The auditorium of the Blantyre Sports Club was packed by men and women from all walks of life. They were there from 5:30 pm to 8 pm watching or taking part in the launching of a rare type of book. It is not a novel or text book; it is about novelists and playwrights. The book is titled ‘War drums are beating.’
The author is Alfred Msadala, one of the best known literary figures, columnists and publishers in Malawi. Wrapped in light green covers, the front page flickers the portrait of Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian man of letters and perhaps the first African to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
On the right corner is the portrait of the charismatic personality as Hamid Sacranie described David James Rubadiri. In between, the picture of the balding Charles Dickens is easy to recognise.
The row below includes the most celebrated African novelist Chinua Achebe and one of the most promising young Malawian writers Stanley Kenani.
Hurrying through, I recognise portraits of arguably the world’s greatest writers, Tolstoy the novelist and Shakespeare the playwright.
The book is a panorama of introduction to literary giants and budding writers such as I have never come across before. The author is evidently well read in both classic and modern works and has abounding enthusiasm for the job.
To be well read means to read good books. Often it is difficult to decide which books to read. Someone has given you a recommendation about a particular book. Go to the bookshop or the library and you will be confronted with volumes upon volumes and authors you have never heard about before. It is bewildering to choose which one you must start with. If you must start with a dull one, it may discourage you from further reading.
The benefits we deprive from ‘War drums are beating’ are the introduction to the works and authors you know from whom the author has selected samples of literature which from his experience has interested generations of people and might interest you.
It is perhaps natural that Msadala’s selection should not completely coincide with your preferences and mine. For instance, from French classics I would have gone for Alexandre Dumas, author of ‘The Three Musketeers’ rather than Honore’ de Balzac.
As regards nations I think the United States and Germany are under represented in the selection list.
Missing from the introduction is the information on how the author wrote his greatest works. As Andre Maurois in his book ‘The Art of Writing’ has pointed out, when an author’s first book looks exceptionally good, it is because behind the scene he has done a good deal of writings while W. Somerset Maugham adds that a best seller is not a fluke but a result of a good deal of writing.
This is said as a hint to budding authors. Success in writing comes after overcoming hurdles. You must have the persistence, the confidence and the concentration to succeed.
Msadala has done a good job. I would not be surprised if he got a D.Litt from some appreciative university either at home or abroad for the painstaking research he undertook.
The book is priced at K12,000, quite appropriate for a mini-literary encyclopaedia but not likely to attract book-buyers in Malawi who would rather spend twice this amount on beer than half of it on a book.
It has become a mantra to say Malawians do not read books. This is said by Members of the Malawi Writers Union (Mawu) as well as publishers and book sellers. But whose fault is it?
Authors and publishers should take a cue from musicians like Lucius Banda and Ethel Kamwendo. Hardly a month passes without their appearing in the media advertising their next move.
Books, like music, are merchandise and most of the merchandise we buy such as soap, mobile phones and pharmaceuticals are heavily promoted. The public is first informed and persuaded to buy. Manufacturers know that their success depends on the existence of substantial numbers of customers and that people do not buy what they have never heard about; neither do they buy something whose benefits they do not know.
Writers and publishers association should hold a conference and map out a strategy for creating a reading public. At Mawu workshops, suggestions have sometimes been put forward for joint advert of books by authors, the publication of catalogue and offering prizes to those who have read a certain number of books during a previous year. But getting these ideas tried has proved a low priority. These sound ideas will continue to be set aside unless Mawu is under collective leadership.