John Mwazemba has been appointed regional director for East Africa at Oxford University Press (OUP). He previously served as general manager of OUP in Kenya until April 1, 2019.
He is an experienced editor, writer and publisher with vast experience. He spoke to the Saturday Nation about his journey as a towering publisher and the art of writing in Africa.
QUESTION: First things first. You’re one of the youngest chief executives in the publishing industry. How has your journey been since you left college?
Answer: It’s been a long, tiring and winding journey. I finished university and joined publishing as a languages and humanities editor at Macmillan in 2003 when we were implementing the revised curriculum. In 2005, when our publishing manager resigned, I was appointed editorial manager. It was a big transition from my desk as an editor to head a department with about 300 people. In 2010, I briefly joined an NGO, as I longed for a different experience. Even so, I didn’t take long outside publishing, as in 2012 I came back as the chief executive of Phoenix.
As a notable publisher, what’s your experience with writers, as some confess not to be darling to publishers?
Some of the authors I’ve dealt with in publishing are my friends. In publishing, patience is king. When a writer has a story to be published, it is our task to polish it. This may even take a year or so, depending on our in-tray. I always urge writers to choose their publishers well in order not to plunge into misery. One also needs to bargain with the publisher for a better deal for royalties.
Binyavanga Wainaina’s memoir, One Day I Will Write About This Place, didn’t go down well with you. What was the beef all about?
I differed with Wainaina on his view on mainstream publishers. He thought that we do not publish worthy literature and that our major concern is the business model.
I’ll still urge artists to also think about the business model as they write that would-be bestseller. For me to publish literature at Oxford University Press, I have also to think about money.
Why the obsession with Western-sponsored literary awards such as the Canadian CODE’s Burt Award for African Writing and the Nobel Prize? Is it a display of neo-colonisation for the African continent?
St Paul says that some preach Christ out of malice but whichever way, the gospel is still preached. Some of the Western nations sponsor literary awards out of malice but provided literature is sponsored. I’ll only wish that more philanthropists could come on board to emulate the West in sponsoring more literary fests.
Recently, Kinyanjui Kombani’s novella Finding Colombia won the Burt Award for African Writing but, ironically, the book may gain more fame in the West than in Kenya, the writer’s motherland. What’s your take on this?
I’ll urge our local writers and publishers to do proper marketing of their titles. The advantage with some writers like Kombani is good marketing strategies for their books. Unlike textbooks, where people don’t care about the publishers, in fiction writing, the writer must show up to brand his book. It is unfortunate that some writers are never available. Publishing doesn’t stop with dropping a manuscript at an editor’s desk.
Still on writing, you previously mentioned that African literature has to thank the Western world for saving the lives of our leading writers when we wanted to kill them. Can you paint a picture of this alleged bloodbath?
That was indeed a gory period on the continent when some writers were forced to seek refuge overseas for their writings that chastised bad governance. The ilk of Ngugi wa Thiong’o found a permanent home in the West.
You once wrote a piece in the Saturday Nation, “The loss of a loved one: Death, literature and how to achieve closure”. In this article, I could see your full-length biography. When are we launching one?
When my father died, I couldn’t cry. I mourned my father for 17 solid years and penned the piece in order to wipe out my tears.
I guess it inspired so many people, especially those who had been in the same predicament. I’ll soon erect a community library in his memory.
About writing a biography, I sometimes feel that it’s a conflict of interest for a publisher to publish his own works but I’ll surely put it on my priority list.
Can the literary-inclined turn to books for inner solace after losing a loved one?
Yes. It is not only in death that we receive comfort in books but in the entire absurdity of life. Life breeds so many lessons. Sigmund Freud, the godfather of psychoanalysis, once dreamt of going to Athens, the capital of Greece. When he finally got to its pinnacle, he felt a bit disappointed.
In life when you get what you anticipated, you feel that it is less than what you bargained for as routine slowly sets in. You can’t get real happiness in social success. Art breaks routine. In fact, it’s the remedy for routine.
Talking of real happiness, what gives Mwazemba joy?
Real happiness is in finding the meaning of life. Many people think that falling in love is the ultimate source of happiness but a legion fall in and out of love.
What titles appeal to you as a reader?
I enjoy Alex la Guma’s works such as A Walk in the Night (1962) and Margaret Ogola’s The River and the Source (1995). I also read audiobooks by innovative writers such as the Apple founder Steve Jobs. My brother, to be a head of your time, get wisdom from people who’ve been before you. Learn from them and avoid the mistakes they made.
The writer teaches at Ng’iya Girls High School in Siaya County and has written several high school revision books. [email protected]