Nadia Ghanem talks with Apic editions and Barzakh editions, two Algerian publishing houses trying to promote literary exhange in Africa:
By Nadia Ghanem
Last year, during the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature, celebrated author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie made such insightful remarks about the lens through which we observe and narrate ourselves that they have continued being shared and discussed among readers a year on. In particular, her statement “You know I’ve actually found that the older I get, the less interested I am in how the West sees Africa, and the more interested I am in how Africa sees itself” is often seen circulating and included in the continuing conversation of how we write and look at ourselves.
In Algeria, two publishing houses, Apic editions and Barzakh editions, have been actively engaging in this very conversation by focusing on the literature of our continent to promote exchanges between African authors and readers. Each launched their collection dedicated to promoting the literary production of African authors in 2007. Apic’s Résonances [Resonances] and Barzakh’s Terres Solidaires [Lands in Solidarity] were created with the aim to help circulate literary talent, share common experiences, and give visibility to a different world-view.
Samia Zennadi, co-founder and director of Apic editions:
Résonances was born in October 2007 during Algiers’ International book fair [SILA], on the occasion of which we published three titles La fête des masques [The Masks’ Party] by Sami Tchak, La géographie du danger [The Geography of Fear] by Hamid Skif and Ma planète me monte à la tête [My planet is going to my head] by Anouar Benmalek. This collection gathers texts by African authors published outside of the continent and to whom we wanted to give visibility in Algeria, to circumvent literary borders. That’s how texts by Rabah Belamri (Algeria), Habib Tengour (Algeria), Louis Philipe Dalembert (Haïti), Tierno Monénmebo (Guinea), Yambo Ouologuem (Mali), Tanella Boni (Ivory Coast), Patrice Nganang (Cameroon), Jean-Luc Rharimanana (Madagascar) and Gabriel Mwènè Okoundji (Republic of the Congo) found themselves in Résonances.
Apic’s collection now has 16 titles to its name. Barzakh has 4 with Sozaboy by Ken Saro-Wiwa (2008), De l’autre coté du regard [On the otherside of the stare] by Ken Bugul (2008), Jazz et vin de palme [Jazz and Palm Wine] by Emmanuel Dongala (2009) and Kaveena by Boubacar Boris Diop (2009). These novels can be found, although disparately, in some of the capitals’ bookshops but few people seem to specifically be aware of the collection and the difficulty in getting hold of the books in other cities does not help circulating these texts.
On this point, Apic deplores that while it has managed, not without some struggle, to publish many titles in the space of nine years, the collection in Algeria “has no visibility whatsoever on the cultural pages of the written press, not on television programmes or radios shows” dedicated to literature. Yet, Apic says “we’ll continue to maintain this project afloat with the conviction that it is important for these texts to circulate and for books to ‘resonate’ and echo the word ‘free’.”
While these two collections’ aim is to make authors from our own continent known to Algerian readers, Algerian authors published by these two publishing houses are unfortunately not being given the same platform by partner editors. Algerian authors published by Barzakh are not published or distributed by their counterparts. Similarly with Apic’s home authors, according to Samia Zennadi:
At the moment, none of our authors is published by the publishing houses with whom we are trying to establish long-lasting links. Notwithstanding the state of African exchanges with regard to books, we still try to be involved in other book fairs that take place in Mali, Cameroon, Burkina-Faso, Senegal and Niger to make our authors and their texts known.
For Barzakh, it was important to create and follow a specific editorial line dedicated to African literature because “we felt we wanted to appropriate ourselves our African literary heritage and to rebalance geopolitical forces. In a sense, it was a way of going around the intellectual monopoly of the cultural capitals of Europe.”
A sentiment shared by Apic, who wished to reclaim a cultural space they see controlled elsewhere and monopolised.
Our interest for African literature does not boil down to buying book rights so we can reedit them in Algeria. We are trying to contribute to the autonomy of the African literary field. In 2009 we organised a writing residency in Algiers, we had invited African authors edited outside of the continent, and this led to the edition and publication of a collection of texts under the name Ancrage africain [African Anchorage]. It is this type of project that illustrates exactly what we’re aiming to achieve. We also contribute to the Espace Panaf [Panafrican Space].
Espace Panaf is a space dedicated to African literature during Algiers’ yearly International Book Fair. Another example of Apic’s commitment is their participation to the Panafrican festival, “the only concrete achievement of the 2nd Panafrican festival was the production of the magazine L’Afrique parle livres [Africa speaks books] which was supposed to help consolidate links in the chain of transmission of African literature.”
L’Espace Panaf [Panafrican Space] is now a fixed point of exchange during the SILA, a positive feature of the book fair for Apic “for the last three years, the presence of editors from the continent in this space, editors who have projects, promote ideas and generate debates has enabled Algerian readers to have access to books edited on the continent. It also gave birth to a co-editing project between two editors from Cameroon and the Ivory Coast. One of their titles was presented last year at the SILA and their collection is now called Espace Panaf.”
For Samia Zennadi, although these types of collections and networking between countries on the African continent are positive, they cannot be made firm or permanent unless a general mobilisation of wills ensues:
We are helping our colleagues from Mali, Congo and Benin to publish books in Algeria which we export despite difficult conditions of exportation. Unfortunately, our ambition to get away from cultural domination is not always shared by those in charge of cultural events around literature, and no amount of conferences and empty political declarations will realise these goals. They will become concrete by effectively rewriting the international rules that govern literature spaces, spaces in which the capitals of the northern hemisphere have now essentially become ‘central banks’ that reward and consecrate works, authors and even editors.
Despite trying circumstances, both Apic and Barzakh’s collections have opened a critical space, one for literature produced on our continent and by our continent. That space, and the market it could potentially generate, could be all the more vibrant as Algerians read in several languages, in Arabic, English, and Tamazight, not only French. Novels by celebrated African writers such as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o or Chinua Achebe in the English original are distributed by Flites editions in Algiers. But what about novels by African authors who write in Arabic? Shouldn’t the works of authors from countries geographically located in Africa, but exclusively seen as constitutive of the entity Middle East, also belong to the great corpus of African literature?
Novels by contemporary Tunisian, Moroccan, Libyan, Sudanese, and Egyptian authors who write in Arabic are practically impossible to find in bookshops in Algeria. Few of novels seep through to us, such as Ibrahim Al Koni’s novels, or the poetry and novels of Nizar Qabbani, Khalil Gibran, Taha Hussein and Naguib Mahfouz. It is hoped that this dire lack of linguistic representation will be addressed, not only to redress an abysmal book distribution situation, but to set the literature scales right.
If you are in Algeria and would like to read one of the novels in these collections, Apic editions recommend Peuls by Tierno Monénembo, a novel “written in a sumptuous language” and a story “really difficult to summarize and which, for me, represents what is at stake in the African historical novel roman” as described by Samia Zennadi.
Barzakh suggests Sozaboy by the phenomenal writer Ken Saro-Wiwa, which tells “through an adolescent’s eyes, the story of how he becomes a soldier, not really knowing why, and plunges into the civil war of 1967-1970”.