Zambian female writers, where art thou?

A commentary on a recent forum of Zambian female writers, some of the challenges they face and what can be done about it

Female hands writing

I am neither a writer nor a woman. But on March 16th I found myself attending, for the first time, a forum of Zambian women writers at Lusaka city main library, located in the city’s busy central business district. Amid the frenetic mid-morning noises outside, created by an endless flow of pedestrians and motor vehicles, the round-table meeting was as animated as it was a revelation of sorts for me.

I’m an active consumer of literary works, including books written by Zambian authors. At this meeting, however, I was reminded that although I have read some local books, very few of them are by female authors. So, what is the problem? Why isn’t there a prodigious production of books written by Zambian women? Is this an indication that Zambian women are not interested enough to write?

An environment not conducive to writing
To start with, it was clear that although there is a huge interest among Zambian women to express themselves through writing, the environment is not conducive enough to support their efforts. All the women who attended the forum are part-time writers. The local environment does not support writing as a full-time career from which one can earn a decent living. In addition, for women with family responsibilities, as wives or mothers, the burden of writing on a full-time basis is far too heavy to carry.

Religious and cultural barriers in a male dominated publishing industry
You cannot write in a vacuum. A writer’s creative juices tend to be influenced by the nature of one’s environment. The more liberal the environment, the higher the creative and critical thinking. However, in a socially conservative climate such as Zambia’s, it is difficult to get wide public support for views that challenge deeply entrenched cultural or religious beliefs. Traditional and religious values often set rigid restrictions especially against women.

For example, it’s tricky for a woman to write a book that critically questions male dominance, and expect to have the book enthusiastically promoted by a nascent publishing industry dominated by the same men likely to be offended by the book’s subject matter.

In theory, there are no taboos that Zambian women cannot write about. Women can explore any subject that they feel will appeal to their target readers and about which they are passionate. In reality, however, it remains a challenge to find a local publisher that would take the risk by accepting to publish culturally or religiously controversial views.

This point is not meant to discourage women writers from controversial subjects. Women should still dare to publish and be damned, should that be the consequence. But it is important that they first understand these challenges so they can plan how to deal with them.

The language conundrum
Moreover, Zambian female writers should not restrict themselves by writing only in English. Elsewhere, some authors have made bold attempts to write in ‘broken’ English and their books have become very good reads. Think of Palmwine Drinkard, a ‘badly’ written in English (just see the title!), but widely popular novel by Nigeria’s Amos Tutuola. Zambian writers can take similar risks.

However, writing in their mother tongue should make it easier for Zambian women writers to better express themselves and, possibly, appeal to a wider local market. But it is vital to recognise that Zambia does not have an official policy that promotes teaching and reading in local languages. As a result, a whole generation of Zamian youth is growing up without passable skills or knowledge of their own indigenous languages. Their English skills are not much better, either. This is reflected by poor basic English writing and reading among school pupils. This ought to be rectified through a combination of actions:

  • The starting point, perhaps, is reforming the public school curriculum to promote teaching and learning of local languages at early age.
  • Current school curriculum tends to encourage reading solely for passing school examinations. So parents of school-attending children should not abdicate their parenting responsibilities to teachers. Instead, they should play their part, organising programs that can enhance their children’s reading and writing skills, in addition to formal school lessons. Such extra-curricular programs would help to improve reading and writing standards, encouraging young Zambians to take up writing.
  • Female writers can support the emergence of such young talent by exploring local themes that appeal to this particular group.
  • Parents, supportive of their children’s writing and reading development, will likely create a market by purchasing such works.
  • In addition, Zambian writers could also capture young readers by utilising social media platforms mostly preferred by youths.

Women, social media and publishing in Zambia
Although the question was not raised at the meeting, it is apparent that few female writers have personal accounts on social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter. Writers are not using this medium to promote their literary works.

In fact, on-line publishing is an effective counter against the cultural or religious barriers that women writers are facing. The relative freedom from official control and the ubiquity of the Internet means that women writers can utilise this platform to capture both local and international markets. Internet-based publishing further provides an alternative to traditional publishing, a financially prohibitive exercise in Zambia.

There are many challenges for female writers in Zambia. But the emergence of new media has clearly increased opportunities for female writers. Opportunities will not be handed out on a copper platter. Women writers must increase their networking if they are to reap benefits. The Zambia Women Writers Association, which promotes writing by women, should play a facilitating role. It should be proactively identifying strategic partners and organising regular communication and networking meetings for their members. The March 16th forum demonstrated that such potential strategic partners exist and that these are keen to support the association to succeed.

We’re interested in your views on this topic. Agree or disagree? Would you buy books by Zambian women that challenged the religious and cultural boundaries set by society? Are there in fact many other topics Zambian women could write about? Are you an aspiring female writer in Zambia? Do you face these challenges? What do you feel about a man writing about a problem women are facing? Questions, questions, questions! Share your comments below.

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