Archival Fever

This is the full text of the keynote speech that Bibi Bakare-Yusuf, co-founder and publishing director of Cassava Republic gave at the third annual Abantu Book Festival in Soweto, South Africa. She was named the 2018 Brittle Paper African Literary Person of the Year.

Archival Fever by Bibi Bakare-Yusuf

I am so happy to be here today.  To be on this stage and to share the Abantu vision. Before I begin, I want to say thank you, thank you for inviting me.  I always feel I am home when I am here. Joburg is my second home. London is my first and Nigeria, my third home.    

Let me begin, in 2003, I moved back to Nigeria to take up a position as a senior research fellow at Obafemi Awolowo university.  The plan was to embark on a research project exploring how Yoruba women experience and conceptualise erotic love (This was before Lola Shoneyin gave us an incline into the erotic universe of Yoruba women in her brilliant, tragic-comic debut novel The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives). My research was going to be substantive, thorough and deliciously juicy and it would preoccupy me for the next few years.  But, I was confounded by the empty bookshelves or lack thereof, in the middle-class homes I visited. As an avid reader who loved to talk about books, I looked into people’s shelves to get a sense of who they are and more importantly, their politics. Instead, many of the places I visited had empty bookshelves or when stocked at all, were filled with business, religious and self-help motivational books with titles like: ‘The Purpose Driven Life’, ‘Chicken Soup for the Soul’, ‘Rich Dad, Poor Dad’.  And the few times I spotted fiction it was Dan Brown or John Grisham.  

Really, I thought to myself, how do you build a civilisation or ignite the imagination based on such a meagre diet of Euro-American airport fiction and self-help books? Yes, I am judging! Where is the counter-balance? I wondered why Amos Tutuola, Mariama Ba, Bessie Head, Aminatta Forna, Zaynab Alkali, Paulin Hountondji, D.O. Fagunwa, Bernardine Evaristo or Ben Okri were missing from these shelves. These emptied of spirit bookshelves, this erasure of African voices and vibrancy from view became the inspiration to set up a publishing company, Cassava Republic Press. 


So, what I want to talk about today is why I have chosen the path of publishing and why I think it is necessary and urgent that we build a publishing infrastructure on the continent. It is not enough for us to say we must tell our own stories, if we don’t equally think or talk about the enabling infrastructure that supports the generation of those stories, the infrastructure that enables the circulation of ideas and the flow of knowledge. It is publishers who take stories from their raw state and turn them into food, food that may nourish or poison us. We have to talk about and acknowledge the unseen infrastructure that ensures that books are in circulation, because books, unlike print media or blogs, offer us some of the densest, extended and interpretive conversations we can have about the world around us.  It is also through books that some of the most enduring and pernicious images about Africa and black people persists.  Yet, books also have a redemptive potential and plenitude. It is through books that we come to learn and read about each other as Africans across our differences and continue to have a reason to gather (as we are here today) so that we can salivate over the apparent genius of the solitary writer while we sublimate the collective geniuses (the editor, book designer, proof reader, copy editor, publicist, sales people, indexer, the literary critic, the blogger, instagramer etc.) that are involved in the production of any one book for the celebration of the singular authorial voice.  

Still, even in the age of new socialising media, who can deny that a book as a material object is infinitely richer and more meaningful than any of the arts? This is because through the thick description they enable, all the other artefacts of civilisation (music, fine arts, film, science etc) can be folded and compressed into that singular object. In the book, worlds, cultures, emotions and habits of being are collected, dissected and revealed to us so that we can have different voices to converse with in that quiet moment of aloneness, or to whip out to stimulate debate, dialogue or forment a revolution.   

...many of the places I visited had empty bookshelves or when stocked at all, were filled with business, religious and self-help motivational books with titles like: ‘The Purpose Driven Life’, ‘Chicken Soup for the Soul’, ‘Rich Dad, Poor Dad’.

