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She is a Zimbabwean editor whose books have won the biggest number of international awards for the country. In this interview she shares her experiences


Arguably the editor who has edited the largest number of international prize-winning books of Zimbabwe, Irene Staunton is a publisher and editor and was born in Zimbabwe. In the 1970s she worked with John Calder publishers in London but returned to Zimbabwe after Independence and worked as an editor at the Curriculum Development Unit of the Ministry of Education. In 1988, with Hugh Lewin, Staunton co-established Baobab Books. She compiled Mothers of the Revolution the first Zimbabwean oral history with narratives of women in the liberation struggle, and she has worked on a number of other oral histories, such a Children in our Midst: Voices of Farmworker’s Children. Staunton was editor of the Heinemann African Writers Series from 1999 until 2003. In 1999 she left Baobab Books and co-founded the Weaver Press. In this exclusive wide-ranging interview, Moses Magadza attempts to discover what makes this great editor and publisher tick.

MOSES MAGADZA: How were your days at Heinemann publishers? What were the major highlights?

IRENE STAUNTON: I was at Heinemann for the first few years after Weaver Press began in a part-time capacity. It was during a period when take-over bids were in the air. And not many years later Heinemann were bought by the Pearson group. At the time, I think we all saw various opportunities for, for example, the classics of the AWS series becoming part of a special Penguin series. But, as with so many take-overs and buy-outs, the larger and larger conglomerate work to economies of scale.

There are a few titles I can recall, for example: Cowrie of Hope, a lovely novel, by the Zambian author, Binwell Sinyangwe; Lilia Momple’s novel, Neighbours, which has such an interesting time-line, and which I remember reading aloud to Lilia in Maputo so that we could feel the rhythms; Neshani Andreas’s The Purple Violet of Oshaantu provided a fascinating insight into different cultures in Namibia. We also, I think, published the AWS edition of Echoing Silences by Alexander Kanengoni.

MOSES MAGADZA: How did you quit Heinemann?

Irene Staunton: It was not a full-time position, and with the big changes in the air, Heinemann AWS was scaling down. Within a year or two, I think the whole AWS team had moved on to new horizons.

MOSES MAGADZA: One can safely say that you had a fruitful time at Baobab Books. Could you talk about it?

IRENE STAUNTON: Baobab Books was founded in 1988, and in the eleven years that I was with them, we published some significant fiction: Bones by Chenjerai Hove, our first novel, won the NOMA Award for publishing in Africa, and went into nine or so different editions, including Japanese. Harvest of Thorns by Shimmer Chinodya won the Commonwealth Prize (Africa region) and was translated into German. Indeed, we published a corpus of books about the liberation war which taken all together provides a complex, multi-faceted very human history of these bitter years: novels, such as Pawns by Charles Samupindi, Effortless Tears and Echoing Silences by Alexander Kanengoni, Kandaya by Angus Shaw, Guerrilla Snuff by Mafuranhunzi Gumbo, amongst others. In addition, we published the posthumous work of Dambudzo Marechera, with Cemetery of Mind and Scrapiron Blues; and a collection of short stories by Charles Mungoshi, Walking Still, as well as poetry by Chirikure Chirikure, Chenjerai Hove and Charles. These three books formed a little series of which I felt quite proud, as they were beautifully designed by Paul Wade, and Mazongororo excelled themselves with their printing on that occasion. Finally, in terms of fiction, we published all of Yvonne Vera’s fiction. I can still remember that moment of excitement when the manuscript of Nehanda, her first novel, arrived in the post in a brown envelope, all the way from Toronto.

We developed a refreshing list of children’s literature which included some wonderful folk tales by Charles Mungoshi, One Day Long Ago, and Stories from a Shona Childhood, and the illustrated folk tales of Margaret Tredgold, but we also encouraged the development of stories which reflected children’s contemporary lives, for which the late Stephen Alumenda had a great gift. We also developed an important list of non-fiction, studies that looked in depth at history and society, before and after independence.

