Sandra Tamele, publisher of Mozambique-based Editora Trinta Nove Zero, argues that better publishing Black writers from around the world begins with increased support, locally and globally, for Africa-based literary projects.
It’s amazing how simple events can trigger a turning point in one’s journey. Mine was a few years ago when, while listening to the radio at work, I came across a podcast about Ann Morgan, a British author who went on a quest to find and read books from around the world when she came to the realization that she was a “literary xenophobe.” I was moved when I heard her name my country, Mozambique, and that when she asked for tips on who and what she should be reading from here, she was recommended Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa’s novel Ualalapi. It had been translated by an underground press based in the UK and she had managed to read and review it even if it was still unpublished in the UK at the time.
This made me rethink my reading choices and look critically at my growing book collection. Conversely, my bookshelf clearly showed that I was a “literary xenophile,” with only a couple of books by Mozambican authors and, to be honest, Ualalapi was not one of them.
I felt ashamed and sad. And made a commitment to follow and attend as many book launches as I could manage, and to get familiar with the young generation of writers based in Maputo and their work.
What a delightful experience this was. It was a journey of discovering my heritage and the history and traditions of Mozambique through fiction. Starting with Adelino Timóteo’s novel The Eight Husbands of Madam Luiza Michaela Da Cruz, a startling contrast from the predominantly matrilineal central region of the country to Paulina Chiziane’s Niketche, a tale of polygamy from the patriarchal south, and the history of Achivanjila, the slave that became a queen and abolished slavery in Tete province, to Khosa’s Ualalapi, set in the empire of Ngungunhane, who conquered and enslaved his own. The national literary scene is booming with the establishment of new indie publishers, managed by young, Black writers who enrich and add diversity to it with their resolve to depart from magic realism and “traditional” African stories, and to write and publish contemporary fiction and poetry. Every time I returned home from readings with a handful of new books, I read voraciously.
Being a nationalist at heart and fortunate enough to be reasonably fluent in English and Italian, it was only a matter of time before I started attempting to translate these books.
During this time, I read an article in The Linguist, the magazine of the Chartered Institute of Linguists, on the need for and acceptability of bilingual translation, which gave me a boost to attempt translating prose and to three collections of poetry: Helder Faife’s DEsIGNS, quickly followed by Mbate Pedro’s Voids and Rogério Manjate’s Scar Incarnate.
Bilingual translation is still a controversial issue––particularly when translating poetry and trying to remain true to its structure, rhythm, and form––but one that cannot be easily dismissed, especially coming from a country that is a Portuguese-speaking island surrounded by an English-speaking community with which it seeks to integrate, at least in theory. In reality there is no circulation or cross-distribution of books and literature within the region in particular, nor overseas to the UK and US.
I had high hopes when a selection of poems from the aforementioned three projects were featured in WWB's April 2019 issue and later pitched to a few publishers from South Africa, the US, and the UK. But I was told by the publishers I pitched that poetry was a hard sell, that they had a different editorial line, and at the time were not looking for debut voices from Mozambique.
One year later I founded Editora Trinta Zero Nove (Editora 30.09), the first publishing house dedicated to literature in translation in Mozambique. Its mission is to give stories a voice, and I mean literally, because in addition to publishing in print, Editora 30.09 is committed to publishing audiobooks as a way of democratizing reading and inviting the participation of the forty-nine percent of Mozambique's population that is illiterate, mostly women and girls. Editora 30.09 tries to publish authors and narratives that are representative, relevant, inclusive, and inspiring for its readers. Thus, in our first two catalogues we published six debut Black female novelists from the Southern African Development Community, one deaf, mixed-race poet from the UK, and eight female novelists from China, France, Italy, and Ivory Coast. The catalog’s relevance cannot be overstated in a country where a handful of bookshops offer mostly outdated, overpriced international bestsellers or big-name authors.
Literary translation is still underrated in Mozambique and most writers, who paradoxically draw inspiration from authors they read in translation, do not share my view that translation can be a tool to find and perfect one’s voice and writing, and that it has a huge potential to impact and diversify the literary tradition, as well as to bring gender equality to publishing. In Mozambique, women are underrepresented in print and male publishers tend to be biased toward publishing men, claiming that female voices lack quality, substance, and creativity. I try to counteract this by publishing feminist voices that might inspire a new generation of female writers and translators through creative writing and through translation workshops as part of the annual literary translation competition I’ve organized since 2015. In early February 2020, Editora 30.09 issued a call for submissions aimed at young Mozambican female writers we intend to publish in Portuguese and translate into the most representative Bantu languages: Macua, Sena, and Changana. During a meeting with a South African agent at the Sharjah Book Fair last November, I came to the realization that the vision I bring to publishing may be narrow in its own way, but it’s aimed at correcting longstanding inequities. I believe that I only stopped staring blankly at her catalog when she shifted from pitching works by blue-eyed blondes who comprised ninety percent of her choices to narratives of Black women that I’m looking forward to publishing in 2021–22.
