Monday, 30 November 2015

African Young Adult Fiction – No Air Brushing Please

By Ellen Banda-Aaku

Recently a publisher in East Africa asked me to make some changes to the manuscript of my Young Adult (YA) fiction manuscript. The suggested change was for the teenage male protagonist to turn down a beer with the statement, ‘I do not drink alcohol because it is bad for children.’ Note the lack of contractions in the dialogue of a teenager.

Granted, it is conceivable that an adolescent male can resist peer pressure and turn down alcohol on moral grounds. It is also possible that some teenagers speak without contractions, but the character I had crafted in the story was not that kind of teenager. My character was a typical 17 year old and he did what most teenagers his age would do.

In the past, I probably would have changed the plot for the sake of getting published. But having had my fiction for children published by various publishers on the continent of Africa, I felt the time had come to stand my ground for creative fiction that portrayed society without any air brushing.

However, I confess to feeling trepidation for refusing to change the story line – the character un-inebriated would have had implications for the whole plot - because I know that the biggest customer for children’s and young adult fiction in most of the countries in which I have been published, is biased towards stories with morally sound versus morally devoid characters and storylines with a clear cut lesson. I am also very aware that to a large extent the main client of these publishers determines what gets published and what doesn’t.

The reality of most publishers on the continent (and I am talking mainly Anglophone sub-Saharan Africa), is that to survive as publishers of fiction, they have to depend on the ministry of education or whichever department funds reading material for school children. That is where the sales are significant enough to make publishing books for children a profitable venture.

The general lack of a reading culture and high levels of poverty contribute to the fact that books don’t sell in high volumes on a retail basis in bookshops. So, publishers rely on the government to buy books for children to read in schools as supplementary reading material. Whilst it is good for the government to buy books for schools that can’t afford them, there is a price to pay. For a book to be bought by the ministry, it has to be approved as ‘suitable’ by a board of mainly educationalists. This raises the issues of what then constitutes a good or suitable book.

A few years ago a publisher of one of my earlier titles asked me to, ‘make the girl suffer at the end of the story so that the reader gets the message.’ It was before I started to say no. I didn’t completely edit the ending but I did make the moral of the story less subtle. It seems the thinking was that a less ambiguous ending made the story more suitable.

The irony of the matter is that most of the editors of these publishing houses are fully aware that in order to encourage young readers to read, realistic, relevant, engaging stories with subtle messages are a necessity. However, to remain in business the editors are forced to adhere to the needs of their primary market.

The problem is that in most instances, the main client is adhering to a template of what young people should be reading that doesn’t take into consideration that subtle messages sink deeper and stimulate the mind, or that creative fiction does not always confine itself to the rules of grammar and language. Nor does it take into account that lessons can be learnt from three-dimensional characters that sometimes show poor judgement. More crucially, the template doesn’t look at what young people are reading in order to establish what they want to read.

I decided a few years to focus on writing YA fiction because I felt there was a need for more relatable reading material set in urban Africa for that age group. I write about what I believe are universal themes but are peculiar perhaps to the continent. However, I know that by not writing the ‘suitable’ stories, I risk not being published. Or having my titles fade and gather dust on the shelf of a retail book store somewhere. With my latest title that is the risk I have taken because I strongly believe that creative stories that address themes unaltered are more likely to stimulate the mind. And few would argue that there is an urgent need to encourage reading at a time when increased economic constraints mean governments in most of sub-Saharan Africa, are struggling to fund books for schools. And in the more affluent communities where books are affordable, reading as a leisure activity is losing out to console games and the internet. I agree that the way forward is to encourage reading from a young age but to also ensure that children continue reading as young adults. The best way to do so is by ensuring that the books made available encourage readers to go back for more.
Alexander McCall Smith on Project Kala

This fact has been realised and a number of international organisations are working in Africa in various ways to promote reading amongst young people. Initiatives such as provision of books and other reading materials in schools and communities are in existence to encourage reading.

However, it is also important to promote reading not just in English but in local languages which is why #ProjectKALA (Keeping African Languages Alive) is such an innovative approach. As the Patron of The Pelican Post, an organisation that aims to promote reading by increasing access to books in Africa, I am proud to be supporting #ProjectKALA’s mission to raise funds for publication of books in local languages. Using Crowdfunder to gather supporters, the aim of the project is to create a bilingual edition of Handa’s Surprise (Walker Books) in Fante and English, to be distributed throughout schools in the Elmina District of Ghana. Early readers are imperative for teaching children how to imply and infer from texts. Not only that, but through teacher-led prediction activities they can also broaden creative thinking, especially in dual language books. Having access to an array of early readers with recognisable stories and characters advances cultural awareness from an early age.

Although the challenges are many, headway is being made. But if all the efforts to stimulate and promote reading and transform young readers to adult readers are to succeed, they need more stories they can identify with. Stories that portray a picture of society, as is, ambiguity and flaws included. No air brushing please.

To find out more about how you can contribute to The Pelican Post’s #ProjectKALA visit: 

(Article first published in The Guardian)


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