So today, I want to talk about why, despite its many ups and down, I am a publisher. I am a publisher because I love stories.  I am a publisher because I love ideas and I think ideas and words can change the content of our mind and transform our worlds and the norms we live by. I am a publisher because I like power, especially enabling and productive power which we must embrace.  Finally, I am a publisher because I am interested in the future. I am interested in contributing to and helping to shape what people in 100, 200 or even 500 years’ will be discussing and mulling over when they take a walk into the labyrinth of their past that is our present moment. I am interested in how we can create the archive of the future in the present.

The archive as a reservoir of and for memory is the place where ideas and material culture of historic interest or social relevance are stored and ordered. It is where society warehouses what it wants to remember and what it sees as worthy of remembrance, especially for the future.  Whether that archive is of literature, music, visual art, film, plastic art, buildings, I am interested in what future people will find that gives them a record, a sense of this present moment. Will they find only the record of African writing that has been served up from the conveyor belt of large corporate and indie publishing houses of western metropolis? Will some of the mediocre writing that is currently being peddled as the pinnacle of African excellence and genius by the legitimatising authority of the west be the only thing they have to subsist on and account for as our own contribution to civilisation and to the global archive of ideas?  Or will they only find the realist tradition of writing bequeathed to us from the Achebe generation?

One thing we can guarantee is that if we continue as we are, if we continue to just accept and celebrate only the trickle that has been served to us from London or New York or Paris by people who seem content to think that our current literary output constitutes a renaissance in African writing, and we don’t publish a lot more, our literature will be impoverished and under-developed. In my view, our literature probably fairs the worst of all the arts in terms of inventiveness, richness, abundance, experimentation and self-determination. This is because of all the arts, African literature is probably the one that is most indebted and committed to the perpetuation of what Mukoma Wa Ngugi in his brilliantly and deliciously polemic book, The Rise of the African Novel following Michael Beach – calls a “English metaphysical empire”.  The African literary space is most likely the only artefact of culture in this neo-colonial moment that has yet to cut loose from its colonial mooring. And the reason is simply, it still relies on the colonial centres for its aesthetics, market, economics, relevance, affirmation and symbolic legitimacy. 

For Wa Ngugi and Beach, the English metaphysical empire, refers to ‘an empire of language and literature that would outlive the actual British empire’ (p19).  The crowning of English language (and to a lesser extent the other colonial languages) as the medium to transmit and transmute African literary expression, according to Wa Ngugi was (and I agree with him) inaugurated in 1962 at the “African Writers of English Expression” conference that convened at Makerere University, in Uganda.  Even the title of the conference already suggests that the quality and depth of African literary tradition will be determined in English, leading to the erasure of earlier literature in African languages. What a waste! What a wasted and a missed opportunity to break away from colonial linguistic capture! 

The framing of African literature only in terms of the English metaphysical empire was not only a tragedy and an act of symbolic violence (perpetuated and sedimented by Africans themselves), it created a rupture in how we periodise our literary tradition(s). So much so that a figure like Achebe (never mind that he himself rejected the term) is heralded as the father of African literature despite being preceded by other writers such as Amos Tutuola who had published 3 books before him and even earlier writers in South Africa like Thomas Mofolo, writing in the 1800s and whose work was translated to English in the 1900s or The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros: A Seventeenth-Century African Biography of an Ethiopian Woman, written by the Ethiopian emperor Galawdewos. This means that even the systemising and the categorising of our literary tradition is wrong, there’s a gap, a missing antecedent of writing in favour of writings and writers who pay homage to the metaphysics of English.  Of course, this has meant that in the literary space, we have not been as prolific as our situation demands or the population of the continent. The fact that many of us can pretty much name many of our writers of the last 50 years is not a mark of our brilliance but our tragedy and refusal to truly decolonise our knowledge production (myself included!).  Compare to our other arts, our literature is lagging behind in mapping out the unfolding of our lived experience because only writings within the English metaphysical empire are being cooked, canonised elsewhere, and admitted into the archive of the future. 

The African literary space is most likely the only artefact of culture in this neo-colonial moment that has yet to cut loose from its colonial mooring.

