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Publication: a Fantasy in the Gambia…

Ismaila Saidybah is a final year student at the University of the Gambia, reading English language and Development Studies. He is a writer and an established author

From 1965 to date, Gambian writers have registered a number of successes in terms of development and evolution of literature as well as creative writing. History taught us that hearing about the publication of a new book in those days was not frequent, as the country did not produce many writers at the time. In the 1960s, very few writers in the Gambia had thrown their hats into the ring, notably Dr. Lenri Peters who had become the first Gambian to publish a book in 1965, the same year the Gambia attained its independence.

However, it can very well be argued that the first Gambian to write a book was Phillis Wheatley, a slave girl who was captured from the Gambia and taken to the USA where she found herself in the guardianship of a benevolent master and mistress who not only taught her English language, but also granted her the opportunity to have access to books and libraries. Phillis Wheatley later developed passion for writing and she eventually published her first book in 1772 in the USA.

I am not coming to deliver a history lecture about Gambian literature; that could wait for another piece. It is an obvious assertion that Gambian literature is escalating with a very high speed – thanks to the numerous writers who have taken Gambian literature to a height that could only be imagined shortly after the country gained its political independence. The country produced writers whose writings have no doubt paralleled global standards.

Recently, many younger writer have also thrown their hats into the ring and these young writers are as good at writing as those of the older generation, if not even better. This is the historical dividend left by our predecessors in the creative industry who have gone through a great deal of rigor in their clamor for the establishment of Gambian literature.

Seeing very young writers coming up with thought-provoking masterpieces is something that ought to be encouraged, supported, and instigated. I am not insinuating that young writers in the Gambia are not supported or encouraged; I’ll be unfair to certain associations and people if I make that assertion, but truth be told, I feel that the support and encouragement that should be accorded young writers in this country are lacking.

As a young writer, I can attest to the numerous challenges that young writers in this country are facing every single day. A notable challenge that literally every young writer in the Gambia will complain about is the financial difficulty involved in publishing a book. I have personally known so many young writers who have written several manuscripts but are unable to publish even one, simply because they are retarded by financial constraints and there are no institutions in the country that are willing to help them publish their works.

My little experience as a writer has given me sufficient latitude and wisdom to know that there is nothing more important to a writer than being read. Every writer wants to be read and that is the language every writer anywhere in the world speaks. It is not the intention of any writer to write manuscripts and accumulate them without publishing. Every genuine writer wants to get his finished book to his readership. And obviously, the only way a writer can be read is when he is published. You cannot be read as a writer if you are not published. This is why publication is indispensable for any genuine writer.

It is indeed very heartbreaking to see so many young Gambian writers who have complete manuscripts at hand but are unable to publish them. I have been fortunate to publish my first manuscript courtesy of a cousin who stops at nothing to help a determined writer, especially a young writer who is struggling to climb the ladder.

This would sound palatable to someone who has no idea of how much I suffered to get my book published before my cousin eventually came to my assistance. After finishing my manuscript, I had written letters to institutions, parastatals, business entities, and even individuals in my quest to getting sponsorship for the publication of my book. But, any frantic effort made to get sponsorship for my book was a dead end.

There were times when I wanted to give up, but the writer in me will not let that happen. I had lived with disappointment, frustration, and anger knowing that all the efforts I have put in writing that manuscript was going to be worthless since the manuscript wasn’t going to get published. It was in those frustrating times when my cousin, Wuyeh Drammeh came to my aid until my book was successfully published and launched alongside his own book.

Now, there are tens of young writers in the Gambia who are going through the same ordeal right now. Knowing that you have a talent in writing but lack of support hinders your career is definitely not a pleasant experience. So many book launches would have occurred every year in the Gambia if our young writers are given the adequate financial support to publish their works. We have gifted young writers in this country who deserve every type of support to realize their ambitions and aspirations as writers. Seeing these youngsters with several unpublished manuscripts is really heartbreaking and utterly disappointing, when there are institutions and even individuals who can help them fulfill their desires and ambitions.