Last but not least, we published some beautiful art books: The Art of the Weya Women, Life in Stone and Nyanga Flowers, among others.

None of the above would have been possible without a strong textbook list, which was provided by Baobab’s longer established partner, Academic Books. In other words, the textbooks subsidised the general books, as the latter sold in very much lower numbers.

MOSES MAGADZA: How was it like working with young writers in the early 1980s like Alex Kanengoni, Charles Samupindi and the now highly successful Shimmer Chinodya?

IRENE STAUNTON: The short answer is that it was fun. They are and were writers I like and respect and it was a pleasure to be able to work with them.

MOSES MAGADZA: Some young writers think you are merciless; a rejecter of good scripts. Is this what you are?

IRENE STAUNTON: Well, I can sympathise. If you believe you have written a great novel, it’s hard if someone else doesn’t feel quite the same.

But the context is more complicated. Young writers sometimes don’t seem to realise that publishers depend on people buying books: the fewer the books bought, the fewer the books that can be published. Today, in Zimbabwe, there are very few publishers publishing fiction. The larger publishers have responsibilities to their shareholders, and they cannot afford to publish a book unless they know it will sell, and fiction in Zimbabwe has a tiny market.

This means there are few opportunities for fiction writers to have their work published, and much greater pressure on the those very small general publishers, like Weaver Press or ’amabooks’, who do still continue to publish fiction, but probably no more than three or four titles a year.

One of several reasons why we try to publish a collection of short stories every two years is to allow opportunities for younger writers.

Another factor is that every publisher has an identity, they cannot be, as some people appear to think, all things to all writers. Nor do some people realise how much it costs to publish a book, both in time and money; this is an investment that has to be paid upfront, and the returns trickle in slowly over the years.

Today, of course, there is no reason for anyone to feel aggrieved. If someone feels they have a great novel, they can self-publish, and there are now POD companies in Harare that will print books in very small quantities.

MOSES MAGADZA: It has been said that some editors write for some of their writers through what I may call intrusive editing. What is your take on this?

IRENE STAUNTON: Well, it was sometimes said that the very well known and respected Ghananian editor and critic, Margaret Busby, re-wrote Buchi Emecheta’s novels. Even if this were the case, Margaret would never have done so without consulting Buchi at every step of the way. Moreover, it always seemed to me, and to others, that those who said this often either knew very little about publishing, or confused the concept of a publisher with that of a printer; or, for some reason, wanted to diminish both Buchi’s success, and Margaret’s achievement as her publisher.

Professional editing is a consultative, personal process, one that takes place between the editor and the author. Some manuscripts arrive very near perfect. Authors like Charles Mungoshi or Daniel Mandishona, for example, will write and re-write until they feel they have a perfect draft. Annie Proulx, the prize-winning American writer, said in an interview [Annie Proulx, ‘The Art of Fiction’ No. 199. The Paris Review, Spring 2009] that she has re-drafted a work sixteen times until she feels it is ready to submit to a publisher.

But sometimes a publisher will take on a work when it is not quite ready, because it excites them or they feel it has something important to say. Subsequently, thereafter, the (long) process begins of discussion, revision, editing, copy-editing and proofing. This is a collaborative venture. In all my years of publishing, I have never heard of an editor who takes a work, rewrites it, and publishes it, without reference back to the author.

It is encouraging when a writer of such huge stature as Wole Soyinka, can freely acknowledge the role that editors can play in the development of a text, and have done as far as he is concerned in relation to his own work. [Cape Town Book Fair, 2010.]

MOSES MAGADZA: How did Baobab Books fold?

