Sunday, February 16, 2014

What happened to creative writing in Malawi?

The Nation newspaper has raised the alarm over the quality of creative writing in the country. Judges in several national writing competitions have pointed out the quality of entries is very poor it is clear something has happened to creative writing in Malawi.

In order to find a more satisfactory answer to the question as to what has happened to Malawian creative writing, it would be a good idea for the Malawi Writers Union (MAWU) to team up with an English Department in one of the prominent universities to do a study of this phenomenon. A starting point would be to survey a few hundred creative writers, young and old, and ask them about their reading and writing habits and contexts.

I must confess I don't read or write as much fiction as I used to. One reason is because there's a lot to read nowadays online. A lot of my writing nowadays is expository; feature articles and opinion pieces for my blog and for op-ed pages. And that's what drives my reading habits also. I read a lot of expository writing; essays, articles, and opinions. Some of it is also for work purposes in the form of reports.

If I can offer some informed guesses why creative writing is facing problems in Malawi, it could be due to the question of what young Malawian writers are reading these days. Reading is fundamental to writing and thinking. The quality of what is available for reading could be a big factor in what has happened to creative writing in Malawi. I can think of four factors to elaborate this point.

The late Chinua Achebe and Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka:
Are young Malawian writers reading some of Africa's and the world's best writers?

The first factor could be the availability of well-written literature by writers from Malawi, from the Southern African region, and from the rest of the world. Let's face it, our bookshop industry collapsed. This happened due to neoliberal policies introduced soon after we adopted multiparty politics in the mid-1990s. The bulk of books one now finds in the few bookshops we have available are for study purposes; for people studying all kinds of programmes, the majority being business management and finance-related fields. There are Malawian bookshops that do not carry a single Malawian fiction book, new or old.

The second factor is the quality of teaching in secondary schools, colleges and universities. The roots of this problem lie in the general problems Malawi's public education system has been facing due to large classes, poor teaching and learning resources, low salaries, and low morale amongst teachers. Most school libraries have very few books outside the syllabus. Even some of our best secondary schools don't stock enough copies of books on the syllabus. One English teacher recently told me she has six copies of one literature title for a class of 60. What this means is that we have students who sit MSCE without having read a single literature book in its entirety.

Of the many private universities that are mushrooming across the country, very few offer humanities courses where people can study languages and literature, creative writing and literary criticism. The University of Malawi has been operating without a university bookshop for some eighteen years now. Funding problems in the universities mean that even the university libraries are unable to stock new literature.

The third factor is the abandonment of research in Malawian languages: The deliberate policy to exclude Malawian languages from official business in government and in public life, and in the economy means that local languages are not developing. They are stuck in the past. Creative writing benefits from language development, and the development of local languages influences writing and publishing in other languages.

A fourth factor is the poor incentives for good writing. Malawi does have very good writers in local languages and in English, but they have to put food on the table first. Writing does not pay well enough to allow these writers to spend time developing good fiction. So we have lots of young people populating the fiction pages in weekend papers and in competitions without the guidance of expert writers and good writing.

What can we do to improve the quality of creative writing in Malawi?

It is useful to point out that MAWU and other individuals are doing a commendable job encouraging students and organising competitions. But there is need to do more trainings and workshops alongside these competitions. There is a thriving creative culture amongst a few individuals in cities such as Lilongwe. The Living Room hosts open mic readings every Wednesday evening, although this is a niche for a small group of people. The launch of the Story Club by Shadreck Chikoti is an excellent initiative, and more such clubs appear to be on the rise. In 2012 Caine Prize finalist Stanley Onjezani Kenani launched Malawi Write, a website that publishes high quality Malawian writing.

There is a big need to incentivise creative writing. As weekend newspapers are the commonest medium for publishing fiction, newspaper publishers need to take a special interest in creative writing. They could invite particular, well-known writers to write good stories and pay them attractive amounts. The more Malawians are exposed to excellent creative writing the better the creative writing that Malawians will be producing. That was the idea behind the website Malawi Write. The newspapers can consider sponsoring established writers to hold workshops for young writers. They can also organise literary contests.

We must augment efforts to promote the teaching of language and literature in schools and universities. Schools need to emphasise the importance of language and literature in cultivating critical minds. Students should be encouraged to read more books beyond what's on the syllabus. Private universities need to include language and literature in their curricula, and to develop university libraries that stock good Malawian and world literature.
Publishers have always complained that Malawians don't buy books, and so literature is a loss-making venture for them. It's a chicken and egg situation. Publishers need to support schools and libraries in promoting reading and writing. The more Malawians become interested in reading and writing the more sales publishers will realise, thereby promoting reading and writing.

We should also work on government policy. We need government policies that can promote the availability of reasonably priced books in the bookshops. Tax on books and imported paper should be reduced so as to bring down the cost of books and newspapers. The absence of a prominent public university in the capital city deprives Lilongwe of an intellectual culture that can drive both the arts and the humanities, and science and technology. The government needs to make the construction of a big public university, or the expansion of existing public University of Malawi colleges in Lilongwe, as a priority in higher education.


Anonymous said...

Well thought of article and the proposals being suggested need to be tried. Honestly quality of teaching in secondary schools has in my view been one major cause followed by lack of incentives. A must read article for creative writers.

Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

American popular novelist, Stephen King, wrote a book entitled "on writing" which is his attempt at providing guidance on the art of good writing. One of the things i wont forget from his book is that good writers spend their time doing two things: writing and reading! i think we don't enough of both due to, as you have put it, "putting food on the table first"

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