Why Are African Publishers Seemingly Fixated on Trauma Porn?

A case for the celebration of the African Joy.
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Why Are African Literature Publishers Fixated on 'Trauma Porn'?

Over the years, African literature has become one of the continent’s biggest exports with leading voices like Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ayobami Adebayo, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, Ngugi Thiong’o and many others. These people have succeeded in taking African literature to the international stage evoking a sense of pride among its people.

However, amid this celebration of African storytelling, a trend found common among African publishers is their seeming preference for “serious books.”

‘Serious books’ refer to literary fiction or what fans of literature call ‘trauma porn.’ These kinds of books explore Africa’s heartache; from political instability to physical violence, they tackle ‘important’ issues.

Genres like romance are hardly ever backed by African publishers. There are a few numbers of stories that celebrate African joy which makes one think joy is an abstract concept to the African people.

It is indeed true that the continent is plagued by political instability but it is only one side of the story. The hyper-focus on a single story makes us out as casualties and only casualties. We are still likened to the absurd imagery of Africa that was once plastered in Western media.

As we continually feed our minds with this picture, our humanity becomes a figment of imagination. We are summed up by our need for a saviour. The lack of “less serious books” in our literature reinforces harmful stereotypes that strip us of human dignity.

The constant flooding of the African Literary scene with “serious books” gives no room for diversity in storytelling. Literature should encapsulate all voices, identities, backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences. But with African literature, a single experience appears to control the narrative. Slowly but surely, we are bound to suffer from a monolithic syndrome. This is a case where our literature begins to sound the same because our examination of a theme is repetitive.

African publishers’ penchant for “serious books” leaves a trail of untapped talent.

Rosemary Okafor, an Indie romance author who has self-published books like Paradise, Akwaugo, One More Night and many others once submitted manuscripts to African publishers who told her they don’t publish the kind of books she writes. There are many others like her whose short stories were rejected by literary magazines or competitions because they were not “serious” enough. The lack of enthusiasm for the genres of stories they write does not encourage growth. It leaves their talent dormant. The next African Nancy Meyers might be out there but the African publishing space may not be the best place for their nourishment.

There has been a cry from consumers of African literature, many of whom are Africans, for easy-on-the-eyes books like romance.

There is a gap in the romance market in Africa and it shone bright during the Valentine’s season. As part of their marketing plans, many booksellers compiled lists of books to celebrate the month of romance, the only problem was those books were not of the romance genre. A popular book influencer made a list of romance authors also in celebration of Valentine’s Day and almost all of them were indie authors. There were barely any authors supported by African publishers. There is an African demographic craving romance books with people who look and talk like them but the African publishing industry is doing little to fix this. In the past, their excuse has been “Africans do not read romance books” – forgetting that they have a hand in this lack – but Bolu Babalola’s Honey and Spice about two Nigerians falling in love in a university proved them wrong. Before Honey and Spice, many Africans read romance books, but they were/are often by Western authors. They just weren’t reading romance books where they saw themselves reflected.

Many Africans in the diaspora who write books void of Africans in anguish are often told “the books are not African enough” which is to say our authenticity lies in our trauma. Unoma Nwankwor, the author of A Scoop of Love and Game of Two Halves is one of such writers who had an earful of these comments before deciding to go indie.

There’s a belief that the only thing marketable about Africans is our trauma.

But the Western world’s view of Africa and Black people as a whole is no surprise. However, it is one thing for foreign publishers to reduce our identity to our plights and another for our own to do the same to us. Africans started writing because they wanted to correct the awful narrative Westerners created about us and because we didn’t see ourselves represented in Western literature.

It is unfortunate that African publishers are ‘unintentionally’ emphasizing the narrative we want thrown out and overlooking the need for representation in African literature.

The African trauma is ours but so is the African joy. To say that all we know is trauma is to tell a blatant lie.

There must be a balance of perspectives in storytelling. Caleb Azumah’s Open Water is a masterclass on the much-needed balance in African storytelling. The protagonist feels the weight of the trauma tied to his continent and colour but he is also saddled with joy that springs forth from within.

As Africans, we must learn to celebrate all our experiences. Trauma is not all we have; it is not all we are.

In our potentiality, we are still finding love and joy and we ought to write about it.

It may not seem “serious enough” but like the South African comedian, Trevor Noah once said, “Black joy is, in and of itself a radical act.”  This is further broken down by Mei Ling Malone, a professor of African American Studies, “The whole idea of oppression is to keep people down. So, when people continue to shine and live fully, it is resistance.”

With Masobe Publishing finally opening its doors to romance authors, we believe it is a step forward in diversifying African literature and celebrating African Joy. Hopefully, more African publishers join in the celebration of our unadulterated, unbridled and defiant African joy.

Image Cr: Ka_Karang


Praise Vandeh is a culture contributor at Modaculture.

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