THE BEST BOOKS YOU’VE NEVER HEARD OF at Theater aan het Spui on 17th January.
Last night at the 25th Winternachten festival, we were treated to a glimpse into the lesser-known world of publishing. The issue under discussion: what role do the so-called gatekeepers of literature play in shaping the canon? Specifically, how do publishers, editors, booksellers, agents and scouts decide what we get to read and what we don’t? Or, as moderator, Nancy Jouwe put it, ‘why is the book industry still so white?’
Ebisse Rouw, editor of Dutch podcast application Dipsaus Publications, has worked in the Dutch publishing industry for 16 years. Her response to the question is succinct: ‘The situation in the Netherlands is dire. Up until now, there has been a lot of window dressing.’ She asks why this question is never discussed amongst the gatekeepers themselves. Rouw talks about the struggle she and others like her have had over the years in the Netherlands to overcome the ‘Yes, but nobody will buy it’ argument, when pitching literature that does not conform to traditional, largely white, norms and expectations. She does admit however that the ‘we don’t see colour battle’ here in the Netherlands has recently been won with the publishing of books like ‘Hey White People’, which Rouw describes as a sort of ‘Racism for Dummies’
Ellah Wakatama, Editor-at-large of Scottish independent publishing firm, Cannongate Books and Chair of the Cain Prize for African Writing, has worked in publishing for 23 years. She admits that since her first job working for Penguin Modern Classics, the number of African writers entering the canon has increased substantially. However, ‘diversity has to be conscious and intentional’ because she sees her role as a publisher as helping to create a ‘full story of a culture’. This cannot be done if minority groups within that culture are not being represented. Ellah emphasises that ‘the problem is never with the readers’. It is the gatekeepers rather who underestimate the ability of their readers to ‘travel, to imagine’, as she puts it.
With the above in mind, these veterans of the publishing world shared with us their favourite new, perhaps lesser-known reads. Ebisse Rouw chose recently published first novel by Eritrean-born, British-based refugee writer, Sulaiman Addonia. Appropriately titled, Silence is my mother tongue (2018), Rouw describes it as a ‘beautifully written, erotic novel’ that explores ‘the shape of love’ in time of war. Ellah Wakatama recommends Kintu (2018), an African historical novel by Jennifer Makumbi from Uganda. A multi-generational epic, it brings alive life in the 18th century royal Buganda court replete with intrigue, curses and myth. Ultimately however, Wakatama emphasises that as a publisher, for whom ‘reading is the most important thing in my life’, her aim is to help readers ‘read the whole world’. Discussions such as these are an important part of such a noble endeavour. Souwie Buis 18th January 2020
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