IRENE STAUNTON: Well, I am not entirely sure that it has ‘folded’, though certainly it hasn’t published anything since 1999. That aside, as I intimated earlier, Baobab was dependent on the textbooks published by Academic for its viability. They, and Harper Collins, were three publishers within the same stable. By 1998, the economic situation had already begun to decline, and the shareholders of the group felt, not without reason, that the books that Baobab was publishing may have been winning awards, but they were not bringing in a sufficient income, a perspective that was perfectly reasonable. So it seemed time for me to make way for someone else. We were a very small company, which given the volume of work, meant quite a lot of pressure. Chiedza Musengezi took over from me, but she also left the company shortly afterwards, and since then I don’t think Academic and Baobab have had an editor or a publisher.

MOSES MAGADZA: What happens if people want the titles by Baobab Books that are out of print like Mungoshi’s and Vera’s books?

IRENE STAUNTON: When a publisher decides to allow a book to go out of print, it is because they consider there is no longer a viable market for it. However, every contract that an author has with a publisher allows them to request the rights to the title back once this happens. This does enable them to take the book to another publisher, to see if they will reprint, or to self-publish. I have occasionally worked with books that are or have been out of print, and if you can get neither the soft copy nor the film, then either you have to type the book in again, and give it another proof, or these days you can scan in the pages.

Sometimes people expect that books will remain in existence forever, but no publisher can afford to reprint a book just for the occasional reader. In the West, books have a shelf-life of sometimes no longer than a year, before they are remaindered. That said, these days, with e-books and POD, it is much easier to keep a book in print, since in the case of the latter, you can print just one copy at a time.

MOSES MAGADZA: You formed Weaver Press. Tell us about it?

IRENE STAUNTON: Weaver Press is a small independent company, established by Murray McCartney and myself in 1999.

We focus on publishing good Zimbabwean fiction, and we have a non-fiction list of books about Zimbabwe; some of which were first published in the UK or US but which we have tried to make available locally.

MOSES MAGADZA: You have had very close relations with Vera up to her death. What type of person and writer was she?

IRENE STAUNTON: Yvonne was a multi-faceted personality and very talented writer. A very creative person, she was also an excellent administrator. You will remember that besides being a writer, she was the Director of the National Gallery in Bulawayo where she initiated a number of exciting exhibitions. Yvonne was also a perfectionist. She had a doctorate from the University of York in Toronto, and she set high standards for herself. Finally, she was not afraid to explore those subjects more often remain unspoken, and she did so with profound empathy.

As an individual, she experienced life to the full, and enjoyed a huge capacity for laughter. Some of my most vivid memories of Yvonne were when we both saw the funny side of a situation and our laughter remains an abiding memory.

MOSES MAGADZA: How were you able to move on with her from Baobab Books to Weaver?
IRENE STAUNTON: Some author-publisher contracts contain a clause that requires that an author take their next manuscript to the same publisher. This is not without reason. If an author is unknown, and also perhaps an inexperienced writer, the publisher will invest considerable time and money in the book. If it then does well, and the author gains a reputation, and then moves on to another publisher, the second publisher benefits from the investment the first publisher has made. It often happens in the UK that a small independent publisher will invest in an author, who will then move to a much larger house with their next book, tempted by all that the latter can offer.

I have always considered that an author should feel free to move or to stay. It is not a very sensible position economically, but I see no point in insisting that an author remain with a publishing house if they want to move on.

The contracts at Baobab Books did not have a clause by which authors were required to bring their future manuscripts to Baobab. So when Shimmer Chinodya, Yvonne Vera and others had new work, they chose to come to Weaver.

MOSES MAGADZA: What is your relationship with Charles Mungoshi? There is talk of publishers not helping much during Mungoshi's illness and he is a Weaver Press writer. Your comment?

IRENE STAUNTON: I have known, liked and admired Charles Mungoshi for a long time, as, no doubt, have all his publishers. He and his wife, Jesesi, remain valued friends. With Hugh Lewin at Baobab Books, we published two of Mungoshi’s children’s books: Stories from a Shona Childhood and One Day Long Ago. The latter won the NOMA Award for publishing in Africa. Shortly before I left Baobab I published a collection of his short stories, Walking Still, and a collection of his poems, The Milkman Doesn’t Only Deliver Milk, a revised and updated collection of a previous edition.

