abdallah, a playwright and a former Minister of Education, described the inadequate publications in the local languages as unfortunate, saying that the problem was beyond just publishing.

"What is the point in publishing in local languages when schools and parents do not allow children to speak vernacular, let alone read it?" he asked.

He called for a stakeholders’ forum to discuss whether the teaching of local languages in schools should not be encouraged.

Bill Marshall, a playwright and novelist, observed that the quality of writers of local languages was an issue of concern, adding that if the publication in the local languages was to be taken serious, then the quality of writers should be improved.

Annelies Schwarz, a German novelist, speaking on intercultural dialogue, stressed the need for language barriers to be broken for an effective dialogue to take place.

That, she said, could be achieved through good translations of literary works into other foreign languages for publication.

Kwesi P. Anim-Addo, novelist, in his presentation on the topic "The relevance of literature in modern African society", urged African writers to use their literary works to positively influence the development of Africans by inspiring them to seek appropriate solutions to challenges that is confronting the continent.

"The African society is undergoing rapid modernisation, and the writer’s role is no less significant," he said.

At the end of the meeting, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between PAWA and GWU for further collaboration and strengthening of the cultural and artistic bond between the writers of their respective associations in Africa and Germany.

Among other things, the agreement enjoins the PAWA and GWU to engage in translation, publication, promotion, distribution, marketing and sale of each other’s literary works in their respective markets, as well as collaborate for joint publications and other literary activities.

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