|AN INTERVIEW WITH MARY L. JAY|
A "good" children's book is one which arises from the child's own culture
An interview with Mary Jay
Proposed by Jean-Marie Volet
University of Western Australia
This interview took place in July 2002.
Mary Jay is the Head of African Books Collective (ABC) which seeks to strengthen
indigenous publishing in Africa. ABC markets and distributes African-published
books worldwide. She is also Secretary to the Managing Committee of the Noma
Award for Publishing in Africa, and a Jury Member. The Noma Award is the
pan-African annual book prize for a book by an African writer and published
within Africa. She is a Trustee of the Southern Africa Book Development
Mary Jay has previously worked as Deputy to the Publisher in Hans Zell Publishers, the Africana reference publisher, and was Deputy Editor of The African Book Publishing Record. Amongst published articles and book contributions, two recent publications are:
"Marketing African Books Worldwide: The ABC Experience" in Book Marketing and Promotion. A Handbook of Good Practice by Hans M. Zell (Oxford: INASP, 2001, and distributed by ABC); and
Courage and Consequence. Women Publishing in Africa, edited by Mary Jay and Susan Kelly (Oxford: African Books Collective, 2002)
Email: ["Mary L. Jay" MaryLjay@aol.com]
In an interview published in "Africultures" in November 1999, you noted the rising demand for children's books published in Africa and a dearth of such books. What is the situation three years on?
For English-language children's books (outside Africa), the output appears to be little improved. A notable Namibian children's book publisher - some of the most beautiful books ABC stocked - has gone out of business; and a Zimbabwean imprint, which also produced attractive books, is not now producing children's books. Over the last two years, ABC has taken on about 30 new children's titles. This is not of course the whole production in sub-Saharan Africa, but it is a reasonable indication of the situation. The demand is for high quality of production as well as content - and with some few exceptions, illustrations and production standards militate against sales in the North.
Given the limited capacity for individuals to purchase books in Africa, the high production costs, distribution difficulties as well as the under capitalisation of most African publishing houses, is it fair to suggest that African publishing has surrendered to the West and that its main clientèle is no longer African?
No, I do not believe this would be a fair interpretation. It remains a very real hurdle for African publishers to access the Northern markets. Most African publishers are publishing primarily for their own markets, and they seek to sell internationally as well. Not all books "travel" from one culture to another; but even so, African scholarship and writing remains marginalised in the North. A number of factors contribute to this picture: the dominance of African studies by Western scholars, the reluctance of the book trade to purchase books unless there is a physical distribution point within their own territory (notably the USA), the lack of competitiveness in terms of production standards, and a comparative lack of financial resources for marketing. Despite the paucity of distribution outlets and booksellers in Africa, and despite the virtual lack of intra-African trade, African publishers continue to find innovative ways in which to publish for their domestic markets.
Some ABC publishers tailor a few books to meet Northern market demands. This both contributes to getting African scholars and writers into the international mainstream, and provides sales revenue returns which can be ploughed back into local publishing needs.
How does the strong demand for African works in the USA impact on Children's literature, given that American readers are mainly interested in their own perceptions of Africa and its relationship to African-Americans? Are British, American and European readers different in this regard?
I am not sure what evidence there is of "strong demand for African works in the USA". There is demand certainly, but it is weakened by a narrowness of interpretation as to what is "African". In scholarship, there is insufficient emphasis on books by African scholars and published within Africa; i.e., emanating from within the culture. Additionally, the trade in the US - including college bookstores responsible for course-book acquisitions - are reluctant, or at worst refuse, to order from outside the USA.
The impact of these attitudes on children's literature is striking. All the evidence is that the demand is for African-American children's books; people of African heritage in the USA are primarily interested in their own experience in the USA; indeed the point was made by one major New York publisher who was interested in packaging African-published children's books for the US market. When they actually saw the content of the books, they decided not to proceed on the grounds that there would be no demand because the content was too African.
Children's books from Africa are from within the African tradition - they are often folktales, or parables from the animal world. Storylines are imbued with a deep moral lesson; the good end happily, the bad unhappily. Wisdom is being passed on, whilst entertaining the child. It is no good wanting books from Africa and then complaining that they are from a different tradition.
Sales of African children's books in the US and the UK are primarily to libraries and young people's organisations which are specifically seeking to serve multicultural populations, or to use the books as educational tools for young people of all backgrounds to learn about other cultures.
You have remarked on the total dependence of a great many schools and public libraries in Africa on external aid. Is this likely to affect the design, content and propagation of African young people's books and, ultimately, shape African children's vision of their own continent?
It is vitally important that African young people have access to books published from within their own cultures and to which they can relate from their own lives and experiences. Although the lack of resources for schools and public libraries remains depressing, it is important that what books do reach them are suitable. A Northern published children's book may have value for an African child if there is a wealth of material from that child's own culture; but in the absence of such local books, there will be a lack of balance.