However, Weaver Press has only published one short story, ‘Sins of the Fathers’ in the anthology Writing Still, one among several that Charles subsequently translated for the anthology, Mazambuko.

Unfortunately, in Zimbabwe, unless a title is on an O-level list, books sell very slowly and in very small numbers – though it should also be said that very few fiction writers anywhere in the world can live on their royalties alone. Charles has been published by many different publishers, including The Literature Bureau, which is now defunct; some of his books may be out of print, some may be regularly photocopied, all of which undermine any possible sales and therefore income.

It has often seemed to me that when the University of Zimbabwe gave Charles an honorary doctorate, they might also have found a way to give him a state pension.

MOSES MAGADZA: Why do you think the family did not publish his latest book (Two Streams Branch in the Dark) with you? Any hard feelings?

IRENE STAUNTON: As I have mentioned, self-publishing has become so much easier these days and after the Culture Fund awarded a grant to the Mungoshi family to help with the publication of his last novel, Two Streams Branch in the Dark, they thought this was the best route to follow. I was and am happy for them. When an author is selling directly to the public, or to a bookseller, and if the costs have been covered, one hopes that they will earn a little more than they would have done if they had gone through a publisher.

I think the family did a great job. And I hope they do very well with the book. I know Charles was very pleased, and this, surely, is what matters.

MOSES MAGADZA: On average, you are the Zimbabwean editor whose writers have won the BIGGEST number of international prizes for Zimbabwe, what is your secret?

IRENE STAUNTON: An editor’s role is to help to make a book as good as it can be through close work with the author when – or if – this is necessary. I know what I value in a good novel, possibly because I have read fiction all my life. I also believe that fiction is a form of truth-telling, as situations unfold from a variety of perspectives and from the inside out. Good fiction touches something profound within us, and helps us to grow as human beings.

MOSES MAGADZA: Some critics, especially at The Patriot claim that most of your titles since the formation of Weaver are clearly anti-Zanu PF and anti-Robert Mugabe. How do you respond to this and what is your word for your critics at The Patriot?
IRENE STAUNTON: Yes, The Patriot has been very critical of Weaver Press, of me, and of the authors we’ve published. It is a point of view. We publish what we believe to be good writing: good writing is necessarily scrupulous and good literature is said to hold a mirror up to society and to reflect its complexities. We publish what we believe to be good; we do not determine what a writer chooses to write about.

If some reviewers at The Patriot think otherwise, that is their prerogative.

MOSES MAGADZA: You are known for bemoaning a lack of reading culture in Zimbabwe. To what extent can it be said that there ever was a reading culture in Zimbabwe?

IRENE STAUNTON: On average since the age of five, I have read two to three books a week, and my life has been very enriched thereby. Through good fiction, I’ve travelled to places which I shall never visit, come to understand historical situations from different perspectives, and acquired, I hope, a sensitivity and appreciation of people who have lived through a range of experiences that are not my own. I hope this has given me a more generous view of humanity, and deepened my awareness of the meaning of suffering and courage. As Penelope Lively once said, we are what we read.

If I bemoan the lack of a reading culture it is from the point of view of a publisher, rather than a reader, because it is reading that helps you to understand and recognise a great book, reading that will help to deepen your understanding of what it means to be human. These are qualities necessary if one wants to write well, and yet I quite often come across young writers who proudly say they never read. When you ask why, they say they do not want to be influenced by other writers, or they do not have time. How is it then that so many of the Zimbabwean writers we all admire – Charles Mungoshi, Dambudzo Marechera, Yvonne Vera, Petina Gappah, Tendai Huchu, NoViolet Bulawayo, to name just a few – are very widely read?

