In Zimbabwe, a small publisher that helped launch big voices shuts down

In 25 years, the couple-run Harare-based Weaver Press published hundreds of Zimbabwean fiction and nonfiction titles.

A portrait of Weaver Press publishers Irene Staunton and Murray McCartney at their home in Harare, Zimbabwe [Cynthia Matonhodze/Al Jazeera]

Harare, Zimbabwe – In 2006, a small but supportive publisher helped Zimbabwean author Valerie Tagwira make the transition from doctor to published author, picking up her first novel, The Uncertainty of Hope.

Then based in the United Kingdom, Tagwira had sent out her manuscript to UK and Australian publishers and received 13 rejections. Two years after it was published by Weaver Press, it won one of Zimbabwe’s National Arts Merit Awards, the country’s highest recognition in arts and culture.

Today, she remains grateful to that publisher, Weaver Press.

“When nobody else would, Weaver Press gave a voice to the stories that I felt compelled to tell as a novice writer,” Tagwira told Al Jazeera, paying tribute to Irene Staunton, the publishing house’s publisher and editor. “Irene’s patience and expertise as an editor inspired me and brought to fruition my long-held dream of becoming a published writer.”

But now, after a quarter of a century of operation, the Harare-based independent publisher will close its doors at the end of this year, signalling a bleaker literary landscape for the southern African nation.

Weaver Press is based in Emerald Hill in northern Harare, a previously whites-only suburb in the colonial era, hardly an obvious setting for the country’s most vibrant and diverse publishing house.

But since 1998 when it was co-founded by Staunton and her husband Murray McCartney who has served as its director, it has hoisted the voices of up to 80 fiction and over 100 nonfiction writers from Zimbabwe. The house has had interns over the years and, for a short while, a fully-fledged employee, but has been mostly run by the duo.

On December 7, a 25th-anniversary gathering brought together some of its authors and the country’s literary luminaries – authors Shimmer Chinodya, Petina Gappah, and Chiedza Musengezi; the poet and retired university lecturer Musaemura Zimunya; former education minister and memoirist Fay Chung; and retired priest and writer David Harold-Barry.

The birthday bash was also a funeral even if that was left unsaid at the gathering.

“Weaver Press will go dormant at the end of the year,” Staunton said in an interview at their home-cum-office, using a euphemism for the imminent shutdown.

Of the anomaly of a death notice at a birthday party, her husband added: “It seems a little strange but it’s true. Much has changed over the years. We aren’t able to survive just from book sales…we get more revenue from freelance editing work. And that doesn’t need to be Weaver Press.”

Zimbabwean writers Musaemura Zimunya (left) and Petina Gappah (right)
Zimbabwean writers Musaemura Zimunya (left) and Petina Gappah (right) read the Shona version of Gappah’s short story, The Mupandawana Dancing Champion, at the 25th-anniversary celebration of Weaver Press at the Zimbabwean German Society in Harare [Cynthia Matonhodze/Al Jazeera]

Surviving Zimbabwe

When the husband-and-wife team founded Weaver Press, the country was about to go into a sociopolitical, and economic, meltdown triggered in part by former ruler Robert Mugabe’s decision to seize white-owned farms.

A hyperinflationary environment ensued, making it impossible for most businesses, let alone a publishing house, to survive. They made do by working on a project-by-project basis. “For the first few years we were more like an NGO than a publisher in that we tried to find funding for projects to get us off the ground because we ourselves didn’t have any capital except our time,” explained Staunton, whose own publishing career goes back some four decades.

Staunton, perhaps Zimbabwe’s foremost editor, was editor and co-founder of Baobab Books, the now-defunct publisher of prizewinning works by the late novelists Yvonne Vera and Chenjerai Hove, and the posthumous works of legendary writer Dambudzo Marechera.

“In the last twenty years,” said Staunton, “the publishing scene has changed dramatically. Nowadays a great many people are self-publishing, and our best writers are being published outside the country for obvious reasons. They get much better advances, royalties, promotion, [and] they achieve an international reputation. If I was them, I would just do the same.”

In the last decade, a new crop of Zimbabwean writers has emerged, more popular abroad than at home. Among that cohort is Noviolet Bulawayo whose two novels Glory and We Need New Names, were both shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Weaver Press first published Bulawayo’s Caine Prize-winning story that morphed into We Need New Names.

The publishing and reading culture of the 1980s, which partly helped Zimbabwe earn the bragging rights to being one of Africa’s most educated nations, has long since ended: Most schools don’t have libraries, less and less students are taking literature as a subject in schools, while government subsidies that made it possible for most schools to buy textbooks and novels have long vanished. Added to that, illegal photocopying of books has hit pandemic proportions in the country, making it impossible to have a viable publishing industry.

Staunton recalled that when she was at Baobab Books, in the 1990s, if one of their titles was a set book on the school curriculum, they could sell as many as 250,000 books. By way of comparison, when Weaver Press author Shimmer Chinodya’s novel Tale of Tamari was once on the school syllabus between 2018 and 2022, it took them four years to sell just 2000 copies.

Zimbabwe literature
Zimbabwean dramatic arts practitioner Zaza Muchemwa reads an excerpt from writer Valerie Tagwira’s Trapped [Cynthia Matonhodze/Al Jazeera]

Weaver’s weaknesses

Yet it’s not only the challenging political climate and economic situation – whose nadir was inflation rates of 80 billion percent – made it impossible for them to continue. And that is a point McCartney conceded: “Weaver Press has never been particularly good at marketing and publicity. I will concede that. That’s not our strength.”

It was a point echoed by South Africa-based Zimbabwean writer Farai Mudzingwa, whose short fiction was first published by Weaver Press in 2014 and who told Al Jazeera that he remains grateful for the part the publishing house has played in his writing career.

“Weaver Press appeared resolute on moribund local print publishing within Zimbabwe, with no financial incentive for the writers, but my focus was set on international sales, beyond Zimbabwe and the continent, and with an eye on foreign language translation, film, audio and other extended rights and formats,” he said.

Mudzingwa’s debut novel Avenues by Train has just come out through the Nigerian publisher Bibi Bakare-Yusuf’s company, Cassava Republic Press.

Whatever the publishing couple’s faults, Weaver Press’s exemplary role in shaping Zimbabwe’s 21st-century publishing landscape has been undeniable.

Some of their notable publications include teacher-politician Fay Chung’s important war memoir Re-Living the Second Chimurenga, the late war veteran Dzinashe Machingura’s authoritative autobiography Memories of a Freedom Fighter and numerous short story collections.

Zimbabwe literature
Zimbabwean author Shimmer Chinodya gestures while talking to former Zimbabwe education minister Fay Chung at the 25th-anniversary celebrations of Weaver Press held at the Zimbabwe German Society in Harare [Cynthia Matonhodze/Al Jazeera]

Yvonne Vera’s novel, The Stone Virgins, won the 2002 Macmillan Writers’ Prize for Africa. Brian Chikwava’s short story, Seventh Street Alchemy, winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2004, first came out in a Weaver short story collection. Two of the stories in Petina Gappah’s 2009 Guardian First Book Award-winning collection, An Elegy for Easterly, were also first published in Weaver short story anthologies.

Meanwhile, Tagwira has since relocated to neighbouring Namibia, where she works as an obstetrician-gynecologist.

With Weaver Press now dormant, chances are that the next novel by Tagwira who published two under them, will be published in South Africa. It is a win for that country and will probably bring financial reward to Tagwira, but is surely a loss for Zimbabwe’s publishing culture.

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