ABC, in partnership with the UK charity Book Aid International, runs the Intra-African Book Support Scheme. For the children's part of this scheme, the partners in Africa - libraries, schools, community organisations etc. - themselves choose the African-published books they would like to receive. They choose from sample packs supplied, which include books that ABC can supply from 13 African countries. Thus children from one part of Africa gain access to books from other parts of Africa, giving strength to African identity. The scheme is donor-supported and, so far as we know, remains the only book donation scheme in Africa which supplies exclusively African-published books.
There are a multiplicity of languages used throughout Africa and one may think that children learn to read in their own local language. Is that a significant factor in the viability of Children's literature in Africa?
There is relatively little local language publishing in Africa because of the generally small markets for individual language groups. The greatest possibility is for Swahili, which has a viable market in terms of size; but is hampered by lack of trade across national borders. Nonetheless, there is some Swahili language publishing for children in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. The fact that the language of instruction may be English increases the difficulties of local language publishing.
Whilst much publishing in Africa is in European languages, barely 20% of the population of any country actually speak English, or French or Portuguese, and even fewer read in these languages. Indigenous publishers have a particularly important role to play in seeking to promote literature and publishing in African languages and in promoting positive African values.
What kinds of books/stories do African children like to read? What are the most popular books of the collections you represent?
It is difficult for ABC to respond, since our market is primarily in the North. But children tend to respond similarly. The story must hold them, and the production must appeal to them - balance of text to illustrations, the illustrations themselves, quality of paper, cover design etc. They are drawn to good colour.
From the evidence of the Intra-African Book Support Scheme, and from book fairs in Africa, there are a small number of ABC books which are consistently popular. Books by the award-winning Ghanaian, Meshack Asare, are beautifully illustrated with high quality production; Ananse stories from Ghana; two classics from Chinua Achebe; and a particular series called Stories from Africa. There remains a strong tradition of animal folk tales which pass on the wisdom of the elders to young people.
Do you think literature and books - especially children's literature - are taken seriously in Africa? What is a "good" book with regard to Children's literature?
It is a simple matter of education and access. There is a passionate desire for books and reading materials in many quarters; but there remains a serious lack of local language publishing, and a minority who speak the European languages in which children's books are more prolific.
In the context in which you ask, I would define a "good" children's book in Africa as one which arises from the childs own culture, which is aesthetically attractive, and which is available in the child's mother tongue. Availability in a European language as well is an additional benefit, but should not displace the local language edition if it is economically feasible.
You have been associated with the NOMA Prize for many years. Is The Noma Award for Publishing in Africa open to Children's Books?
Certainly, yes. We welcome submissions of children's books. There are three categories of books eligible: scholarly or academic, literature, and children's books. A children's book has twice won the Award; and many children's books have been cited for Honourable Mention. In recent years, however, the Jury has been concerned to note the declining production standards for children's book entries from some parts of Africa. Books from the Mahgreb and from French-speaking West African countries are generally much better produced and illustrated than those from English-language speaking countries.
In Francophone Africa, an increasing number of women writers, some very well known, are publishing illustrated books for young children. Is there a similar trend amongst Anglophone writers in Africa?
I am not aware of such a phenomenon in general.
In the West, much emphasis is currently given to computer technology with children spending an increasing number of hours in front of a screen and little time in company of a book. In this context, why should Africa spend its limited resources on books rather than computers?
Books and computers are not alternatives. Both are needed. Computers and Internet access in Africa per capita is way below the take-up in the West. There are in any case similar issues about content: African content on the Web, and the language of software. A physical book will always be an essential tool in stretching the child's imagination, in education, and in imparting knowledge and learning to create a civil society capable of preserving and developing its own culture and identity. The computer is an additional powerful tool, which is complementary rather than an alternative.
Thank you Mary Jay.
|Jean-Marie Volet est Chargé de Recherche (ARC QEII Fellow) à l'Université de Western Australia, Perth. Il partage son temps entre sa recherche sur la lecture, Mots Pluriels et la mise à jour du site Lire les femmes écrivains et la littérature africaine francophone. Quelques articles récents ou en cours de publication: "La Lecture ou l'art de réinventer le monde tel qu'en nous-même", Essays in French Literature 37 (2000), pp.187-204; "Peut-on échapper à son sexe et à ses origines? Le lecteur africain, australien et européen face au texte littéraire", Nottingham French Studies 40-1 (2001), pp.3-12; "Du Palais de Foumbam au Village Ki-Yi: l'idée de spectacle total chez Rabiatou Njoya et Werewere Liking", Oeuvres & Critiques XXVI-1 (2001), pp.29-37; "Francophone Women Writing in 1998-1999 and Beyond: A Literary Feast in a Violent World", Research in African Literatures 32-4 (2001), 187-200; (avec H. Jaccomard et P. Winn), "La littérature du Sida: genèse d'un corpus", The French Review 75-3 (2002), pp.528-539.|