In June of last year as the pandemic lockdowns continued worldwide and Twitter activism continued to be louder than ever, Nigerian writer Tochi Onyebuchi, who had been a guest of Afrolit Sans Frontieres, started a conversation on Twitter about the inequality of writers’ earnings based on their race. In the early part of the discussion, another black writer, LL McKinney, (also a guest of Afrolit Sans Frontieres) coined the hashtag #PublishingPaidMe, which went viral as some of the biggest names in literature tweeted about the disparities of their advances versus white writers.
In the wake of this, my agent and I got talking; she asked me to do a one-page concept note and next thing, she was approaching Audible.
While #PublishingPaidMe was very much about how publishers pay black writers, as a result of my previous work curating both Afrolit Sans Frontieres and Artistic Encounters, I also strongly felt that for African writers in particular, sometimes the problem was visibility. There seemed to be a belief that writers from Africa who receive a certain type of recognition in certain Western publications were better writers.
The concept note sought to bring to the fore some writers who consider Africa home and who are excellent but may not be known in the West, maybe because they stay in Africa or do not write in English. In essence, the concept note was continuing what the virtual festival was doing. And in so doing, it would be bringing their literature in a different format: audio.
Audible immediately said yes, but as this was the very first time the company was doing something like this, it agreed to only half of the suggested number of writers and, depending on how much interest there would be, they would then renew the contract with me as series editor and we would have more writers and more stories. The stories would be narrated by voice actors of African origin before being put on Audible.
It was, and is, a lengthy process. First there is the submission of stories and an edit from me before I send to my co-editor at Audible. Of the five stories that I have submitted so far, three have been accepted, so it’s not fait accompli that the stories I enjoy will be enjoyed by my co-editor, who has the last word. If she likes the story as much as I do, she sends small editorial notes for the author, then there is a language edit.
The uniquely African feature of the stories so far is how they seamlessly throw in phrases in African languages in otherwise English, French or Portuguese texts (although, because Audible is an English-speaking platform, the non-English stories are translated into English).
The next step is getting audition audios from the different actors. I share this with the writer and we decide on the actors we feel do the work the most justice.
Meanwhile, I have to ensure that the writers record audios so that any African words in their texts are pronounced with the correct inflections for the text.
These are sent through to the actors. The recording happens, and is then sent back to me and I share with the writer and we see whether there is anything that particularly bothers us. So far with the two stories that are now on Audible’s Afrolit Now platform, we have been lucky in the choice of actors.
We kicked off with Kenyan writer Troy Onyango’s We Are The Water People, a story that plays with the idea of water spirits among the Luo in Western Kenya as well as asking interesting questions of Christianity in a small community.
This was followed by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s A Love Like This. In the story, an older woman in northern Nigeria is reunited with a reincarnation of the love of her youthful life, with interesting consequences, more so given that he does not physically look as old as she is, although he recalls their shared memories.
And coming soon is Rwandan Beata Umubyeyi Mairesse’s Consolata, where an older woman of Rwandan origin in an old-age care facility in France forgets French and can only remember her childhood language of Kinyarwanda.
I fantasise that Audible will showcase many writers of African origin on Afrolit Now, but of course my ability to bring more writers to the platform is dependent on how popular the stories already are, something that can only be decided through downloads. And for those of you who have taken the plunge and listened, I hope the stories there have given you as much listening pleasure as they have done for me.