Writers who rarely read, or rarely buy books, often appear quite unable to make the connection between book purchase and a thriving publishing industry. Would the Delta Corporation continue to make Castle lager, if no one bought the beer? I remember talking to a young aspiring writer once, who told me he never read books, and I asked him who, he thought, would read his book? ‘Oh,’ he answered confidently, ‘my book will be a best seller!’ Where, I wondered then, and wonder now, is that mythical reading, and book-buying, public if not in his imagination?
And, of course, despite the many opportunities that self-publishing offers, Zimbabwe would benefit from a more diverse publishing and bookselling industry. But who will make this investment when the market for literature is so small?

Was there ever a reading culture in Zimbabwe? This is a very interesting question, one perhaps a MA student of literature will examine closely one day. I am not sure of the answer.

However, a university lecturer recently told me that his literature students do not want to read any of the prescribed titles, let alone read around them; they prefer to pass their exams regurgitating his lecture notes, and that says something about the future of the literary culture in Zimbabwe.

MOSES MAGADZA: How do you rate the various generations of writers that you have worked with in Zimbabwe since independence?

IRENE STAUNTON: Different generations of writers will reflect the different situations, societies and events through which they have lived. Very good books will survive their generations: Bones, Harvest of Thorns, Nervous Conditions, Echoing Silences, Waiting for the Rain will be read by our grandchildren, and it will give them insights into a past that without the humanity of these fictional characters will seem very far away. I hope the same will be said of many of many of the novels and short stories that are being published now.

MOSES MAGADZA: What is the future of Weaver Press?

IRENE STAUNTON: In the long term one that is, no doubt, dependent, like so many other companies, on the future of the country. In the short term, both publishers and authors would benefit if something was done to stop the rampant photocopying now taking place, and if more money were invested in re-equipping libraries and giving support to librarians, many of whom have been real stalwarts in keeping the service open.

Sadly the library service has simply been allowed to decline through lack of support and is another indication of the minimal value attached to books, and the structures that give them a place in society, whether in schools, colleges or the municipality.

MOSES MAGADZA: Have you ever tried your hand at writing? Is it enough to be just the legendary editor?

IRENE STAUNTON: I have written a little yes, but I do not define myself as a writer, though on the only occasion I did enter a short story for a competition, it was short-listed – and as the Judge was J.M. Coetzee, I was quite pleased.

I have also worked on quite a few oral histories, sometimes with and for Save the Children; sometimes with Chiedza Musengezi when she was Director of Zimbabwe Women Writers; occasionally just for myself. This research, these compilations, have given me very memorable experiences of writing and recording, as well as the opportunity to meet often rather wonderful women, and children.

MOSES MAGADZA: You have partnership with Murray as husband and work mate. What sustains it? Is it easy? You also work from home. How do you manage?

IRENE STAUNTON: Being each other’s best friend helps, and sharing many interests. Working from home cuts down the overheads!

MOSES MAGADZA: Are writers and editors born or made?

IRENE STAUNTON: A good writer must have the ear of a composer, the eye of an artist, the rhythm of a musician, the compassion and insight to see within her characters, the detachment to let them speak for themselves, and the humility to work hard to give shape to these innate talents. Putting a word within a sentence should be like setting a jewel in a bracelet, not dumped like a stone on a heap.

An editor can be trained, a writer can be assisted; both will develop their skills and talents through lived experience and reading.

MOSES MAGADZA: What is the best script that you have ever worked on in your career so far?

IRENE STAUNTON: That is not a question I really want to answer. Different manuscripts provide one with different experiences and different memories, each rich in its own way.

MOSES MAGADZA: Who is the most wonderful writer that you have ever worked with so far?

IRENE STAUNTON: Most of them are wonderful, but all in different ways.

MOSES MAGADZA: Does Zimbabwe have enough editors and publishers?

IRENE STAUNTON: Probably not, but until we become a society where people buy books as they often as they buy soft drinks, it’s unlikely that we’ll have more of either, and it won’t matter.

*Winner of the SADC Media Award (2008) and nine other journalism awards, Moses Magadza is Zimbabwean journalist and editor whose articles have appeared in more than 25 publications all over the world. He lives in Namibia where he is studying further in the University of Namibia School of Postgraduate Studies.