Currently, I’m working with a vibrant young writer who finally is on the verge of publishing her book after several years of failures and disappointments. This young writer told me that she would have published this book when she was still going to senior school at grade ten if she had been given the financial support to do so. From senior school until completing her university degree in January 2020, she could not get her book published solely because financial constraints prevented her from getting her book to her readership.

This is enough frustration for one to give up on writing altogether. What is so wrong with helping young writers to get their works to their readers? How long must young writers suffer before they eventually get their books published? These are some of the questions that I always ask myself but every time I ask myself these question, their answers never came to my mind.

Aside from lack of financial support for young writers, local publishers are also a fundamental factor that contribute to the menace of publication in the Gambia. The prices they charge for publication are too expensive for young writers to afford. You absolutely do not expect a young writer who is struggling to publish his first book to pay a whopping price of nearly D50, 000. Where will he get that huge amount of money? Even if he does and invests that sum in publishing a book, what guarantees him that he’s going to recover that money after printing and selling the books? We all know the level of reading in the Gambia, and not many people in this country take out their monies to buy a copy of a book.

I am not just guessing and writing figures. The first invoice I got for my book was precisely D48, 000 (forty-eight thousand) for 600 copies. How many young writers in the Gambia can afford this, if there are any at all? This is another factor that is making publication for young writers in the Gambia very difficult. What would be pleasing and palatable to a good number of young unpublished writers is for the publishers to be more flexible and considerate when dealing with young writers who are struggling to register their names in the literary book of the Gambia. Many young gifted writers in the Gambia are still going to school and you don’t expect a student to raise such huge amounts of money to publish his books when no intervention has been made by institutions that are supposed to help our young writers.

Taking the trouble to stay wake late at night in writing your book actually should produce a winning reward. Young writers in this country deserve to bite into the juicy fruits of painful sacrifice. Writing a book is one of the most difficult and painful enterprises and anybody who has ever written a book will attest to that. As such, the efforts put in writing a book should not go in vain when something can be done to reward the efforts of young writers.

I want to say that this challenge and menace can be remedied if the relevant authorities and stakeholders are willing to come to the assistance of young writers. These young writers are expected to be the custodians of Gambian literature when the older generation is no more. What should have been done for young writers in the Gambia, in my judgment, is for the government of the Gambia to allocate an annual budget for writers through the National Center for Arts and Culture (NCAC) or the Writers Association of the Gambia (WAG), where young writers who have complete manuscripts could have access to funds to publish their works.

Standard should not be compromised in this course of action. I am not saying that just any book should be published. We have experienced reviewers who can determine whether a particular manuscript is good enough for publication or not. When such a budget has been allocated solely for writers, it doesn’t mean just any sociological piece of writing can be published through this fund. The NCAC or WAG can come up with certain criteria to decide which book gets support and which book doesn’t, so that any book that is to get support through this fund would have fulfilled all criteria listed. No book should be selected if it fails to fulfill even one criterion. Books should be selected on the basis of relevance; books that could parallel global standards.

The intervention of the government is not only required but demanded to develop such a program scheme. Literature is a quintessential resource for any civilization in the twenty-first century. It is through literature we are able to document our history, to document our cultures, to document our traditions, norms and values, to document our religions, and it is only through literature that posterity will be able to learn about these dossiers. This is the significance of literature. As a result, we should see literature as a religion and endeavor to appease the glory of Gambian literature, and one fundamental way to do that is to encourage, support, and nurture young writers who are struggling to come into the spotlight.

Also, local publishing houses in the country should consider reducing prices of publication for young writers. If prices of book publication and printing remain exorbitantly expensive, young writers will have no other choice but to remain unpublished and that will only taint the fabric of Gambian literary fraternity. What would equally be pleasing and palatable to a good number of young writers is for the relevant authorities to sign a Memorandum of Understanding with local publishers to make publication for young writers more convenient, pleasing and reasonable.

Until these measures are put in place, young writers in this country shall continue to have their aspirations strangled and thus publication will remain a fantasy for young writers in the Gambia.

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1 Comment
  1. Kadijatou Jallow says

    I am just pleased with your essay @Ismail Saidybah. Writers are indeed facing huge challenges as writing in The Gambia isn’t always encouraging.

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