This week Nation.Cymru are counting out the year by revisiting our literature highlights of 2021. This piece, initially published in October, celebrates the success of a publishing collaboration between Wales and Zimbabwe.
amaBooks is an independent publisher based in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. They specialise in Zimbabwean poetry, short stories, and contemporary novels, as well as a selection of local history and heritage titles. In recent years its founders, Jane Morris and Brian Jones, have relocated to Wales – Jane having been born in Ebbw Vale.
Whilst continuing to publish in Zimbabwe, they have formed a working relationship with Parthian Books, to whom they have sold the rights to several of their titles: the short story anthologies Where to Now? and Moving On, and the novels The Maestro, The Magistrate and The Mathematician by Tendai Huchu, and This September Sun by Bryony Rheam.
Their most recent venture together is to co-publish the novel All Come to Dust, also by Bryony Rheam, a Zimbabwean author whose mother was Welsh.
Sitting down to interview the pair, I am amazed by how passionate both are about African literature. Although amaBooks primarily publishes in English, there are sixteen official languages in Zimbabwe.
In the isiNdebele language, spoken in Bulawayo and the surrounding provinces of Matabeleland, “ama” placed at the start of a word is equivalent to an “s” at the end of a word in English. They chose the name amaBooks to indicate that they publish books in English in an Ndebele cultural environment.
When I ask the couple about their journey into publishing, they laugh fondly and explain that they “Just stumbled into publishing.” Jane, also a social worker and social work trainer, was working with volunteers for Childline, when raising funds locally was discussed. A local poet offered a selection of his poems, and Jane and Brian volunteered to organise the publication.
One thousand copies were sold by the group, with all proceeds donated to Childline, and so amaBooks began. amaBooks have been steadily publishing a selection of books since 2001, with many having won awards, and rights having been sold to publishers across the world. amaBooks, and other African publishers, are part of the African Books Collective, who print and distribute many of their publications outside of Africa.
The couple go on to talk about the deep-rooted historic link between Wales and Zimbabwe. In the nineteenth century, several missionaries from Wales, including Thomas Morgan Thomas and Bowen Rees, travelled to Zimbabwe to set up mission schools in Matabeleland. These schools have been instrumental in educating people who have gone on to become significant figures in Zimbabwean society.
As a result, the first name “Welshman” is one you hear in Matabeleland. Thomas Morgan Thomas translated and published several books into isiNdebele, and his book Eleven Years in Central Africa, published in both English and Welsh in 1873, is rumoured to have become the second best-selling book, following the Bible, in Wales during that period.
The literary connection between Wales and Matabeleland was rejuvenated following a Wales Arts International visit to Bulawayo in 2006. The links created led to Welsh writers Owen Sheers, Lloyd Robson, Ian Rowlands, and Peter Finch visiting Bulawayo, and some of their work being included in amaBooks publications. Owen, Lloyd, and Ian went on to participate in the annual Intwasa Arts Festival koBulawayo.
There are also challenges to publishing in Zimbabwe. Brian and Jane explained that the state of the economy remains the major difficulty, with over 90% of the adult population not in formal employment, and the wages of the majority of those in work being too low for many potential readers to actually buy a book – especially if it is not a school text. Libraries rarely acquire books from local publishers, relying instead on book donations from international donors.
The couple commented that amaBooks started at “The wrong time, just as the economy began its steep decline to the total collapse in 2008, from which it has yet to recover.” That decline led to other problems for the population, including publishers – a lack of fuel in the garages resulting in queuing for up to a week for petrol, frequent cuts in electricity supplies and, after many breakdowns, the end of telephone communication from where amaBooks were situated.
The majority of bookstores closed or concentrated solely on school textbooks. The shortage of food in the stores at one point necessitated monthly overnight trips to neighbouring Botswana to buy basic supplies.
The political environment proved to be a challenge for all in the creative industries in Zimbabwe. Although publishing has been less affected than many other arts sectors, there were occasions when the ruling party press printed comments about publishers whose work they considered did not follow the government line, such as “If you see a snake in your house playing with your child, you first kill the snake and save your child.” However, it was worse for other sectors of the creative industries.
A rehearsal of a play, written by two amaBooks writers, was interrupted by ‘security officials’, with two backstage workers taken away to a remote area and threatened at gunpoint – the performances were then cancelled! An exhibition by a visual artist, who had contributed a painting for an amaBooks book cover, was shut down at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe in Bulawayo. The artist was then charged with undermining the authority of the President, which carried a twenty-year prison sentence, although charges were eventually dropped.
It is when we begin discussing the joys of publishing in Zimbabwe, that both Jane and Brian’s faces light up. “It was the smiles on the faces of writers when their first stories or poems had been accepted for publication, and the enthusiasm of the audiences at the launches – many couldn’t afford to buy a book, but they came to hear the readings and to just enjoy the occasion. And just being a part of a vibrant creative community.”
The book launches, attracting up to three hundred people at times, became celebrations across the arts, with both local music and the visual arts featuring. The couple go on to reveal that the majority of amaBooks’ publications use the work of Zimbabwean artists as the basis of their covers.
As our interview winds down and talk turns to what we plan to do with our weekends, I ask the couple one last question: What is their most cherished memory from working in publishing? For the first time in our almost two-hour long talk, they pause. Lost in their thoughts, both agree that one of their most cherished memories is of standing on the veranda of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe after a book launch, sipping glasses of wine and watching the people mingling below.
Both believe that publishing through amaBooks has opened up a whole new world within their lives, allowing them to experience the joy and laughter of publishing pieces and meeting the talented people behind them.