This is why publishing as the premier institution in modern times for the circulation of stories is one of the most powerful legitimatising and archival infrastructures we have. Therefore the proliferation of publishing houses on the continent today has to be considered a national emergency that needs urgent attention. It also means that we are in a unique position today to ensure that what our great, great grand-children will find in the archive will correspond to what we want them to see in addition to and alongside those created by the legitimising authority of the Euro-American publishing industrial complex. If we do not start the deliberate project of infusing our vision of the world now with what we want to see, if do not start publishing in vast quantities, what future beings will find in the archive about Africa and by Africans will be yet more emptiness and silence no different to the emptied bookshelves in those Lagos homes I visited. As with our generation, they will have only recourse to the meticulous and avaricious archiving of colonial records at the British library or what HarperCollins or Penguin Random House tells us African writers are writing and thinking today or what the Makerere generation left us with. What an impoverished archive that will be!  

However, if we take the project of archive seriously now, what they will find will be determined by people like me, what we produce now, the decisions we take now – whether we are satisfied to continue to do wonders with the English language as Achebe implored us to or follow in Ngugi’s step and develop a robust African language literary culture – will be entirely up to us.  If we don’t like the structure of our present is, if we think the books by African writers coming out of the western publishing establishments do not speak to the fullness and totality of the reality we see around us or how we want to appear now and into the future, we have a responsibility in the present for the sake of tomorrow to flip the script and create our own publishing infrastructure across the continent that is more than the skeletal ones that we currently subsist on and over-celebrate. 

What I am interested in is how we create what I am calling the African archival future which will then form part of a global archive.  Publishing for me is therefore essentially the work of archival creation and a potential tool of power and control, a tool that helps to shape how we view ourselves and make sense of the world.  A few years ago on Facebook, Ainehi Edoro of Brittle Paper, wrote about the power, violence and misrepresentation of the archive and we had this exchange: 

Ainehi: Reading the 19th century archive on Africa always leaves me with a feeling of melancholy. It blows my mind that all this drivel was passed off as incontrovertible truth.

 Bibi: This is why we have to start the archive of the future now! For as long as we are not deliberate and purposeful about the project of archive creation, mourning AND melancholia will be the order of the day. Aside, what specifically makes you feel melancholic?

Ainehi: I'm reading up on 19th century invention of "Bantu" as a linguistic category. These linguists routinely claimed that because these languages were not gendered, they were incapable of expressing poetry: "the grammatical form of their languages does not offer their imagination the superior spirit that the form of gendered languages–i.e. Indo-European–transmit, with, irresistible force, to the thought of their speakers." The baffling part of all this is that they produced loads of data (completely shitty data of course) to prove these clearly false conclusions. I should not be surprised by this mass production of untruth, but it still hits me every freaking time.

A number of things to unpick from that exchange. First, whilethese 19th century European linguists were busy disparaging African languages, specifically the ‘Bantu’ (i.e. Shona, Swahili) or ‘Kwa’ (i.e. Yoruba, Ewe) group of languages for lack of sophistication and poetic imagination because they lacked gendered pronoun (he/she), I bet they could not have anticipated that their 21st century progenitors would be looking to escape the prison house of gendered pronoun that their oh so sophisticated Indo-European languages has locked them in. A transgender, non-binary, genderqueer or genderfluid person would be equally at home in these “Bantu” and “Kwa” languages as a cisgender person without contestation, offense or violence to their sense of personhood, at least linguistically! Imagine if more of our literature, philosophy and scientific knowledge were written in these non-gendered languages what world(s) would unfurl? Perhaps it is these languages that may yet provide us a way out for a mode of address for those trying to transcend gendered languages, instead of the current awkward "he," "she," "they," and "ze," or "name only".  This is perhaps what our writers and we publishers need to begin to explore.  

