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Onjezani Kenani blames writers’ failure on reading culture

Renowned writer, Stanley Onjezani Kenani, has attributed the success of writers from West and East Africa to reading culture, observing that this is in sharp contrast to countries such as Malawi.

Kenani, who was nominated for the 2012 Caine Prize, acknowledged in an interview that writers from Southern Africa have not been faring well in international literary competitions.

The former Malawi Writers Union (Mawu) President cited the Caine Prize in 2013, saying all the five shortlisted writers were of Nigerian origin. On a continent of 54 countries, five of the 16 winners of the prestigious Caine Prize in the last 16 years have come from Nigeria.

Previous winners of the Caine Prize are: Kenya 3, South Africa 2, Zimbabwe 2, Sierra Leone 1, Sudan 1, Uganda 1, and Zambia 1.

Said Kenani: “Prizes are not just won from nowhere. The environment contributes. All these countries have a very good

reading culture. In Nigeria, events to discuss a writer’s latest book draw big audiences. Here at home, you would be lucky to have more than five people, apart from your spouse and children. Go to Grey Matter Bookshop in Lilongwe. It is almost deserted. In Nigeria and Kenya, such places are full of parents buying books for their children, or readers looking for the latest book.”

The writer, who is now based in Switzerland, added that other African regions prioritise writers’ workshops and that their publishing industries are vibrant.

“Here at home, if you hear of the word ‘publisher’, it means they exist to scramble for the publication of text books only or, in some cases, to self-publish. I know a lot of writers with novels that are gathering dust in their homes,” said Kenani, adding:

“It is a vicious cycle: Publishers claim that they do not publish because Malawians do not read. Some Malawians claim that they do not read because publishers are not publishing, especially when it comes to Malawian books. In the end, we have a poor reading culture that does not help to build a writer. As long as this culture persists, we should not be very hopeful about winning major awards.”

However, Kenani ruled out favouritism on the part of international judges, saying they just single out what they feel to be a strong story among the short-listed.

Kenani said Malawians should not expect positive changes soon, observing there is need for Malawians to cultivate a reading culture first.

“So, if Nigeria continues to have a vibrant reading culture, we should expect them to win again and again,” said Kenani.

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