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Nobel Prize for Literature for the Tanzanian Abdulrazak Gurnah, Booker Prize for the South African Damon Galgut and Booker Prize International for the Senegalese David Diop, while his compatriots Boubacar Boris Diop and Mohamed Mbougar Sarr were awarded the Neustaat Prize respectively and the Goncourt Prize, and the Mozambican Paulina Chiziane the Camões Prize…
The year 2021 will have been rapid for African letters. According to Pierre Astier, literary agent and former publisher (Le Serpent à plumes), “We are witnessing the emergence of a new generation, brilliant and intellectual, that Mohamed Mbougar Sarr embodies perfectly”.
How to explain that so many prestigious awards have been estimated at African feathers this year?
Pierre Astier. That there are good African writers or of African origin is not new. But it was a rather disparate phenomenon. Or, there, there is very clearly an evolution as well among expatriate writers, in Europe or the United States, as among those living in Africa. These authors read each other, exchange a lot, appreciate each other, encourage each other. It is a singularity. They are very united and produce works of great maturity.
We are witnessing the emergence of a new generation, brilliant and intellectual, that Mohamed Mbougar Sarr embodies perfectly. The latter advances with ease. We cannot even say of him, as some might be tempted to do, that he is an alibi. I believe that the French literary class recognized him as one of their own. It was already a bit the case for Alain Mabanckou, but unlike the latter, Mohamed Mbougar Sarr is very sober. What is recognized is what he writes. Nothing else.
What sets this new generation of writers apart?
I think they freed themselves from what was confined to them. There is more universality in what they write. They have become full-fledged writers and not African writers who necessarily have to write about African stories.
Were you surprised by this Nobel in Adbulrazak Guah?
Yes, I have been. I had discovered Abdulrazak Gurnah thanks to Abdourahman Waberi who had invited me to read and meet during a trip to England in the 1990s. At the time, Paradis had been published by Denoël and had had little success. With Le Serpent à plumes, we have reissued it in pocket size. I am very happy for him but I do not understand that [l’écrivain kenyan] Nguigi wa Thiong’o had not won the Nobel …
Mohamed Mbougar Sarr’s novel is a co-edition with an African publisher, Jimsaan. Other award-winning writers, like Blaise Ndala or Hemley Boum with whom you work, also have the choice of an African house for publishing and distribution on the continent. Why ?
Of the 6,000 languages that exist in the world, ten dominate the publishing environment, of which four – English, French, Spanish and Portuguese – are present on several continents. Or, there remains a certain editorial imperialism on the part of publishers in London, Paris or Barcelona, who want to retain global rights for their language.
We must put an end to this by allowing publishers from different continents to work on their own territory. This is what we did for Blaise Ndala. Le Seuil initially wanted world rights for his novel In the belly of the Congo. It seemed legitimate to us that he had his son in Canada where he lives, Mémoire inkwell, and that he has another for Central and West Africa, Vallesse in Abidjan. The Ivory Prize he has just received will thus benefit this publisher.
How is the African publishing environment evolving?
This is changing, especially with prizes like the Ivory Prize gaining in importance, and thanks to extremely successful actors. On the French-speaking side, it is a little more laborious than on the English-speaking side, where the sector is professionalized, structured, with important fairs. The English know how to train people who will become partners.
So there is a great international cooperation between publishers in South Africa, Nigeria, United States, Canada, England, Australia, New Zealand, etc. And there is still a lack of a solid distribution network with resources in French-speaking Africa. But there is a realization that the book is very important for education, obviously, training, but also for the economy in general.
Is there a market for translation or editing in African languages?
Here again, vocations are needed. They are appearing with people realizing that it is necessary to edit in Wolof, Bambara, etc. In India, where English is only one idiom among ten or even fifteen others, publishing in vernacular languages is phenomenal. We have not yet taken the full measure in the West. These “little” languages of the editorial community must exist, which are spoken by hundreds of millions of people. The preservation of cultures is at stake.
A large number of classic authors of African literature were first published by European publishers, such as Léopold Sédar Senghor at Le Seuil. Could these publishers be willing to cede African rights to local houses so Africa can have more access to its literary heritage?
It is a great debate which has only just begun! There are significant funds at Plon, at Le Seuil, a little less at Gallimard and few at Grasset. Our agency, Astier-Pécher, is campaigning to detach the rights of Parisian publishing houses and for rights holders to try to take them back.
This idea is slowly gaining ground. You know, the French edition is full of people on the left who will not want to be criticized for being wealthy and conservative. Because the question is there: will they keep the rights and therefore act conservatively? We will have to discuss it.
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