With DD Phiri:
The Malawi Writers Union (Mawu) has announced the 12th short story competition sponsored by what used to be called First Merchant Bank but which I understand is now First Capital Bank. This prize is meant to encourage fiction writing in Malawi. Since competitors are required to submit their entries within a short time, I wonder if they manage to deliver the best out of their store of talents.
Writings which became best sellers and classics were never written in response to prize offers. Not Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell nor Le Pestes by Albert Camus. The best fiction books as well as non-fiction ones had to be subjected to constant revisions and that is what made them so good.
To elicit the best writings, both fiction and non-fiction, other countries offer prizes on the best that has come out during a year. For example, they have the Pulitzer Prize in the United States. This prize is given for both fiction and non-fiction. There are also the Goncourt in France and the Booker Man in the United Kingdom.
The most prestigious prize for literature is the Nobel Prize. This is given for novels, plays and poetry mostly, but occasionally for historical and philosophical writings. Winston Churchill won the prize for his writings dating from the Anglo- Boer war to World War II, Bertrand Russell was given the prize for his numerous essays and monographs on philosophy and mathematics.
The organisers of the Nobel Prize in literature as well as other branches of knowledge reward a person for what he has done over a period.
It is time similar arrangements existed in Malawi. Let the short story competitions continue but it is not the best approach to talent or genius. Who would establish in Malawi the equivalent of the Pulitzer, Booker Man or Goncourt? One might say there are no billionaires in Malawi to create such prizes. It could be true.
But when it comes to sports, it seems there are such benefactors. Soccer men and women have flown to any corner of Africa while netballers have
tone to Australia and England. Most of these matches have been lost but financiers have never been discouraged. Experienced foreign coaches are being hired now and again to make sure soccer does not die.
It is time to give more attention to writers both of fiction and non-fiction. Writers have done more to preserve the prestige of a nation than sports people. We understand that Olympic games originated in Greece several centuries before Jesus Christ. Who now respects Greece because of its ancient sportsmen or women? But the world continues to read Homers Odyssey and Iliad, Herodotus, Plato, Aristotle and Aristophanes.
Without writers, who put down the teaching of Israel’s prophets including Jesus, how much of the Christian religion would have been preserved? The same is true of Islam whose founder, like the founder of Christianity, did not personally put down in writing what he taught.
In Malawi, many sound ideas on a variety of subjects appear in newspapers. The problem is that nobody feels any responsibility for examining and trying them to see if they can work. Maybe, we need the equivalent of Academy of Arts and Science which are found in European countries. Who should start them, who should sponsor them? This is the question. We are a backward nation today because we lack people of initiative. We are an independent nation today because some individuals like James Sangala and Levi Mumba took the first step to form political associations such as the Nyasaland African Congress.
Unfortunately, by age and energy, I am not the best person to organise other people to discuss these suggestions. I would, therefore, appeal to the ministry concerned with culture in the broadest sense, Mawu, Book Publishers of Malawi and university dons to convene a meeting and discuss how writers can be encouraged on the lines adopted in other countries.
Previously, I have pointed out that Mawu should give as much attention to established authors as to budding ones. Businesspeople know that manufacturing a product is not enough. You must market it, you must advertise and promote it, otherwise you just incur expenses which will ruin you.
It is good that every year, short stories are put into anthologies but how much effort is put into encouraging the culture of reading? I remember the days in the late 1940s I used to come across posters all over the country “Drink Tea, any time is tea time”. These days, many people drink tea as a matter of course but to begin with, they had to be persuaded. Unless we members of Mawu take seriously the marketing side of writing and publishing, we will continue to experience continued failure with our book sales.
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