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Lack of incentives to blame for dwindling reading culture


Reading Jack McBrams’ opinion on ‘who’s to blame for lack of reading culture’ (Malawi News of April 16-17, 2011 edition page 15) one gets the feeling Malawians are the most awful writers the world over!

Well, what with the writer’s experience at editing both Malawi’s national weeklies of The Weekend Nation and Malawi News coupled with his extensive close interaction with Malawian writers.

I, however, would like to beg to differ with Jack. Much as I know there are some horrible writers in the country, I feel there is a substantial number of writers cocooning itself due to factors that have everything to do with motivation but are extremely good to compete favorably with writers anywhere in the world.

I will give a few illustrations, the facts of which are within my personal knowledge to propound my standpoint. However, the assertion there is lack of reading culture (of Malawi literature) shouldn’t even be debatable. It is the hard truth.

I happen to have gone through the corridors of a seminary for my junior secondary education. The first thing I was made to appreciate, nay feel, when I arrived at St. Paul the Apostle Seminary is that reading is , more or less, a culture and not necessarily a leisure pursuit. You either read wildly and widely or be damned in your own ignominy!

As a bongwe (a fresher) I was given over 200 text books for reading on top of English religious literature I was supposed to commit to memory. More over, there was a complete library teaming with rare and expensive books, periodicals, journals and what have you waiting to be explored and exploited.

Unlike other secondary schools where students are given virtually no text book, and perhaps only the teacher has a copy, the situation was different at the school I was at. Clearly, government has its priorities set elsewhere. Understandably, most books are high-priced it’s next to impossible for government to acquire let alone individuals!

So it happened that in my case, I came to read about Tintin, Asterix, Harold Robbins, Hadley Chase, a whole lot of Britannica Encyclopedias and some of the rarest literature I don’t come to find in any library even at ‘varsity during my time at the seminary simply because they were readily available.

Let’s face it the buying power of Malawians is so weak it’s unimaginable they would spare a few bucks to buy a book. Most papers hide their real circulation volumes because, for a country of about 13million, the numbers are outright preposterous!

If someone already knows investing his time and money in writing is a wild goose chase what would be the rationale for doing so. If government is failing to stock schools with enough reading material because of financial constraints would you imagine individuals doing so in profusion?

I may perhaps be missing the gravy-train; could somebody school me if anybody in Malawi is gainfully employed solely as a writer? I am not talking about reporters, journalists or people who write for the passion of writing. Not even a single Malawian makes a living out of writing because it virtually out of the question.

Have you observed that even in the face of the so called ‘declining reading culture’ the few public libraries available are almost always teeming with people trying to read a book or two? People read but the only thing they don’t do is buy their own literature. On average, a paper is read by more that 7 people directly attributable to high poverty levels and structural injustice rampant in Malawi.

Let’s face facts, writing is not proportionally rewarded and in any case there are only two weeklies that publish short stories and nthano at the discretion of an editor! I don’t know of any credible publisher that would thrust a writer to greater heights both in reputation and wealth.

Much as I know writing is a passion, let’s not be blind to reality. Money is always a motivating factor and many are simply not disposed to write for gratis! We should appreciate writing isn’t about acquiring a degree in journalism or linguistics. There are many better writers outside mainstream journalism.

Granted there are many dexterous writers out there who have voluntarily taken a ‘sabbatical’ from writing because the situation, so to say, isn’t conducive, is it realistic to oversimplify Malawian writing abysmal predestined for the dustbin!

The decision to write these days is comparable to the resolution to enter into battle because chances are your work will be thrown out even without being scrutinized. Great works by people carrying ‘wrong’ names have failed to see light of the day. The decision to publish something or not is vested in the editor who has his or her principles (and sorry to say preferences) as regards what should grace our papers. The writer has no recourse whatsoever, even a slight chance to have his work redone!

Names and connections, not proficiency, dictate things today. Not all stories that are discarded are bad but it may happen that perhaps the editor woke up on the wrong side of the bed. That painstakingly woven story of yours may appear trash in his/her perspicacity.

In any case, isn’t the duty of the editor to prepare for publication the story and if case be return it to sender to polish it up? Irrespective of aspects of literature being taken care of, some editors will throw away a piece of story just because they aren’t in good books with the author. This sounds too unrealistic but regrettably it’s the truth of the matter!

Now Jack says that once in every three years on average he does come across a short story or poem that makes literary sense to make it into any sensible publication anywhere in the world. I find his sweeping statement rather too patronizing in that it does absolutely nothing to change the status quo.

‘Mkwatibwi Wokhumudwa’, ‘Nthondo’ ‘Kanthyali’ and literary works of people like Patrick Achitabwino, Stanley Kenani, Wokomaatani Malunga, Idrissi Ali, and Ralph Tenthani just to mention a few would not, in my opinion, constitute trash and prompt Jack to say what he wrote!

If our writing is such dreadful how then do some people manage to win international awards? In any case, what criterion do editors employ as a yardstick for appropriateness of a material for publication? Is it literary aspects only and not prejudice deriving from factors beyond one’s ability to perceive and delineate good from bad literary work?

I personally know people who stopped writing because they were frustrated not only by the lack of monetary incentives but also unavailability of openings for their work. Some papers have even the cheek to tell you don’t write over 1000 words!

It would be foolhardiness not to acknowledge the role technology has played in the declining of a reading culture. The development of websites, for instance, has negated any need for student to go buy publications. They can download them on the internet anytime. More importantly, the systematic failure by government to prop-up local writers as evidenced by the closure of shop by Malawi Book Service doesn’t help matters either.

Indeed, with dwindling markets, publishers closing shop worldwide, digitization, and low buying power, who would, in his right frame of mind reflect on venturing into serious writing knowing very well their work will either end up gathering dust on shop shelves because people can’t buy or will be neglected by the editor? Search me!

ghetto with some education….. i am a journalist with a passion for people, poetry and philosophy. i started out writing poetry but ended up being a generic writer altough poetry remains my first love. later in life, i discovered philosophy; which is not too different from journalism because you ask as many questions to get as close to the truth as you can… having grown up and gone to school in many parts of zimbabwe, i consider myself half-Zimbabwean because that is the country that shaped my and defined who i am today. but being the land of my ancestors, malawi is close to mty heart and it is the only place on earth that i can rightfully call home. hence my passion and desire to see this land go forward and to wish her lovely people the best because, malawians are honset and hard-working people who get a raw deal from their leaders. i am currently editing a volume of poetry titled Fragments: New Poetry from Malawi although i am yet to source funds for the printing and publishing. but the God that i believe in will make things work. what more can i say? what more do you want to know?

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