Running a start-up publisher in Mozambique is challenging, particularly because sales are low due to a nonexistent distribution network and too few bookshops, all located in the capital city; these often demand that local books are provided on consignment and then fail to pay the publishers when they do sell. Most of the fifty-three public libraries in the country are underfunded and in a state of disrepair. Books and reading for pleasure are not a high priority for the government, and during the pandemic financial support was granted only to musicians and other performing artists, not writers.
The work of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 and the urgency of publishing more Black authors reverberated in Mozambique. Local social activists concerned about the plight of entire Black communities displaced by acts of terrorism perpetrated in Cabo Delgado, in the northern region of the country, are getting more vocal and their protests are gaining momentum and demanding the government to shift their stance from denial into an urgent, strong response. Despite not being a minority, Black literary voices are not mainstream and struggle to gain notoriety for a number of reasons. Some are related to colonial history, but also to a sense of division rooted in tribalism, or the notion that there are several degrees of Blackness. Mozambicans use a multitude of words to differentiate people’s skin tones, hair texture, and facial features. I remember an incident when a mixed-race friend of mine was very upset because I called her mulata instead of mista because, she explained, she was born to a white mom, not a white dad. And it’s not rare to hear Black Mozambicans using the word “Black" to mean a darker-skinned individual. Many argue that, other than racism, we should be addressing colorism––a belief that one’s status and prospects in life are better the fairer one’s complexion is.
In early 2020, after signing an agreement between Editora 30.09 and the African Books Collective, a platform that has been promoting African literature to readers in the UK and the US for over thirty years through their network of over eighty online and brick-and-mortar bookstores worldwide, I was hoping that Mozambican authors would see more clearly that they no longer needed to rely on US-based publishers to make their works universally available.
This universality also begins with making literature mainstream within our borders. For decades, established Mozambican publishers opted for print runs of as little as 50 to 200 copies due to high printing costs, of books in Portuguese, which, I recently found to my dismay, is spoken by under twelve percent of the country’s population of 29 million. This realization also resulted in Editora 30.09 shifting its focus to publishing minimum print runs of one thousand copies in three predominant regional languages—Macua in the North, Sena in central Mozambique, and Changana in the South—to make books more affordable and available to more, but still far from the optimal, number of readers. Editora 30.09 aims to publish twelve new titles per year and its catalog of poetry, novels, short fiction, and nonfiction is known for featuring mostly debuts in translation, including one Mozambican female poet. So far, due to budgetary constraints, nine titles have been published. But Editora 30.09 is exploring new ways to reach readers and in September launched a weekly short-story series published in both audio and print and available digitally on its website on a subscription for as little as 20 MZN (equivalent to US$ 0.25) payable via popular micro e-wallet facilities.
But building a readership and earning the trust and buy-in of both debut and established writers is proving difficult. So difficult that even with Editora 30.09 being shortlisted for the London Book Fair’s 2020 International Excellence Awards, its role as a Frankfurter Buchmesse Invitation Program publisher, and our two-year presence at the Sharjah Book Fair, the local literary community is still to grasp the extent of this opportunity to showcase Mozambican literature abroad. Instead of being flooded with publishable manuscripts from authors who have found their voice, Editora 30.09 is still receiving odd messages from aspiring writers seeking an outlet for their still-immature work. A weak education system and policies, with millions of youths graduating from high school with poor text comprehension skills, may be at the root of this issue. In an effort to respond to this, in early 2020 Editora 30.09 partnered with the Portuguese Cultural Center to organize a series of creative writing and literary translation workshops aimed at young writers, but the initiative was postponed due to the pandemic. There is a handful of creative writing initiatives and literary prizes to promote the emergence of new voices but often the submissions and manuscripts fall short of the target set by the organizers or else seasoned writers come away with the awards.
Unfortunately there are no governmental policies in place to support the book industry in Mozambique. In late 2019 a group of young independent publishers met in an attempt to establish Rede de Editoras Independentes (REI, as in the Portuguese word for king) de Mozambique to voice their concerns and start to build the support infrastructure required for our initiatives to thrive.
I recently moved from the city center to a small fishermen community on the banks of the Komati River and feel that venturing into publishing is like swimming upstream, every day a quest for support and buy-in from governmental cultural bodies, fellow translators, readers and even the Mozambican writers I’ve translated myself to date. I worry we’re missing our opportunity to showcase Mozambican literature abroad.
© Sandra Tamele. All rights reserved.