Secondly, on mourning and melancholia, we know that mourning is still better than melancholia. At least with mourning there is a recognition that there has been a loss, a hurt or a wound that is necessary in order to recover from that loss. It is therefore not construed as a pathology, but a ‘working through’ of the hurt or absence.  However, when melancholia replaces mourning, we are moving into a state of mental disorder and this may come with suicidal impulse. It is this that is considered a pathology.  I guess given the successive blows of the last 500 years, the African world (from Lagos to Los Angeles, Benin to Bahia) probably oscillates between mourning and melancholia and we are still struggling to shake off. So, with this information at our disposal about the “completely shitty data”, we need to produce our own data in awesome, saturating quantities so that our own archives come to drown out the noise and the interpretive bias of the excessively confident outsiders who have little regard for our multi-tongued, polyrhythmic, polytheistic and metaphysical horizon. Conscious and deliberate action on all our part, must replace complaints and melancholy. The archive that we are going to open in 200 years must be radicalized and must be different from what we have now. Or at least, let a sizeable chunk be produced by us and have our fingerprints on them. And if the archive still looks the same and someone else is feeling as melancholic as Anineh, then we have no one else to blame but ourselves, it will be a mark of our collective failure.   

So, we have to stop thinking of the archive merely as that which is past, we have to think of it simultaneously as past, present and future. We have to think of the archive as a curation of knowledge, experience and worlds in the now, to help order a past for the purpose of the future. We have to understand that the archive  and its curation is always caught up in regimes of power and control.  When we understand the archive in these relational terms, we’ll then begin to see that there is a fundamental problem and an ontological injustice in our complicitous silence and tacit acceptance of English or any of the European languages as the inevitable medium to transmit African writing across our linguistic differences.  Perhaps then we can begin to have a sense of urgency and deliberateness about how we narrate and share our stories with the world and the urgency to produce loads and loads of data about how we see and imagine the world that is opening itself to us.

We need to understand that every action we take in the present moment, every cultural production, every scientific discovery, every dance movement, every new melody, every Yoruba panegyric that is slowly receding from our tongue, every Facebook update, every twitter spat, every email exchange, every graffiti on a mutatu is an opportunity to create and contribute to the archive.  Whether we conceive of our actions as a potential contribution to the archive or not, someone else is already doing it for us, watching our updates, mapping our habits of being and archiving them to better understand how to induce new desire(s) in us for profit and capitalist accumulation.  We must take ourselves more seriously and value what we do, even the minutia action and document. There’s no other time in history then now when archival creation is available to us all. All of us can contribute to the archive. We do not have to wait for the great archival institutions of the past which are usually controlled and organised by government institutions or some royal court record keepers. The time is now!  

We have to appreciate that the archive is not value-free, it is always imbued with power, presence and erasure. As a feminist, I am acutely aware of the violence and injustice of the archive, whether this is from colonial records, European philosophical musings about our ahistoricity and our lack of sophistication because of the absence of gendered pronouns or scientific treatise about our cognitive ability, or indeed Africa’s own oral narratives, philosophies and mythologies, all of which have provided the template for how we are seen and how we see ourselves today.

Through publishing, I want to contribute to the archive and ensure that the African story generation is not always mediated or owned by the West or left to African men alone. We saw what happened with African writing under The Man –  Achebe as editorial advisor for the Heinemann African Writers Series. Under his stewardship, the first female, Flora Nwapa’s Efuru was only published after their 26th book in 1966. It took another six years to publish the second woman, Bessie Head’s Maru in 1972 becoming the 101st book in the series and that’s no thanks to Achebe! Of course, we know that the phenomenally talented Bessie Head, especially as displayed in her dazzling and disorientating account of her own internal battle in A Question of Power, was more brilliant than many of the testosterones that gathered at the“African Writers of English Expression” conference in 1962 at Makerere University.

