ZIBF @ 31: Time for inclusivity

Stanley Mushava Literature Today
The Zimbabwe International Book Fair returns to Harare for what promises to be a riveting main edition of the festival.
The 31st anniversary of the book fair, taglined “Indigenous Languages, Literature, Art and Knowledge Systems of Africa,” runs beginning today to Saturday.Keynote activities will include the Indaba Conference, Book Exhibitions, Young Persons’ Indaba, Writers’ Workshop, Literary Evening and Meet the Author Sessions.

Presenters will grapple with a thematically varied task-bar featuring, among other issues, “Language, Folk Art and the African World View,” “African Heritages,”

“Intellectual Property and Copyright” and “Indigenous Languages and Literatures.”

Given the rave debates and presentations flared by the subject of African languages last year, the theme is likely to provoke a memorable Indaba.

Speaking at a Press conference in the run-up to the book fair, chairperson Musaemura Zimunya said the theme was inspired by the overwhelming submissions on the subject of African languages last year.

Literature Today will not forestall deliberations of this potentially exciting subject. Rather, we take a discursive look at what can be done to optimise the country’s premier literary fiesta, in light of the downgrade of the book sector and Zimbabwe’s lukewarm reading culture.

The bell beaten for this instalment is the need for players in the book sector to be “like a householder who brings out of his treasure things new and old.” Balancing tradition and continuity, that is.

ZIBF is widely seen to have diminished into a cultural midget compared to its yesteryear stature, as it has been assailed by the economically austere years and Web 2.0 configurations in the reception of art worldwide.

At its height in 2000, ZIBF drew 317 exhibitors from 31 countries and recorded an overall attendance of 23 729 according to former ZIBF vice chairperson Roger Stringer. It then took a slump along with other sectors in the country and being overhauled in 2005.

However, ZIBF has been on a decisive rebound in recent years. Organisers have laced in significant add-ons including regional book fairs targeting all major cities, the Literary Evenings, introduced last year, and beginning this year, close-up sessions with writers.

In keeping with trending technology, organisers have also pitched up a Digital Zone for students to skateboard in the electronic loop.

What is lacking, and glaringly so, is the will to fine-tune the spirit of the book fair from a, by and large, academic affair and make it accessible to everyday people.

While exhibitions are impressively subscribed every year, students performing a non-elective school schedule make up the majority of visitors.

There must be more efforts to make the event is irresistible for book lovers across all demographics — a something-for-everyone fiesta, so to speak.

Still on thawing away from the somewhat exclusive academic mode, presenters at the Indaba will do well to desist from hammering lay delegates with “et-als” and “ibids” ad-infinitum.

The modest proposal here is not to scale down the show-stopping and on-point erudition which has been the core of the Indaba over the years.

As a matter of fact, the humble writer suggests, in the interest of optimal results, that men and women of letters should adopt a more engaging tenor as they unpack, celebrate and troubleshoot the contrasting patterns of our book sector.

It will be good to mete out successive bite-size nuggets which everyone can process not least because deliberations of the Indaba must not be coded for the exclusive elite which attends the conference but must also reach my grandmother in Chiwara.

I agree with Tinashe Mushakavanhu that roping in more creative writers as panellists and presenters will add more literary flavour to the indaba.

Probably, with writers falling prey to the self-publishing bug, more writers are interested in the concurrent “greenback” side of the book fair at the exhibition booths.

Indaba participation being open to any successful applicants, writers certainly need to assume a pro-active approach and be a more significant factor in the literary exchanges.

By default, artists have a way with everyday characters whereas academics speak to elites in coded lingo.

Quite clearly, ZIBF must look more into the aftermath rather than merely the duration of the fiesta. In fact, the overall dynamic underlying the book fair must be injecting a self-sustaining stimulus into the country’s reading culture.

We need to see a forceful, inordinate even, literary mania raving across the nation long after the fair.

Instead of a four-day affair, the fair must be a four-season affair and every participant can make this happen by consummating durable book value synergies which will outlive the fair.

ZIBF must be a national buzzword just like the agricultural show and the trade fair, to some extent, because books are the engine that drives development.

In fact, when I talk about the imminence of ZIBF, even to people who should know better, it is not unusual to be ‘corrected’: “Wasn’t ZITF held in April?”

On pointing out that ZIBF is not ZITF, it’s equally not unusual to be asked, “What is ZIBF?” At this rate, we risk being at once the most literate and the least literary nation on the continent.

In any case, I do not begrudge ZITF this pre-eminence. It has the digital mojo, something necessary to staying relevant in this ICTs-crazed age.

Without zeroing in on minute details, I hope ZIBF attends to this deficit. It is delusional to play down the need for a forceful web presence and expect an expansive appeal these days.

In these last days, the last (or is it the latest?) entry carries the day. I must head away from this mystic reversion and rap more offenders.

The media have short supplied the country by either wholly shunning literary journalism or making it a side concern. This paper has been a sterling exception from the Scribe’s Scroll years, incepted by Zimunya, the current ZIBFA chair, to the present where literature straddles the op-ed centrefold and the arts section of the paper.

More outlets must come aboard to stimulate and sustain the reading culture of the country. Bookshops must be frequented at least half as much as fast food outlets to mitigate the cultural malnutrition which threatens the country.

I reprimand publishers for the umpteenth time for being the heaviest millstone dragging back our literature from meaningful visibility and development.

Our publishers are terminally technophobic, a condition which denies local literature a place in the digitised global village. If not for academic textbook sales, I guarantee most publishers would be one more endangered species.

That Zimbabwean authors who have occasioned shockwaves outside the country in recent years, notably Brian Chikwava, Petina Gappah and NoViolet Bulawayo, were all published outside the country is an indictment on the local book sector. When Charles Mungoshi, Chenjerai Hove and Shimmer Chinodya were bringing coveted gongs home back then, their works were locally published.

Now that the communication protocols governing the reception of art have vastly changed over the years, committing your work to a publisher who does not operate a website, blog or social network account is as wise as fastening your book on the tail of a crocodile.

With few exceptions like SAPES, Weaver Press and amaBooks, I have not seen publishers who maintain a significant web presence. If you are fortunate enough to see anything about local publishers online, it is unlikely to be anything more than their directory entries on a generic site.

Key at this edition of ZIBF is an introspection of what stakeholders have done to improve the book sector since the last fair.

Enough of biting the bullet. Big things are afoot here at Harare Gardens and Crowne Plaza. Let me revert back to my listening role and keep you posted for the next four days.

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