Cross-posted from The Guardian.
In recent years, African writers have gained prominence on the world stage; some have won prestigious prizes, while others have signed lucrative book deals and sold to multiple markets. However, Africans are not prominent, almost to the point of invisibility, in the ownership of production. The gatekeepers of African writing remain firmly rooted in the west -- African publishers typically must buy, rather than sell, the rights to books, even those that are marketed to the rest of the world as African stories.
This is why the arrival of Cassava Republic Press, a publishing company started in Nigeria, and now opening an office in the UK, marks a long overdue change. I am lucky to be a Cassava Republic Press author, and the launch of my second novel happens to coincide with the opening of its London office. I have granted Cassava the world rights to my book, in the hope that they will sell these rights to other markets.
Some people are skeptical about my decision to work with an African publisher, especially given the fact that I live in America and have access to American and European agents. They ask: does my decision make economic sense? Will an African publisher do as well as a western publisher? Behind these polite inquiries, the real question that I feel is being asked is whether an African publisher can be as good as a European or an American. The assumption is that the west does things better than Africa.
My answer is: of course, they can be just as good or just as bad. They can be even better or even worse.
Yet for me, experience outweighs any sense of risk. My first book was published by a British publishing house, which then sold the Nigerian rights to Cassava, who proved themselves savvy and diligent custodians of my work. Moreover, unencumbered by some of the stereotypes of what so-called "African literature" should look like, they were able to think creatively and offer fresh ideas on everything from book jackets to marketing strategies. The covers of both my books eschew the lazy visual tropes that are often relied upon by the publishers of African-authored literature in the west (think sunsets, bare torsos, palm trees). Instead, they are thoughtfully designed with a view to capturing the true essence of the books.
Likewise, when presented with my second book (a novella) my publisher did not shy away from a genre that is currently perceived by its European and American competitors as an "awkward sales and marketing proposition," but saw it as something positive. It is precisely because of this flexibility and creativity that African publishers such as Cassava are so valuable to readers and writers. They help combat the centrifugal tendencies of an industry that is increasingly drawn to derivative products (the next Harry Potter, the next Fifty Shades of Grey). And their instinctive "crossover" cosmopolitanism allows them to serve a readership base that is broader and richer than previously imagined.
My book is launched this month, along with two other literary titles and all our stories fall outside the cliched expectations of African literary narratives. The first, Born on a Tuesday by Elnathan John, is a coming-of-age story centered on a young linguaphile caught up in the contemporary turbulence of northern Nigeria. The second, Easy Motion Tourist by Leye Adenle, is a fast-paced crime novel featuring a strong female protagonist in the megacity of Lagos. The third, Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun is by me: set in San Francisco, it follows the flamboyant Dr Morayo, who dances on the edge of old age until a sudden fall precipitates the collapse of all her certainties.
The arrival of Cassava Republic Press in the UK is an important moment in the history of publishing. I am proud to rely on one of Africa's trailblazing publishers to bring us new names and new stories that will enrich and expand the world's literature.