African literature today is still struggling to emerge from the shadow of that 1962 conference, which according to Mukoma, set in motion the hegemony of the realist tradition in African literature. The realist tradition inaugurated by the Makerere Brotherhood (and yes, we can talk in terms of brotherhood because only two female writers were present) not only disregarded and arrested the growth of writing in African languages, it curtailed the growth of writing styles and flights of fancy that may be more attuned to some of the fantastical wanderings of nocturnal storytelling traditions that many may be familiar with. Although the Makekere Brotherhood may have held dominion over African realist writing in English, thankfully, there’s another tradition, less hegemonic, but which nonetheless provides an archival resource for writers to follow. Here, I am talking about the likes of Amos Tututola with his The Palm-Wine Drinkard or D.O. Fagunwa’s Ogboju Ode ninu Igbo Irunmale Forest of A Thousand Demons, who offer us a tradition of fantasy fiction that writers such as Ben Okri, Nnedi Okorofar, Shadreck Chikoti, and more recently Tomi Adeyemi with her Children of Blood and Bones can build from outside of the realist tradition offered by the Achebe generation.  

Ownership of production 

But, it is still not enough to want to be a publisher and help to build the archive of the future. The crucial thing is, we have to own and control the publishing infrastructure that will support our own archival creation.  When I think that the decisions I make today and how the books I choose to publish today can shape how people think about morality, sexuality, ethics and even food in the future, it feels me with both dread and an exhilarating responsibility. It forces me sit up and be more deliberate and purposeful in what I choose to publish rather than leave the future to chance and assume that someone else will do it. Leaving the future to chance is a luxury that we can ill-afford. I certainly don’t want to leave the future to chance or in the hands of people who produced destructive and toxic narrative about me and my people.  So, when we make editorial decisions, I often ask: what kind of story do I want to enjoy today and what kind of story do I think should still be with us in the future? Or what kind of story will give future beings access to the recesses of our mind today?  Once I start with these questions, I then move on to the next and ask myself: who and where are the people today capable of turning the invisible aspects of our lives into visibility? Who is rummaging through our historical past to give us a usable history? Who is reimagining our mundane existence and turning it into poetry?  Who is disrupting our thought processes and twisting the shape and meanings of words in order for us to see the world anew? Who is forcing us to reengage with the stranger that we have become to ourselves?  Who will take us inside an African cityscape or village of huts and hurts and show us the secrets lurking beneath the shadow inside those dwellings? Who will provide us with new models of desire and ways of being that challenge the norms we live by? Who will dare make sense of the complex webs of our countless mythologies? And finally, who will force us to confront stunning poverty and abjection and simultaneously wrap us in a blanket of humour, desire, joy and aliveness without the fear of being accused of pandering to the west or producing poverty porn? 

And the answer is: our writers, historians, philosophers and other cultural producers. They are already collecting our fragmented, untold and invisible stories and putting them together for us to draw sense and meaning out of them.  But we need more publishing houses to give life to these countless stories that are waiting to be told.  While we celebrate and salute the existing publishers, we simply cannot do it alone. We need many more publishers so that when future people look into the archive for stories about queer realities today for example, they will not meet empty bookshelves, silence or absence, instead, they will find books like She Called Me Woman: Nigeria’s Queer Woman Talk by Azeenarh Mohammed, Rafaaet Aliyu and Chitra Nagarajan, Olumide Popoola’s When We Speak of Nothing or Frankie Edozien’s Lives of Great Men sitting alongside James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room and Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name.  In these texts, they will know about what it means to be and live as queer persons in Africa under the influence of retrogressiveAbrahamic religions.  In Olumide Popoola’s When We Speak of Nothing, they’ll also encounter a different account of sexuality where sexual difference is accepted and embraced as part of the continuum of human sexuality in Nigeria despite a law prohibiting same-sex marriage.  Such an account will contest the singular narrative of an overwhelming and oppressive heteronormativity. When they are looking for evidence of whether women can still be aroused or masturbate at 75, they will have Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s ode to the joy of aging, Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun as a reference. Similarly, with Yemisi Aribisala’s stunning book, Longthroat Memoirs: Soups, Sex and Nigerian Taste Buds, people now and in the future will have a record of the sophistication, the complexity and the erotics of Nigerian cuisine.  Even when Lagos is long under the sea (because it certainly will), people will look back and have a sense of the inner lives of Lagosians and its cityscape because Teju Cole, Sefi Atta, Toni Kan, Leye Adenle, Odia Ofeimun etc have written and immortalised the city.

But these stories must be allowed to breathe on their own terms and circulate in the world so that they have a chance of becoming part of how we document our time. With these stories, future people will not be searching for evidence of queer existence or the erotic life of an aging woman because we’ll have many more such books, in their hundreds, because there’ll be many more publishers who sees the merit of producing a thousand book about queer existence across Africa.  They’ll take off from where we left and they will not have to start from the beginning or accept the fallacy that there’s a renaissance in African writing because ten books of note has been published by African writers on the western stage.  Instead, there will be continuity, but with difference, the difference of their own experience, insight and age.  

So, producing culture and writing stories are not enough. For as long as the mechanism for the production and circulation of those stories reside elsewhere, what will go into the archive will be determined elsewhere and by people who built a publishing infrastructure without us in mind nor with the purpose of our edification or see the merit of codifying the minutia of our existence, or cataloguing our successes and our failure, or our pain or pleasure in saturated quantities rather than being satisfied with one or two stories. We must therefore own the means of production, we must marshal our resources together and claim the instruments of power so that we can develop a robust publishing infrastructure on this continent and across the black world in partnership with our more financially minded brothers and sisters.  

For as long as we do not own the instruments for birthing the stories we want to tell, we will continue to have other people tell us: enough now, we already have tonnes of books about the different genocidal wars Africans have staged on each other, and God forbid, another book on slavery or another memoir about growing up in exile as a child of freedom fighters because of white supremacy and apartheid in South Africa.  Never mind the fact that the number of books in circulation and in the archive about any given experience or issues or themes of interest and concern to us are not even in the hundreds let alone in the thousands of quantities we need them to be. Until we have over a thousand book (and I am only talking about fiction here) about the Biafran experience, from as many different perspectives as possible that no one single person (even an expert on the subject) will be able to name all the books in the archive about that painful and violent moment in Nigeria’s history.  Until then, we must never allow anyone to say we have tonnes of books about any subject we consider to be of vital importance. To produce books at the level that will merit us talking about a dense African  literary tradition, we’ll need more than just being satisfied with settling for and quoting Achebe, Ngugi, Soyinka and recently Chimamanda or Nnedi Okorofor, we’ll need to setup publishing infrastructure in the hundreds that will spawn hundreds of celebrity authors we can choose from rather than crowning just the one that we may be (dis)satisfied with and putting undue pressure on that one to be all that we dream.  We must move beyond merely being Narcissus, totally fascinated and in love with our own self-reflection; and we must also not be satisfied with being Echo, only capable of repeating the last babble of our anointed geniuses. We must crown and champion thousands and thousands of celebrity authors so that we can choose from among the multitude of superstar authors who will fulfil our hopes or be more inclined to our different political and ideological positions. That task of celebrity creation in their multitude is up to us and it begins with our citational practices and who invite to speak. Even in that act of naming of our favourites, we must be deliberate about it and not just be another Echo that just regurgitate what the legitimaising authority of western publishing apparatus has bequeathed us. This is a continent of nearly a billion, we can do better at citing under-represented names and unearthing them. We must do better.  

You see, those who own the means of production have at their disposal the resources to curate the stories we consume, set the framework for what is told, how it is told, what is included, excluded and glossed over in the narrative. As publishers, we add and remove ostensibly to make the story sing, in the name of editing. We decide on what is important and worthy of attention and recognition, whether this is in our choice of cover design, our publicity efforts, submissions for prizes or the education boards (which will be read by millions of students) and course adoption in universities. We know that having a book on the curriculum or scholars writing thesis on the book opens up the potential for textual immortality.  If a text doesn’t get into the curriculum, if literary critics and academics do not keep it alive in their work, the chances of the author and their story surviving into the future is slim even if they maybe popular today.   

It is therefore imperative that we understand publishing not just an archival machine, but an instrument of power and control. And given that we are so lagging behind on so many different things, the origination of our own story is something that more of us can and should participate and help to build. Building a publishing infrastructure and by this, I mean the entire value and supply chain, from the authors conception, to the editorial process, the design, the printing, publishing, marketing, distribution and point of sale, may not be the same as building physical infrastructure like roads and bridges, because the barrier to entry into publishing is lower (it is certainly doesn’t require the kind of over-inflated budget these other infrastructural projects demand). But the value chain process is similar.  We can do this, we already build roads, we build hospitals. We do not have to wait for government, this is a private, entrepreneurial endeavour. We can do this, we are doing this, we simply need to do this with haste and with purpose. Quite simply, if we don’t wrestle with the instruments of telling our own stories and we leave it entirely in the hands of those whose foundational and continued relationship with us has been one of extraction and exploitation, we’ll continue to have a lopsided account of our own experience and historical agency and what our conception of excellence and brilliance looks like. Our taste, our sense of aesthetic judgement, will be determined and confirmed from elsewhere and by other people, which may be vastly different to our own criteria for judgement, which itself will already be differentiated by geography and generation.  It is only when we have built and proliferate our own infrastructures that we can genuinely participate in the global archive of ideas as equals, because we have shown ourselves to have grappled with production in the same way we have shown ourselves to be excessive consumers that enrich other groups.     

We must therefore own the means of production, we must marshal our resources together and claim the instruments of power so that we can develop a robust publishing infrastructure on this continent and across the black world in partnership with our more financially minded brothers and sisters.  

And it is not enough to build a publishing infrastructure, they must be supported and actively so. The best way to support a publisher and a writer is to buy, read, review and spread the word about their books. Every reader and writer of books being produced by an African publisher today is in a unique and privileged position.  You are bearing witness to the birth of civilisation, and I see publishing as part of civilisation building and how civilisation records and remembers its own accomplishments. What a wonderful privilege it is to watch the birthing of something. Anyone who has ever been in the birthing room, especially a challenging birth that may require a cesarean, will note the number of talents and skills present. Birthing of anything – whether it is a baby, a book, a business, a new art work, scientific discovery or a piece music - is always a collective endeavour (even if an individual called Bibi or Azafi, Margaret, Pumla, Natalia, Funmi, Tokunbo or Paul may take credit for it) which must be treated with respect, reverence and tenderness. This is because the bringing of life to anything is a miraculous moment that is both fragile and full of hope. I say this in particular with reference to tenderness. 

We need a lot more people across the African worlds (continental, old and newer diaspora) to take the leap of faith and start a publishing company. But I also know that starting one is not easy and not for the faint-hearted and mistakes will happen and things will go wrong, badly even.  And when they do go wrong instead of public shaming and attack, let’s express our unhappiness as a critical friend with both honesty, generosity and tenderness, so that we do not kill the flower before blooming.  Any new venture or birthing is always filled with anxiety and mystery, we must therefore always remember before we take to social media to attack, many African creative institutions are being built under more intense scrutiny and comparison than their western counterparts who had over 400 years to establish, build and weather storms. African publishers, creators and makers also need to do better, we need to treat our readers, writers and consumers with respect and intelligence knowing that they are co-creators and that we are on this journey together; a journey that’s going to be long, full of wonderous and bumpy rides, but worthwhile nonetheless. African writers and readers must continue to write so that publishers have stories to share with the world today and tomorrow.  


The world that those stories have created, and people like me have helped birth, will allow people in the future to touch history and have a deep sense of our African world today, a world where we are both producers and consumers.When people are able to see or hear themselves represented in textual or visual or auditory form, it gives them a deep sense of confidence and a sense of a world that it is now their turn to shape, because they can draw from a cultural-historical repository that grounds their thoughts and actions, they do not have to always start afresh. Owning the means of production and purposefully contributing to the archive will show future people, especially Africans, that their history is not one long continuous and insignificant darkness, but rather, it is the source code for future creation.It will be an invitation for them to be excessive and ambitious in their work and how they want to live their lives, without timidity, hesitation or apology.

 This is why I am a publisher! Thank you! 

 Bibi Bakare-Yusuf, Soweto, December 11, 2018

Dipsaus in conversation with visual artist, producer and director Steve McQueen.